This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, has a lot to teach us about what it takes to be a communal leader.
In it, Moses is leading the people through the desert. As we have come to expect of the stiff-necked and whiny Children of Israel, the people start complaining about food. 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 this time both God and Moses get angry.
Instead of praying, Moses lashes out at God. It’s an amazing passage (Numbers 11:11-15) in which Moses unloads his anger and frustration, and in the end, tells God to kill him.
Instead, God tells Moses to assemble 70 experienced leaders, and promises, “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. 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.
But God doesn’t give advice as Jethro did; instead, some of Moses’ essence is drawn from him and shared with the elders, who become imbued with the spirit of Moses and are able to support him in his leadership.
Sharing a leadership position is not easy. It takes great humility, an open mind and heart, and a willingness to step aside when necessary.
My teacher Rabbi Harry Zeitlin, who considers himself to be modern Orthodox, wrote this week about the problem with religious leaders who are intransigent. Specifically, he was talking about the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel who firmly believe that they are always correct and always represent God’s will, which they have discerned through their own Torah study.
Reb Harry writes, “what appears to me as necessarily obvious is that God is… Infinite, … in a way we can sort of point at, give a mental nod to, but never actually define or experience. One important implication of this is that Torah can never be simplified and unitary. Just as there are 613 Mitzvot (commandments, rules, requirements) they are necessarily individuated for each Jew, and not just that, but for each Jew at each moment of his or her life.”
He goes on to say that if we cannot fully understand God, which, being merely human we will never do, then we also can’t fully understand Torah. This is why one of the sages of Pirkei Avot said, “turn it, turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.”
In other words, the sacred text of Judaism is a living, breathing document that is understood differently by different people at different times. At each stage of our lives, we can have a renewed relationship with Torah, and can understand and act on it in ways that we could not have imagined when younger.
God didn’t replicate Moses. The 70 elders weren’t clones. That’s not the way God works. Instead, God drew some of Moses’s essence, his spirit, his leadership potential, if you will, and shared it among others.
If you don’t believe in a God who can do that kind of thing, think of it as an MBA program. Instead of keeping his knowledge and abilities to himself, Moses shared them with others who absorbed his teachings, each in his own way, and went forth to be leaders, each in his own way.
No one can say that he or she knows exactly what God thinks. That’s ludicrous. And no one person can say that he or she knows exactly what is best for a congregation, a community, or a nation.
It takes a dedicated group of people with open minds and hearts to lead a community. And it takes open-minded and open-hearted people to interact with the dynamic source of inspiration that is the Torah, and decide how to apply it in their own lives. Some of us will make different choices, and that is as it should be. We are not all the same, nor at the same stages of our lives.
But as Reb Harry teaches, we can all be grateful to the Infinite One for giving us the Torah. May we each be blessed to continue to turn it and turn it again, finding new insights each time we open its pages.
This is the sermon that I gave over at Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat.