Leaning In/Leaning Back

“Think of yourself as Ayin and forget yourself totally.”

Dov Baer


Cheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has got everyone talking about leaning in, the title of her new book.  The idea is to encourage women to give voice to their concerns, to assert themselves to achieve success and to stop getting in their own way by limiting or diminishing their capabilities. Women, she contends, need to sit at the table and not behind everyone else in the boardroom. They need to lean in, be unafraid of expressing ambition and enjoying success.


In contrast, Tami Simon, CEO of multimedia company Sounds True and a believer in discovering the inner life at work, argued on a recent NPR program (Krista Tippett’s On Being) that she needs to lean back. As the leader of an organization, she is all too aware of the strength of her voice and how in both articulation and body language, leaning back makes more space for others to lean in. It helps those who may traditionally take a quieter role in public settings find a place for themselves and their opinions.


What’s a girl to do?


The leaning in/leaning back dilemma is not really about gender. At heart, it’s about personality and passion. Leaders need to know when to lean in and when to lean back. Some of us in the presence of others do not know how to find a comfortable space to express a personal view so we just hold it in. Others feel too comfortable using all the available air space in a room, making it hard for others who are more hesitant. There is no one formula, but there are some aids from our own mystical tradition that can help us assess where we are and might want to be in any given setting.


Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch (d. 1772), author of the Maggid Deverav L’Yakov where the quote above appears, was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. He raised an inner circle of Hasidic disciples who then became masters and teachers themselves. Many famous legends developed around Dov Baer and his extraordinary piety. It appears that the key to his inner life lay in leaning back or contracting himself  - tzimtzum - to make room for God: “Think of yourself as Ayin and forget yourself totally.” Ayin means nothing, but in true mystical tradition, nothingness is always on the way to somethingness. Everything that currently exists came from non-existence.


Human beings exist, of course, but in order to minimize the self to make room for the other, we often have to forget ourselves totally: forget our petty concerns, our ego needs, our desires for power and status. So often our relationships fail not because we are not present for those in our life but because we have too much presence.



Dov Baer continues: “If you think of yourself as something then God cannot clothe himself in you, for God is infinite. No vessel can contain God, unless you think of yourself as Ayin.” In mystical literature, Moses is often referred to as a “kli” - or vessel - of God. For a vessel to serve its purpose, it must always be filled and emptied, filled and emptied. If a vessel is full, it has no capacity to hold anything else. Moses emptied himself to make room for God. This process is not inherently about debasing oneself or being subservient. It is about building capacity. If you don’t have strong sides, you will never be an effective vessel. You will not be able to hold anything. Letting go of self-absorption is not an act of weakness but a testimony to your strength.


Wisdom will dictate when to lean in and when to lean back, when to fill the vessel of self and when to empty it.


Shabbat Shalom