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16.06.2019 20:07    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  bamidbar  behahalothekha  

A Crisis in Ideal Leadership

In Parashat Yitro we witnessed Moses' great devotion to his role as the leader who wields all the authorities of government. This devotion was criticized by his father-in-law, who maintained: "Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" (Ex. 18:14). He even anticipated the failure of Moses' method: "You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Ex. 18:18). Indeed, in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, Moses came to the conclusion that Jethro had indicated,[1] as he himself confessed: "I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me" (Num. 11:15), and in Deuteronomy he reiterated: "I cannot bear the burden of you by myself…How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!" (Deut. 1:9,12). Every sort of authority lay on his shoulders, as Abarbanel explains: "The trouble of you—this is the toil of learning the Law; the burden—this refers to prayer to foretell the future that concerns each and every one of the people, and the bickering—adjudicating disputes between one another."[2]

Moses' claims make us wonder about several points. If Moses indeed accepted his father-in-law's advice and appointed officers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, then he was not all alone! And what was unique in the people's complaints here, so as to bring Moses to turn to the Lord?

A variety of answers to these questions have been put forward by the midrashand biblical exegetes. Some held that Jethro's suggestion was not put into practice at the time it was given, but only later, after the people's complaints had mounted (see, for example, Abarbanel on Ex. 18:13). Others held that Moses did actually appoint officers as advised by Jethro, but the people's complaints continued because they continued to see Moses as the sole person answering for their condition, with all the responsibility resting on his shoulders, since he had taken them out of Egypt and had promised to bring them to the promised land. The problem was that the journey was dragging out, and with it, the hardships of the road:

He said to them: Did I not tell you that I cannot bear the burden of you by myself? You have officers of thousands and officers of hundreds…but they answered him: It all rests on you, for you are the one who took us out of Egypt and brought us to this terrible place, etc. If you give us water, well and good; but if you do not, we shall stone you.[3]

So Moses, as the ruler, had to keep his promises. Others held that the source of the complaints lay in the special attitude of the people towards his spiritual leadership. The people had developed a great dependence on Moses the prophet and man of G‑d, and this dependence put him in a lone position at the top of the pyramid of control, and therefore widening the leadership base did not solve the problem. Evidence of this dependence is found in the people's words to Aaron before the sin of the golden calf: "For that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him" (Ex. 32:1). The Sages even ascribed the sin of the spies to the great dependence on Moses, after revelation of the prophecy by Eldad and Meidad that Moses would die and Joshua would be the one to bring them into the land (Sanhedrin 17a). The very thought that another leader would lead them to conquer the land led to foment in the camp, even before the spies set out on their mission. This is how Nahmanides saw things (in his commentary on Num. 11:14):

Even though they had many communal leaders, they complained only at Moses, who had taken them out of Egypt, as they were wont to say to him: Why have you taken us out of Egypt? Yet it was he, by his intercession, who gave them their every request and satisfied their cravings.

The conclusion reached by Moses, which fits in with the Lord's answer to him as interpreted by Nahmanides, was that the answer lay in broadening the spiritual leadership base, not necessarily the governmental base.

The Netziv of Volozhin took issue with this interpretation of Nahmanides and held that broadening the leadership base was intended to assist him in social concerns, such as visiting the sick and burying the deceased, and not in a spiritual capacity. Carrying out spiritual missions does not wear one down because in them one has assistance from Heaven. The burden in his role resulted from Jethro's recommendation that he carry out social tasks in order to win the people's support, while delegating adjudication of low-level disputes to other leaders (as described in Deut. 1:8). This program did not succeed because the people wanted Moses' leadership in all capacities, and Moses was worn down primarily by the social and private tasks, which multiplied the more numerous the people became, as Moses himself said: "You are today as numerous as the stars in the sky" (Deut. 1:10).

It appears that the Lord's answer to Moses, to gather seventy elders of the Israelites and to imbue them with prophetic spirit, supports the explanation given by Nahmanides, that appointing the elders was different from appointing officers: for the first time in the history of the Israelite camp, prophecy was extended to the elders.

The Sages dwelled on the importance of appointing the elders and extending the base of spiritual leadership in general, and after Moses' passing in particular, comparing the verses describing appointment of the elders with the description of the Theophany at Mount Sinai. Regarding the elders, it says, "I will come down and speak with you there" (Num. 11:17), and at Sinai it says, "The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai" (Ex. 19:20):

I will come down and speak, to inform you that the day the elders were appointed was cherished by the Holy One, blessed be He, as the day the Torah was given, of which it is written, "for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people" (Ex. 19:11). Likewise, with appointment of the elders, Scripture uses the verb "to come down."[4]

Although, as any political theory would see it, the appointment of elders appears to be a decentralization of authority in order to broaden the government's base of legitimization, the authors of the midrash sought to focus attention on extending spiritual authority connected with studying the Torah and enforcing its commandments. Even though the elders did not have independent authority, but rather derived their authority from the spirit of Moses, nevertheless they shouldered the burden in governmental and spiritual matters. The midrash dwells on the religious significance of this step:

Gather for Me—this reflects Scripture saying, "The sayings of the wise are like goads" (Eccles. 12:11), for just as a goad brings life to the world, so too the words of the Torah bring life to the world, as it is written, "For thereby you shall have life and long endure" (Deut. 30:20).[5]

The wise are likened to the goad that guides the oxen when they pull the plow, not permitting them to deviate from the furrow. So, too, the elders give the people direction by enabling them to study the Torah and its implementation more efficiently than could be done by a single leader. Maimonides viewed the command to appoint seventy elders as extremely important and therefore reiterated: "You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all your settlements" (Deut. 16:18). The governmental importance of combining the spiritual and the administrative lay in increased enforcement and observance of the ways of the Torah:

So that they enforce observance of the Torah's commands and forcibly return those who stray from the true path, ordering them to do that which is good and warning them against the bad, and setting up limits…Indeed, the command to appoint seventy elders is repeated, as the Holy One said to Moses, Gather for Me seventy of Israel's elders.[6]

Enforcement of the Torah's precepts, in Maimonides' view, meant returning those who have gone astray to the path of the absolute and natural truth for man; therefore he did not view it as negative, even though importance attaches to willingly accepting the Torah. Maimonides' conclusion regarding appointment of the elders is that such a step was necessitated by reality, and due to its importance, the command was repeated in Parashat Shoftim. It appears in this week's reading in order to show that Moses was not jealous of sharing around his prophetic powers, as evinced in his response to Joshua, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets" (Num. 11:29).

An important question in this connection remains unanswered: if the people viewed Moses as a man of G‑d who had the power to answer their every need, why did they not pay him absolute obedience?

Following Nahmanides' line of reasoning, it appears that Moses' exhaustion was not physical, rather spiritual. In particular, it was an expression of his disappointment with the people's behavior. Many years later, a similar crisis would be described by the great Greek philosopher Plato, accounting for the essential change that took place between his conception of the law in his first book, The Republic, and his conception in his later years, in The Laws.

According to his theory, in the ideal state the law ought to be the product of legislation by the supreme leader, who is the smartest of men, and this law is not written down. The law would be the result of decisions made by the supreme leader, because it is he who leads the people to achieve the ideal objectives of the state. According to such a system, the law is not the product of consensus among elites, as in a democratic regime, and there is no possibility of misinterpreting the law or of lacunae in the law. In such a system, the law is updated in accordance with changes in reality, as the supreme leader sees fit. There is no fear of a dictatorship developing because the ideal leader is motivated by an absolute notion of the public good.

Such a leader is likened to the captain of a ship who brings its passengers to a safe haven. Since the captain is master of the skill of navigating, only he can bring those on board to safe harbor, and hence obedience to him is motivated by the passengers being grateful and indebted to him for his wisdom and leadership. Without him the passengers would likely be lost at sea and die of hunger and thirst. In spite of all this, Plato changed his position, and in The Laws he compromised regarding a written law. This was due to his giving in to the bad nature of the public, who obey the leader as long as their narrow materialist interests are not hurt by concessions made for public welfare. Even a leader who is entirely devoted to public weal suffers from not being obeyed when private interests are like to be affected.

The Israelites should have obeyed Moses absolutely, since he was the ideal leader of the people, the man of G‑d in whom they put all their trust. But their bad character kept them from absolute obedience whenever they felt any material lack. When their complaints were vain gripes mixed with material demands for such things as meat, Moses understood that their obedience would be selective as long as material interests prevailed. Given that situation, he decided that the time had come for decentralization of authority and less ideal leadership, such as suited the nature of the people.

The transition from the perfect leadership of Moses to group leadership by seventy elders symbolizes the necessary transition from absolute leadership to relative leadership in a complex reality. No longer would the decisions be made by heaven, as in the case of the person gathering wood on the Sabbath, or the petition of the daughters of Zelophehad for the right to inherit; rather, there would be a transition to leadership by the elders whose strength lay in their wisdom and their learning.

The transition to a world of relative Halakhah is a transition to a world of limited but adequate and achievable objectives. The main point is to strive honestly to reach the absolute truth, yet to view achieving relative truth as a victory. The Torah, with its Sages and leaders, guides man towards the truth according to the ways established therein, while truth springs up from the earth (Ps. 85:12).

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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