The Soil and the Seeds: On Openness, Vulnerability, and Leadership

I gave this d’var at Illini Hillel on February 3rd, 2023 at a Renewal Shabbat experience in honor of my January 8th rabbinic ordination. I wanted to share something I learned about leadership during my rabbinical program with my community. This d’var was given on Shabbat Beshelach, two nights before Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees.

Where do untold stories go?
Do we bury them like sacred texts?
Do the stories turn into seeds underground?
If the seed splits like the Red Sea,
and a stem starts to grow, where does it go
if it can’t burst through the soil, if it can’t rise up singing,
if it never blooms?

Where do untold stories go? I’ve been asking this question for years in various leadership roles. We talked about it at Davvenen Leadership Training Institute, DLTI – the most formative training program I experienced in rabbinical school. Sometimes leading means we “tell the stories communities need to hear, instead of the stories we want to tell.” The best leaders know how to “hold space instead of taking up space.” As a leader, when I open up, it’s to create openings for others to grow. I am the soil, not the seeds. It’s an honor to bear witness, to share just enough that others are inspired to stretch, crack, and split through the shells of their seeds. It’s a blessing to empower others to grow. 

I built a life out of soil and I like to think I’m good at it. I am soil when I train and empower students to lead, when I facilitate grief groups, and when I serve as a mentor. Until DLTI, I thought I made great soil because I am comfortable with the seeds of my own stories – I am comfortable with my vulnerability. However, over time I learned that while I’m open, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be vulnerable. The stories I share are curated and crafted. I’ve written the stories before sharing them, or I’ve considered the role they play in others’ stories. I share when it’s something a mentee needs to hear, instead of a story I need to tell. That’s a way of being a leader, but it’s not vulnerability.

At DLTI, we took turns leading and then “labbing” prayer services. In labs, our teachers offered feedback on how to make the prayer service more powerful. Transformation occurred every time a prayer leader cracked open their shell, showing a hint of their own stem. We learned to lean into vulnerability in just the right way, to draw on our stories and lead from the heart. Leaders are the soil, but we are also in the soil. And we lead best when we let it show – not a lot, but more than I had in the past.

In a conversation with one of my DLTI teachers, I set a kavanah (intention) that I was going to try this vulnerability thing. I planned to tell a story that had been longing for soil at a Saturday night open mic, a story that truly made me feel vulnerable.

Saturday night arrived, and every presenter who came before me told their own hard story. They split their shells in the soil of our kahal (community) and beautiful, vulnerable stories bloomed all over the sanctuary.  However, I noticed that the kahal was worn out from all the emotion – a few people left, and those left in the room were drained. It was time to tell the story the community needed to hear, instead of the story I wanted to tell. So when it was my turn, I shared a story that never fails to make me (and others) laugh. It felt good to lift people up. The tone was right on. Afterward, my teacher congratulated me, knowing I made the decision to share something lighter in lieu of vulnerability: “That was davvenen leadership,” he said. It was, and I was proud.

…until I was sad. Devastated. I figured I was just tired at the end of a long day and a long week. But where do untold stories go? The question was tugging at me.  When I felt tears well up during a song circle later that night, I realized that 1am was not the best time to analyze my feelings, and I went to bed. Besides, I thought, these are the kinds of decisions I make all the time as a leader. Surely I’d be fine the next day.

But I wasn’t. A friend noticed, and we walked to a private space where I explained everything. My friend acknowledged that I made the right choice the night before, and then pointed out that this moment was different. She invited me to share the story I needed to tell. I hesitated, but she meant it. I let the seed crack open.

When I finished, I felt lighter. I learned an important lesson about vulnerability that day. I learned I could plan ahead and ask a friend in advance: “If I cannot tell this story tonight, can I tell you another time?” Or as an alternative, I learned to notice my need to share in moments when I can’t, and to honor that need by sharing with a friend later. 

This question came up for me again at Hillel last fall. When a friend was in the ICU after an overdose, I wanted a morning prayer minyan for my friend’s healing. Progressive in-person minyanim aren’t regularly accessible here, so I figured I’d find a random one online. When Carly suggested I invite students I am close with to pray with me the next day, I was nervous. Should I be that vulnerable? Was this a story I needed to tell or a story the kahal needed to hear? When is it ok to ask the community I’m leading to show up for me, the leader? I decided to try it, I’m glad I did, and I’m grateful to those who joined me in prayer that day. Leaders need to both support and be supported. Sometimes leaders have to find support outside the community or outside the moment, like I did at DLTI. Other times it’s good to be vulnerable with those you are leading, like I was last fall. It’s hard to know the difference, but I’m learning every day. 

We celebrate the leadership of Moses in this parsha – a reluctant leader whose brother Aaron had to help him share his story. Tu b’Shevat is on Monday, celebrating not only trees above ground, but seeds buried in soil, a generative darkness that encourages growth. In honor of this parsha and holiday, I invite you to notice your own opportunities to lead, grow, and lean into vulnerability this week. Every seed wants a chance to grow, and, as I continue to learn, even soil needs soil sometimes. Shabbat Shalom.

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