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Talkin’ about a Revelation – Leadership on Shavuot

(courtesy Adele Stowe-Lindner)

From the Russian Revolution to the Hippies and ending South African Apartheid, Jews as a people have been involved in movements of social change. Many of our chaggim mark moments of change but none more so that Shavuot, and Revelation.

Change is a potent theme that is reflected in popular music through the decades. Tracey Chapman’s Talkin’ about a Revolution was released 34 years ago in 1988 around Shavuot. Its lyrics talk of desperate people in daily life, dreaming of change. The song can be considered a sobering, though motivating, response by Generation X to Baby Boomer and Jewish poet Bob Dylan’s inspiring anthem, The Times they are-a-changing, released 24 years earlier.

Before a rabbinic spiritual layer of Revelation was applied to it, Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks had been, primarily, about agriculture. Where Pesach was the planting season in Spring, Shavuot seven weeks later marked the time for harvest. In Israel today, Kibbutzim still traditionally mark the festival with agricultural displays and celebration, for their seasons dictate the Jewish calendar.

We, as a Jewish people in Israel and the diaspora, are offered seven weeks to adapt from a planting mentality to a harvesting one; from investing to benefiting, from hoping to succeeding. These are some significant changes of attitude, big revelations, one could say. The person who is hopefully investing is not in the same mindset as the one who reaps and benefits. Consider the stress of the unknown versus the opportunity for decision-making once we are certain of our resources. Both planting and harvesting require strategy but not the same way of thinking.

What have revelation and revolution got in common? The rabbinic reframing of Shavuot as the anniversary of Revelation conveniently suggests that change can literally happen overnight (Tikkun Leil Shavuot as a modern overnight change process). Both suggest that change can be narrated as a clear memorable moment. However, lasting change generally does not happen that way. Whilst Moses was up the mountain, his brother Aaron was collecting gold to make a calf. His deputy and the people had not bought into the process.

Change management theories suggest that understanding why people hold fast to an idea can help us to work with them effectively to adapt. Dr David Rock’s SCARF theory even lists what we most often cling to and grieve the loss of: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (being included) and Fairness. Change is about vision, about nuance, and most crucially, about listening.

Revelation should not have come as a shock. We know from the texts (Exodus 20:27) that those at the bottom of Sinai (ie all of us) spent three days preparing for Revelation, washing and dressing nicely. We know, too, that Moses’s first attempt at leading the people, his followers, towards the 10 Commandments failed spectacularly when he threw the tablets down in fury at the golden calf. Why? Perhaps he did not consider the SCARF model! What did we stand to lose, and had he spent time working with us to bring us with him on the journey of change? Did he see us as partners, and ask our opinions, open for us to question him? Or did he fear being challenged?

Imagining Revelation as a revolutionary moment rather than an incremental process, loses the crucial nuance which sees change take hold. And our world needs change, so this is important. Na’aseh ve’nishma, the children of Israel uttered – we will do and we will listen. What if this is a call to all of us, leaders and followers alike: we will all do and we will all listen. Listening is the responsibility of leaders, not only the purview of followers. Likewise, we are all, leaders and followers alike, accountable to act. It is too easy to leave the responsibility for action only to leaders.

In the space between Pesach, (exodus) and Shavuot, (nation or vision making), we are given an opportunity over time, to create a process of change. This involves thoughtful considering of our values as free individuals, and, most importantly, asking and listening to others. How are those around us understanding the changes at foot?

The times are always changing, how can they not? Amongst us, leaders and followers highlight that many changes are still needed, even if they sometimes talk of revolution/evolution only as a whisper.

As our crops and opinions mature, may the process between Pesach and Shavuot, see us challenge one another as strong followers. May we also listen to one another as strong leaders. Both challenging and listening will help us, as a people, to continue on our annual cycle of engaging with Revelation, whatever it may be for each of us this year.

About the Author
Adele Stowe-Lindner sits on the board of the Zionist Federation of Australia and is Vice-President of Kehilat Nitzan Masorti Synagogue in Melbourne, Australia. She has a Masters in Leadership, and has worked in the community sector, managing change, for over 20 years.
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