Days before Shabbat, I saw on the calendar that we would welcome a new board president to the bimah for a blessing on Friday night. In addition to the sermon and weekly preparations for worship services, not to mention the busy week that was still in front of me, I wondered what could I say to the new president that hasn’t already been said? The question wasn’t easy to answer and not because I didn’t know the new president well, and not because I wasn’t unfamiliar with themes for the occasion. But I was stuck. Then I opened to the weekly parashah and its commentaries and found an insight that changed my orientation to the problem and revealed an answer to my question.
In many places where words were spoken, the Hebrew wasn’t only ויאמר or וידבר. In these texts, for example, either in the same verse or verses that followed, the Hebrew included תספר באזני בנך (Ex. 10:2), or באזני עם הארץ (Gen. 23:13), or אוזנים לשמוע (Deut. 29:3). A clear reference to hearing and not just speaking revealed that the goal wasn’t only to say what needed to be said, but to be sure that what was important to say was meaningful to the one(s) who heard it. In another text (Ex. 17:14), we find, “ושים באזני יהושע,” literally, put it in Joshua’s hearing; but a familiar translation only tells us, “…read it aloud to Joshua.”
“Put it in Joshua’s hearing,” changed my orientation to the problem and led me to ask a better question, “What does the new president of the board need to hear from me?” This question revealed many options. I began to think about validating the president’s gifts and skills that earned her the privilege to serve as president. She would want the congregation to hear that she cares deeply, leads wisely, and always finds time for the congregation’s needs. I thought about linking the new president to a biblical leader who was lifted up by the people to succeed and flourish in her new role. She would like to hear her name linked to the names of the matriarchs or Miriam or Deborah who found leadership to be challenging and rewarding. I thought about expressing my own trust in her partnership to lead the congregation with me. It would be a comfort to her to hear that carrying the weight of Torah, literally and figuratively, as we would stand before the Holy Ark on Shabbat, was a sacred burden we would help each other carry.
When Shabbat came, my final words, which I prepared and then spoke extemporaneously, felt sincere, authentic, and meaningful. In turn, what the new president of the board heard in that moment before the Holy Ark was just what I had hoped she would also always know in her heart and mind. When I added, “עלי והצלחי” there was little question but that she would rise to her new role and prosper in it.
Ever since that Shabbat, I learned not to ask myself, “What should I say?” but rather, “What do they need to hear?” It’s about them and then what we can become together.
Rabbi David A. Lyon serves Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. He also serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.