We tend to think of leaders as those with official positions – whether in government, the rabbinate, communal organizations or any other formal institution. But the truth is, we can all be leaders, even if we don’t hold an official position. We all have an opportunity – in fact, a duty – to make a difference in the world. Because that is what leadership is about – taking responsibility, positively influencing the people around us, proactively making the world a better place. And every one of us can do that.
We learn this lesson by contrasting the example of Noah, in last week’s Torah portion, to that of Abraham in this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha. Both lived in times of great challenge and confusion, both were righteous people, but only one of them was a leader. Noah was able to preserve himself and his family, and remain righteous, but he had little impact on his society. Abraham changed the world, and became the founding father of the Jewish people.
He didn’t do it alone. He and his wife Sarah were equal partners in everything they did. At times, in fact, Sarah led the way – as God said to Abraham “Shema bekola” (“Listen to her voice”). But the point is, Abraham and Sarah did not accept the world as they found it. They reached out to those around them and made a difference to their lives, and they did so through the power of ahavat chessed (loving-kindness). They recognized the tzelem Elokim (the innate Godliness) in every person, and went out to make a difference, reaching out to the people around them with love and compassion.
Abraham and Sarah, according to the midrash, actually inspired tens of thousands of people to adopt the Torah’s eternal values – not only through the power of their ideas, but through the pull of their kindness. Noah, on the other hand, was an isolated figure – fittingly symbolized by the ark, which kept him and his family cocooned in safety while the rest of the world was swept away.
Next Shabbat is the weekend of The Shabbat Project – an opportunity for all of us to follow our forebears, Abraham and Sarah. Every year, the project brings together Jews all over the world to keep one complete Shabbat together, in a spirit of unity and celebration.
And the energy that holds this moment in our calendar is the energy of thousands of volunteers in every part of the world, who, like Abraham and Sarah, are people who care, who take the initiative, who don’t accept the world as it is but seek to make it better through the power of Shabbat.
There are some incredible initiatives this year, so many examples of people without official titles and positions taking the lead. A student from Cornell University is leading a campaign among fellow students to switch off their phones for Shabbat. A woman in Park Potomac, Maryland, is going door to door in her neighborhood, inviting anyone with a mezuzah for Shabbat meals. In Israel, a group of women in Kochav Yair organized a street Kiddush for the entire yishuv, people of all levels of observance, to get to know each other better. In Karnei Shomron, members of the religious Bnei Akiva and secular Tzofim youth groups have joined forces to arrange a Shabbat gala dinner for soldiers from the local battalion.
University students in Nice, France, are running their own Friday night dinner. The organizers of a challah bake in Lisbon, Portugal, are using the proceeds to distribute Shabbat meals to community members in need. And in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, four families new to the Shabbat experience are hosting Shabbat dinner – they’ve invited all their neighbors and have received a special Shabbat kit to assist them with all the preparations.
There are thousands more – of all backgrounds and levels of observance – doing everything they can to reach out to their communities, to host Shabbat events, to spread the love and beauty of Shabbat, which our world needs now more than ever.
I urge you to join them. Become a partner. Do something to bring the magic of Shabbat to your community. Invite your neighbors, do a Shabbat event in the streets, bring together a number of shuls for a unity Kabbalat Shabbat, or a musical Havdalah, or a seuda shlishit (the third meal) in a park. Get involved. It doesn’t matter who you are. This is a Shabbat for us all to keep.
I live in South Africa, where as chief rabbi, I have witnessed, in my own community, how Shabbat can be a uniquely unifying and inspiring force for every Jew. In the years since The Shabbat Project spread to all corners of the globe, I have seen how Shabbat has that pull on every Jew, no matter how far they may be from their roots. We just need to reach out to one another as brothers and sisters in the spirit of Abraham and Sarah. We are all leaders. We can all make a difference. Together, we can even change the world.
The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of The Shabbat Project, which will be taking place in more than 1,500 cities around the world on October 22 and 23. Visit www.theshabbatproject.com to find out more.