Parashat B’ha’alot’cha – Moses: Prophet or Clerk
Being part of the Leo Baeck College community comes with many responsibilities, including taking part in the rota of Divrei Torah emailed out to our followers and supporters of the college. Sometimes when writing the words just flow, but other times it is a challenge going faceless into the big wide world, presenting our opinions and tackling the big issues. This task is especially daunting when our country feels a bit like a political minefield, when we have been shaken not once, but twice, by events of terror in the past month and when in reality we are all now seeking different means of comfort and healing. How in fewer than 1,000 words am I meant to approach this parashah in a way that is both meaningful and comforting? How am I meant to say anything of use to the Jewish community, when I am writing this in a time of turmoil and uncertainty, not yet knowing which way the tide is going to swing? What comfort can I bring when we are wandering in the wilderness, unsure of which path to take?
Often in times of turbulence we look to our leaders, both rabbinic and political, for stability and wisdom. And yet, so often our leaders are feeling that same wobble and discomfort. Times like these are perhaps when it is most challenging to be a leader and fulfil a role and duty in the community, for it is possible that your leaders themselves also feel vulnerable. This week in Torah we see this struggle of leadership firsthand, as the community appeals to Moses to solve their hardships. Moses, abandoned in the wilderness and helpless in this situation, appeals to God in a moment of despair. In what could arguably be one of the most heartbreaking moments of our Torah he cries; ‘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.’ Moses, who never wanted to be a leader in the first place, sees his leadership as a burden that has never ceased. He is at breaking point, unable to see past the current crisis. In this situation he can neither work to solve the problems, nor provide comfort. He acts neither as the prophet we have seen before, nor as the comforter that the Israelites need.
Rami Shapiro, in his fascinating blog post, ‘Letter to a new rabbi’, debates whether rabbis should be prophets, or clerks. He states; ‘Prophets comfort, clerks discomfit. Clerks legitimise; prophets challenge. Clerks maintain the decency of our lives; prophets reveal the brutality and emptiness at its core… Clerks make nice; prophets make waves.’ Whilst Shapiro argues that all rabbis need to be competent clerks and that great rabbis learn to be prophets, I would argue that there are times when rabbis should be both, and times when they should be one or the other. At times it is the job of rabbinic leaders to give people vision and hope, to speak difficult and challenging truths and to inspire people to live better lives. However when the world feels like an unsafe place, and when the leader themselves is feeling vulnerable, perhaps it is the job of a rabbinic leader just to bring comfort, and to do so in far fewer than 1,000 words. For it is not just prophets that leave a legacy, but also clerks who can touch and change peoples lives, just by bringing serenity and support.
Despite his inherited status of prophet, Moses recognises that leaders need to also encompass the nurturing, ‘clerk’-like quality, in order to truly lead the people. In Moses’ temporary breakdown he compares his role to that of a nurse suckling the young in their bosom. The word used to describe this action is not wet-nurse, for which there is a separate Hebrew term, but rather the gender neutral word, ‘omen’ translated as ‘caretaker’ or ‘nurse’. This refers to a practice in Ancient Israel whereby both men and women aided the transportation of dependents during a journey. Perhaps forward thinking before his time, Moses is recognising that great leaders need to be both prophets and clerks. Moses can be a transformational leader and still comfort the distressed. Throughout his time as leader he acts as both mother and father to the people, bringing together the wisdom of both traditionally defined masculine and feminine traits.
During this parashah, Moses shows us that leaders themselves can be vulnerable. By revealing our weaknesses and discomforts, we allow ourselves to become more relatable and accessible to the community. When Moses is driven to the edge by the perils of leadership, he allows himself to be picked up and supported, not just by God, but also by 70 elders in the community. He exerts some of the greatest qualities of leadership, humility and compassion. Described as ‘a very humble man’, Midrash recognises this humility not just in his ability to delegate parts of his role to 70 elders without feeling threatened, but also in his ability to pay no attention to the slander and gossip that surrounded him, even though God reacted to the whispers.
Soon the instability will be settled and we will ease back in to the mundanity of everyday life. But for now, perhaps all we can ask from our leaders is that they can be there, sitting with us in the uncertainty, offering us comfort when we wish for it. By the end of this week’s parasha Moses manages to regain his confidence and composure as a leader, and bring comfort and healing to people in just five words simple words, ‘El na refah na la’, ‘Oh God, pray heal her’. Midrash states that Moses knew how to pray and that once he stood before God for forty days and forty nights praying, yet here he says just a few words. From this we learn that there are times for long prayers, and times for short. Times to be prophets and times to be clerks. Times to tackle the big issues and times to bring comfort and healing. As leaders we need to learn which time is which.
5th Year student rabbi Hannah Kingston