Separation Anxiety

I offered my farewell address last week. Two years ago I was elected President of the Washington Board of Rabbis. Back then the Covid pandemic already seemed interminable. What a challenging time for all of us, especially the clergy. The challenges of spiritual leadership were magnified by our disorientation and alienation. Rabbis needed peers to help them through that wilderness. I stepped up to lead the way.

This week in Torah, we read a story that encapsulates the angst of separation. Moses’ father-in-law, Hobab (also known as Yitro) accompanied the people after meeting at Mt. Sinai, about two years time. Hobab was the high priest of the Midianite people. He was an ally but not a “convert.”

The cloud lifted, the trumpets blared and the Hebrews readied to march. Moses said to Hobab “We are setting out for the place of which God has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for God has promised to be generous to Israel.” (Numbers 10:29).  Instead, Hobab turned to leave. Commentators suggest that Hobab understood there was no place for his Midianite clan in Israel. Moses pleaded with Hobab to stay, again offering to share the land. There the conversation ends. Exit Hobab stage right.

The text says that Moses hoped that Hobab would be a guide through the wilderness. I believe that a deeper connection had formed. Moses longed to continue the personal relationship with a fellow spiritual leader who had also served as a mentor.

Through the lens of this story, I thought about changes in the way we work and the effect on relationships. From home offices, we don’t have a personal experience of the people with whom we work. Zoom only offers limited interaction configured in boxes. Between the safety of staying at home and the conveniences of technology, our work lives are similarly encapsulated. Yes, we may get more time to hike and bike, binge watch, and binge drink, but less quality time with our professional peers and workmates. As work is often the greatest daily source of stress, camaraderie can be a source of comfort. As we near the end of the wilderness of this pandemic, we might reevaluate the benefits of sustaining a collegial and mutually supportive work environment. Moreover, we can appreciate our leaders’ need to be supported by peers.

Moses knew the challenges of leadership and understood the benefit of having colleagues. Whether examining the life of the first “Rabbi” or leading a group of 157 local rabbis, my admiration for religious leaders has grown. Send some love to a rabbi you know who has had to pivot and persevere through a challenging time. Especially those that lead us through the wilderness on their own.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame