>Being the leader can often be a thankless task. If you are doing a good job no-one thanks you – it’s expected. But if things start going wrong everyone has a gripe and a complaint. One of the things I used to love about flying El Al to Tel Aviv was the spontaneous applause, which always broke out, when the plane touched down on the Israeli tarmac. The pilot and crew had done nothing more than their jobs required, but the passengers wanted to say thank you.
We never hear the Israelites thank Moses for his hard work leading them from slavery to freedom, and bringing God’s presence into the camp. But when something goes wrong they love to complain. Moses is generally a great leader, and he deals well with the people’s complaints, but this week he slips up. It is in the context of his mistake that he truly demonstrates his real greatness and the challenge of being a leader.
Our Torah portion begins with the death of Moses’ sister Miriam (Numbers 20:1). There is no explanation and no period of mourning for her brothers or the community. Instead the people complain (what’s new there?) They come to Moses to moan about the lack of water (the rabbinic Midrash suggests that a well followed Miriam throughout the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness). No-one offers Moses any sympathy, or condolences for his loss; he is expected to get on with his job and respond to another Israelite complaint.
Moses pointedly does not utter a single word. He simply goes with Aaron, his brother and fellow mourner, to fall before God at the Tabernacle. And God responds, as always, with a solution for Moses: ‘Take the rod … and speak to the rock before their eyes and it shall give forth water’ (Numbers 20:8).
It is understandable that Moses would be upset. Upset about his sister’s death, upset that he has been unable to mourn, and upset by another Israelite challenge. He voices his frustration calling the people ‘rebels’ (Numbers 20:10) and then he gives expression to his exasperation, striking the rock twice (Numbers 20:11), rather than talking to it. He could be forgiven for this little outburst, for this show of frustration.
He resisted the temptation to lash out at the people. He continued to fulfil his leadership role. He took his frustration out on an inanimate object, striking the rock to give expression to his hurt, anger and exasperation. God had told him to take the rod with him, placing temptation in his path. And significantly water flowed from the rock. But the punishment is immediate; as God tells Moses and Aaron: ‘you shall not bring this people into the land’ (Numbers 20:12).
The punishment appears excessive. Moses has been pushed and prodded by this people ever since Egypt. And although he was probably emotionally unstable after his sister’s death, there is no sympathy. Leaders are held to a higher, almost unattainable, standard, and they suffer when they fall short.
Moses would be forgiven for giving up and resigning on the spot; leaving God and the people alone together. Instead, it is at this moment that Moses marks himself apart as a truly outstanding leader. He does not appeal to God or the people. Instead he sends messengers to the king of Edom (Numbers 20:14) so that the Israelite journey can continue. It is a journey which Moses will not complete, but he puts his personal feelings aside and focuses solely on fulfilling his leadership role.
Although he will not reach the Promised Land, Moses puts the needs of the community above his own. He will not be the pilot who will land in Israel, but he certainly deserves applause.
People can be hungry for leadership, Korach provides our ancient example (Number 16:1-20) and there are too many contemporary ones to name. But Moses demonstrates the truth of the line in Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. In slipping up, Moses demonstrates his own greatness and his exemplary leadership. In his lifetime he never received the peoples’ thanks, but when he died the children of Israel wept for thirty days (Deuteronomy 34:8), and perhaps when he ascended to heaven the angels gave him the round of applause he so richly deserved.