Leadership by Silence–commentary on the first parsha of Deuteronomy–Devarim

Leadership by Silence and the importance of the Follower

Silence. There was another topic I was itching to write about this week. It was a controversial issue that I feel very strongly about. I was not sure about the ethics of talking about this particular topic at this time. After, some introspection I realised that while my intentions were good, but my motives were less pure. The public benefit was not significant, but my blog would probably get lots of hits. The right course of action was silence.

Leadership is overrated. I think that standing up the front and telling people what they should be or do is often of limited use. This week I ran a ‘facilitation workshop’ for young leaders from various backgrounds. E., a young leader of South American heritage, summed it up well, “it’s about the leader sharing the power with the group”. B., an Iraqi, said leadership is not about “Showy Leadership”, it is more about quietly doing what needs to be done to help.

If a leader must speak, saying less can also be a useful tactic. Consider that Moses waits to lecture the people till the time close to his death[i].  If Moses had criticised them earlier, then every time they would see him they would be pained and ashamed[ii]. A critique that comes at the time of death is clearly not motivated by selfish agendas[iii].

As Moses reflects on the experience over forty years there are a few matters that must be addressed. These are addressed in code.

These are the words Moses spoke to all of Israel over the Jordan; in the desert, in the plains, opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and White, and Hazeroth, and Enough Gold[iv]. It sounds like a bunch of geographical markers[v] but in fact all the scriptures have been searched and the places named Tofel and White have not been found[vi]. The desert refers to the sins of the desert[vii], enough Gold is a hint about the golden calf which was made because they had a lot of gold[viii].

Here we have a leader, barely saying anything but still getting the message across. A great contrast to leaders who feel that everything needs to be spelled out and hammered into the people. In fact Moses speech impediment is understood as an asset to his leadership because this way people would not think his words were accepted because of his eloquence[ix].

Moishe was the community macher (big wig). One day he walks past a pet shop and a parrot looks at him and says. “You are liar, you are a cheat, and you are a bully”.  Moishe laughs. The next day he walks past the shop. The parrot looks at him and says. “You are liar, you are a cheat, and you are a bully”.  He gets a bit annoyed. The third time he sees the parrot, it says, “You are liar, you are a cheat, and you are a bully”.  Moishe gets really angry, so he says to the parrot. If you ever say that again, I will close down this shop. The next day he walks past, and the parrot, looks at him, he glares at it, then the Parrot says “you know”.

In Moses’ reflection on events over the years there are three significant differences between the Torah’s original narrative of the spies and Moses retelling[x].

1)      In the original story[xi] the spies are described as “every tribe of their fathers house shall send a man, everyone a prince…heads of the children of Israel”. In Moses retelling[xii] they are simple “twelve men[xiii], one from each tribe”.

2)      In the original story we have a lengthy account of the leader-spier report while in the retelling it simply tells us “they said, good is the land which the Lord our God has given us”.

3)      In the original story, we are barely any record of what the community did or said while in the retelling we are told “all of you approached me saying let us send men before us…” and then tells us in detail how the people responded to the spies report, “Because the Lord hated us did He bring us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us in the hands of the Amorite…”. Moses tells us how they complained in their tents, which is understood as reflecting pretending with their mouth to hold a view that was different to what was in their hearts, ie. saying one thing outside and the opposite in the privacy of their tents[xiv].

The difference between the two accounts is explained as the second one being told from a moral rather than historical perspective. The emphasis here is not on the leadership positions of the spies but on the responsibility of those who chose to follow them[xv].

My Australian Muslim friends this week got conflicting advice about when to start the month Ramadan with some starting the fast on Monday and others on Tuesday. The controversy surrounded the calendar and sightings of the moon brought to mind a great controversy about when the moon was sighted in my tradition.

Rabbi Joshua had calculated Yom Kippur to fall on a different day than Rabban Gamliel (based on arguments about moon sighting), the head of the Sanhedrin that was seated in Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel sent a message to Rabbi Joshua instructing him to show up in Yavneh with his staff and purse on the day Yom Kippur fell according to Rabbi Joshua’s calculation (which is forbidden on this holy day). The other Rabbis found Rabbi Joshua very distressed, but told him to comply because whatever the Sanhedrin decides is binding for everyone. Rabban Gamliel stood and kissed Rabbi Joshua on his head and said, “come in peace my teacher and students, my teacher in wisdom and my students because you accepted my words” [xvi]. In spite of these warm words, eventually this along with other instances of asserting his leadership by humiliating Rabbi Joshua lead to Rabban Gamliel being stood down (for a time) from the leadership[xvii].

In the spirit of this post, I will respect the ability of readers to draw their own conclusions.

[i] Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:3

[ii] Yalkut Shimoni

[iii] Davarim Nechmadim, cited in Greenberg, A. Y, (1992), Torah Gems, vol. 3, Y. Orenstien, Tel Aviv

[iv] Deuteronomy 1:1

[v] Rashbam and Ibn Ezra are inclined to take these at face value, other commentaries disagree

[vi] Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:1

[vii] Oonkelus translation

[viii] Rashi

[ix] Ran

[x] Leibowitz, Nehama, ( Studies in Devarim, Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, The Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerursalem

[xi] Numbers 13:1-33

[xii] Deuteronomy 1:22-28

[xiii] Ramban Suggests that their leadership status is omitted because they had become wicked so the Torah did not want to praise them

[xiv] Radak

[xv] Hoffman, quoted in Leibowitz, N. and commentary by Leibowitz

[xvi] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9

[xvii] Talmud Berakhot 27b-28a

 
Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, California, and author of eleven books, including two national best sellers: Jewish Renewal—a Path to Healing and Transformation and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. His most recent book is Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy for Middle East Peace. He can be reached at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.
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