On Rosh Hashanah we recount the story of the birth of Shmuel HaNavi. Although the general focus is on Chanah, Shmuel’s mother, Elkana, Shmuel’s father, is also a personality we can learn from. The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni: Shmuel I #77) relates that each holiday Elkana would take his family and ascend the mountains to Shilo, where the Mishkan stood. Although most people on a journey view their destination as the focal point, the midrash informs us that Elkana understood that the journey itself provided an educational opportunity.
From the narrative it seems that religious enthusiasm was at a low point during the time period under discussion. Apparently most people were not traveling to the Mishkan to celebrate the holidays. Elkana made it his mission to redress this problem. To this end he would stop in various villages along the route and sleep in the middle of the village. The local villagers would come out to speak with him and he would tell them that he was going to the Mishkan, which was the Torah center of the country.
With what we can describe as having struck a nostalgic chord, the villagers began to cry and some, when invited by Elkana to join him on the journey, dropped everything and did so. Year after year Elkana employed the same methods except that he always chose a different route and encamped in a different village. Slowly but surely, Elkana brought many people back into the Torah orbit. As a reward for his actions G-d blessed him with Shmuel, a leader who would benefit the entire nation in a similar, albeit broader fashion.
We can learn many leadership lessons from this midrash. Elkana saw the need for a clear goal. If he had a mission statement we could imagine it being: “Together to Shilo.” But he knew that a goal without a plan would remain an unrealized dream. Therefore, he devised a strategy and accompanying tactical plan. He understood that the achievement of his goal would take time and he had the patience and tenacity to see things through. He also valued every small incremental step forward.
But perhaps the most important leadership lesson Elkana taught us is to never underestimate the difference a single person can make. After all is said and done if not for the midrash we would not know of Elkana’s actions. He did not win any major battles or slay any giants. He did not split a sea or, like his son, Shmuel, bring rain in the summer. He did not revive the dead as did Eliyahu and Elisha and he did not order the sun to remain stationary as did Yehoshua. He simply energized the nation, several people at a time, to return to their religious roots.
During this past summer I had the very special opportunity to visit Israel for four days on the Yeshivah of Flatbush Unity Mission. This mission was organized and headed by Rabbi Naftali Besser, the Dean of Students at our high school, with the help of Mrs. Susan Franco. I am forever indebted to them for putting this trip together. I speak for the nearly fifty participants in saying that it inspired us in indescribable and indelible ways. We visited injured soldiers in hospitals, soldiers on duty, and many regular people just trying to live their lives. I’d like to share with you an Elkana-like story from our trip. It’s a story that won’t make the history books, but it’s quite instructive and inspiring.
We were fortunate to be in Israel during a time of relative calm and were able to visit Sderot. We stopped at a children’s play center and visited with some little kids trying to relax during a small reprieve from the constant bombardment they were suffering. Standing at the gate was an elderly guard named Motti. Before entering the center I stopped to say hello to him. I subsequently found out that he was a veteran of the Yom Kippur War. He told me we had just missed seeing 250 soldiers from the Givati brigade. “These guys really have it hard,” he told me. I asked him to elaborate and he said that while he was in tank battles in the Sinai in 1973 his experiences don’t compare to the dread and danger these young soldiers face upon entering the tunnels.