Leading Edge: Alliance for Excellence in Jewish Leadership
Let's Connect
A broken piece of matzah on a teal background
News & Ideas

Passover 2024: A Critical Juncture for the Jewish World

by Gali Cooks

The Hebrew calendar is an ellipse that revolves around the Fall Holidays and then the journey from Passover to Shavuot in Spring. As we approach the springtime axis of the Jewish year, we are still reeling from the new world that exploded into our lives at the last axis of the calendar on a nightmarish festival day in Fall. In many ways, that terrible event continues; I write these words only a few days after the intense escalation of Iran’s aerial attack on Israel.

There is a sense that this time we’re living through isn’t like most other times we can remember. Indeed, this is a time of extreme fluidity, rapid change, and contingency — a time of both peril and possibility.

Political scientists and historical sociologists have written about critical junctures” — pivotal moments where decisions and events significantly shape the future. We hear this and wonder, “Don’t our actions always affect the future?” The answer is yes — but not to the same extent at every moment. As Paul Pierson explains, “Junctures are ‘critical’ because they place institutional arrangements on paths or trajectories, which are then very difficult to alter.” A “critical juncture” today causes “path dependence” tomorrow.

These key moments are frequent for individuals (a graduation, becoming a parent, a new job, etc.). On a large scale, critical junctures are far less common and have historical implications. Most of the time, societies and big institutions roll along the groove that was cut by the last critical juncture — until faced with a new one. That happens when, in Hillel David Soifer’s terms, “permissive conditions” align with “productive conditions.” In other words, key constraints go away, and something happens that changes everything in a lasting way. To give an example: Long before Martin Luther, various people had called for reforms to the Catholic Church. But the invention of the printing press was a “permissive condition” that allowed the “productive condition” of Luther’s ideas to spread quickly and create massive changes not just to religious history but also to geopolitics, the nature of the state, and more.

The Passover story is the ultimate “critical juncture.” The Israelites lived in the seemingly intractable path of slavery in Egypt. God intervened in history, overcoming constraints up to and including the laws of nature with signs, wonders, plagues, miracles — that’s “permissive conditions.” At the same time, God mentored Yokheved, Miriam, Moshe, Aharon, Naḥshon, and others into taking advantage of opportunities to upend the social order — that’s “productive conditions.”

As Jews prepare to tell that story at our Seder tables, the Jewish community is now at another critical juncture. So much is now in flux: the war in Israel; security and antisemitism worldwide; the changing nature of work; the whiplash of AI technology; the climate crisis; the state of democracy… For good and for ill, much that was calcified has become flexible, creating “permissive conditions” both dark and bright. The “productive conditions” will depend, in part, on what we do about it. Jewish leadership has the opportunity to think big together about the future of the Jewish community as a community.

What kind of leadership does this critical juncture call us to provide?

First, we need leadership from the top, bottom, and middle — all at once. At a critical juncture, we need everyone to open themselves up to lead and be led. When the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was being built in the desert by newly liberated Israelites, everyone in the community brought what their heart moved them to bring. That’s bottom-up leadership. Simultaneously, throughout the Exodus, Moshe provided strong leadership from the top. Importantly, that leadership was (in the words of the Book of Numbers later) “exceedingly humble”; the greatest leaders provide vision and direction but also empower those they lead. Perhaps the most underrated kind of leadership is leadership from the middle. Just before the Exodus story reaches its denouement with the giving of the Torah, Yitro observes Moshe’s judicial procedures and advises him to empower some middle managers (that is, to create multiple layers of leadership). Middle managers are the glue that holds our institutions together. With so much in flux, we need people in all roles in the Jewish community to step up and lead, listen, and follow.

Second, we need the leadership of creativity. It’s easy to be trapped in the status quo, locked into mental models of the structures and institutions of the Jewish community that come from ”what was” and “what is.” We need to imagine the many ways that it might yet be. Futurist Ari Wallach advises us all to “longpath” (he has coined this as a verb) and become good ancestors for our descendants. Wallach reminds us that there is not just one “the future” but rather many futures. The more futures we can imagine, the more we can see the possibilities offered by a critical juncture.

Finally, we need the leadership of unity — but not uniformity. We’re all in this together. Between plagues, Pharaoh asks Moshe who needs to be released and asks if it can just be the men. But Moshe insists that it will be everyone — regardless of age or gender, every last person in the community, and even the animals — “not a hoof may remain behind.” This ethic of unity and solidarity includes everyone and recruits everyone to participate and contribute. God does miracles but also asks humans to participate in their own miracle-making. The entire people is called to bring the Passover offering, to mark their doorposts in a public display that implies, “I belong to the people of Israel; I am a part of this revolution.” And yet, the story also makes clear that this belonging didn’t mean being a monolith; the community was “a mixed multitude”.

Now, when so many disagreements and pressures are trying to drive the Jewish community apart, is the time for radical empathy, humility, openness, and willingness to remain together across differences to ensure this critical juncture enables us to go from strength to strength. I am mindful of Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s wise teaching that balancing pluralism, integrity, and community is enormously difficult, and cannot be done without painful trade-offs. But this is the work. Our creativity and participatory leadership must take us toward this vision.

So here we are — at a critical juncture, and at the Passover season. People in futures we can’t even imagine depend on what we do at this time, just as we’re here because of our ancestors in Egypt. If Shifra and Puah hadn’t disobeyed orders… If Yokheved hadn’t put baby Moshe in that basket… If Moshe hadn’t been curious about a burning bush… If our ancestors hadn’t been willing to join the Passover project in such a vulnerable way by marking their doorposts…

What will our descendants marvel at about the choices we make this year?

May this Passover bring us all rest and reflection, courage and creativity, unity and humility. Ḥag kasher vesameaḥ.

About the Author
  • Photo of Gali Cooks

    Gali Cooks is the President & CEO of Leading Edge.

More from the Blog

View all posts

Stay Connected

Get occasional updates on resources, programs, and the latest news on culture and leadership in the Jewish nonprofit sector.


Contact Us

©2024 Leading EdgePrivacy Policy
Built by Ronik