For those of you who regularly read my blog, you will recall a recent trip I made to Racine, Wisconsin for a client meeting. This week, I decided to visit my paternal grandfather, Selig Edelman. I did this not by visiting his grave site (have done several times as it is in New York City near my parents). I read his book, dedicated to me on my Bar Mitzvah fifty years ago, called The Mosaic Bequest to Mankind. The text covers the first five books of the Bible, plus a short chapter on Joshua as he enters the Promised Land. It was published in 1969, eighteen months before his death.
My grandfather came to the U.S. from Russia at age 3 with his sisters and mother. His father, Abraham, had come to New York City three years earlier to make enough money to afford the trans-Atlantic voyage for the family. They lived in Brooklyn, learning English and trying to make it on a rabbi’s salary. My grandfather was a top student, graduating from City College in 1901, then CCNY law school in 1904. He went on to practice law for fifty years, retiring in 1953. He spent the subsequent eighteen years studying Torah until his death in 1971. One of my earliest memories is walking in on him at 7 AM in his undershirt as he wrapped the tefillin around his arms, before morning prayers. He was a truly serious man; he took my dad to a baseball game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and spent the entire time reading the papers while my dad rooted for his beloved Dodgers.
The date of his writing is important. In 1965, my grandfather went to Jerusalem. He was not able to go to the Western Wall nor to visit his own father’s grave on the Mount of Olives as these were both under Jordanian control. The best he could do was to use binoculars. In 1968, just prior to Christmas, American astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first men to circle the moon, then read the first lines of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth,” when they came back into radio contact with Earth. Finally, my grandfather Selig was coming to grips with his own mortality, recognizing that he was slowing physically, but determined to finish his magnum opus. I remember him hunched over a desk, scribbling on a yellow pad, with the Bible cracked open, as he visited us in summers in Michigan. His was a life of work and reflection.
The focus of this book is Moses, whom my grandfather describes as “God’s emissary to establish the cause of freedom from human slavery, a cause which was to set an example for all future struggles in history.” There are several characteristics of Moses as a leader that I will attempt to emulate in the coming years:
- Humility and Modesty — When God appears to Moses at the Burning Bush and instructs him to return to Egypt to free his people, Moses replies, “Who am I that I should go unto Pharoah and that I should bring forth the children of Israel from Egypt.” But his demeanor belied a steely conviction, standing up to Pharaoh at each turn, insisting on freedom after each of the Ten Plagues. Moses was respected even by the average Egyptian who suffered in the Plagues. “The man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people.’
- Stand Up for Your Team — When Moses goes up to Mount Sinai for 40 days to receive the Ten Commandments, leaving his brother Aaron in charge, the people lose faith and build a Golden Calf. God is infuriated and tells Moses that he plans to “consume them and I will make of thee a great nation.” Moses has the courage to say to God, “Turn from Thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against thy people...and the Lord repented of the evil which he said he would do to his people.” Moses showed his own fury by smashing the tablets containing the Commandments but took responsibility for fixing the problem via atonement.
- Make the Tough Calls — Moses sends a dozen scouts into the land of Canaan to verify its fertility and vulnerability to conquest by the Israelites. On their return, ten of the scouts say that the local tribes are too strong, while two (one of them is Joshua, Moses’ successor) say that the province can be won. Moses allows the majority to win; this leads to 40 years wandering in the desert.
- Maintaining People’s Confidence — My grandfather writes about the rebellion of Korah, Moses’ cousin, and 250 others in the tribe of Reuben, against Moses’ God-decreed leadership. “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy.” This is ascribed to jealousy. The same is evident in Moses’ relations with his siblings, Aaron and Miriam. The smart leader regroups and goes forward, sharing his vision and trusting his colleagues.
- Persistence and Conviction — Moses in his final year of life presents a long discourse to the people. Central to the talk is his assessment of the 40 years of wandering to the Promised Land. “And thou shalt remember all the way the Lord thy God has led these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart…that He might make thee know that man does not live by bread alone…”
- Understanding Success Is More Than Material Achievements — My grandfather warns against the temptations of materialism. “With the multiplication of the goods of life there comes also, unless restrained, the multiplication of a man’s ego.” He quotes this passage from Moses, “Beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God…lest when thou has built goodly houses and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply… it was the Lord thy God who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
- Equality of People — My grandfather contrasts the Greek ideal of justice with the Mosaic framework. “In Plato’s Republic, the ideal is a harmonious arrangement of society in which every human peg is put into its appropriate hole, so those who perform humble functions are happy to perform them in due subservience to their superiors. In the Hebrew conception of justice, the equality is stressed.” For example, Moses asks his followers not to return fugitive slaves to their masters. “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondsman that is escaped; he shall dwell with thee, in the place he shall choose within one of thy gates.”
- Free Will, Not Predestination — Nothing is foreordained. “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that thou mayest live.”
My grandfather concludes his work with a profound observation. “There is no glorification of his career upon his death. No poetic outburst of adoration like David’s lament over Saul. No monument was erected to mark his earthly existence. But Moses lives eternally in the nation he established, in the religion he founded, in the morality and ethical conduct he promulgated. The Five Books of Moses are his testament and heritage for all mankind.”
It took me fifty years to get to this book. I was always a bit intimidated by my grandfather, an immigrant who made it through raw intelligence and hard work. I will never be the religious man whom he hoped to form through this book. But I have taken to heart his admonitions on moral leadership, which I have absorbed through 35 years alongside my father, Dan. I am trying to pass the same lessons onto my three children who will inherit our family company. Life is more than what you do; it is how you do it.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.