05/07/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bemidbar: Leadership in the Wilderness

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Of the five books of Moses, the one that gets the most neglect is the book of Numbers. You may have bet on Leviticus for obvious reasons: It's filled with minute details about the Tabernacle, sacrifices and priesthood that are not relevant for active Jewish life today. But by neglect I do not mean the pure knowledge of a subject but the way in which its lessons are somehow controverted or ignored.

This is unfortunate. The book of Numbers offers case studies in failed leadership and followship, set against a context of nature that is distinctly unsympathetic to the needs of its travellers. In so many ways, this is true also for leadership today. We often ignore the context or landscape of leadership that presents unique challenges and obstacles. We do not sufficiently manage resistance or understand it as critical pieces of information to help us lead better. We need to know what people are afraid of and we need to set direction in times of ambiguity. We ignore the book of Numbers at our peril.

If you do a careful search in a concordance for the Hebrew word "midbar" or desert (and also the Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers), you find varying reactions throughout the Hebrew Bible to this landscape. There is the Jeremiah romance with the desert, which also makes subsequent appearances in rabbinic literature: "You followed Me into the wilderness, to a land not sown" (Jeremiah 2:2). People find God in the wilderness. Spiritual ecstasy and dependence on God are so often manifestations of solitude, reflection and desperation, the kind of emotions found in abundance in solitary places.

Botanist Nogah Hareuveni, in "Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage," observes that throughout our history, "the deserts of Judea and Benjamin served as places of asylum for deserters, revolutionaries, and for sects who veered from the mainstream." It is no coincidence that we became a nation ideologically in a place of transition. At Sinai, itself situated in the desert, we received the constitution that would most characterize us as a people. Wide empty spaces help us become internally wide empty spaces, able to take in new possibilities and rid ourselves of material distractions.

But the wilderness of Numbers was also terrifying. It was a place of flash floods, avalanches, wild animals and mutinous rages. The loss of control that can make for spiritual highs can also contribute to human lows. We challenged authority; we were impossible followers. We rebelled. We lost patience with a monotonous landscape, in which we suffered hunger and thirst and enemies and unpredictability. It was too much. We tired of the manna, of Moses, of each other.

And then we rip out a page of T. S. Eliot's "Waste Land" and it helps us imagine the tedium of walking for 40 years in the same conditions:

...I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.
Looking into the heart of light, the silence

The silence of the wilderness can be deafening. It can compromise our integrity. It did. We watch, over the chronology of the book, the tight organization of census and flag, Tabernacle and army of the initial Bemidbar reading give way to the chaos of sibling gossip, of spy cowardice and then full-fledged rebellion. The earth that tolerated so much dissonance and strife eventually swallowed up the dissenters. In actuality, it swallowed them up emotionally and mentally them up long before Korah even opened his mouth.

Those in leadership positions often complain that they could never have anticipated the difficulties of leading. Perhaps that is because they, too, ignored the leadership landscape. They forget the context in which they lead and then find themselves inadequately prepared for the existential dimensions of leadership.

We begin to look back on this Torah reading as reflecting a quaint naiveté. Could positioning all the tribes around the Tabernacle in proper formation really minimize the societal ills of being in foreign territory without a clear sense of direction? While we can never predict the unpredictable, current political upheaval coupled with religious fundamentalism is easier to manage when we have a vigilant society that desires the best but anticipates the worst of humanity.

The leadership writer, Jim Collins, took on the issue of leadership wilderness in his recent book "Great by Choice":

When the moment comes -- when we're afraid, exhausted, or tempted -- what choice do we make? Do we abandon our values? ... Do we give up on our dreams when we've been slammed by brutal facts?

The landscape is the context in which we lead. If we have trouble, do we forfeit the dream?

We had a dream: life in a homeland that reflected covenantal values. We were ready to compromise on that dream for some meat and water. Luckily, Moses put up with his stiff-necked people and got us there. Some leaders navigate the wildness with clear, single-minded focus on an objective. Moses did not let the contentiousness of his followers derail the bigger vision of peoplehood. How many of us can lead with that laser vision?

We walked through the wilderness with eyes wide shut. Instead of neglecting the lessons of Bemidbar, perhaps -- in an age of questionable leadership -- we need to read it more slowly and carefully and pay better attention to the landscape.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.