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Parashat Ki Tissa 5784

February 27, 2024
by Hazzan Rabbi Luis Cattan ('20)

We are living in a time when good leadership is hard to find.

I’m not talking of flawless individuals, I would not expect an infallible leader; that is a chimera. What is difficult to find is what our Torah portion describes as Hakhmei Lev. The usual translation is “skillful”. “Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill,* to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.”(Ex. 28:3)

If God only needed skillful individuals to perform such a sacred task the Torah would be coming short in the requirements. Yes, being skillful was useful when the task in front of them was so delicate and required following so many detailed instructions. Instead, I offer a different translation to the one that appears in most of our English versions: “wisdom.” And the origin of wisdom is Yirat Shamayim, fear of God as it says in Psalms 111:10. In his book Reisheet Hokhmah, Rabbi Eliyahu De Vidas connects this acquisition of wisdom with the purpose of Torah. He says that the purpose of the Torah is to live it, to apply it. The way of acquiring wisdom is by living a life with awe for the divine coming first. It is only by walking in God’s ways that wisdom can be acquired.

Skillfulness is the technical aspect of wisdom. But the craftsmen of the Mishkan also had to be fearful of God. In a time when the people of Israel were transitioning from slavery to freedom, wisdom was found not only in the craftsmanship but also in their hearts. They followed God’s instructions for the Mishkan because they had that reverential fear and awe that aligned their craftsmanship with their beliefs.

They led the “Mishkan Building Project” and Moses led the “Capital Campaign”. What made them worthy of leadership? Perhaps the deep understanding that to be a leader is to recognize our fallibility and to humble ourselves in the presence of the divine. Perhaps this is why the name of Moses doesn’t appear at all in this past Parashah, for the first time since he appeared in the story.

Because, in order to deserve the honor of building the Tabernacle, its utensils and all the priestly vestments, they had to believe, not in Moses and his leadership, but in God. In this moment they had to trust in God directly, even though they were just in the beginning of that relationship, without Moses as an intermediary.

True leadership requires being able to take a step back and let others grow. This enables others to acquire true wisdom, which is only achieved through actions consistent with the mitzvot. True leaders are humble and reticent to accept their roles. Only then will we be deserving of sacred tasks.
Rabbi Ḥazzan Luis Cattan (AJR ’20) is currently serving at Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City. He is the Immediate Past President of the Cantors Assembly. As a native Uruguayan, he attended the Catholic University of Montevideo receiving his BA in Social Communication Sciences with a major in Advertising. He sought private instruction under the tutelage of renowned local teachers. Upon returning from Israel, where he spent a year studying, he started his Ḥazzanut training with different mentors in Uruguay and Argentina as well. He became the Head Ḥazzan at the NCI (the largest Conservative Synagogue in Uruguay). He also served as International Vice President of Mercaz Olami (Zionist Conservative Movement) as one of the founders of the Uruguayan Branch.