Parashat Beha•alotekha

Numbers 8:1–12:16

June 9, 2012 / 19 Sivan 5772

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Andy Shugerman, Rabbinic Fellow, Development Department, JTS.

Recently, Chancellor Arnold Eisen and a delegation of 19 other Conservative Jewish leaders met with President Barack Obama and White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, an Orthodox Jew, at the White House. Upon reading the chancellor's On My Mind: Arnie Eisen blog post about that dialogue, I recalled a December 2010 article in The Jewish Daily Forward that compared the chancellor's and the President's respective challenges in maintaining their constituencies' loyalty and optimism through the "Great Recession," amidst criticism about problems neither of them created and controversial executive decisions. That journalistic observation also largely applies to the travails that God and Moses endure in the latter half of this week's Torah portion. A close reading of Numbers 11 offers insights into the tensions that leaders today face in balancing the demands of self-interest with higher ideals for advancing the greater good.

The penultimate chapter of Parashat Beha·alotekha presents a series of incidents in which the Israelites complain against God in the wilderness. It is striking to note how the divine actions in the chapter's three encounters between God and the People represent divergent approaches to crisis. In verse 11:1, we learn of an unspecified complaint among the People, to which God responds with an inferno that winds up "ravaging the outskirts of the camp." After Moses's prayer ends the fire, 11:4 then describes the cries of the "riffraff" over their "gluttonous craving" for meat instead of manna. Before the chapter concludes with God, once again, violently punishing the People for "rejecting the Lord who is among you by whining before Him" (11:20), God first tends to Moses's frustration with his unruly followers. I realize—based on some freshly reacquired inspiration that I shall discuss further on—that our ancient Sages interpreted the outcome of this interlude in two radically different ways, and that each of those versions demonstrates a crucial distinction between modern approaches to leadership.

By instructing Moses to gather 70 tribal elders with him, God clearly moves from coercing compliance to a more relational approach in order to lessen Moses's burden. Lest we confuse this pivoting for divine schizophrenia, I propose that God's dynamism reflects the need for employing different executive styles from one situation to the next. That insight also clarifies the opposing readings that arise about the last phrase in the passage: "Then the Lord came down in a cloud and spoke to [Moses]; He drew upon the spirit that was on him and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but did not continue" (Num. 11:25). Writing in 11th-century France, Rashi quotes two 2nd- and 3rd-century CE sources in commenting on that verse. The Tannaitic midrash Sifrei (95a) states that "did not continue" (v'lo yasafu) must mean that the elders prophesied on that day alone. Onkelos, however, translates v'lo yasafu into Aramaic as v'lah pahskin (did not stop), about which Rashi further states "that prophecy never departed from them." Rashi's concluding words emphasize how the elders' elevation represents a "transformational" moment for Moses and the Israelites.

In addition to a parallel interpretive debate regarding the meaning of Deuteronomy 5:19, one can also support Onkelos's view of the elders' prophecy by way of a subsequent passage. In Numbers 11:29, Moses rejects Joshua's concern about Eldad and Medad prophesying independently, exclaiming: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put his spirit upon them!" Within this context, one can imagine Moses embracing Eldad and Medad as legitimate prophets alongside God's similar communion with the elders earlier in this chapter. This perspective, moreover, creates a dichotomy between God's distance from and punishment of those who complain, on the one hand, and God's intimacy with those imbued with the divine spirit—who thereby affirm Israel's covenantal relationship with God—on the other.

As I mentioned earlier, I recently refreshed my understanding of modern leadership theories while attending a spring summit with other young rabbis who have trained in and currently employ the methods of Congregation-Based Community Organizing (CBCO). During rabbinical school, I spent a semester of independent study developing my use of CBCO skills and strategy because I had seen and heard firsthand how this approach has created more just, caring, and observant synagogues. My CBCO peers and I often say that this methodology works because it articulates how one can bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as it might be. This corresponds, in academic language, to the divide between "transactional" leadership, in which a manager reacts to events with compensation or punishment to preserve the status quo, and "transformational" leadership, in which an organization's stakeholders share power in implementing objectives based on their common morals and values.

My renewed understanding of these overlapping conceptual frameworks has reinvigorated my work as a rabbi, and reshaped my thinking about the evolution of our covenantal relationship with God. In the words of our Torah portion, God responds to the exigent demands of the complainers by punishing them in order to maintain the status quo and to keep the rest of the people in line; conversely, God meets Moses's needs for support in leading the Israelites not by unilateral action, but by establishing a new relational framework founded upon and cultivating the spiritual aspirations of the elders. While the fire and brimstone of God's retribution at the beginning and end of Numbers 11 may rattle our modern sensitivities, they represent a necessary if forceful course of action to keep extreme elements from damaging the unity of the nascent Israelite nation. That, in tandem with the internal strengthening of a broader leadership structure, protects the tribes from a lack of internal control amidst varied external threats.

Considering what it will take to meet the challenges of bringing our society and the North American Jewish community into the 21st century, it behooves us to consider both the transactional and the transformational leadership models to attain our goals and dreams. Perhaps individual reflection upon Moses's character might help each of us to find our own role in this regard. Dr. Erica Brown, a faculty member at JTS's Context program in the Washington DC area, writes in her book, Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities, about three biblical metaphors—the staff, the shepherd, and the servant (the authoritarian or heroic style, leadership-from-behind that is ready for life's crises, and leadership as an act of service, respectively)—that have been used as models for defining what leadership entails. She concludes that "the fact that multiple definitions, myths, and theories of leadership exist tells us that there is no right way to lead and no quick formula for effective leadership. Instead, situations call for different and varied approaches. In the ideal sense, we have to analyze our own leadership styles and combine theories to make sure that a leadership approach is appropriate for a given situation (40-41)."

Wherever we find ourselves as leaders or as followers, let us understand the sacred roles we play in creating change for our communities so that we may become more loving, more righteous, more versatile, and more committed to the ways our Torah can guide us.


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