Thursday, June 19, 2014

Grief and Leadership

Parshat Chukat
Bamidbar 19:1 – 22:1
30 Sivan 5774 / June 27 – 28, 2014

Grief and Leadership
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We all might be familiar with the sequence of events:

- The Israelites complain for water.
- God tells Moshe to ask a rock to release water.
- Moshe hits the rock and brings forth water.
- God punishes Moshe that he can no longer bring the people into the Promised Land.

This story is shattering in a way. Where is God’s forgiveness? Wasn’t Moshe God’s #1 profit? Could Moshe have screwed up so badly by hitting a rock instead of talking to it?

These are difficult questions to answer, though our sages comment that Moshe hitting the rock in anger displayed a quality that would make him unfit to lead the people into the land.

That might be true, but couldn’t Moshe at least see the land of Israel? Couldn’t he have just taken a little stroll across the Jordan River, picked a pomegranate and enjoyed the view? I want the answer to be, “of course!” But this is not what happened. Moshe’s privilege to step foot into the land was stripped.

I was very struck upon reading the portion that in the narrative Miriam dies right before the people complain and Moshe hits the rock. It gives me a new perspective to understand that Moshe was wrapped in grief at that time. Perhaps his anger was not really about the people, rather he was angry as part of the natural process of grieving the loss of his sister. Remember, Miriam saved Moshe from Pharaoh's decree to kill all Jewish male babies way back in the beginning of Exodus. She watched over him and made sure nothing bad would befall him.

Now Moshe has lost his sister, his protector. He is torn apart. I think this is one of the most challenging places for a leader to stand in...How do I deal with my own emotional pain, while having to show up with a level head to greet my congregation/participants/students/clients? Moshe simply was unable to hold this dichotomy. When we are dealing with grief, it is almost impossible not to be overpowered with it.

The road to Israel was not a peaceful path. Joshua leads the Israelites into war. It is a tale of violence and loss. Perhaps, God was protecting Moshe from experiencing more loss. The lesson to be learned is that when facing strong emotions like grief, a leader will know when it is time to take a break, or even to step down. A robust system can sustain itself when roles need to shift and when power needs to be reconfigured. Moshe not entering the land was a clear message that it was time for Moshe to step down as the leader - the system needed restructuring. It is a hard lesson, but deep in wisdom. 


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