Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tensions and Trials of Trail Blazers - Bahalotecha 2011

Innovation will meet resistance.  Our Torah reading offers some insights into some expressions of resistance to a new path and some lessons about how to respond to these.

Losing a Mentor and an Elder Champion
A colleague told me about how she often feels like picking up the phone to call her recently departed mentor in matters of peace and conflict, the late Stella Cornelius. In the Torah reading, Moses anticipates losing a mentor-like figure with the announcement by his father in law, Jethro that “I will not go (with you to the promised land) rather I will go to my land and my birthplace[1]”.  Moses responds with a heartfelt plea, “please do not abandon us, for you have known our camping in the desert and you have been like a pair of eyes for us[2]”.  

Moses plea is interpreted as meaning “being that you see this people, that is in a bad state and all our encampments are with grumbling, controversy and complaints …I am afraid that (your) leaving us is related to the grumbling against the divine presence (and) the fact that we strayed from following God, therefore I worry that if you go away you will not return to us and even when you are with us, your thoughts will be on your birthplace, thinking ‘oh, who would give me a limb like a dove? I will fly and dwell[3] in peace’ there not like these encampments…therefore I request that you don’t leave us…(if you stay) the eyes of the Israelites will be on you and to learn from your example[4]…the main need for you to stay is that you will be thinking about your birthplace when you see the crumbling order between us (and the contrast)…and you will be the reason for us fixing our matters[5].

Moses plea, reminds me of how I felt when more experienced people who have supported my work have told me, we don’t have the time to devote to this. My first impulse is to think but “I need you, I need your faith in me and the innovative work I am doing”. But of course, the Jethro’s and the Stella’s and others must move on and those who have drunk of their wisdom must continue without their presence, but still thinking “what would Stella say to this?”.

Fears justified – Complaints ostensibly about cucumbers and fish
Moses frustration with his people is given fresh justification only six verses later. The people were “like mourners[6]”. They were seeking a pretext[7], the complaints change quickly from a desire for meat[8], to memories of “free fish” in Egypt, to cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic[9], then the nature of the Manna[10], and finally crying in their families which is interpreted to be about recently forbidden sexual relationships[11] such as between nephews and aunts. These laws were not a theoretical matters, Moses own parents were nephew and aunt[12] and therefore needed to divorce[13].   

Moses responds bitterly to this new challenge. In contrast to an earlier time, when his loyalty to the Jewish people leads him to say to God if you don’t forgive the Jews erase me from your book![14], he is ready to give up. His anger leads him to spurn his mission that was entrusted to him by God[15]. He cries out, “"Why have You treated Your servant so badly? …You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers?...Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.[16]"

Variation of Jethro’s advice
God’s response sounds remarkably like the suggestion Jethro’s made to a less tired and worn out Moses years earlier[17], delegate! Moses is instructed to gather 70 elders, some of his spirit of prophecy will be given to them and they will help him lead the people[18].  

Loss of Control
There are those who say “if you want something done well, do it yourself”. Others wish to delegate but keep absolute control. It seems to me that great leaders are those who can point a direction and leave it to others to freely work on the mission within certain constraints. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would say “God did not tell Abraham to take a knife” (when he commanded him to sacrifice his son). Moses’ planned 70 prophets, sees a curve ball when two more unauthorised prophets appear in the camp, Eldad and Medad[19]. Joshua is alarmed, my master Moses, destroy them![20] Load them up with communal work and that will destroy them automatically[21], or lock them up in jail[22].

Confidence and Vision
Moses response is “Moses said to him, "Are you zealous for my sake? If only all of God's people were prophets, that God would bestow His spirit upon them!" This shows Moses great humility, although this is something which every other person would be jealous of, he did not display jealousy[23]. Moses’ answer remains an example for all teachers and leaders, to make themselves, superfluous so that people will not require teachers[24]. Or as the then chairman of Together For Humanity’s board, Peter Stephinson, would often tell me, “Zalman, we want to make you redundant”.  The confidence Moses displays here, is also seen when he is approached by people who had not brought the Passover offering because they were impure with the impassioned complaint “Why should we lose out?![25]”, when Moses tells them stand (and wait) and I will hear from God what he will command for you[26], knowing that in fact he can count on it[27].

To lead and effort off the beaten track, requires courage and perseverance, some chaos and challenges should be expected when the status quo is challenged. Mentors and champions are invaluable, for as long as they are available. When they need to go, soldier on, their wisdom remains after their presence has moved on. Above all, the work must always be bigger than the worker, and as best as is practical and responsible, let go and see the movement grow.

(note: my first choice for this week was to discuss Moses’ “Black Wife” but someone beat me to it, see . Perhaps another time I can add my own thoughts to this)

[1] Numbers
[2] Numbers
[3] Psalms 55:7
[4] By a means of a “Fortiori” (Does anyone really use that word?), in Hebrew a Kal VChomer meaning a “Light and Heavy”, in which any heavy aspect found in a light/less serious case would be assumed to apply in a more seriour “heavy” case. Eg. If Jethro who has a comfortable life chooses to stay in the desert and follow the path God has set for them how much more so the Jews who had no other options should certainly stay on the path.
[5] Klei Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon Lunschitz, 1550-1619 Poland)  on Numbers 10:31
[6] Numbers 11:1
[7] Rashi on Numbers 11:1
[8] Numbers 11:4
[9] Numbers 11:5
[10] Numbers 11:6
[11] Talmud Yoma 75a, and Rashi quoting Sifre
[12] Moses’ father Amram was the son of Kehat who was one of Levi’s three sons (See Numbers & 19), Moses’ mother was Jocheved the daughter of Levi (See Exodus 2:1 and Rashi’s commentary) and the sister of Amram’s father. 
[13] Targum Yohatan Ben Uziel (Hillel's most distinguished pupil Talmud Sukkah, 28a- last century BC)  on Numbers , Rosh, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel - (1250-1328)
[14] Exodus 32:32
[15] Akedat Yitzchak Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, (1420-1494)
[16] Numbers 11:11-15
[17] Exodus 18:17-26
[18] Numbers 11:16-17
[19] Numbers , amazingly one commentary, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel states that they were Moses’ half brothers, their father Eltzafan son of Parnach who married Jocheved when Amram divorced her before Moses was born, .
[20] Numbers
[21] Talmud Sanhedrin 6, quoted in Rashi
[22] Sifre, also in Rashi
[23] Akedat Yitzchak Rabbi Yitzchak Arama
[24] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch  first published 1867- 1878
[25] Numbers 9:7
[26] Numbers 9:9
[27] Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima

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