General George Marshall became the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff in 1939. With a keen understanding that the United States would eventually be drawn into the war that had just erupted in Europe, he set out to rebuild and modernize the army. This was no easy task. Besides the normal difficulties inherent in such an undertaking, Marshall had to do it against the wishes of many influential isolationists. Even President Roosevelt was reluctant to upset the country’s isolationists for fear that battling them would undermine his New Deal.
In addition to building up the ranks of the enlisted men, modernizing weaponry, and updating doctrine, Marshall cleaned house in the upper levels of leadership. In October 1939, a mere month after being sworn in to office, Marshall lamented to a journalist that, “The present general officers of the line are for the most part too old to command troops in battle under the terrific pressure of modern war. Most of them have their minds set in outmoded patterns, and can’t change to meet the new conditions they may face if we become involved in the war that’s started in Europe” (as quoted in The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks, 2012, pp. 32-33).
To pave the way for a new generation of leaders, by the fall of 1941 Marshall had cashiered 31 colonels, 117 lieutenant colonels, 31 majors and 36 captains. By the time America entered the war, Marshall had forced into retirement some 600 officers (p. 33). The leaders who replaced them were put through high-pressure ordeals to ascertain their readiness for combat command. Marshall explained his plan as follows. “I was going to put these men to the severest tests which I can devise in time of peace. I’m going to start shifting them into jobs of greater responsibility than those they hold now…. Then I’m going to change them, suddenly, without warning, to jobs even more burdensome and difficult…. Those who stand up under the punishment will be pushed ahead. Those who fail are out at the first sign of faltering” (p.35).
In this new group of leaders Marshall looked for such things as physical strength and stamina, optimistic outlook, energetic determination and good common sense (p.25). He found these qualities in men like Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton. Marshall understood that to win wars the soldiers at the front needed to have the best leadership possible. This was Marshall’s guiding vision and he relieved officers accordingly—even if they had been friends and acquaintances of his for years.
Leaders need to pick the right middle-level leaders to help them move their organizations forward. Giving responsibility to those who don’t have the right vision, skill set or character traits for the particular job they are responsible for will only hinder an organization’s progress. We see the importance of making effective personnel choices in this week’s parsha when we are introduced to the anonymous group of Bnei Yisrael’s elders.
Initially, after informing the elders and Bnei Yisrael about the forthcoming redemption, Moshe, Aharon and the elders set out to demand from Pharaoh the release of the Israelites from bondage. However, when the Torah describes the actual confrontation in Pharaoh’s palace the pasuk (5:1) omits mention of the elders. The obvious question: what happened to them? Rashi comments that as the elders approached the palace and the reality of the situation became clear they began to slip away, one by one. By the time Moshe and Aharon arrived at the palace they were by themselves. Rashi explains that as a consequence of the elders’ behavior and lack of courage they were prevented from approaching Har Sinai with Moshe.
Rav Zalman Sorotskin, in his commentary Oznaim L’Torah, points out that the elders already suffered in Egypt as a result of their failure to accompany Moshe. Later in the perek the Torah relates how, upon receiving word of Pharaoh’s decree that the Israelites would now have to find their own straw to make the bricks, the elders were forced to approach Pharaoh and plead with him to give them straw. In the end the elders had to face the mighty king anyway—but it was now to beg, not to demand.
I believe these explanations offer us insight into what was the essential leadership shortcoming of the elders. It wasn’t that they were bad leaders per se. Rather, they were only effective local and immediate leaders. Their priority was making the best of Bnei Yisrael’s current abysmal situation. Whereas Moshe and Aharon were great visionaries looking to a bright future when Bnei Yisrael would be guided by the Torah, the elders were focused on the next sunrise. Whereas Moshe and Aharon exhibited the courage necessary to lead a nation into the desert and forge a brand new world, the elders had to show deference to the Pharaoh who could deny their people the next meal. Whereas Moshe and Aharon thought strategically, the elders were trapped in the tactical decisions of the moment, namely, where would they get the straw to make the bricks.
Ultimately, Moshe realized that these elders could not be the ones to lead Bnei Yisrael into the Promised Land. They would be forever stuck in the mud of Egypt. That was their point of reference—end of story. By the time Bnei Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael forty years later they would be led by a bold new generation of leaders, equipped both spiritually and physically to accomplish their mission.
Relieving from office decent people who are no longer up to the job always was and always will be a difficult task. But what’s true for the army is true for all organizations. The young privates at the front who are risking their lives deserve the very best leadership they can get.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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