As it turns out, being in charge of the people of Israel is fairly difficult work. While we cannot know exactly what Moses thought the job would be back when he was hired by the Burning Bush (acting as God’s HR director and not to be confused with the Singing Bush) it’s a pretty fair bet that he was more worried about Pharaoh and Egyptians than he was about leading his own people. But once the sea had closed over the horses and chariots of the Egyptians and Moses turned his full attention to the people he is supposed to lead, he probably figured out pretty quickly that the path from here (wilderness) to there (Promised Land) was not going to be a walk in the park. After all, the very first thing the people do when they hit dry land on the other side of the split sea is complain about the limited dessert menu, as opposed to the smorgasbord of delights available in the Egyptian house of bondage. Complaining about the food, it seems, is a national heritage we proudly carry.
The difficulty of being the human leader of the Israelites is very much on Moses’ mind in our parasha this week, as he recalls the high (and low) points of the wilderness for the generation about to cross into the Promised Land. This is the story of their parents—and specifically, the story of their parents were not around to enjoy the final steps into the Promised Land. As Moses recounts the journey after Sinai (here called Horeb) one of the first things he says is, “Thereupon I said to you: I cannot bear the burden of you myself.” (Deuteronomy 1:9) He then goes on to describe the selection of chieftains or judges for each of the various levels of Israelite society. (His recounting elides the contribution of his father-in-law Yitro, who is described back in Exodus as having been the originator of this plan. Ignoring the contributions of one’s in-laws is terribly wrong and should be avoided.)
The problem Moses refers to here in Deuteronomy is primarily numerical: there are simply too many Israelites for him to govern them all effectively. (This is same way Yitro frames the problem in Exodus 18.) “The Lord your God has multiplied you until today you are numerous as the stars in the sky,” Moses recalls having told the people, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” (Deuteronomy 1:10,12) Moses distributes the trouble, burden and bickering among various leaders throughout the camp, and the people continue their march towards the Promised Land.
It doesn’t work. The chiefs of the thousands, the hundreds and the tens might be able to keep all sorts of petty cases from making their way to Moses, but the delegation of responsibility cannot prevent the entire operation from running decisively off the rails with the incident of the spies. The commentator RAMBAN makes the case that Moses’ mention of the selection of wise leaders here is meant to make the point that despite having made arrangements for the diffusion of leadership, the people still failed utterly to obey God when the time came to enter the land. “We received the Torah,” RAMBAN has Moses saying to the people, “And you had judges and officers to judge you and to lead you, and we were ready to enter the land.” But of course it doesn’t work out that way. The presence of judges and wise leaders does not forestall the various rebellions of the people, and it does nothing to prevent the sin that ultimately gets the generation of the Exodus banned from entry into the Promised Land: a lack of faith in God’s ability to protect them from the inhabitants of Canaan. In fact, given how often the Torah tells us that “all the people” committed this or that sin in the desert, it seems fairly clear the leaders selected by Moses were as much a part of the problem as the solution. Man plans, God laughs, as the saying goes, but here it’s probably more appropriate to say: Man plans, God punishes.
But before we conclude that delegation is a terrible idea and that Moses should have held tight to the reins of power, we should remember that nothing Moses tried really worked. The people of Israel were simply an unruly bunch, and the crisis of leadership may have simply been a crisis. We are accustomed, I think, to imagine that the right leaders or the right leadership structure can fix the problems of the world. The problem with this theory is that it absolves the led of responsibility. Go to any bookstore (or any online book-selling site) and look up “leadership” and you will find no end of tomes on the subject. Everyone wants to teach everyone else how to be a leader, but we spend precious little time talking about how to be a follower. Leaders, we train. Followers, we ignore. Communities need both, of course, and the tricky thing is that in a healthy community the leaders and followers are constantly switching places. It may be that for a community to really thrive members need to see themselves not in static terms “I am a leader” or “I am a follower” but as part of ever-evolving spectrum of leadership-followership. Sometimes I am a leader, and sometimes I follow. Both are valuable, both are important, and the critical thing for me to be honest about is when it is better if I lead, and when it is better if I follow. It is striking that apart from the description in Exodus of selecting these various chiefs and Moses’ recollection here, the Torah never actually describes the chieftains chiefing. That is, it is not clear the system actually worked as it was intended. I can easily imagine how the combination of Moses’ tremendous stature and the people’s strong cultural expectation for one leader akin to Pharaoh could lead to a system that diffused leadership in theory but kept it concentrated in practice. That is, Moses may have though he was delegating, but his chosen leaders were not able to see themselves as anything other than the followers they had always been. Then, at moments of stress for the community, everyone in camp suddenly thought they could a leader better than Moses or Aaron. The result was chaotic and ultimately destructive.
Communities, it seems, need people who can both lead and follow, and have the wisdom to know when they are best suited to which role. This is fiendishly difficult of course, as the people’s disastrous wilderness experiences shows. In the end, communities succeed not because of one leader or another, but because the membrane between the leaders and led is permeable, and because we begin to figure out when to move from one side to another. Camp Ramah in the Berkshires strives to be this sort of community—we strive to be the sort of place that cultivates leaders and followers, we strive to be the sort of place that helps campers and staff understand when they should be one, and when it is okay to be the other. Camp helps to create leaders—this is part of our mission. But we also want to make it okay to follow as well. Most of all, we want to be a place where a camper or a staff member can grow to be the sort of person who can lead or follow, the sort of person who can, along with others, build a thriving, meaningful and transformative community.