Sunday, August 5, 2018

Parashat Ekev: Presence

A Message for Parashat Ekev 2018
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Addressing Am Yisrael during the final days of his life, Moshe remembered the events of het ha-egel. He recalled God’s indication to him at the time that the people had sinned:
“And God said to me: ‘Arise, go down quickly from here, for your people that you brought out of Egypt have acted ruinously…’” (Devarim 9:12)
Removing himself from involvement in Am Yisrael’s redemption from Egypt, God seemingly rebranded Moshe as their sole leader. And when Moshe petitioned on their behalf, he responded to God’s claim by deflecting that role and declaring:
“…And they are Your people and Your estate that you brought out with Your great power and Your outstretched arm.” (9:29)
It appears at first glance as if God and Moshe were taking turns at refusing the responsibility of the nation and its sins. I believe that in reality, however, this conversation represented God’s attempt to redirect Moshe’s approach to leadership at that time.

Interestingly, God was not the first to attribute Moshe with the role of singularly “bringing the nation out of Egypt.” The people of Am Yisrael were. In the moments that led up to het ha-egel, they panicked and turned to Aharon, saying:
“Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” (Shemot 32:1)
God’s reference to Moshe in this manner, then, was merely a reference to the nation’s own misperception. And it was precisely that mistake which had inspired their sin. They had, after all, sought “gods” to replace Moshe because his presence as their leader appeared to them as “a god.” What may have caused this misunderstanding?

Consider a particular detail that Moshe repeatedly mentioned in his retelling of this story:
“When I went up the mountain to take the stone tablets…And I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, no bread did I eat nor water did I drink…” (9:9)
“And I threw myself before God as at first, forty days and forty nights – no bread did I eat nor water did I drink…” (9:18)
“And I threw myself before God the forty days and the forty nights that I threw myself…” (9:25)
A forty-day spiritual rendezvous with God is impossible for the simple man. Moshe – and only Moshe “the man of God” – could engage in that experience. And as he reflected on that time forty years later, Moshe stressed that specific detail in order to signify the rift that had grown between him and the people. Indeed, R. Zvi Grumet described Moshe in this context: “He is no longer merely a man, but someone endowed with near God-like capabilities…This cannot have gone unnoticed by the people.”[1]

Returning to the dialogue with which we began, God’s intended message to Moshe may now take full form. His description of Am Yisrael as “your people that you brought out of Egypt” hinted at the distance that had grown between Moshe and the nation. Moshe was no longer seen by them as “one of us,” but rather as a separate and distant “god.” And the tragic outcome of his failed connection to the nation as a “man of the people” was het ha-egel, when they declared: “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” God’s demand of Moshe after the sin, then, was to undergo a significant change in his approach to leadership. He tasked Moshe with mending his disconnect from the people by making his presence felt and emerging as a “man of the people.”

Leadership expert John P. Kotter distinguished between “management” and “leadership.” He explained that whereas managers organize, leaders align. The potential roles of a football quarterback may demonstrate the difference: A quarterback who describes to his team the next two or three plays is managing. One who explains a totally new approach to the game for the second half of the season, however, is leading. Managers look for the right fit between people and the jobs, by setting up systems to ensure that plans are implemented precisely and efficiently. And management works best in short-term projects. Leadership, in contrast, is involved in long-term projects. A leader searches for the proper fit between people and the vision. He or she communicates the new direction to the individuals who can create coalitions that understand the vision and are committed to its achievement.[2]

Matan Torah had cast Moshe in the distant and limited role of a “national manager.” Consider his descent from the mountain from the vantage point of the nation: He approached them upon return from the superhuman feat of forty days and nights without food or drink while clutching a large set of laws and instructions that he would now transmit to them. He was operating from a distance – almost like a god – as he played out the role of “organizing manager” of the nation.

Reflecting back on that event during the final days of his life, however, Moshe was determined to learn from his experience. He segued from the story of het ha-egel to a demand that displayed his empathetic role as a leader. He addressed the people:
“And now, Yisrael, what does Hashem your God ask of you but to fear Hashem your God in all his ways, to love Him, and to worship Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your being, to keep God’s commands and His statutes that I charge you today for your own good?” … Only your fathers did God desire to love them, and He chose their seed after them, chose you from all the peoples as on this day. (10:12-15)
Stripping away the cold demeanor of a distant pedagogue, Moshe appealed to their emotions. By invoking God’s love of the forefathers and them he was speaking to the people’s hearts – as one of them. Moshe no longer addressed them as a manager who conveyed performance demands, but as a leader who was laying out the broad vision for the future of God’s nation.

[1] R. Zvi Grumet, Moses and the Path to Leadership (Jerusalem, IS, 2014), pg. 75.
[2] John P. Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do, in Harvard Business Review’s Ten Must-Reads on Leadership (Boston, MA, 2011), pg. 46-8.