Leadership and this Week’s Parasha, Matot
by Larry Kaufman
A task that frequently falls on synagogue leaders is presenting a d’var Torah, and many of us, I’m sure, start our preparation at Google. You type in the name of the parasha, and up comes Wikipedia, followed by links to many divrei Torah. You used to have to feel Torah-literate to give a d’var. Today, you need only be computer-literate.
So I started this d’var by typing Matot. Instead of the usual suspects, up came www.matot.com, a commercial elevator company, an appropriate coincidence for a parasha that shows the ups and downs of leadership.
The parasha starts as Moses addresses the leaders of the tribes, roshei hamatot. We’re accustomed to parshiyotbeginning with God addressing Moses, or with Moses addressing the children of Israel. Why here, davka, the tribal leaders, especially since the tribes are not very relevant until the very end of the parasha? Moses relays God’s commands about the fulfillment and annulment of vows, including the right of women to make vows which are binding unless a woman’s father or husband declares them void on the day he learns about them. The implicit feminist issues having been brilliantly covered by Rabbi Jacqueline Ellenson in the WRJ Women’s Torah Commentary, I’ll fulfill my vow of sticking with leadership issues.
Part Two of Matot provides an abrupt transition. God ordersMoses to take revenge against the Midianites, and alerts him that thiswill be Moses’s last hurrah. The battle is remarkably successful -thousands of male Midianites killed, much booty, no Israelitecasualties. Despite the triumph, Moses is angry that the troops havespared the Midianite women, whose earlier lascivious behavior had ledthe people to idol worship. Does Moses, as leader, have a conflict ofinterest here, having been married to a Midianite woman himself? Is hisanger justified, given that neither he nor God has given explicitinstructions to depart from the general rule of warfare, articulated inDeuteronomy 20:10, that women and children are to be taken ascaptives?
In Part Three, as the Israelites are on the verge of occupying thePromised Land, the Matot, the tribes, come on stage. No longerbemoaning the good old days in Egypt as preferable to the wilderness,two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, tell Moses they like it where theyare and don’t want get on the elevator to go up to the land.
Moses is afraid their refusal to go up will be a downer, stimulatinga replay of the negativism created by the scouts who accompaniedJoshua and Caleb. He also resents their greed in thinking first abouttheir cattle, only then about their children, and not at all abouttheir solidarity with their brethren. Nonetheless, he offers a deal,to which they agree: if they serve as shock troops in subduing theland west of the Jordan, and relinquish any claim on the territory theyhave helped to conquer, he’ll let them come back and live where theywant.
Having hinted at a variety of floors where our elevator might stop,let’s get off to a discussion of Moses as a leader with a short fuse,who may be losing his skills, and his authority along with them.
The Stone Chumash commentary attributes Moses’s decision tofilter the rules on vows through the heads of the tribes to thechieftain’s authority to nullify someone else’s vow. Etz Hayim,citing the Hatam Sofer, presents a better rationale: the chieftains,as role models for their tribes, must be particularly cautious infulfilling their pledges. My theory: Moses, unable to summon up theenergy for another major confrontation with the multitudes, remembershis coach, Yitro, told him to make it easy on himself. Twelvechieftains he can handle.
Moses’s anger that his army has spared the Midianite women seemsdisproportionate. How should the army have known the rules weredifferent this time? The narrative makes clear that the warriors havebehaved honorably in bringing home the spoils of war for orderlydivision – so the story-teller does not seem intent on justifyingMoses’s wrath. Is Moses lashing out precisely because he recognizesthat he screwed up, and is frustrated by the realization he is nolonger the strong leader he thought he had become? Is he still shookup over having been challenged by Korach, or is he shook up anew,because God has told him that this will be his last battle, that whenit’s over, he’s going to die?
Moving on to the compromise with the Reubenites and Gaddites – isthis a further sign of weakness, or a sign that he is still capable ofclear thinking and of looking for a win-win, rather than fullycapitulating to the tribes or insisting that they fully capitulate tohim?
We look at these leadership decisions against the backdrop ofMoses’s total career: his propensity to anger and impulsive behaviormanifested when he slays the Egyptian, when he smashes the tablets, andwhen he strikes the rock. He accepts leadership reluctantly, and onlybecause Aaron will be at his side; and he later complains about theburden God has placed on him. Now he no longer has Aaron, or his otherimportant advisor, Yitro, and to add insult to injury, even God seemsto be washing His hands of him.
Looking at the Ultimate Decider’s leadership decisions, is theincident at the rock sufficient cause for denying Moses his triumphalentry into the Promised Land, or is it a pretext because God realizesit’s time for a change? Should God have chosen this temperamental andunwilling Jewish Egyptian Prince in the first place? Is Moses’spropensity to anger a strength or a character flaw? Does Moses need hismortal advisors, and is their removal from the scene instrumental orcoincidental in the apparent waning of his powers and skills? ShouldMoses have turned the keys over to Joshua sooner than he did? Has hementored him sufficiently, or given him enough opportunity to learn bydoing? Moses has been a good enough leader to identify and train asuccessor, and he is really ready to step aside; but letting go isn’teasy.
The Tanach is almost certainly the earliest leadership developmentmanual still in use, with plenty of case histories on identification,training, mentoring, evaluating, and transitioning of leaders. What itappears to lack is the chapter on what you do afterwards to befulfilled and productive, if you don’t have the foresight to die inyour position of authority. As we read Matot, elevators thistime, not tribes, we need to remember that the leadership elevator goesup, and then it comes down, and you have to get off. What then?
Larry Kaufman has served on more than a dozen Jewish and secularboards, including that of the Union for Reform Judaism, hasprofessionally counseled a dozen more, and has facilitated planningworkshops for boards of Reform congregations from coast to coast .
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