When Leadership Withdraws
First Miriam died. No explanation of the circumstances, no statement about the impact upon the people or about any rites of mourning, just five Hebrew words (one of which is repeated): ותמת שם מרים ותקבר שם , “Miriam died there and was buried there” (Num. 20:1).
Then immediately after, once again, the bitter protests of the people. This time it is about something more fundamental than the boring monotony of manna every day, or the discouraging report of the majority of scouts. In this Wilderness of Zin, there is no water to drink. The complaints are familiar: Why did you lead us out of Egypt? We wish we could have died at the time of the Golden Calf, or with Korah’s cohorts. Why did you lead us to this wretched place? (Num. 20:3-5). The people’s reaction of panic is now more understandable than in the earlier cases. Without water, no human beings cannot survive for very long. It is a problem that required immediate attention.
How do Moses and Aaron respond? In the following verse, we read,
ויבא משה ואהרן מפני הקהל אל פתח אהל מועדג ויפלו של פניהם.
“Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces” (Num. 20:6). That might seem to have been an appropriate reaction to the emergency: seeking divine guidance and support, demonstrating their own humility and helplessness through their prostrate posture.
Yet some of the rabbis in the Midrash found the behaviour of Moses and Aaron to be worthy of a rebuke that they understood to come immediately from God (and this is before the incident of the rock). One midrashic statement has God telling Moses and Aaron, “Leave this place—the Tent of Meeting—quickly. My children are near death with thirst, and you lie here mourning for your sister!”
This connects the narrative with the first verse of the chapter, and suggests a very poignant situation. Moses and Aaron are in mourning for their sister Miriam. The people they have been leading seem to have forgotten her completely—there is no suggestion of respecting her memory or trying to comfort or console their leaders; they think only of embittered complaint. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that Moses and Aaron would have been focused more on the pain of their own loss than on their responsibilities as leaders. When faced once again with the angry verbal abuse of the masses, they withdraw to their one place of solitude, where the people and their representatives cannot intrude. They want to be alone to find the comfort and strength of God’s presence.
Yet God rebukes them as excessively self-centred. Doing honour to the memory of their sister by observing the rituals of mourning, coming to terms with their own memories of Miriam and their pain at her loss—all this is important. But the emergency needs of the people take precedence over their self-absorption. When the survival of other human beings is at stake, leaders must set aside their own personal, psychological needs and direct their full efforts to helping those in a desperate state. “My children are near death with thirst, and you lie here mourning for your sister!”
A second rabbinic passage is similar to this in that it also condemns the withdrawal by Moses and Aaron to the Tent of Meeting, but explains their behaviour differently. When Moses and Aaron heard the challenges of the people, when they saw the anger and the terror on their faces, they were struck with fear and decided upon a retreat hurried from the confrontation. The fifteenth-century Spanish courtier Isaac Abravanel, who himself knew of dangerous political situations from his own experience, wrote that Moses and Aaron “feared for their lives, feared that they would be pelted with stones, and that is why they went, like those who flee, to the Tent of Meeting.” The Midrash provides a stunning analogy for this: it is like a noble when the people in his province are stirred to rebellion, and instead of confronting them, he flees for protection to the royal palace.
On one level, this behaviour also seems rational. When we feel danger of any kind—physical or psychological—the natural tendency is to withdraw to a safe place. But here too God sends them away from the security of the Ohel Mo’ed, back to deal with the desperate needs of the people that are impelling them to revolt. When a noble is faced with a potential rebellion in his province, his proper place is there, not in the safety of the king’s palace, protected by towers, strong walls, and a moat. When a leader is challenged by legitimate grievances in her community, that is not the occasion to go away to the security of a spiritual retreat, with her mobile phone turned off, so that nothing from the outside world can intrude.
There are indeed times for deepening one’s spirituality, seeking comfort and reassurance from an encounter with the divine, whether in the quiet of a synagogue sanctuary when no one else is around, or alone on a beautiful wilderness trail, or together with a group of like-minded colleagues focusing together on their spiritual lives. Leaders need these occasions to recharge their batteries. But this should not serve as a flight from the immediate challenges of the communities in which we live. The message of these verses is that in the grimmest of circumstances, God has little patience with our stalling and hesitation. God sends us back into the fray to cope with the challenge.
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.