This academic year, third years at Leo Baeck College took an education module on themes of management, curriculum and change. I can say for certain that at this time of year, when essay deadlines are drawing near, both third year students have these words bouncing around in our brains. Perhaps that is the reason why looking at Beha’alotecha this time around, the messages that came through loud and clear were about the realities of change and the importance of good management.
The book of Numbers started off on a benign enough note. A census was taken, different groups within the Levites were granted different roles, and more rules and ordinances were given. Beha’alotecha represents a pivotal point for our ancestors in the wilderness… the point at which things start metaphorically to go south. By this point it’s clear that the Israelites have started to heal their emotional wounds from being slaves in Egypt… so much so that they are beginning to pine for the ‘good ol’ days’ when they had meat, fish, cucumbers and other goodies to eat; apparently having forgotten the hardships they endured. This takes an incredible emotional toll on long-suffering Moses. He turns to God to tell him that he would like God to take his life and end his misery.
It’s easy for us as readers to jump to judgment. How could the Israelites behave in such a childish manner? Is Moses not being overdramatic when asking God to kill him? On one level, the answer to both is surely yes. However, in simply dismissing their behaviour, we risk missing the meaning behind it. Change can be excruciating. Yes, Egypt was intolerable but for many generations it was also home. And change like this doesn’t just happen once… it’s a process, and each day can bring a new thing to adjust to and get used to. We should also remember that time was passing and the Israelites still were not in a place they could call home. Moses had to go through all the same changes as the Israelites while coping with his role as leader; a role he repeatedly asked not to be put in. I’m sure we can all relate to the idea that when things get impossibly tough there is that part of us that tells us we should find a nice hole to crawl into until the difficulty has passed. We also know that, unfortunately, life just does not work that way.
In our education class, one of the things that we heard emphasized time and again is that good managers listen carefully to the needs of their staff and act accordingly to alleviate undue stress and worry. Moses is God’s key community leader, and he is beginning to crumble under the pressure. An effective manager, God listens to Moses’ plea and rather than rebuking him, quickly designates a leadership team to help him carry out his function. This isn’t the first time God has used this tactic. When Moses was trying to convince God that he wasn’t the right man for the job because of his speech impediment, God immediately guided him to Aaron who would be his spokesman. There is no condemnation of his character, no trying to convince him to just get on with it, there is just an implied acceptance that yes, the task may be too great for one person to bear alone all the time.
The seventy elders are then called to share the burden with Moses and they begin to prophesise. Joshua tells Moses he must put a stop to these men, perhaps fearing that the unique leadership of Moses would be questioned if the public saw others being able to fulfil his role. The momentary relief Moses must have experienced during the time when he shared the gift of prophecy with the seventy elders is clear when you consider the response he gives to Joshua. “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD had put His spirit upon them!” (Num 11:29). Secure in his position as leader, comforted by sharing the load for even just a bit, Moses expresses a truly profound sentiment worthy of consideration.
If we read between the lines of Beha’alotecha, we can see that this portion is about how we deal with one another: with our leaders, with those in our care, and with ourselves. If we allow ourselves to be sensitive to the difficulties our friends, family and co-workers are experiencing, we are more likely to respond proactively to their needs instead of reactively. We can learn to appreciate the deep impact change can have on a person, and that the timeline for responding to that change is not fixed for all people. And, we can appreciate how deep the need for home is for everyone.
The Israelites still have a way to go on their journey to their new home. It will be a difficult one, and they will need to learn and re-learn the same lessons over and over again. We, however, by looking critically at the stories we have of them, have the chance to learn these important lessons the first time around.
LBC Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.