June 24, 1999
Lessons in Leadership
Parashat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)
When I was 16, I was elected president of my synagogue youth group. I will never forget that feeling of euphoria that accompanied the victory. But I also remember how I felt the very next day after the excitement and thrill of the victory had already started to wear off. I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming feeling of fear and near panic. "Oh my God," I remember thinking, "now I am the one responsible for whether this entire program and youth group is successful or not. How am I going to know what to do?"
I realized then as I have so many times in so many different leadership roles since, that no one ever said it was easy to be a leader. In fact, if there has been one consistent message about leadership ever since Moses first reluctantly accepted the job of leading the Israelites out of slavery, it has been that if you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing no one.
In this week's portion, we find our Israelite ancestors doing one of the things they do best in the Torah -- kvetching! Once again, they complain to Moses and Aaron that they don't have enough water, that they would have rather stayed in Egypt than to be brought to into the desert to die. And when God tells Moses that if he speaks to the rock in front of all the people, it will bring forth water enough for them to drink and give to their animals as well, he is so sick and tired and frustrated by 40 years of listening to their complaints that he strikes the rock twice in anger and yells at them instead.
Even though water poured out anyway and everyone had enough to drink, God recognized the angry reaction of Moses as a sign that he was no longer fit for the awesome and challenging job of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. In fact, the Torah teaches us that when a leader (Moses in this case) attacks his or her own people and lashes out in their sight in anger, such an act diminishes the sanctity and esteem of God in their sight as well. Striking the rock in anger was like slapping the very face of God in public.
Moses was losing it as a leader. His patience was shot. He couldn't control his anger, and so God was smart enough to remove him from leadership and deny him entrance into the Promised Land. No one ever said that being a leader was easy.
During this past week, I have thought about the year I was elected youth group president, the subsequent year in that challenging leadership role, and all the leadership positions I have been privileged to hold in the Jewish community. You see, the congregation for which I was elected youth group president was Temple B'nai Israel in Sacramento -- the same temple that was firebombed by anti-Semitic arsonists just a week ago. I used to sit and prepare youth programs on peace and freedom, on tzedakah and healing the world in that very same library that was totally destroyed and nearly burned to the ground just days ago, by someone filled with hatred and anger and fear.
My synagogue in Pacific Palisades began immediately to collect money and Jewish books to help B'nai Israel rebuild its destroyed library and chapel. For, as we have done for the past 4,000 years, when the fire is out and the smoke has cleared, we will rebuild our sacred homes together, and once again join in singing the traditional words for entering a sanctuary that is immortalized in this week's Torah portion: "How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel."
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.