web analytics
July 1, 2015 / 14 Tammuz, 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post


Leadership Beyond Despair

Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, is remarkable for the extreme realism with which it portrays human character. Its heroes are not superhuman. Its non-heroes are not archetypal villains. The best have failings; the worst often have saving virtues. I know of no other religious literature quite like it.

This makes it very difficult to use biblical narrative to teach a simple, black-and-white approach to ethics. And that, argued Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (Mevo ha’Aggadot), is why rabbinic midrash often systematically re-interprets the narrative so that the good become all-good and the bad all-bad. For sound educational reasons, midrash paints the moral life in terms of black and white.

Yet the plain sense remains (“A biblical passage never loses its plain interpretation” Shabbat 63a), and it is important that we do not lose sight of it. It is as if monotheism brought into being at the same time a profound humanism. God in the Hebrew Bible is nothing like the gods of myth. They were half-human, half-divine. The result was that in the epic literature of pagan cultures, human heroes were seen as almost like gods: semi-divine.

In stark contrast, monotheism creates a total distinction between God and humanity. If God is wholly God, then human beings can be seen as wholly human – subtle, complex mixtures of strength and weakness. We identify with the heroes of the Bible because, despite their greatness, they never cease to be human, nor do they aspire to be anything else. Hence the phenomenon of which the sedrah of Beha’alotecha provides a shattering example: the vulnerability of some of the greatest religious leaders of all time, to depression and despair.

The context is familiar enough. The Israelites are complaining about their food: “The rabble among them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’ ” (Numbers11:4-6).

This is not a new story. We have heard it before (see, for example, Exodus 16). Yet on this occasion, Moses experiences what one can only call a breakdown:

“He asked the Lord: Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? … I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how You are going to treat me, put me to death right now – if I have found favor in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin” (Numbers 11:11-15).

Moses prays for death! He is not the only person in Tanach to do so. There are at least three others. There is Elijah, when, after his successful confrontation with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, Queen Jezebel issues a warrant that he be killed:

“Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’ ” (I Kings 19:3-4).

There is Jonah, after God had forgiven the inhabitants of Nineveh:

“Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’ ” (Jonah 4:1-3).

And there is Jeremiah, after the people fail to heed his message and publicly humiliate him:

“O Lord, You enticed me, and I was enticed; You overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me … The word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long … Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, made him very glad, saying, ‘A child is born to you – a son!’ … Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:7-18).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Leadership Beyond Despair”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
Pro-Israel Group: Tell Chuck Schumer Not to Cave [video]
Latest Judaism Stories
Staum-062615

Amalek, our ultimate foe, understood that when unified, we are invincible and indestructible.

Torat-Hakehillah-logo-NEW

Perhaps on a deeper level, the mitzvah of parah adumah at this junction was not just to purify the body, but the spirit as well.

Rabbi Avi Weiss

Halacha isn’t random; it’s a mechanism guiding individuals and society to a higher ethical plateau.

Q-A-Klass-logo

Question: Should we wash our hands in the bathroom with soap and water, or by pouring water from a vessel with handles three times, alternating hands? I have heard it said that a vessel is used only in the morning upon awakening. What are the rules pertaining to young children? What is the protocol if no vessel is available? Additionally, may we dry our hands via an electric dryer?

Harry Koenigsberg
(Via E-Mail)

Less clear, however, is whether the concept applies to the area of civil law such as the law of transfer of property.

The greatest of men, Moshe, had to wait for Hashem to sprinkle purifying waters on Bnei Yisrael to mark the conclusion of the period of death.

My Plate, My Food
‘My Loaf Is Forbidden To You’
(Nedarim 34b)

Of Chukkim “Satan and the nations of the world made fun.” They may appear irrational & superstitious

I realized from this story that I was sent as a messenger from above. Hashem has many helpers in this world to help do his work.

Tosafos answers that nevertheless the sprinkling is a part of his taharah process.

“What difference does that make?” replied Shraga. “What counts is the agreement that we made. I said two hundred fifty and you accepted.”

Zaidie’s legacy of smiles and loving words was all but buried with him, now the family fights over $

Israel’s complaining frustrated Moshe, making it increasingly hard for him to lead effectively

Dovid’s musical Torah teachings were designed to penetrate the soul and the emotions.

It occurred to me, as my brain rattled in my skull on a two-hundred mile ride through rural Virginia, that our souls work in much the same way.

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Of Chukkim “Satan and the nations of the world made fun.” They may appear irrational & superstitious

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Heaven answered Moshe dramatically. He was proved right. End of revolt. End of story- Not at all…

There’s no obligation TO wear tzitzit; opting to wear them symbolizes free acceptance of the mitzvot

Sadly, we’re no longer an edah; We’ve fissured and fractured: Orthodox & Reform; religious & secular

The desert, with its unearthly silence & emptiness, is the condition in which the Word can be heard

This week’s parshah inspired the Jubilee 2000 initiative leading to debt cancellation of $34 biilion

Rambam: Eating blood’s forbidden because connected to idolatry;Ramban: We’re affected by what we eat

There is something quite distinctive about the biblical approach to time.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/leadership-beyond-despair/2013/05/22/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: