There were times, when I was one of three students that would stay awake late enough to hear Rabbi Shlomo Riskin when he would stop by our beit midrash at Yeshivat Hamivtar to give a late night class. What I was so profoundly moved by was the fact that Rav Riskin would speak to the three of us as if there were 200 people present. He offered his normal passionate and engaging class since we were the right people in the room.
I learned that an educator must show the full dignity to whoever shows up or whoever is truly in the mood to engage at that moment. Presentation intensity shouldn’t be swayed by someone entering the room whether it is one’s mentor, supervision, or a potential donor. We give our best class, presentation, or sermon to all. Those who are present are the right people.
I’ve been told that Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the 20th century Zionist leader, once unknowingly accepted a speaking engagement in Russia at the same time as a very prominent leader in the Zionist movement. Only about 6 people showed up, but he gave his talk and gave his best. It turns out that one of the six in attendance was Menachem Begin, who later became a great Israeli leader and Prime Minister. Begin said that it was that speech by Jabotinsky that solidified his commitment to become active as a Zionist leader. You never know who is in the room.
This point can be made theologically as well. The Jewish people may not have been the perfect people when they received the Torah but they were the ones who arrived at the mountain. We showed up so God took us seriously.
In my leadership practice, I often feel that I need to be in many places at once. It’s easy to feel like one isn’t in the right place when one holds multiple complex commitments. I’m striving to offer those who show up my full presence and my best performance whether or not I hoped for a larger or different attendance. In addition to making this moral commitment to my students, I have the faith that the Ribbono Shel Olam has ensured that those who need to learn from me and to teach me are the ones that showed up.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012.