Ki Tisa the portion that is read this coming Shabbat, is one of the most powerful of all our portions in that it contains the story of the Golden Calf. (Exodus 32). The lack of faith and patience on the part of the Israelites and the seeming capitulation of Aaron to the will of the people make for great commentaries and linkages to modern life. Who shall stand in the face of the crowd and speak truth to power? Leadership is action, sometimes action that challenges!
This past week, the Jewish world lost such a leader. A man who not only spoke truth, but acted on it. Al Vorspan served the Jewish people from the position of executive leadership of the Reform Movement. He helped forge a social justice movement in the crucial decades of social change in the United States. As I read through this week’s portion, a verse stood out that immediately called Al to mind . It is from Exodus 31: 6. Bezalel is called upon to create the structures to hold sacred objects. In verse 6 we read that God has endowed Bezalel will great skill: oovlev cal chacham lev natati chochmah.
In the Plaut this sentence is translated “and I have granted skill to all who are skillful” In another translation, by Rabbi Twerski, it is rendered as: “in the hearts of all that are wise, I have given knowledge” Al Vorspan possessed skill and knowledge. He know how to organize, inspire and had a wisdom that far surpassed book knowledge. He had the wisdom of life experience and the wisdom of his tradition that calls us to action in the face of evil. Injustice was met by Al with a solemn call for justice. From a jail cell to the pulpit, from essays to classrooms, Al Vorspan spoke and acted truth to power. To the “golden calfs” of the world, Vorspan would rise up, condemn, and work to bring them down.
I had the honor and privilege to work on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism for many years and thus be part of those who were inspired on a daily basis. Al was not above any crowd. Often he would just pop into my office as he walked the building to ask how things were, to quiz me on baseball (we shared a love of it) and to offer, his latest joke. His guidance to staff members on how to handle issues of life and leadership was invaluable and always given with love and compassion.
With Al’s death, an era really has ended. His life gave meaning to generations. May his memory continue to inspire. He will be missed. May he rest in peace, together now with Shirley.
Rabbi Richard F Address