May 22, 2019

Torah portion: Abraham–a magnetic leader

While waiting in line at a Los Angeles International Airport gift shop last week, I noticed a colorful display of magnets. One in particular caught my eye. In attractive red, yellow, green and purple fonts, it read: “RISK more than others think is safe, CARE more than others think is wise, DREAM more than others expect is practical, EXPECT more than others think is possible.”

As I had just jotted down some thoughts for this column while waiting in the airport before my flight to Israel, I had Abraham on my mind and it struck me that the magnet’s advice perfectly captured his leadership qualities.

Abraham’s career as a leader begins by risking more than others think is safe. God commands Abraham to “Go forth — Lech lecha — to the land that I will show you, and there I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2). 

Abraham is 75 years old when God instructs him to leave his homeland, his birthplace and his father’s home. Why, at this stage in his life, would Abraham take such a risk? Where was this land, why should he go there, and why should he change everything in his life to suddenly become the founder of a great nation? 

Abraham grew up surrounded by idol worshippers. His father, Terah, worshipped idols (Joshua 24:2), and Abraham spent much of his life questioning how people could worship man-made statues. He found the pagan way of life disturbing and felt that somewhere out in the unknown, there was a greater truth about the universe. When he discovered God and heard the Divine call to “Go forth,” Abraham took the bold risk to leave his home and pursue this greater truth in a new homeland. The opportunity to create a nation and spread this greater truth to others made the risk that much more worthwhile.

An outgrowth of being a risk-taker is being sensitive and caring more than others think is wise. Early in Abraham’s journeys through his new homeland, a major regional war erupts. Abraham is settling into his new lifestyle when word reaches him that his nephew Lot, along with many others, has been taken captive. How does he react to this frightening news? 

“When Abraham heard that his brother [meaning relative] was taken captive, he led forth 318 trained men. He divided himself against the enemies by night, and he and his servants smote them, and he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot, his goods … and the people” (Genesis 14:14-16). When faced with crisis, true leaders do not take a back seat. At great personal risk, they lead by example.

Abraham would often dream more than others thought was practical. He dreamed of building a great nation that would spread the word about the one true God of the universe. He dreamed that he and his offspring would teach the world to “keep God’s ways of doing charity and justice” (Genesis 18:19). He dreamed that monotheism would become a global phenomenon. He dreamed that his offspring would become a great nation in their own homeland. 

Like all visionary leaders, Abraham’s big dreams created a loyal following. From his modest beginnings with his small family, Abraham’s vision ultimately would be carried out by millions.

To expect more than others think is possible, though, was arguably Abraham’s greatest character trait. Just look at his interactions with the Divine. When God sought to destroy Sodom and all of its inhabitants, Abraham asked, in bold and direct language: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? … It would be sacrilege even to ascribe such an act to You — to kill the innocent with the guilty, letting the righteous and the wicked fare alike. It would be sacrilege to ascribe this to You. Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25). As a strong leader, it is Abraham’s role to raise the bar and set high expectations — even from God.

Bold leaders take risks, sensitive leaders show care for others, visionary leaders never stop dreaming, and strong leaders have high expectations. Abraham embodied all of these traits. Thousands of years later, his vision lives on — here in Israel, where I have now safely landed — all around the world … and even on a magnet (which, yes, I did end up buying).

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC). He is currently in Israel for the grand opening of the SEC’s new Sephardic Rabbinical Leadership Program, Beit Midrash Shaarei Uziel, at the SEC Campus in Jerusalem.