Illusions, Delusions and Leadership – B’shalach. Exodus 13:17−17:16
The story of the Israelites flight from Egypt, crossing the Sea of Reeds, looting the bodies of the drowned Egyptians and making their way across the Sinai is so well known that it requires no rehearsal even for non-Jews and non-Christians. Cecil B. DeMille and Disney took care of that. So I will zero in on only two verses and related items, though I could also discuss Moses’ magic in more detail as when he struck the rock and brought forth water.
The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud and the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night. (Exodus 14:19-20).
When and why does the angel of leadership shift from the front of the line to the back? What does a cloud of mist, also moving from front to back, tell us about leadership? And the darkness? What is this business about casting a spell on the night? Is that just poetic license or does it have some significance? It seems to have served a very functional purpose – separating the Egyptian army from what is now referred to as the army of Israel. What kind of army is it if the people in that army bear no arms? But, of course, a community of ants is also referred to as an army.
David Brooks also wrote on leadership this past week. (NYT, 19 January 2016, “Time for a Republican Conspiracy!”) For Brooks, neither Trump nor Cruz, the two leading candidates for the presidency, have a chance in hell of winning. Why? First of all, because both are men who would endanger rather than protect their own nation, the latter being the first requirement of leadership. Second, from different vantage points, authoritarian populism (Trump) or Tea Party terrorism (Cruz), solipsism (Trump) or inflated egoism (Cruz), neither has any contact with reality. Trump builds castles in the sky; Cruz destroys structures on the ground.
What did Brooks call on the leadership of the Republican Party to do? First organize – involve the membership in collective action using the internet and community rallies to get behind a single candidate not dedicated to tearing the party and then the country apart. Why have Trump trumped and Cruz cruised? Because less-educated voters are, in Brooks words, “in a tidal-wave of trauma.” For America, it is because labor force participation is dropping, wages are sliding, heroin addiction is rising, faith in American institutions is dissolving. This is simply an elaboration of what Barack Obama in his 2016 State of the Union Address regretted he had not solved, reaching out and overcoming the alienation of these Americans.
But if these factors traumatized Americans, what happened to the Israelites who left both the horror as well as the security of slavery? And then to have your male children killed only to go through a series of plagues and praying you will emerge unscathed. Then fleeing with the whole Egyptian army behind you and escaping by the skin of your teeth as the literal tidal-wave of trauma drowned those Egyptians just as you barely made it to dry land. Talk about trauma! That’s trauma.
But that was just the trauma of the conditions from which they were fleeing. What about the challenges they faced? In flight, they were also being bounced back between hope and despair. They were going to a promised land. And where were they? In a place seemingly without any obvious food and water – in the Sinai desert! So, although God had set the ultimate destination, even if Israelites retained faith in that – and that was far from certain – could they trust the angel as a navigator, as a strategist, to choose the best path to that goal? So a pillar of cloud separated the column of Israelites and the angel. But they also sank into despair in looking behind, for the army of Pharaoh was pursuing them. So the angel and the cloud pillar shifted from leading from the front to leading from the rear
If you want a leadership challenge, that is it. Candidates for the American presidency have it remarkably easy by comparison. But the story does tell us very clearly the three different types of challenges faced by leaders:
- In ordinary times, you lead from the middle. That is when the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the symbol of God’s leadership for the Israelites must be carried in the midst of the people. But this was not an ordinary time.
- In other times, when threats from man or nature have subsided relatively, but the biggest danger is an uncertain future, then you have to balance hope and fear; too much hope and one’s constituency becomes indifferent and insensitive to the fears that lay beneath the ground on which they are walking; too much fear and they are paralyzed. Obama was a leader who overemphasized hope to win the presidency and could never recover and win everyone’s faith that he has a very realistic assessment of the fears underneath and for the future they faced and for which he needed to stir the American fighting spirit.
- At still other time a leader deliberately moves to the back as he or she recognizes powerful enemies are preparing to strike at the rear and the leader must give sufficient hope to prevent them falling into despair, but prop up enough fighting spirit to ensure a victory in battle, for the enemies are real and pose a terrible existential danger.
So how does Brook’s recipe for leadership compare to the challenges facing God and Moses? The Israelites faced an existential threat. Americans do not. The country’s largest threat comes from the divisions within, not the mad fanatical terrorists living on the fringes of society and on the fringes of the civilized world. The challenge may have been much greater for the Israelites, but the requirements of leadership may be constant.
As I diagnose the requirements of leadership as put forth in the Torah, the first principle is demarcating what the challenges are that must be faced by the people you lead. Are they everyday challenges which require leadership from the centre when the Mishkan in normal times, is carried in the midst of the people? If there is a tremendous danger, is it one that faces us or one that is coming up our rear?.
Those are the different challenges leaders face and the right leader must be chosen for the challenge at hand. Thus, there is no universal formula for selecting a leader, but the leader must have the following attributes and skills to meet any of these challenges. When Parashat B’shalach opens, God is dividing the Reed Sea to deliver the Israelites from slavery to freedom and drown their enemies. Celebration and exultation are in store.
“The Lord is my strength and might; He has become my deliverance (Exodus 15:2)
This soon gives way to despair as the Israelites recognize they have no food and water sufficient to move forward
“For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:3)
God delivers manna. Moses does not take the credit for recognizing the cocoon of the parasitic beetle Trehala, manna from which trehalose gets its name. These are cocoons which are found hanging from thorn bushes in the Middle East. God responds by sending manna to earth out of nowhere, as if it came from heaven, the white crystalline carbohydrate made of two glucose molecules joined together and one of a very few naturally occurring molecules that taste sweet. The first obligation of a leader is to be able to understand what is in this earth and how to get at it to provide sufficient food security for his people, sufficient nutritious food and water. Think of both the imagination and the courage required of the natives of Borneo to harvest the nests of sparrows from the walls of the deepest caves in the world, nests made from sparrow saliva that provide the rich and nutritious ingredients of bird’s nest soup found in the finest Chinese restaurants. Manna was “white like coriander seed and tasted like a wafer made with honey.”
“When the fall of dew lifted, there over the surface of the wilderness,
lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.” (Exodus 16:14)
But it is not enough for a leader to recognize the nourishment this planet provides, but it must be distributed so that there is sufficient for each person to have his or her basic needs filled. The principle for the distribution of the manna was to each according to his needs. (Exodus 16:17-18)
When some thinkers suggest that the requirements of leadership do not depend on the position from which one governs or the different challenges peoples face at different times, they are wrong. True leadership is not simply defined by “the possession of a strong character, a clear vision, flexibility, and an ability to react to a crisis at a moment’s notice.” Rather, it is to be in the right place at the right time and, an important ‘and’, an ability to analyze how to meet the challenge. Some leaders are better at fighting. Other leaders are better at achieving consensus. Still others excel in understanding challenges that face a society and devising the innovations necessary to meet those challenges.
Note further that the cocoon of the parasitic beetle cannot be stored, cannot serve a capitalist economy which depends on accumulating and storing goods to be sold at the right time for the right price when demand is high. For manna within two days waxed hot and melted, rotted and filled with worms. This was fortuitous when a centrally directed polity might have otherwise been necessary to ensure enough food was stored away in good times to meet forthcoming shortages, as in the case of Joseph advising the Pharaoh. What was needed at that time were practices that forged a people into a nation. The manna, the “fine, flake-like thing” like frost and white like coriander seed that the Israelites ground and pounded into cakes and then baked into wafers as if they had been made with honey, was perfect for that time and place.
|Invention, innovation and discovery do not only mean uncovering something very original, but also finding new uses for an old product. Thus, manna, tetrahalose, was discovered by Bruce Roser to be excellent as a preservative for antibodies, vaccines, enzymes and blood coagulation that is so beneficial for Third World countries without refrigeration. In its natural condition, manna, however, can last just two days, sufficient to provide for both Friday meals and shabat, but not any longer.
And it came to pass that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one; and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. (Exodus 16:22)
This portion of the Torah teaches us another lesson about leadership; it is best carried out by a division of responsibility and a division of power. Power was divided among God; the angel; Moses and Aaron. Aaron was the prophet, the one who delivered the bad news and was the tough cop when dealing with enemies. Moses provided the political leadership for the people, the role generally identified with leadership. But leadership also requires a strategist and the angel served the role of navigator. God provided the vision and ultimate goal. There is one other part of leadership which Obama pointed out in his 2016 State of the Union speech. Leaders cannot lead alone. Leaders cannot lead unless the people follow. And the people need one of them to witness to the truth, like Nachshon ben Aminadav who raced to the front and jumped fearlessly into the sea leading his tribe of Judah to follow him.
When all these ingredients are in place, Amalek, the eternal enemy, can and will be defeated.
So be wary of pieties that insist on only one kind of leadership and one kind of character providing such a leadership – such as restricting leadership to the role of God in the Exodus story, providing goals and values, providing an eternal vision and serving as a protector who neither slumbers nor sleeps. God is insufficient.
So how accurate and perceptive was David Brooks about leadership in the Republican Party? If the membership and institutional leadership consists only of those who surrender and those who jump on what appears to be the fastest train, there is no chance. However, if the Party has to rely only on tacticians, then a Trump or a Cruz can win because, whatever their destructive propensities, they offer magic and spells. Brooks also wrote that, “What’s needed is a coalition that combines Huey Long, Charles Colson and Theodore Roosevelt: working-class populism, religious compassion and institutional reform.”
Brooks confuses the need for spells and magic with populism. Populism is precisely the inability to differentiate between charms and spells, between fakery and the true magic of discovery and innovation. Brooks is correct that the Party needs concrete policies that serve the people, policies consistent with conservatism, but a conservatism that is also progressive, such as, “ideas to help the working class, like wage subsidies, a higher earned-Income tax credit, increased child tax credits, subsidies for people who wanted to move in search of work and exemption of the first $20,000 in earnings from the Medicaid payroll tax.” These will not be found by fake leaders who offer a pig in a poke in a quasi-authoritarian guise with its central metaphor of a wall rather than a path on solid ground through the tidal waves of stormy waters. Leaders who growl at the world only offer anger and exclusion of the other rather than a leading light and hope with which to march into the future.
I myself think it is probably too late for the Republican Party until the Party encounters an overwhelming defeat, a severe trauma. For the Republicans have been the engineers of their own self-destruction trying to create a polity on a foundation of resentment, which Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out was the key driver of disaster. When a civilized and sensitive Republican, leader like Nikki Haley can only mouth the clichés of the cold and compassionateless right, then it has been infected with a disease that could be immune to any known antibiotic. Any party that denies social science in its attacks on Obamacare, that denies natural science in the attacks against those who recognize the significance of climate change, does not want to govern, but only destroy. It is a party that offers only resentment and divisiveness and is beyond saving itself at this time. For its products are illusions and delusions: cutting taxes, losing jobs and increasing the deficit and the national debt. It is the know-nothing party of our day.
With the help of Alex Zisman