L.A. rabbi asks Pittsburgh entrepreneurs to reflect on inner life

L.A. rabbi asks Pittsburgh entrepreneurs to reflect on inner life

The entrepreneurs had some work to do.

Nevertheless, these high-powered men and women, these movers and shakers of the Pittsburgh business community, put away their BlackBerrys and laptops for this day’s task: earnest self-reflection.

About 100 members of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence sat quietly in a banquet room in the Duquesne Club Tuesday morning, working on their ethical wills, memorializing for their children and grandchildren the values they wished to bequeath.

The exercise was part of a seminar led by Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, senior rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, and the author of “More Money than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul.”

A person can be good at a lot of things, Leder said, but he can only be great at one.

It is consciously deciding which role in life is most important — and then acting on that choice — that should provide the framework for one’s life, he told the group at his presentation, which was titled, “Time is Money … But Also a Whole Lot More.”

In Western culture, people are constantly bombarded by the message that material acquisition equates to success, causing children to be at risk of learning the wrong values, Leder said.

“The main problem is that the message that is raining down on our kids of what it means to be successful and truly rich is so perverse, and so corrosive,” Leder said. “And there is nothing in popular culture to indicate anything to the contrary. That’s why we need parents and grandparents and the synagogues and the churches to weigh in.”

“I’m not here to disparage the power of work and the importance of money,” Leder said. “But money should just be a vehicle to express more important values. When you start to believe that your outer life is a reflection of your inner life, you’ve corrupted your soul.”

The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence presents six to nine lectures a year, according to Ann Dugan, its founder and director. She said Leder’s message was an ideal way to end the year for her group.

“Entrepreneurs and business leaders are constantly overwhelmed,” Dugan said. “There is all this stuff they are responsible for, and who they neglect is themselves. I try to end the year by getting them to think a little bit about themselves and their families.”

Dugan heard Leder speak at a program in Philadelphia two and half years ago, and knew she had to bring him and his message to Pittsburgh.

“His approach really woke me up,” she said. “He takes the business leader to a different place. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I working so hard? Why am I building this business?’ You have to look inward.”

At the heart of Leder’s program was its interactive component, where each audience member began to prepare an ethical will.

“Most people have material wills, but almost no one has an ethical will,” Leder said. “In an ethical will, people bequeath the values they want to leave to their children and grandchildren.”

A few of the attendees shared what they wrote with the group, some choking up as they read out loud their hopes and ethical directives to their offspring.

After the creation of the ethical wills, Leder asked the group to think about “alignment.”

“In 25 years of being on the inside of other people’s lives, as all clergy are, I have found that the people who are least happy and who get into the most trouble are the people who lack alignment,” Leder said. “Those are the people who profess one set of values, but live by another. The happiest people, the wholest people, are the people who write something like you did, and live their lives in alignment with those values. Those are the richest people.”

A graduate of Northwestern University, Leder studied at Trinity College, Oxford, before receiving his master’s degree in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati in 1986. He was ordained in 1987. In addition to his work at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, he teaches homiletics at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, and has written essays for Reform Judaism and the Los Angeles Times. His first book, “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” received national acclaim and brought him appearances on ABC’s “Politically Incorrect” and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Leder’s aim is to “help people step outside themselves and see the imbalance they live with everyday,” he told the Chronicle.

“One of my favorite sayings, attributable to Marshall McLuhan, is: ‘I don’t know who discovered water, but it certainly wasn’t the fish,’ ” he said.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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