Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Patience as Leadership

I have tutored a lot of bar and bat mitzvah students on Parshat Sh'lach Lecha, the portion of the Torah before the wandering in the wilderness when Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the land--but no one has ever talked about it the way Aaron O'Malley did last week at Temple B'nai Brith.

Aaron didn't focus where most people do, on the difference between the ten spies (that evil minyan!) who said it would be impossible to conquer Canaan and the two (Caleb and Joshua) who basically said, "Buck up, people, God told you you could do it." He also didn't tackle the daunting question of why the Torah portrays God as telling the Jews to take the land by force--especially when (according to archeological records) they actually moved in gradually and absorbed the Canaanites as much as they displaced them.

Instead, O'Malley focused on two leaders' reactions to the spies' report. Moses hears his people giving up hope and murmuring about going back to Egypt and slavery, and he falls on his face as if somebody has just died. Joshua, his young assistant, says (in the Etz Hayim translation):
The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord. Have then no fear of the people of the country, for they are our prey [literally, "our bread"--DF]: their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us. Have no fear of them!" (Numbers 14: 7-9]
I am not surprised that O'Malley found Joshua's response more admirable. He is the son of a lawyer and an artist/activist, and he prides himself on speaking up. That doesn't take into account how many times before that Moses had overcome his people's resistance and how tired he must have been of apologizing for them to God.

What's more, there's no indication that Joshua's exhortation had any more effect than Moses' public show of shame. In the very next sentence of text we hear:"As the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones, the Presence of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites." It took an act of God to keep the community from turning on "them": not just Moses, but also Joshua, and even the bar mitzvah boy's namesake, Aaron the priest.

Different styles of leadership fit different historical moments. Sometimes, there's nothing you can do but hang in there. There's a reason "forty years in the wilderness" has become a proverb for a long, hard period that tries one's patience. Here's hoping we who suffered through the Bush years and are now gritting our teeth through the Obama years can live long enough to see the Promised Land.

No comments: