Friday, June 14, 2013

Hukkat

The Israelites are nearing the end of their wandering and will soon cross into the Promised Land. They will require new leadership.

We see the beginnings of this transition in this week’s portion. We read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. We also learn that Moses will only be allowed to take the people to the edge of the land. He is punished for an incident that occurs in this Torah portion. The people were without water and again they complained against Moses and Aaron. God instructs these leaders to command a rock to provide water.

Instead Moses hits the rock with his staff. He and his brother Aaron scream at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) Water flows from the rock, but still God is disappointed and responds, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (20:12)

For millennia rabbinic commentators debated Moses’ sin. Was it that that he did not follow God’s instructions to the letter? Was it that he hit the rock rather than commanding it? Perhaps he did not give proper credit to God for the miracle. Or was it instead that he showed condescension and disdain towards the people he led.

Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, an early 20th century Orthodox leader of Polish Jewry, who was murdered in the Holocaust, wrote: “There is a deeper leadership lesson behind the incident of Moses striking the rock. In order to secure obedience Pharaoh appointed taskmasters who shouted, “Do it or else!” Once the Torah is given, the leaders are to direct the people by speaking and teaching. When people refuse to follow, one should inspire them with words—not sticks.” (Wellspring of Torah)

His interpretation offers an inkling to Moses’ sin. Sometimes successful leadership is a matter of tone. It is about temperament. Moses lost patience with the people he led. His frustration is understandable. Too often the people failed to appreciate the blessings of freedom and instead saw only its struggles and challenges. Nonetheless leadership demands understanding. It requires patience. This week, the elderly Moses loses faith with the people he leads.

And so Moses is forbidden from entering the Promised Land. More often than not we see this as God’s punishment for our hero’s great sin. Perhaps we should read this not so much as punishment but instead as God’s recognition that people will no longer follow a leader who exhibited such disdain towards them. The people could no longer follow a leader who shouted, “Listen, you rebels…”

Today’s leaders no longer have miracles to support their pronouncements. They no longer carry sticks. They have only their speaking and teaching. Sometimes we are tempted to think this is not enough. We see our leaders become frustrated when their visions appear unattainable. We witness people becoming disheartened when dreams go unfulfilled. We are tempted to resort to sticks, to coercion. Then we become like Pharaoh’s taskmasters.

And then no one reaches the Promised Land.

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