WHEN A LEADER ERRS IN JUDGEMENT
As I write these words, the Prime Minister has just announced his resignation. As support whittled away, Boris Johnson found himself in office but not in power. The cumulative effect of a number of errors of judgement made his position no longer tenable.
Even the greatest leaders are vulnerable to errors of judgement. In this week’s parasha, the people are dying of thirst. G-d tells Moses to take the staff and speak to the rock to provide water. This would have been a powerful demonstration of G-d’s concern for His people’s needs. Instead, rather than speaking to the rock, Moses strikes it. Twice. Water miraculously spouts forth but it looks as though Moses has simply released an underground spring.
G-d severely criticizes Moses. He has missed the opportunity of sanctifying Him before the people. He tells Moses that as a result, he will forfeit the right to take the people into the land of Israel.
Why did Moses get it wrong?
One obvious question: If Moses was supposed to speak to the rock, why is G-d commanding him to take his staff? Surely that indicates he was supposed to use it! Indeed, forty years previously, when were in the desert without water, that’s exactly what G-d told Moses to do: take your staff and hit the rock to provide water.
Rashbam (France, 12th cent.) tells us we need to read the text carefully to find the answer.
On the previous occasion, G-d told Moses: “…take your staff, with which you struck the Nile… strike the rock, and water will come out of it,” (Shemot 18:5-6).
This time round, G-d tells Moses: “Take the staff and, together with your brother, Aaron you should assemble the congregation. In their presence speak to the rock so that it will give forth its water.” (Bamidbar 21:8)
Rashbam explains that the staff that is being referred to here is the one that has been spoken about only recently. In last week’s parasha we read that after the downfall of Korach and his supporters, the leaders of each tribe were asked to bring staffs and leave them in the Tabernacle overnight. Of all the twelve sticks it was Aaron’s staff that sprouted shoots, flowers and almonds. From that day onwards, it remained in the Tabernacle.
The first staff, used to initiate the plagues, was a staff of punishment. The second staff that had sprouted almonds, was a staff of life. The generation of newly-liberated slaves needed a message of G-d’s power to quell their complaints. The generation about to enter the land of Israel needed a message of life-affirmation and encouragement. Sadly, Moses failed at this critical juncture.
When a leader loses touch with the needs of his people, it is time for him to go.