Character, courage and an open heart
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TorahParshat Bo

Character, courage and an open heart

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

In a series of essays published in Esquire Magazine in 1936, American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald astutely observed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in [one’s] mind at the same time.”

How true that is.

Sadly, however, of late, many who lead our once most venerable institutions have difficulty dealing with complex, competing ideas and, therefore, have sacrificed their moral authority on the altars of expediency and political correctness.

Seemingly, these leaders believe it is more important to demonstrate fealty to a single-minded ideology (of late based on identity or victim/oppressor framing) than it is to think independently, to say nothing of their being unwilling to admit error or reverse course.

Where once, nuanced first-rate thinking was valued among those who lead our colleges and communities, today it seems many otherwise capable leaders are more comfortable keeping their heads down and proving their bona fides by hewing to an unquestioned new orthodoxy.

Further, many of today’s leaders clearly lack the character and courage to challenge the prevailing narrative — even as new information comes to light. This cowardice is encouraged by the approval of like-minded loyalists and can be explained by a very real fear of being deemed chootz l’macheneh (outside the camp).

Show me one who doesn’t share fully in our collective (“woke”) opinion, the thinking goes, and I’ll show you one who must be dismissed, if not disappeared. Thus, those whom Fitzgerald derides for lacking a first-rate intelligence — in spite of the moral responsibility they shoulder — fall quickly and quietly into line.

The cost of such acquiescence is borne not only by those immediately affected; these leaders’ lack of spine comes at all of our expense. But it need not be so.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read of the final and most devastating of the 10 plagues. However, even more significantly, we discover that in spite of these newest plagues, Pharaoh fatefully fails to alter course and, as a result, enormous damage is done

to the very people to whom he owes allegiance.

At this moment in the story, those who recall the words of economist John Maynard Keynes — who insightfully stated, “In the face of new evidence, I change my mind. What do you do?” — plead, “Challenge your assumptions! Change your thinking! Consider the consequences!”

After all, insisting on one’s own rectitude never makes a wrong decision right.

So it is, as each of the 10 plagues rained down upon Egypt, Pharaoh repeatedly reaffirms his resolve by redoubling his original errors. As a result, the plagues keep coming and predictable harm to an enormous number of innocents follows.

Pharaoh’s closed-mindedness (the text refers to his “hard-heartedness”), of course, lies at the center of this story. After all, Pharaoh’s inability to think or act in new ways had dire consequences. But in hindsight we see it was not the plagues that harmed the Egyptians most; it was their leader’s inability to entertain new facts, challenge original assumptions, accept responsibility for earlier errors, and change course that brought the greatest pain to his people.

The lesson of Parshat Bo? Leaders who are incapable of holding “opposed ideas … at the same time,” or are unwilling to weigh new evidence, or are too proud to admit errors of judgment and do the right thing, harm the very people they were elected to serve.

Thus, while it is essential that leaders possess what Fitzgerald called the hallmark of a “first-rate intelligence,” Jewish tradition teaches: More than a keen intellect, it is character, courage, and an open heart that leaders need demonstrate most. PJC

Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the Frances F. & David R. Levin Rabbinic Scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation and the founding director of the Center for Interfaith Collaboration. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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