Parashat Hukkat

Numbers 19:1–22:1

July 2, 2011 / 30 Sivan 5771

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi David Hoffman, assistant professor of Talmud and Rabbinics and scholar-in-residence, JTS.

The Perils of Leadership

 

Great leadership is about successfully orchestrating change. Whether within organizations, communities, or other social systems, leadership involves developing a vision of the future and implementing strategies to achieve this vision. Exercising leadership means motivating and inspiring people to change habits, attitudes, and values that hold them back from reaching their goals. Arguably the most demanding challenge faced by any person who seeks to lead emerges from the fact that our values and attitudes come from somewhere, and to ask people to abandon them means asking people to be disloyal to their origins. Consequently, a crucial part of the work of leadership can be understood as the refashioning of loyalties. Longstanding and deeply held loyalties—even if they are unhealthy—serve as foundations to our identity. To discard these loyalties, even for our own betterment, means giving up parts of our selves. This is a painful process and will often be accompanied by great resistance. At the heart of leadership lies the task of helping people negotiate this loss even if the values and ways of being that are given up have been preventing us from moving to a place we desire. It is this dynamic that makes leading such a challenging and dangerous business.

These concerns painfully reverberate through our parashah. God tells Moshe that he will not accompany the Israelites as they enter the Land of Israel. "Because you did not trust enough to sanctify Me in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Num. 20:12). But what exactly did Moshe do to warrant this severe punishment that would keep him from completing the journey with the people he unselfishly served?

In fact, the Torah is not clear at all. Given the opaqueness of the Torah's language, it should not surprise us to learn that the medieval commentators offered as many as 10 explanations for Moshe's guilt. There is reason to believe that Moshe himself did not understand exactly what behavior constituted his crime. In one of the more moving passages in the Torah, Moshe pleads with God to rescind the decision prohibiting him from entering the land (Deut. 3:23–25). Moshe never mentions the nature of the sin; he never asks forgiveness for a particular act. Rather, he simply asks God to annul the decree. The only knowledge Moshe ever reveals about the nature of his guilt is his indictment of the Israelites, "Because of you God was angry with me" (Deut. 1:37)! Moshe repeats this charge three chapters later (Deut. 3:26). This explanation seems to have then gained traction, because when the psalmist recounts the history of Israel, he sings, "They provoked wrath at the waters of Meribah and Moshe suffered on their account" (Ps. 106:32). In what way were the people responsible for the fate of Moshe?

I submit that a richer understanding of Moshe's failure emerges when the incident at the rock in our parashah is studied alongside almost identical events that had occurred during the first year of the Israelites' journey in the desert. Freed from Egypt and on their way to Sinai and the Promised Land, the Israelites aggressively confront Moses and demand water ("vayarev ha-am im Moshe—the people quarreled with Moses" Exod. 17:2). Even after God saved the Israelites with the splitting of the Red Sea and provided them with food that fell from the heavens, the people cry out to Moses and declare that it would have been preferable to have stayed in Egypt as slaves than to wander in the desert (Exod. 17:3). Nothing that God does creates any trust or confidence in the Divine or the Covenant.

In some ways the Israelites' behavior might be understandable. These people were only recently slaves in Egypt, and the slave consciousness was deeply embedded in their identities. Yet after the sin of the Golden Calf and the incident of the spies, it becomes clear that their slave mentality will prevent them from ever having true faith in God. God exclaims in frustration, "How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?" (Num. 14:11). Accordingly, that generation is not mentally ready to accept the gift of entering the land, along with the faith it requires; they will instead die in the wilderness, and only their children will inherit the land. Now Moshe's task as a leader will be to educate a new generation of Israelites who had not known slavery but who had received God's blessings in the desert.

What is unforgivable is how this incident could repeat itself almost 40 years later with a new generation of Israelites who had not personally experienced Egyptian slavery. Once again the community needed water and they quarrelled with Moshe ("vayarev ha-am im Moshe" Num. 20:3). After having their physical needs met all these years in the desert, and with the promise of entering the land before them, this group of men and women—like their ex-slave fathers and mothers—ungratefully tell Moshe: "If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord! Why have you brought the Lord's congregation into this wilderness and our animals to die here? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!" (Num. 20:3–4). Somehow, in their minds, Egypt is a place of grain, figs, vines, and pomegranates—the precise terms that are used in connection with the Land of Israel! Egypt now is a mythic place of bounty and blessing!

And this incident reveals the tragedy of Moshe's life. As a leader of the people for 40 years, he has failed to educate a new generation that was ready to be present for a relationship with God. This generation of Israelites speaks the same scripts as their fathers and mothers. Moshe has not transformed their destructive attitudes or values. He has not successfully refashioned the Israelites' loyalty. Just like their ancestors, they pine for their lost lives in Egypt. While this may have been pardonable for the previous generation, these attitudes and language are inexcusable for this generation of Israelites about to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe was unable to create a new set of loyalties, and this incident at the rock almost 39 years after the first water crisis emphasizes his failure of leadership. In these ways, Moshe was correct to claim, "God was wrathful with me on your account"—because he was unable to help transform the attitudes and loyalties of this people he was trying to lead. The incident at the rock showed it was time for new leadership that might be successful in inspiring new loyalties to the God who had taken them out of Egypt.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.