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Parshah Behaalotecha: Moses and the Challenge of Adaptive Leadership


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In this week’s parshah, Moses has a breakdown. It is the lowest emotional ebb of his entire career as a leader. Listen to his words to God:

“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, please go ahead and kill me – if I have found favor in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin” (Numbers 11:11-15).

Yet the cause seems utterly disproportionate to its effect. The people have done what they so often did before. They complain. They say, “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!” (Numbers 11: 5)

Many times before, Moses had faced this kind of complaint from the people. There are several such instances in the book of Exodus, including a very similar one:

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:3).

On these earlier occasions Moses did not give expression to the kind of despair he speaks of here. Usually, when leaders faced repeated challenges, they grow stronger each time. They learn how to respond, how to cope. They develop resilience, a thick skin. They formulate survival strategies. Why then does Moses seem to do the opposite, not only here but often throughout the book of Numbers?

In the chapters that follow, Moses seems to lack the unshakable determination he had in Exodus. At times, as in the episode of the spies, he seems surprisingly passive, leaving it to others to fight the battle. At others, he seems to lose control and becomes angry, something a leader should not do. Something has changed, but what? Why the breakdown, the burnout, the despair?

A fascinating insight is provided by Professor Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University.

Heifetz distinguishes between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. A technical challenge is one where you have a problem and someone else has the solution. You are ill, you go to the doctor, and he diagnoses your condition and prescribes a pill. All you have to do is follow the instructions.

Adaptive challenges are different. They arise when we are part of the problem. You are ill, you go to the doctor, and he tells you that he can give you a pill – but you are going to have to change your lifestyle. You are overweight, out of condition, sleep too little, and are exposed to too much stress. Pills won’t help you until you change the way you live.

Adaptive leadership is called for when the world is changing, circumstances are no longer what they were, and what once worked works no more. There is no quick fix, no pill, no simple following of instructions. We have to change. The leader cannot do it for us.

The fundamental difference between the books of Exodus and Numbers is that in Exodus, Moses is called on to exercise technical leadership. The Israelites are enslaved? God sends signs and wonders, ten plagues, and the Israelites go free. They need to escape from Pharaoh’s chariots? Moses lifts his staff and God divides the sea. They are hungry? God sends manna from heaven. Thirsty? God sends water from a rock. When they have a problem, the leader, Moses – together with God – provides the solution. The people do not have to exert themselves at all.

In the book of Numbers, however, the equation has changed. The Israelites have completed the first part of their journey. They have left Egypt, reached Sinai, and made a covenant with God. Now they are on their way to the Promised Land. Moses’s role is now different. Instead of providing technical leadership, he has to provide adaptive leadership. He has to get the people to change, to exercise responsibility, to learn to do things for themselves while trusting in God instead of relying on God to do things for them.

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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.


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