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Torah Commentary
B'haalot'cha (May 25, 2013)

Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

“We were better off in Egypt…
Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt?”

THERE IS A certain dimension of the leader-people relationship that is not often addressed. It curdles the dynamic, and on occasion, it erupts with such force to undermine the achievements of leadership.

Moses is accounted the peerless leader, a model of leadership. He is possessed of a strong personal ethic and a compelling vision of the future. He inspires and motivates the Israelites with a vision of the Promised Land. He speaks truth to power and vanquishes the strongest army then existing. He speaks truth to truth and brings God’s law to the people. He demonstrates a seemingly boundless capacity for compassion and mercy as he steadfastly advocates on behalf of his wayward people to a God who fumes with anger at their faithless missteps.

But, nonetheless, observe what happens to Moses in the early chapters of the Book of Numbers.

The desert sojourn is about to get underway. The people are counted. The Levites are purified, and their duties related to the Tabernacle are explained. The marching formation and the arrangement of the tribes are set forth. Thus, they begin their procession, following the cloud of fire and accompanied by blasts from the trumpets.

But before the desert dust can penetrate their nostrils, the people “took to complaining bitterly.” In the first instance, we don’t even learn the nature of their complaint. There is just corporate grousing. In three brief verses, we learn that they gripe, God strikes them with fire, they cry to Moses to intercede on their behalf, Moses prays for them and the fire subsides. This sequence becomes the paradigm for several subsequent episodes of serial complaining.

Following hard on the heels of this nondescript, generic complaining, Moses is confronted with a defined grievance. The people, led by rabble-rousers — the Bible appositely describing this element in their midst as “asafsuf,” a word whose very sound informs its meaning — protest that they want meat. They are tired of the Divinely delivered manna. Their carnivorous instincts have kicked up, and they crave a meal into which they can sink their teeth: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.” Ah, Egypt — where you could come home after an 18-hour day, toiling under the snapping whips of the taskmaster, kick off your sandals, take a cold shower and settle down to savor some delicious free fish…with garlic! Now, that’s real living!

Moses, the model leader, has a meltdown. His patience exhausted, his nerves frayed, he vents his anger before God. Why have you done this to me? Why have you burdened me with these whiners? I can’t deal with them any longer: “…Kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness.”

God’s solution for Moses: Get yourself a board of directors. Appoint a council of elders — 70 of them! That will make the problem solving so much easier when the people complain. Right! Wrangling with the board certainly will distract Moses from the complaints of the people. Good job, God.

What triggers Moses’ breakdown is the people’s constant refrain:

“We were better off in Egypt…Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt?”

This unrelenting pushback stymies Moses, takes his breath away. It reflects a paralyzed mindset that resists openness to the possibilities and potentialities of the new, even when those possibilities are ushered in by the miracles and wonders of an Exodus, a parting sea and a theophany at Sinai. Even the most charismatic leadership crumbles when the people willingly succumb to a rose-colored amnesia that paints the past in glowing terms and erases its problems, pain and suffering. In a moment of personal epiphany, Moses realizes that the people remain slaves — You can bring the people out of Egypt, but you cannot take the Egypt [mentality] out of the people. The people have no vision. They cannot imagine what they have not experienced.

The failure of imagination is at the heart of the distinction William Bridges, the noted organizational consultant and the author of Managing Transitions (1991), makes between change and transition. He proposes that change is situational, it happens. The people leave Egypt; one starts a new job; a new boss takes over; there is a death in the family. Transition, however, is a psychological process. It involves an internal redefinition, a realignment of values, goals and vision. Leaving Egypt was a change. Leaving slavery is a transition. For a transition to be accomplished successfully, it requires a lot of hard work — self-assessment and inner re-orientation. Otherwise, the people’s imagination is choked and the slave-state of Egypt is more attractive than the freedom of the Promised Land. It then takes a 40-year gestational period and a new generation for the people to adapt to a new self-identity.

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