Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers

            October 2013    
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Book Review

By Jay Levinson

Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers
by Erica Brown
Jerusalem: Maggid Books (2013)

This is another book by Erica Brown with a refreshing look at a biblical text. The author raises interesting points about the reality of the desert in which the Children of Israel wandered for forty years.

On the one hand the desert evokes the impression of freedom, where there is no task master or oppressive government, as there was in Egypt. It is almost an atmosphere of total freedom. Yet, on the other hand the desert can be cruel, subjecting man to a hunt for food and water, and confronting him with the challenges of struggling with nature.

This was the desert to which the Jews were sent. After the miracles of the Exodus their faith was tested, and all too often they failed. Their complaints were many, as were their mistakes.

Moses was the supreme albeit reluctant leader. He never sought the position, never wanted the position. In modern parlance he tried to turn down the job. The Al-mighty, however, was insistent. The job was cast upon him. He had no choice.

Erica Brown has a fascinating analysis of the leadership qualities shown by Moses. He was respected but not really loved. As we read in Numbers 20:29, after Aaron died, "All the House of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days." In Deuteronomy 34:8 where the passing of Moses is described, "The Israelites bewailed Moses. for thirty days." Brown brings down the rabbinical tradition that "all" means that Aaron was popular and beloved; Moses was important and tolerated.

Does a true leader have to be loved by all of his constituents? He book of Esther provs that the contrary is true. In the last verse we are told, "Mordechai.was highly regarded by the multitude of his brethren" --- by most, but not by all.

This book has a unique analysis of Moses' background for leadership. He was born with leadership qualities. He was exposed to leadership in the house of Pharaoh. He learned from his experiences. He had the self-discipline to lead even under the most trying circumstances. Examples are given of all of these traits.

Moses a brilliant tactician, always loyal to the his Creator. First and foremost he deflected authority to the Al-mighty. He was only His servant. In the rebellion of Korach, for example, Moses was careful not to personalize the conflict and argue directly with those who challenged him. Rather, he designed a scenario in which justice would be shown by the Al-mighty.

He was curious. He looked at the burning bush, rather than glance away. He was a man of justice. He slayed the Egyptian task master, even though it was at the price of his own royal position. He controlled his own emotions. The Israelites kept crying and moaning, but Moses never joined their complaining. The people kept quarrelling with him and bickering, but he never let them get the better of him. These are some of the qualities of a true leader.

Moses was not a blind servant. The author tries to show that the Al-mighty grew tired of the constant complaints raised by the Children of Israel. It was Moses who defended them. If the generation of those who left Egypt was not worthy of entering the Promised Land, then their children should be brought there.

There is another point that Brown raises. As times change, situations change. In secular business terms many businesses have failed, because they have failed to adapt to new situations. For example, many pay telephone companies are out of business given the ubiquitous mobile phone. Moses was told that he would join his ancestors and not enter the Promised Land. He was told that times had changed. The era of wandering in the desert was approaching an end. He was, however, a true leader. He prepared his people with new leadership for new challenges, even though he would be (reluctantly) leaving them.

To the very end he was modest. He died in quiet. His burial place is unknown. There is no mausoleum. There is no monument. There is only a tradition of great leadership and faith that we all respect and cherish.

Many books have been written about the wanderings through the desert, but this one is different. It is a pleasant mixture of secular literature about the nature of the desert and the qualities of leadership applied to the biblical text and a well researched selection of traditional rabbinic sources. This reviewer found it hard to put the book down.


from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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