Is great leadership the result of a combination of inborn traits or can one acquire the necessary skills to lead effectively?
According to some commentators, an analysis of the early episodes of Moses’ life, especially Exodus 2, support the former, suggesting that innate qualities he possesses predispose him to assume the mantle of greatest leader of the Jewish People. The text tells us that Moses exhibits the following personality traits:
- The capacity for growth;
- Ability to observe and analyze appropriately individuals and situations and act on that analysis;
- Maintain loving, positive and non-judgmental relationships;
- Willingness to take on responsibility, but not the need to assert power;
- A healthy sense of self.
Because Moses had or appeared to be capable of these traits he was chosen by God to lead the people of Israel.
So one has to wonder when reading this week’s Torah reading what happened? If Moses possessed so many characteristics of leadership, why is he punished for striking the rock rather than speaking to it? What’s the big sin?
Leadership is not easy. These are traits that have to be worked at constantly. In fact, they can even be dangerous. The obverse side of compassion may be too much passion. This can lead to impatience and a short temper. Too much analysis can lead to hesitancy to act, especially when one is shy and humble. One may not always be able to remove one’s own self from an issue to make objective observations. When you hear the same complaints again and again, who would not become impatient and judgmental?
But in this week’s Torah reading something very subtle changes in the way the Israelites couch their plea. Numbers 20:2-3, “And there was no water for the edah, the congregation; and they vayikahalu, gathered themselves, together against Moses and Aaron…Why have you brought up the Kahal, the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness?”
So what did Moses miss? They were no longer asking for themselves or for their children and cattle as they had done before. They were now a mature group with a very special nature. They were a Kahal, a congregation of the Lord. S.R. Hirsch writes: “They were now united in the same common destiny – for that is the concept of the term Edah.” And this was the first time the Israelites referred to themselves in this manner. And Moses missed it.
That God understood the change and its implications is suggested by God’s response: “Take the rod and v’ykahel, gather the children and the edah, the assembly together, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock before their eyes…”
Unlike earlier responses, this miracle was to be performed before all the people. Moses is not to hit the rock, but to speak to it. The rod is included as a reminder that even rocks can change. This change symbolizes God’s recognition of the people’s growth from childhood into a mature nation. But Moses did not recognize this change. He hit the rock. Israel had passed him by.
God’s decision, therefore, was not a punishment for sin. It was a management decision. Moses was fired. God was saying in effect, “You were hired for your ability to grow, for your compassion and your caring, your ability to understand and love the flock you are leading. I know it is a heavy burden. Remember what I showed you at the burning bush. The trick is to burn with a fiery flame, but not to be consumed. This job has consumed you. You are burnt out. It’s time to let go. You are not listening closely to them or to Me anymore.”
This is one of the most important lessons of Shabbat – slow down, listen to the people around you. Really hear them. Understand and reflect upon the issues you’ve encountered this week just ended, learn from them and refresh your soul. In this way we avoid burn out and are able to celebrate these great gifts anew – week after week.