Noah Robiner is the outgoing NFTY-Northern Programming Vice President. The following is his closing address to the region at Spring Kallah on April 26th.
So there were these two armies, the Israelites and the Philistines, camped on two sides of a valley in Israel. The Philistines are attempting to dismantle the newly formed kingdom of Israel. Now, it was common practice in those days for armies to fight in a type of battle called single-combat in which both armies send down one warrior to fight and decide the battle. It was a way of settling quarrels without the losses of total war. So the Philistines send down their mightiest warrior: a giant clad in shining bronze armor with a javelin a spear and a sword. To the Israelites he is a terrifying force, and one that no soldier dared confront. But there’s this young shepherd boy who is bringing food to his brothers in the army who hears of the giant and volunteers to take him on. The king of Israel at the time, Saul, is reluctant to send down an inexperienced boy to fight this behemoth, this man who “has been a warrior since his youth”. It’s a death wish, but the boy is persistent. He says he has defended his flock from bears and lions with his sling and this Giant will be no different. So Saul agrees. The boy picks up five stones for his sling and descends into the valley to meet the Giant. After exchanging some harsh words, and before the Giant has time to attack, the shepherd boy puts a stone in his sling and launches it at the Giant. The stone hits the Giant between the eyes and downs him. The shepherd boy runs to the giant, takes his sword, and cuts his head off.
The boy’s name is David, the Giant’s name is Goliath, and I think there are some lessons to be learned here.
“For I have not proven it”
As leaders, we don’t have all the answers, and we need to be willing to accept that and reach out for what others have to offer. When David approached Saul to fight, he is offered armor but refuses to wear it. “I cannot go with these; For I have not proven it”. David wasn’t a soldier; he was a shepherd bringing food for his brothers.
Those most fit for a task don’t always don a uniform. And David was certainly fit for the task; he was just wearing a uniform no one was expecting.
Goliath is a heavily armed infantry soldier. When he goes down to the valley, he along with the rest of the Philistines and Israelites expect another heavily armed infantry soldier to meet him and fight. But David is artillery; all he has is a sling. He’s no match for this Giant right? Not quite.
Here’s the thing about putting artillery up against infantry: Artillery wins every time. The sling was an incredibly devastating weapon for its time. Skilled slingers could hit targets at significant lengths with huge power. So when David is standing 20 feet away from Goliath, of course David is gonna win.
Saul and the other leaders of Israel thought that sending down a slinger was a bad move because they thought in order to fight armed infantry, you had to send armed infantry. They were wrong. They bound themselves by arbitrary rules, arbitrary rules which their enemy had set. As leaders, we don’t have all the answers. Getting a title doesn’t give you some magic foresight into every situation you approach. But hopefully there will be those around you who see how to tackle an obstacle, and see it in a way that you never could have seen for yourself.
So what can you do as a leader to encourage this type of dissent, this difference in viewpoints. Well you have to look for it and actively seek out opinions of those who are different than you. And when they come, these rebels, these dissidents, you must accept them no matter what uniform they wear.
“Hineini” – Here I am.
King Saul was quite tall for his time. At over 6ft tall he was said to be a head taller than anyone else in Israel. And Saul, being a king, certainly had access to the same grand armor and weaponry Goliath did. So why didn’t he enter the valley and fight? A lot of Jewish thinkers believe that the story of David and Goliath is meant to show that Saul wasn’t fit to lead the Israelites, and David was the rightful leader of Israel. Saul isn’t the kind of leader you should emulate. He has everything at his disposal to rise to the task, but instead he cowers away and asks who among his followers has the courage for which he does not. When a community chooses you as its leader it’s telling you: “here are your resources, we want you to be the one to rise to the challenge.” It’s telling you that it is your time, your responsibility to answer to the call, to say “Hineini” – Here I am. So over the course of your term when you are presented with challenges and obstacles, and there will be many, know that you have a community and its armor behind you, and it is your duty and your honor to rise to the sacred task.
Panache is your friend
As David descended into the valley, Goliath arrogantly calls out “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?” To which David replies “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For this battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
Had David simply given some nervous half-hearted response or worse, not responded at all, he may have not left the valley alive. How you present yourself and your ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. When you enter situations and you express ideas with confidence and yes, panache, real power and mysticism can be felt.
And David continues with this theme after the battle. When David hurled the stone and felled Goliath, David didn’t simply leave with victory. David went to Goliath, took his sword, cut his head off, and held it up for the armies to see. When the Philistines saw this they ran away, they fled. Panache is the difference between the enemy sulking away in defeat, and fleeing in terror.
“And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put his armor in his tent.” David keeps a souvenir from his endeavor, and you should too.
This year has gone by faster than I could have imagined. Before you know it, your time in NFTY will be over. So during each event, take a moment to stop and look around and just absorb the experience. Keep every schedule and program and name tag and note and hold on to it, because when you leave, it’ll be one of the only tangible things you have left.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
When Saul sees David go out to meet Goliath he asks an aid: “Whose son is this youth?”
As a leader, you are defined by those who came before you. The history of your title is a blessing and a curse. It both confines you to the expectation of the work those have done before you regardless of its merit, but it also gives you a network of other leaders to learn from and a title from which to realize your vision. In order to find balance in your immediate work as a NFTY leader, your focus can not solely be on your time in office. Your perspective on leadership must be panoramic, with sights set on your past and your future. It’s important you appreciate, acknowledge and learn from those who came before you, but you must take that acknowledgement and use it to carve out your own place in the timeline of this community. Make your mark, because this opportunity is fleeting.
When Saul sees what David has done he asks first whose son he is. He was the son of another shepherd from Bethlehem named Jesse. It is because of Jesse that David ever learned how to use a sling. But David didn’t confine this skill to defending his flock. He had a vision for the victory his skill could bring to the Israelites. David took what his father taught him and applied to new context, and that is what makes him a great leader. It is because of this vision for the future that people don’t remember David as the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. They remember him as the youth who battled a giant and won.
Emily, as my successor, I wish you wisdom, empathy, kindness, humility, and way more than luck as you begin this journey. I am so proud of you and I know you’ll serve this community well.