The Crisis of Leadership

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

 

SICHOT OF THE ROSHEI YESHIVA

 

PARASHAT BEHA’ALOTEKHA

SICHA OF HARAV MOSHEH LICHTENSTEIN

 

The Crisis of Leadership

Translated by David Silverberg

 

A.    A. Kivrot Ha-ta'ava

 

            The verses in Sefer Bemidbar 11:10-15, which appear in the heart of the account of "Kivrot Ha-ta'ava" (where Benei Yisrael expressed an inappropriate desire for meat), mark a fundamental transformation in the relationship between Moshe and Benei Yisrael.  Moshe, the teacher of Israel, the man who led and guided the nation throughout their long, winding journey, who defended them in the wilderness and after the incident of the calf, feels that he cannot go on.  Here, for the first time, Moshe breaks, and he feels the need to ask for help in leading the people.  Moshe transforms from the leader who had once declared his supreme dedication – "Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!" (Shemot 32:32) – into a figure pleading for assistance in his leadership role: "I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.  If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!" (Bemidbar 11:14-15).  Moshe senses that he no longer possesses the strength, and he also does not see himself obliged to continue his job: "Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant'?!" (ibid., 12).

 

            Several difficult questions immediately arise: What's the problem? What changed? What caused such a drastic transformation in Moshe's attitude?  How did it happen that such a dedicated leader is suddenly filled with despair and frustration, and how did such a sharp emotional break, as shouts forth from the verses, develop?

 

            In addition, we must consider the location of this parasha within the framework of Sefer Bemidbar.  On the surface, it would appear more reasonable to separate the incident of the Kivrot Ha-ta'ava from the appointment of the seventy elders (which occurred in response to Moshe's plea).  The Torah could have completed the story of the complaints and their ensuing punishment as a single unit, and subsequently presented all the details of the elders' appointment and the enigmatic prophecy of Eldad and Meidad, without elaborating on these incidents in the midst of the account of the nation's sin.  The interweaving of the elders' appointment between the complaint and its ensuing punishment requires an explanation.

 

            As often occurs in instances such as these, we are not surprised to discover that the answer to the first question lies in the second.  Indeed, an inherent connection exists between the leadership crisis and the sin, and the Torah therefore did not separate the stories, but rather bound them together.  The sin is the cause of Moshe's crisis, and his asking the Almighty to liberate him from his responsibility.  Seeing Benei Yisrael's conduct, Moshe was overcome by frailty and fatigue, and therefore sought to extricate himself from his leadership role.  Yet, this still requires further explanation.  It is not the actual complaint itself or the nation's sin that brings Moshe to frustration and despair.  After all, this marks not the first nor the second problem that Moshe faces since he began his term of leadership.  Many sins, including the particularly grave incident of the golden calf, have occurred without causing the shepherd of Israel an emotional breakdown.  A comparison of Moshe's reaction to the golden calf with his response at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava clearly demonstrates that it was not Benei Yisrael's sin in and of itself, but rather the nature and character of this sin, that caused this transformation in Moshe's attitude towards the nation.

 

            To properly understand this issue, we must consider the broader picture by assessing that which occurs in Sefer Bemidbar in general, and comparing it with parallel situations in Sefer Shemot. 

 

B. From Mount Sinai to the Wilderness of Sinai

 

            The transition from Sefer Shemot to Sefer Bemidbar is marked by a transition from success to failure.  Even the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu is not as successful in the Book of Numbers as in the Book of Redemption.  Whereas the sin of the calf transpires in Moshe's absence and ends immediately upon his return to the Israelite camp, the sin of the spies occurs with Moshe present, and as a result of an action that had earned his support.  Moshe reacts to the golden calf with the self-confidence and determined resolve of one who understands his constituency and controls it with firm authority.  In the debacle of the scouts, by contrast, we find a leader who is mistaken in his assessment of the nation and does not succeed in steering them away from the path of sin, a leader who falls on his face.  From the golden calf to the spies, Moshe moves from confidence to confusion, from proactive involvement to silence and stammering.  Moreover, whereas Moshe's prayer in the aftermath of the calf is successful, with the revolt of the scouts his prayer cannot annul the decree of, "In this wilderness your carcasses shall drop." 

 

            We thus have an exceptionally sharp distinction between these two books, both in terms of Benei Yisrael's success in achieving their spiritual and historical goals, and with respect to Moshe's ability to lead them towards the realization of these aspirations.

 

            The beginning of Sefer Bemidbar does not deal with failure, but rather presents us with the ideal picture of Israel dwelling tribe by tribe, encamped around the Tabernacle, each with its standard in proper formation.  The Mishkan is erected, God's glory dwells in its midst, the princes of Israel dedicate it on the day of its anointing, and the nation prepares for a life of sanctity and purity in the wilderness.  Situated at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jews learn from Moshe the Torah that he had recently brought down from the heavens.

 

            However, this description depicts only the nation's existence before the cloud rose and the journey to the Land got underway.  From the moment the transition occurs from the static life after Matan Torah to the renewed entry into a dynamic, historic existence, we come upon a different picture entirely.  As soon as the nation departs from the Mountain of God on their way to the Promised Land, their path is laden with mishaps.  We now hear nothing besides grumbling and complaints, weeping and desperation; we proceed from the "mit'onenim" (complainers) to the "mit'avim" (who desired meat), to the spies, to the "ma'apilim," to Korach's rebellion.  The nation lacks the strength necessary to confront challenges and bring to realization their destiny in the world of history; they confront the historical realm by turning their backs to it.

 

            The transition from the opening chapters of the sefer, which deal with the wilderness of Sinai, to the chapters describing Yisrael's attempt to proceed to the Land, marks the central dividing line in this sefer, which brings in its wake a fundamental change in the system of national leadership.  Until that point, the nation is destined to enter the Land with Moshe and Aharon as their leaders, and with the Almighty bestowing His Shekhina upon them in order to bring them to His sacred borders and chosen mountain.  From this point, we find revolt and dissent.

 

            Truth be told, this dividing line is so significant that Chazal viewed it as a central cleft which splits the sefer into different units.  Chazal viewed the two sections as so distinct that they counted the beginning and continuation of Sefer Bemidbar as different sefarim of the Chumash.  The first book, which contains the parshiyot from the beginning of chapter 1 until the section of "Va-yehi bi-nso'a ha-aron" (1:1-10:34), discusses the Israelite camp in the wilderness, in which reality and vision go hand-in-hand.  The second speaks of the journey to the Land on the wings of the Shekhina, and contains merely the eighty-five letters of the parasha, "Va-yehi bi-nso'a" (10:35-36).  The third sefer (11:1-36:13), meanwhile, which opens with the account of the mit'onenim and continues through the conclusion of Sefer Bemidbar, describes the sins on whose account the destiny of that generation was not realized.

 

            Our focus here is on the final section.  What is the background to this failure, what factors led to this disappointment, and why was Moshe's leadership incapable of stopping the nation from their constant rebelliousness?

 

C. "You Have Been Defiant Towards God"

 

            The story of Benei Yisrael's journey through the wilderness after the Exodus is laden with complaints and quarreling over the lack of rations in the wilderness and the hardships of travel.  The uncertainty of daily sustenance brings the nation to constant quarrels with Moshe.  The nation argues with Moshe and challenges God, in a continuous cycle of complaints, as documented in the second half of Parashat Beshalach (Shemot 15:22-17:7).  Things become more stable afterward, the nation calms and we hear of no other complaints through the remainder of Sefer Shemot or in the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar.

 

            Suddenly, when we come to Parashat Beha'alotekha, when the nation embarks from Mount Choreb, the complaints and protests surface once again.  Benei Yisrael grumble over the manna, they desire meat, reject the Promised Land, and continuously rebel to the point where Moshe testifies that "from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have been defiant toward God" (Devarim 9:7).

 

            Careful consideration of the text reveals a fundamental difference between the situation in Sefer Shemot and that which transpires in Sefer Bemidbar.  There is a basic difference in God's reactions to the nation's complaints in the two books.  In Sefer Shemot, He does not respond harshly, and we may even describe His attitude as forgiving.  In the Book of Numbers, by contrast, this is clearly not the case.  Already after the first complaint, God unleashes punishment instantaneously: "The people took to complaining before the Lord, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord.  The Lord heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp" (Bemidbar 11:1).  The Torah even describes the complaint itself – the content of which is not specified – as "ra" (evil), an adjective with no parallel in the accounts of the people's complaints in Sefer Shemot.

 

            In the following incident, as well, that of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, God is angered and the people's conduct is described as "ra" ("and it was evil in the eyes of Moshe" – ibid., 10).  Yet, in Sefer Shemot, God is never described as reacting angrily to the people's grumbling, nor does He smite them in response.  Even in Massa U-meriva, so named because "the Israelites quarreled and because they tested God, saying, 'Is the Lord present among us, or not?'" (Shemot 17:7), the Almighty does not punish.  He rather instructs Moshe to provide the people with water, without any rebuke or condemnation.

 

D. Survival and Comfort

 

            This difference between the two books with respect to God's response to the nation's complaints evolves from the fundamentally different roots of the complaints themselves.  In Sefer Shemot, we speak of people troubled by a legitimate dilemma requiring resolution.  True, the nation falls short of the proper level of trust in the Almighty who leads them into the wilderness, but this does not reflect any significant spiritual weakness on their part.  Their sustenance in the arid desert is not self-evident, and even after learning of God's plan to provide them with a daily ration, a human being cannot easily rely on supernatural means for his basic needs.  Thus, Benei Yisrael's concerns and appeals to Moshe arose out of genuine concern for their fate and that of their children. 

 

            Not so in Sefer Bemidbar.  Here Benei Yisrael no longer fear survival in the wilderness, and their complaints do not evolve from their concern for their basic needs.  Already at this stage, after the manna has fallen daily for a full year without exception, the nation knows that God can and will provide them with food.  They complain now not about food, but about the menu.  They cannot satiate their desire for food and have no possibility of fulfilling their culinary dreams.  We deal here not with the guarantee of physical sustenance, but with the pursuit of fantasy.  The Torah identifies DESIRE as the motive behind their protest, "The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving" (Bemidbar 11:4).  Their complaint makes this clear: "We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic" (ibid., 5).

 

            The nation's conduct during this episode of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, from the pathetic nostalgia for the delicacies of the country that oppressed them (which they likely never tasted), down to their demand for meat and fish, all signify boredom and idleness, the precursors of an obsessive pursuit of pleasure and desires.  As they were assured sufficient rations to survive, we can interpret their demands only as an expression of a craving for luxury.

 

            Released from the spiritual tension they had experienced since Matan Torah, the nation now goes through a stage of pursuit of comfort and enjoyment.  How profound, painful, and rooted in the peshat are Chazal's comments describing the departure from Sinai:

 

"They journeyed from the Mountain of God on a three-day trip like a child leaving school, who runs away and leaves.  So did they flee from Mount Sinai on a three-day journey, for they studied much Torah at Sinai." (Cited in Tosefot, Shabbat 116a s.v. "pur'anut")

 

            The manna can therefore no longer provide their needs as it did in the past.  So long as the nation worried about its very survival, the manna's descent was a perfect solution.  The moment they begin focusing on enjoyment, rather than sustenance, they can no longer appreciate or feel content with the manna.

 

            Whereas God can accept with understanding the nation's concerns in Sefer Shemot, He does not react with the same sympathy to their pursuit of luxury in Sefer Bemidbar.  God responds to the complaints of Sefer Bemidbar with fury and punishment.

 

E. "It Was Evil in Moshe's Eyes"

 

            Let us now return to the question why Moshe responds to the people's complaints with such despair.  The answer lies in the unique nature of this sin that sets it apart from all its predecessors.  The sin of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, which at its very essence involved the pursuit of pleasure, not only evokes a harsh response from both the Almighty and Moshe, but also leads to Moshe's dissociation from the people.  The Almighty cannot proceed with His plan when physical desire is what dictates the nation's agenda, and Moshe has no interest in devoting himself to defend and provide the needs of people who subjugate themselves to the consumption of meat and other delicacies.  The consequence of "it was evil in Moshe's eyes" is his request to divest himself of the burden of leadership.

 

            Beyond his disappointment in the people, Moshe claims that he lacks the wherewithal to supply them with what they desire: "Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!'  I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me" (Bemidbar 11:13-14).  In light of this we can readily understand why God appoints seventy spiritual leaders to come to his assistance in educating the people.  This appointment was meant as an educational measure necessitated by the particular nature of this incident.

 

            Several questions, however, remain.  The first involves God's formulation in issuing this command: "Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the nation and its officers" (11:16).  What does He mean by, "seventy men from the elders of Israel whom you know to be the elders of the nation"?  If these men rank among the "elders of Israel," then clearly, they are "the elders of the nation." 

 

            The key to understanding this verse must lie in the fact that these men were "zekeinim" (elders) and "shoterim" (officers).  We should also interpret the term, "ziknei ha-am" (elders of the nation), which contrasts with the earlier expression, "ziknei Yisrael" (the elders of Israel), as referring not to age, but, similar to "shoterim," to a position of communal leadership.  God here instructs Moshe to appoint those among "ziknei Yisrael" (the elderly population) who are also leaders.  Since the need for leadership qualities for this position is obvious, the emphasis of this verse must involve the requirement that they be elderly as well.

 

            A second, more central question relates to the elders' lack of success.  From the moment of their appointment through the calamity of the scouts and the incident of Korach, we detect no sign of improvement in the nation's behavior.  To the contrary, the sin of the spies occurs immediately following Kivrot Ha-ta'ava.  Is this lack of success due purely to the utter lack of faith on the nation's part, or does it testify to the failure of the elders?  Or, in simpler terms, are the elders indeed qualified for the responsibility cast upon them?

 

            To understand the role assigned to the elders as prophets who assist Moshe in leading the nation, we must discuss the story of Elded and Meidad, who prophesy at this point without having Moshe's spirit bestowed upon them (as do the seventy elders). 

 

F. Eldad and Meidad

 

"Two men, one named Eldad and the other Meidad, had remained IN THE CAMP; yet the spirit rested upon them – they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent – and they prophesied in the camp.  A youth ran out and told Moshe, saying, 'Eldad and Meidad are prophesying in the camp!'  Yehoshua the son of Nun, Moshe's attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, 'My lord Moshe, imprison them!'  But Moshe said to him, 'Are you wrought up on my account?  Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!'  Moshe then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel." (11:23-30)

 

            A careful examination of these verses reveals that location constitutes a central component of the story of Eldad and Meidad.  The verses tells us little about Eldad and Meidad; it omits information such as who they are, what exactly they prophesied, and why Yehoshua reacted so angrily.  The text does, however, emphasize the location of their prophecy – in the camp, and they had not "gone out into the Tent." 

 

            Whereas they remain among the people in the camp, the assigned elders separate from the camp and leave to the Tent of Meeting, situated outside the camp: "Bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place THERE with you.  I will come down and speak with you THERE…" (11:16-17).  Throughout this parasha, a clear distinction is drawn between "here" – the camp, where Eldad and Meidad are situated – and "there" – the Tent of Meeting, where Moshe takes the elders. 

 

            In light of this, we must understand the phrase, "Two men… had remained in the camp" to mean that Eldad and Meidad made a conscious decision on principle to remain in the camp with the nation, rather than leaving with the elders outside the camp.  Their having remained in the camp involves not a geographic issue, but rather an expression of their stance regarding spiritual and political leadership.

 

            In order to understand what exactly the "camp" signifies and Eldad and Meidad's insistence on its decisive importance, we must resort to Chazal's comments in identifying the content of Eldad and Meidad's prophecy.  According to one view in the Midrash (accepted by Rashi in his commentary), they foresaw that "Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring them into the land."

 

            Chazal likely based their comment on the juxtaposition between this account and the story of the spies, which resulted in the death of that generation in the wilderness.  This will not, however, answer our question unless we presume a thematic – beyond simply chronological – connection between Kivrot Ha-ta'ava and the scouts on the one hand, and the approach of Eldad and Meidad to these sins, on the other. 

 

G. Generation Gap

 

            This question brings us to the point where the various plots that transpire simultaneously in chapter 11 – the sin of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, the leadership crisis, Moshe's despair and the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad – all blend together.

 

            Eldad and Meidad sense a developing gap between Moshe and the people.  Now that the pursuit of physical gratification, rather than weakness and skepticism, motivate the nation's complaints, Moshe can no longer bear the burden.  He cannot understand this attitude and condemns it entirely.  It is this widening gap between Moshe and his flock that troubles Eldad and Meidad.

 

            The appointment of the elders, in the view of Eldad and Meidad, will only make matters worse.  The zekeinim, too, will not lend an ear to the wailing of the people longing for delicacies.  These elders, Moshe's contemporaries, belong to the generation of leaders and fighters who participated in the struggle against Pharaoh.  The Egyptian bondage, the yearning for freedom and the struggle for its achievement, is what forged their spiritual image.  They never considered personal comfort or luxuries. 

 

            These elders cannot understand the younger generation, the generation that was not among the founders, the generation that seeks comfort and relaxation rather than struggle and challenge.  We have here a generation gap between the generation of Egypt and the younger generation of the wilderness.  The appointment of the elders will not solve the problem that led Moshe to despair, as they belong to the same generation as he.

 

            Chazal expressed this idea beautifully by identifying these "shoterim" as the Jewish overseers who suffered beatings in their brethren's stead at the hands of the Egyptian taskmasters.  Their self-sacrifice speaks for itself of the superior spiritual level of the "shoterim."  However, the sympathy they afforded their fellow sufferers in Egypt will not apply to the younger generation of the wilderness, whose spiritual world differs so drastically from that of the generation of slavery.  The verse therefore emphasizes the age of the elders, for their belonging to the older generation is the critical factor in understanding the rift that has been created in the nation.

 

            Eldad and Meidad express their position with the prophecy, "Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring them to the Land."  Yehoshua belongs to the younger generation; he is therefore capable of bringing the new generation into the Land.  For the same reason, Eldad and Meidad remain in the camp, with the people, rather than leaving the camp with the elders.  They maintain that the leadership must remain with the people, despite and because of the pursuit of physical gratification they have undertaken. 

 

            Along these lines we may explain Chazal's comment that the other elders never prophesied again, whereas Eldad and Meidad continued to prophesy.  Their prophecy, which is directed towards the younger generation, will continue to bear relevance and meaning in the future, beyond the limited context of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava.  The elders, by contrast, are detached from the spiritual world of the generation of the wilderness, and their prophecy was but a one-time effort to lighten the burden on Moshe's shoulders.

 

            Chazal's comment, that the elders did not prophecy again, is well-grounded in the "peshat."  After this episode, we never again hear of the elders except in one context.  When Moshe goes to confront Datan and Aviram, who conspired with Korach against his authority, the elders accompany him (Bemidbar 16:25).  Datan and Aviram were not from the younger generation, but rather corrupt members of Moshe's generation.  Here the spiritual world of the elders enter the struggle.  Throughout the other parshiyot, however, when Moshe does not battle against the nation but rather tries to lead them, the elders cannot serve in an educational capacity, and their prophecy ceases.

 

            (At first glance, this attempt at describing the elders as unfit for leadership seems untenable, given the fact that God Himself selected them.  In truth, however, God's purpose here is not to designate new leaders for the nation, but rather to strengthen Moshe in his personal crisis by lightening his yoke.  To this end, therefore, the men selected are specifically those who resemble Moshe, as Chazal emphasize in several places.  See Sanhedrin 17a, Bemidbar Rabba 15:25; Midrash Tanchuma, Beha'alotekha 22.)

           

H. "Moshe Reentered the Camp"

 

            Moshe responds to Eldad and Meidad by accepting their criticism and taking concrete action to correct the error that they noted.  Beyond his comments to Yehoshua praising the proliferation of religious expression, he also leaves the Tent, together with the elders, and enters the camp: "Moshe reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel" (11:30).  The policy of positioning the Tent outside the camp, which was adopted in the wake of the golden calf, is ended.  From now henceforth Moshe will work within the camp, he will listen and deal with the people's feelings and demands.

 

            However, whereas Moshe's policy was intended to improve the situation, the exact opposite occurred.  Immediately after his reentry into the camp, Moshe and the nation experience the awful tragedy of the scouts.  Moshe's dreams, hopes, and personal and national aspirations are at once destroyed.  The "crying for naught" of that bitter night brought an end to the generation of the wilderness; the situation worsens, rather than improves.

 

            Of course, here one will reasonably ask: did the sin of the spies transpire despite Moshe's return to the camp, or perhaps, Heaven forbid, because of it?  Was the implementation of Eldad and Meidad's idea simply "too little, too late," or perhaps this very decision accelerated the negative progression of the people?  The answers to these questions will be discussed, please God, in next week's sicha.