For some people the three hardest words in the English language to pronounce are "I was wrong." For most of us it starts as early as pre-school. Almost immediately we quickly learn from experience that there are "right" and "wrong" answers to questions, "right" and "wrong" ways to draw, "right" and "wrong" ways to talk and act with teachers and peers, and the kids who get the most hugs, smiles, privileges and rewards are the ones who get things "right" more often than they get things "wrong."
As a child, our very sense of reality and existence itself is almost totally dependent on the feedback we get from others. We experience ourselves as worthwhile or worthless, loved or unloved almost entirely due to how the adults in our lives react to what we say and what we do. Those of us who somehow consistently got the message from parents or teachers that we were constantly doing it "wrong" found ourselves questioning whether we were lovable or valuable at all. Such an experience can truly be devastating.
I have joked about it often over the years, but the fact that to this day I still remember as clearly as if it happened yesterday that I "failed" nap in pre-school, more than 60 years ago, says something profound about how fragile a child's sense of self-worth can truly be.
It may start in pre-school for many of us, but for nearly all of us the drum beat of judgment, the chorus that chants "right" or 'wrong" after every decision we make, every answer we give continues relentlessly through every grade of school and into our work and personal lives as adults. We learn to judge ourselves in relation to others and how they judge us as well. Sometimes I think it is miraculous that any child grows up with a shred of spontaneity or creativity at all, given the rigid standards that most of us are exposed to through our schooling experiences.
By the time we reach adulthood, it is little wonder that so many find it difficult to utter those simple words, "I was wrong." As the nation listened this week to President Obama's State of the Union Address, and we continue to feel almost universal frustration at the constant stalemate in congress over practically every single issue of national significance, perhaps we can all step back and learn a lesson in leadership from the most ancient of wisdom, that of the Bible.
There is a reason that for literally thousands of years, people have looked to the Bible for inspirational leaders and lessons that continue to apply to every contemporary era. Perhaps the best lessons of all can be learned from the greatest leader in all of Biblical history, Moses, the man who defeated Pharaoh, the most powerful king on earth. What I personally love best about Moses is that as great as he is, he is still willing when appropriate to admit that he was wrong. To me, this is Moses at his best; a sacred story that teaches us that the greatest quality a leader can have is humility, not certainty, modesty nor arrogance.
And that's not all. The Biblical story is the story of Moses wrestling with the difficult challenges of what it means to be a leader. Moses, whom we are told was the only human being in history to be so intimate with God that they spoke panimm el panim, "face to face," when in trouble doesn't turn to God for advice, but to his non-Jewish father-in-law Jethro for the wisdom he needs to learn how to govern.
I love this story perhaps most of all because it anticipates the brilliance of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and the philosophy of Reconstructionism (the philosophy of my own congregation) by thousands of years. In a world both then and now that is filled with religious self-righteousness, where practically every religion seems so filled with triumphalist notions of being God's "chosen people," Moses turns for advice and counsel to a Midianite priest, a holy man from another religion, a practitioner and leader of another spiritual tradition.
What an amazing role model for us as leaders, as teachers, as parents, as human beings. "You are taking on too much," said Jethro. "You are acting like you are the only one on earth who can do the job, the only one on earth who can answer your people's questions, make decisions when there are disagreements, resolve disputes or provide support to your community." Every time I read this story I realize that I have been there myself.
I love being a leader. I love helping others. I love being there for people, giving them counsel, listening to their problems and traumas and the tremendous feeling of value and worth that I receive for the privilege of serving others. And I know that sometimes I actually get carried away with my own "importance" in the lives of others, and forget that it's just me and there are lots and lots of people who do what I do as well or better every single day. There are times when I suddenly realize I have been acting as if I am somehow indispensable, impressed by my own PR.
That's why the Torah is such a gift. I read this story of Moses and Jethro and I can't help but remember that so many others around me are just as good, just as talented, just as nurturing, just as helpful, just as able to step in and do the job and often do it better than I ever could. Moses teaches us that all we can do is the best we can do, and real leadership, real greatness lies in the humility to accept that all of us need help, all of us need encouragement, all of us need the advice and counsel of others and there is no such thing in the world as a totally self made man or woman.
Each of us needs a Jethro in our lives, particularly our own political leaders not just in Washington, but in practically every capital of every state in the Union. In this story the Torah had the wisdom so many thousands of years ago to teach us the exact same powerful lesson that the rabbis of the Talmud taught, when they said, "Who is wise? The one who has the humility and wisdom to learn from everyone." Just maybe our own leaders can take a clue from the leaders of the ancient world, and open their hearts and minds to embrace the power of humility and collaboration for the betterment of us all.