This week’s Sidra is appears fragmented, narrating numerous small episodes: the setting up of the Menorah; Pesach Sheni (a second Pesach for those unable to keep the first); Jethro leaving the Israelite camp; the people complaining about the lack of meat to eat and finally Miriam and Aaron complaining to Moses about the ‘Cushite woman’ he had married. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Sidra marks the beginning of the fragmentation of the Israelite people. What starts as murmurings in this week’s Sidra develops in the course of the Book of Numbers into rebellion, plagues and other punishments and another forty years wandering in the desert.
Yet in the last two weeks’ readings we have had a picture of structure and order. The Israelites were counted and the tribes were given their places around the sanctuary. The various Levite families were given their role in the sanctuary and all the tribes brought the appropriate offerings for its dedication. It seemed as if everything was ready for the march to the Promised Land.
However, as we have learnt in recent weeks from the uprisings in the Middle East, a country might appear well ordered, but an authoritarian leader can only keep absolute power for so long. Eventually a dissatisfied people will rebel, especially if they are hungry. Moses was an authoritarian leader, who, despite some reforms, remained firmly in charge.
Moses did not cling on to power for his own sake. Time and again, the Torah stresses his humility and his sense of unworthiness for the task of leadership. One of the clearest illustrations is in the episode which follows the Israelites’ complaint. It is a puzzling episode, leaving many questions unanswered. We are told that God takes the spirit that is on Moses and gives it to seventy of the elders so that they can share the burden of leadership. The elders prophesied, but, as the text says, ‘They did not continue to do so’ (Num. 11:25). Only two continued, Eldad and Medad. When he sees this, Joshua is concerned for Moses’ position as leader. But Moses rebukes him: ‘Would that all God’s people were prophets and the Eternal One would put His spirit on them’ (Num. 11:29).
Why, then, did Moses apparently retain sole authority? Perhaps he felt the people weren’t ready to share in the burden. And perhaps he was right – after all, the spirit of God did not remain with the elders. But perhaps he simply could not let go. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had begun to point a different way to Moses in the book of Exodus. He had advised Moses on how to set up structures to judge the people – rulers of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands – so that neither Moses nor the people would be worn out by Moses being the sole judge (Exod. 18). In our sidra, just before the people start murmuring, Jethro tells Moses he is leaving. Moses implores him not to leave, and it is left open whether he does in fact depart. But perhaps Jethro feels he has done all he can to encourage Moses to share the burden of leadership. Although Moses appeals to God for help in sharing the burden, in the end he appears to continue to carry the burden alone.
It is a difficult task as a community leader to know when to let other people take responsibility for leadership too. If one cares for a community one sometimes feels that one has to oversee it and make sure that everything goes as it should. One of the hardest things that leaders have to learn is to delegate, and then to trust the people delegated to get on with the tasks they have been given. We would all wish, as Moses did, that the people were prophets and blessed with God’s spirit. But we have to help that happen. We have to nurture people and help them on their way. That takes time and patience, and much as we say we want to share leadership, it can be easier to carry on as we are, struggling to do everything but not finding the time or the patience to let others help. In the long run, though, the best way to hold a community together is for everyone to feel involved, to feel they matter and can play a part. The people may not all be prophets – any more than their leaders are! But the only way to achieve that is to work towards it, inspiring and encouraging each other in the holy task of creating communities and perfecting God’s world.
Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
Birmingham Progressive Synagogue
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.