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July 29, 2015 / 13 Av, 5775
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Parshat Nitzavim

Colin Powell

Colin Powell

Colin Powell, despite reaching the pinnacle of power, has never forgotten his simple roots in the Bronx. This proud connection to his past manifests itself in many ways, ranging from his work ethic to his love of hotdogs. It also manifests itself in his appreciation of what the “regular guy” brings to the table in every organization. All too often people focus on the leaders and big players who are on everybody’s radar. But in a certain sense, it is the people in the trenches—the ones nobody knows—who are the real heroes; the people who really drive society forward.

One of the responsibilities of a leader is to articulate a vision and sense of purpose for the organization. This includes ensuring that every member of the organization understands the vision, buys into the vision, and appreciates his personal role in actualizing the vision. To illustrate this point Powell relates an interesting anecdote in his new book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (2012). He was once watching a documentary about the Empire State Building. Most of the documentary focused on the building’s history, architecture and construction. But towards the end the camera showed a large room filled with hundreds of filled and tied black garbage bags. Deep beneath the powerful offices, majestic lobbies and observation deck was the trash room. Although it was obvious what the room’s function was and what the jobs of the men working there were the narrator nonetheless asked one of the workers, “What’s your job?” The man looked back, smiled and said, “Our job is to make sure that tomorrow morning when people from all over the world come to this wonderful building, it shines, it is clean, and it looks great” (p.24). Powell explains that this man got it. He was not merely a custodian. He was a key cast member of the Empire State Building.

I always wonder when I read stories like this if the writer truly believes what he’s writing or is just writing what he thinks sounds good. However, in this particular case Divine providence provided me an answer. The week before I read this book I had visited a private school in Manhattan to discuss curriculum issues. Amid our discussion the headmaster related that his daughter worked for the State Department; she had been initially hired by Colin Powell who was then secretary of state. Though she was a Democrat and Powell a republican there were a number of things that convinced her to take the job; what clinched it however, was this: at the conclusion of the interview, Powell showed her around the Department of State. Entering a hallway, they encountered one of the custodians cleaning the floor. Powell stopped, and addressing him by name asked how he was doing and how his wife’s doctor’s visit had gone. The man responded in kind. She saw how Powell genuinely cared about this person and viewed him as a valued player in the State Department. The headmaster told me that his daughter decided right there that Powell was the kind of person she wanted to work with.

The necessity for leaders to articulate a clear vision, explain it to the masses and inspire them to believe that they all have a role in its realization is underscored by the Torah at the beginning of this week’s Parsha. The Torah describes (29:9-11) how all of Bnei Yisrael were assembled in front of G-d to make a covenant with Him. The assemblage included the chieftains, constables, children, women, and converts – the full strata of Israelite society, from its leadership to its physical laborers. Nobody was excluded. The commentators discuss the Torah’s careful delineation of all the different categories of people present that day.

The Alshich comments that the Torah wanted to emphasize that in truth it is impossible to determine who is more important than whom. While it may seem evident to our earthly senses that person A is more distinguished and honorable than person B, the Heavenly perspective might be very different. The person who seems honorable to us might in fact have played a less significant role in the progress of history than the person who seems simpler. When Moshe assembled all of Bnei Yisrael that day as one group, people realized that they would each be accorded equal respect and attention.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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