Leadership Through “Contraction”

Bemidbar By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 26, 2001 / 5761 | Main Commentary
The fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, opens eleven months after the revelation at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1) and one month after the completion of the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:17). It resumes the story line interrupted by Leviticus, which is almost entirely devoid of narrative content. What follows is a series of gripping events that punctuate and account for an unexpected forty–year trek through the wilderness, culminating on the steppes of Moab east of the Jordan River just prior to Moses’ death. Hence, the Hebrew name of the book Bemidbar–In the Wilderness, comes closer to capturing the sweep of the narrative.
The title Numbers, which derives from the ancient Greek and Latin translations of the Torah, stresses instead a single strand of the book, the repeated taking of a census, twice of the Israelites (Chapters 1 and 26) and twice of the Levites (Chapters 3–4). Three of these enumerations, in fact, occur in our parasha and constitute the bulk of the preparation taken before leaving the vicinity of Mount Sinai. In addition, the parasha sets forth the deployment of the tribes around the Tabernacle when the camp was at rest; replaces the Israelite first–born with the tribe of Levi; and assigns the Levites the task of guarding, dismantling and moving the Tabernacle.
An unusual midrash saw fit to dwell on a theme untouched by the parasha, namely, the leadership that would assure a successful passage through the wilderness ordeal. God had placed at the helm of the Israelites not one but three leaders, whose combined virtues would serve to meet all their basic needs. God showered Israel with manna because of Moses, protected them from the heat of the sun with a covering of clouds because of Aaron and supplied them with a mobile well of water because of Miriam. A careful reading of several biblical texts suggested that as they died, the beneficence for which each was responsible came to an end. In short, God did not send Israel out into the wilderness without provisions, but rather like royalty retiring for a time to a well–stocked retreat in the wilderness for rest and renewal (Bemidbar Rabba 1:2).
The surface meaning of the midrash is certainly to refute the charge that an exasperated nation would later hurl at Moses: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food (i.e. manna, Numbers 21:5).” Neither redemption nor revelation had transformed overnight the passivity of slaves into the resourcefulness of people bred in freedom. Despite God’s solicitousness, they lacked the self–reliance to handle adversity.
On a deeper level, the midrash offers a vision of leadership in which power is shared. Its author appears most reluctant to invest Moses with exclusive authority, despite the incontrovertible fact that it is generally with Moses alone that God communicates before and after Sinai. Yet the midrash asserts that Aaron and Miriam enjoy equal favor in the eyes of God. Not all God’s blessings flow through the person of Moses. A single ruler of undivided power often lacks the requisite wisdom to govern and is always at risk to abuse it.
This past week, The Jewish Theological Seminary graduated another class of 108 students destined to become lay and religious, volunteer and professional leaders in the Jewish community. In addressing the 30 rabbinical and cantorial students on the morning of commencement at their special program, I spoke of my vision of effective leadership through the lens of the word tsimtsum, a term meaning “contraction” drawn from Lurianic Kabbalah. The word, one of my favorites, was my parting gift to a most deserving class.
The Kabbalists in 16th–century Safed imagined that before God could create the cosmos God had to withdraw or contract. As long as God and space were identical, there was nothing empty in which the cosmos might be created. Hence, the need for divine shrinkage to give rise to the vacuum that would be filled by the universe. From this daring theological proposition, I draw three conclusions.
First, intellectually, leaders must acquire the habit of contraction in order to rid their minds of the endless barrage of distractions that assault them from all sides. To separate the wheat from the chaff takes concentration. Without the silence effected through withdrawal, the inner voice never becomes audible. The wisdom to distinguish and the energy to create flow from solitary thought. Like Moses, each of us must find our personal Tent of Meeting in which to hear the echoes of eternity.
Second, organizationally, leaders ought to delegate. A leadership style without the confidence to contract is both suffocating and inefficient. Moses himself lacked it at first. When his father–in–law, Jethro, observed him trying to adjudicate every single dispute on his own, he protested: “The thing you are doing is not right, you will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone (Exodus 18:17).” As newly empowered rabbis and cantors, we tend to be unduly protective of our authority, often denying others the chance to participate, grow and become empowered themselves. To contract is to make room for others without losing control.
Finally, on a psychological note, tsimtsum is about shrinking the self. Power should not give us the illusion of being omnipotent or infallible, especially as religious leaders. In the ultimate scheme of things, our significance is modest and ephemeral. That insight is what made Moses the humblest of leaders (Numbers 12:3). For me, the tallit is a garment of constraint. To enwrap myself in it daily, taking shelter beneath the wings of the Almighty, is to realize anew how minuscule is our place in the order of existence.
Above all else, the book of Numbers is about the nature of leadership, and the reason that Moses eventually prevails against overwhelming odds is because he epitomizes the spiritual power of tsimtsum.
Shabbat Shalom ve–hag sameah,
Ismar Schorsch
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’midbar are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.