Later this month we will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Despite the passage of time the two-minute speech still resonates with us and remains one of the most effective speeches in history. In just over 270 words Lincoln changed the nature of the Civil War. I have written previously about this aspect of the speech. In this column I would like to focus on a different leadership lesson from the events surrounding the Gettysburg Address, namely, never underestimating the potential of even the smallest opportunity.
As is relatively well known, Lincoln was not the main speaker that November day. Edward Everett was scheduled to deliver the main oration. In fact, Lincoln might have been invited as an afterthought since the cemetery dedication was primarily a state and not a federal affair. Lincoln’s invitation was issued on November 2, 1863, with the dedication scheduled for less than three weeks away. David Wills, who oversaw the project, sent Lincoln the following late invitation. (Note the restrictions placed on Lincoln.)
After relating in his opening paragraph the need for the cemetery Wills writes: “These grounds will be consecrated by appropriate ceremonies, on Thursday, the 19th instant. Hon Edward Everett will deliver the oration. I am authorized by the governors of the different states to invite you to be present, and participate in these ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive.”
In the third paragraph Wills formally requests Lincoln to speak. “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred (sic) use by a few appropriate remarks [italics added].”
There are historians who maintain that the event’s organizers expected Lincoln to decline the invitation due to his busy schedule. But Lincoln saw an opportunity – an opportunity to deliver a game-changing speech. Whereas other people might have taken umbrage by the timing and tone of the invitation, Lincoln kept his eye on the prize. What’s more, Lincoln kept within his prescribed parameters. Once Lincoln began speaking he could have spoken at length. We can hardly imagine people asking the president to stop in the middle of a speech. Yet Lincoln respected his invitation. As history demonstrates, he certainly limited his speech to a “few appropriate remarks.”
Leaders must always be on the lookout for opportunities, no matter how small and insignificant they appear. The Torah at the beginning of this week’s parsha teaches us this lesson very clearly. Upon returning from a hard day of hunting and killing, Esav describes to his brother Yaakov his absolute and total exhaustion. To further aggravate his state of mind, Esav is also famished (perhaps an indication of a less than stellar day at the office). At the time of Esav’s arrival Yaakov was cooking a lentil stew. Seeing this, Esav demands that Yaakov pour him some of his red food (25:30).
Yaakov, who up to this point was focused on cooking (according to Rashi the food was for Yitzchak who was in mourning for Avraham), senses an opportunity. Unlike Esav, Yaakov valued both the responsibilities and privileges of the first-born’s birthright. It was Yaakov’s dream to acquire these rights so that he could serve Hashem in the highest capacity possible. But throughout his life, he had to bide his time. Now, suddenly the moment of truth presented itself. According to Seforno, Yaakov picked up on the fact that Esav could not even identify the food item he was cooking. Instead of referring to it by its name he simply called it by its color. Yaakov realized that Esav’s major flaw was that he was addicted to his work. Seizing the moment, in true carpe diem fashion, Yaakov explained to Esav that if he is so absorbed with his hunting that he can’t even recognize simple food, he would never be able to properly learn and pay attention to all the details involved in serving Hashem. He proposed that Esav sell him his birthright in exchange for food. Esav, realizing that Yaakov had a point gladly agrees. To solidify the deal, Yaakov has Esav take an oath.
Following the transaction Esav eats his food and mocks the birthright. It is interesting to note that Rashbam posits further that Esav truly thought he was getting the better part of the deal. He considered that as a hunter, whose life is constantly at risk, it was likely he would die before his father anyway. Therefore, when an opportunity to sell the birthright presented itself he jumped at it and immediately profited from the sale.
From Yaakov’s perspective, when that day dawned he had no reason to believe that anything monumental would occur. But things suddenly changed. Esav returned home and Yaakov, reading his mood, identified the opportunity and reached for his goal. What Yaakov didn’t do was dismiss the moment, because, after all, what could be accomplished over a pot of stew. Yaakov’s faith in G-d and his deep understanding of human nature joined forces with his eye for opportunity and changed the course of history. Yaakov taught us that life is not guided by long episodes – rather it is guided by significant ones.
Leaders must heed this lesson. They must always be on the lookout for opportunities regardless of how they come packaged. Lincoln changed the nature of the Civil War with a “few appropriate remarks.” Imagine how different America would be had Lincoln let his ego get in the way or had questioned what could be accomplished with a small speech. “Government of the people, by the people and for the people” tragically might have perished from the earth.
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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