During the long days of these times, the one constant in each day is when I tune into Governor Cuomo’s morning press conference. I find that his reliance on facts and his faith that people will do the right thing are calming in a time of anxiety, and I have found myself reflecting on what it takes to be a leader in difficult times.
In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag taught about the Torah, “Turn it and turn it, everything is in it.” Each year we read the same parashah, and each year we see something different in it — a reflection of where we ourselves are at that particular time. And so, I turn to this week’s parashah, looking at it through the filter of leadership.
The leader, of course, is Moses. The Israelites are in the wilderness, traveling from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land, and they are complaining. “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat for nothing in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onion, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:5-6)
Moses, fed up with the never-ending complaining of the people he is trying to lead to freedom, loses it. He says to God, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.” (11:14) Moses loses it because he is human, and that’s what we humans do when we are overwhelmed. But he expresses his anxieties before God, not in front of the people he is leading. All leaders need a support person, someone to whom they can admit their doubts, their anxieties, that they don’t have all the answers. Someone who can remind them that they are doing a good job, that there are people who can support them, that they don’t have to do it all by themselves.
And, in fact, God asks Moses to gather seventy elders into the Tent of Meeting and “I will draw upon the spirit that is on you, and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” (11:17) A sign that the spirit had indeed been transferred was a short period of “prophetic speaking”.
Now, it turns out that two of the elders were out in public and not in the Tent at the time they received the spirit. And they began speaking in tongues in the camp. Joshua, trusted assistant to Moses, was aghast. He saw this as a challenge to the authority of Moses. “Restrain them!” he demanded. (11:28) But Moses replied, “Would that the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!” (11:29) Here, Moses again serves as an example of good leadership — he did not take this incident personally as a challenge to his authority, but rather kept his attention on the task that needed to be accomplished. He understood that the best way to reach that goal was to surround himself with as many people as possible who could help him bring the people through the wilderness to Israel.
Finally, in the last incident in this parashah, it is his own family, Aaron and Miriam, who are complaining against Moses. At first, this seems to be a family squabble about Moses’ wife. Rashi imagines that Miriam is criticizing Moses for spending so much time on his job that he is neglecting his own wife and family. This evolves into a questioning of his authority. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (12:2) Now, Moses must cope with issues “at home” in addition to the large burden of leadership already on his shoulders. And surely this is something that all leaders must face as well. It is often hard to be a leader and find the right balance between home and work, and even harder to keep one’s eye on the mission when things at home are difficult.
In our story, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease, and Aaron, repentant, begs Moses to do something. Moses utters a simple prayer, “El na refah na lah — O God, please heal her.” Much has been written about the brevity of this prayer, some suggesting that Moses was angry at his siblings and was praying under protest. I prefer to see a leader carrying many burdens, trying to deal with each as it comes up in the most straightforward way possible. Carrying a grudge against his siblings would only add to his burdens. But turning toward the family and uttering a simple but loving prayer would help his sister, would let his family know he cares, and would leave his mind free to deal with the very real problems of leadership. Reading this, I can’t help but think of Governor Cuomo’s frequent references to his own family and how he find ways for his daughters to help out, in his own attempts to balance family and the burden of leading us all through this pandemic.
There are many things that make a great leader. From this parashah, we can learn that a great leader doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact, they must recognize their own humanity, and have a trusted someone to whom they can vent, express their misgivings, who will help them through the rough patches. They should appoint the very best people to help them, and keep their eye on the goal, rather than focusing on their own position and authority. And finally, they need to be mindful of personal competing pressures and do their very best to maintain the best balance possible.
May we be blessed with good leadership and find our way safely out of our current crises.