This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, has much to teach us about what it takes to be a successful leader by offering several moments when crisis looms and is averted by dint of good leadership.
The first is when the people begin to complain about food (nothing new about this; they seem to have complained incessantly). God becomes so angry that a fire breaks out, ravaging parts of the camp. Moses prays to God, who stops the fire. Undeterred by this first response to their whining, the people again complain, and both God and Moses get angry.
This time instead of praying, Moses lashes out at God. It’s an amazing passage (see Numbers 11:11-15) in which Moses unloads his anger and frustration, and in the end, tells God to kill him.
God does something completely unexpected. Rather than solve the problem or try to calm Moses down, God tells him to assemble 70 experienced leaders, and promises Moses, “I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” (Numbers 11:17).
In this moment, God teaches Moses to share authority in order to relieve the burden on himself. Much earlier in the Torah we heard Moses’ father-in-law giving similar advice, when he perceived that Moses was doing too much and needed help. But it seems that Moses forgot. Perhaps he needed to come to a crisis point in order to accept human help, as well as God’s.
And then something else extraordinary happens. Moses does as God suggests, and the 70 elders are possessed by God’s spirit. So far, so good. But two other men in the camp also are possessed by God’s spirit and begin “acting like prophets.” Joshua, who has been Moses’ assistant, is not pleased and tells Moses to stop them. But Moses not only lets them continue, he expresses a wish that everyone would be a prophet, that God’s spirit would be upon them all.
Moses has been reminded that sometimes leaders come from the most unexpected places. Perhaps he remembered his own first encounter with God at the burning bush. Perhaps he realized that leaders can emerge without being chosen, but of their volition. And perhaps he had finally learned to trust that his relationship with God was secure.
Being a leader is tricky. There are times when it’s necessary to be strong and forceful, others when humility and kindness are required, and still others when a leader must deal with a variety of people and their different needs. And when a crisis happens, as it invariably does, a leader must react quickly.
And when our leaders don’t lead, don’t do what is necessary for the good of the community? God taught Moses to how to be a leader and how to seek help, to recruit people who can join him in wearing the mantle of leadership. We can do the same. We must. It is incumbent on us as citizens to speak our truth (without whining!) and teach our leaders how to lead. May we be blessed with the courage and strength to do so.