Posted By The Stash

Once again the Israelites are complaining. In truth, their complaints haven’t changed much since they left Egypt. At first they complain about “being sent to die in the desert” when they see the Egyptians pursuing them. In this week’s parasha, they complain of the tiresome diet of manna, and they nostalgically reiterate the varied diet they consumed as slaves. We would expect that Moses, who has heard this all before, would be well practiced in how to quell these rebellious and ungrateful words. But instead, surprisingly, Moses responds with a bitter tirade directed at G-d: “What have I done to displease you…why have you placed the burden of these people on me?”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks draws on the work of Professor Ron Heifetz, who specializes in analyzing public leadership. Heifetz distinguishes between “technical challenges” and “adaptive challenges”. The former occurs when “you have a problem and someone else has a solution.” Your car is broken, you go to the mechanic who can determine what is wrong with it. Follow the instructions—the problem is solved. But adaptive challenges are different. Here the person’s problem can only be changed by changes in their lifestyle. For example, you are told that you have a medical condition that can only be helped by changing lifestyle and diet. This will require adaptation, and is therefore much more difficult than simply “popping a pill”.

Sacks cogently argues, based on Heifetz, that in the Book of Exodus, the generation that had left Egypt had to simply learn how to be free. Moses concentrated on repeating his solutions to their problems and was not frustrated that people so recently removed from slavery were so full of complaints. But by the time the narrative has reached our parasha, Moses believes that the people need to be preparing to enter the land. After all, they have been in the desert for close to two years and are drawing near the borders of Canaan. Moses now needs to provide adaptive leadership to ready the people for taking possession of the land. They must become active agents in their own redemption rather than passive observers and beneficiaries of Divine miracles. But the people—as next week’s parasha that narrates the tragic incident of the spies reveals—have not changed and refuse to. This realization shatters Moses’ belief in his own leadership—hence his bitterness. Sacks points out that Moses was actually fortunate: many adaptive leaders (Gandhi, Lincoln, Sadat, Rabin) were assassinated by the opponents of change.

As always, Torah teaches us powerful lessons. Change and tradition both play vital roles in our daily lives. But balancing them is difficult psychologically. But the perils of being locked into a modality of behavior are even greater. Let us pray that we will be given the strength to see ourselves honestly, or to be blessed with friends who can advise us through constructive criticism. And, perhaps most importantly, let us hope that we can take advice from those who love us and urge us to change.

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