Leadership in the Wilderness
Everything that I might plausibly have passed off as an example of nature, raw, pure, and untamed was, in truth, nothing but the work of civilized man.
In The Art of Travel, the philosopher Alain de Botton discusses, among other things, the way that travel disorients us.1Alain De Botton, The Art of Travel (New York: Pantheon, 2002). The moment we change our environs, they begin to change us. We may find ourselves reverting to a more childish, less independent self. We may regress emotionally or question who we are existentially. Alternatively, this very questioning may bring about necessary character changes and open up new vistas. We may feel energized and invigorated in a foreign landscape or feel enervated and out of sorts. This transformation often begins with the body and travels to the soul. Our eating and sleeping are not the same. We may find the weather conditions physically challenging or a welcome change. We know that the travel experience, which is often for vacation, is supposed to help us rest and recoup. Yet often the change in our surroundings exhausts us, even when we have voluntarily chosen to travel.
The Art of Travel assumes that there is an art to making a journey and that we can somehow script the experience. But not all travel is self-selected, and very few travel experiences are controlled enough to make an art of them. More often they are full of surprises and unpredictable turns, even when we choreograph each day. Strange languages, smells, tastes, and behaviors fill our senses and generate wonder at how other human beings live, and how changes in demographics and topographies contribute to those differences.
On the surface, the Israelites should have mastered the art of travel in the wilderness. They were the recipients of daily food that came in predictable amounts at predetermined times. They were protected by fire and a cloud. They were told when to go forth to their next location. Their leader regularly communicated with God, the God who saved them from the entrapment of slavery. Yet all of these factors seemed only to contribute to their alienation, rather than to their salvation. They experienced the emotional dizziness of a strange combination: they were free from slavery in a place that was entirely unfamiliar, thus forcing dependency and diminishing any hard-won autonomy. They complained that they could not be self-determining, when they were actually desperate for direction and leadership.
In this regard, the wilderness experience is not unlike organizational structures that constrain individuals for the sake of a collective mission. People fight against hierarchies, but simultaneously need them in order to locate themselves in relation to sources of power. Erich Fromm argued elegantly in Escape from Freedom that people join all kinds of institutions to limit their autonomy, since this will also limit their accountability.2Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969). We say that we want freedom when we really want the liberty to make choices that actually restrict our exercise of freedom. This creates a losing situation for most leaders, since people want to be told what to do while arguing that they should not be told what to do. Anyone who has raised adolescents understands this tension inherently. The leader must offer firm direction in order to fulfill the criteria of leadership – to have followers – but the act of leading will, by virtue of the imposition of power on others, create resistance. The leader continuously negotiates this, aware that he or she will never experience sustainable victory, just minor triumphs along the path to exhaustion.
Situations of ambiguity put additional pressures on this dialectic tension. In familiar surroundings, people take ironic comfort in hierarchies and may experience agitation when others break accepted boundaries or protocols. But in unfamiliar situations, once-reliable infrastructures and accepted divisions can break down. Perceived leaders with established authority who cannot negotiate change often cede their power unwillingly to leaders who can step into the breach and make their way in the dark. Leadership is unpredictable enough without changing the landscape.
Changing the Landscape
The wild – the midbar – is a place of anarchy, unexpected hardships, and harsh physical conditions that can bewilder and swallow visitors. When the Israelites finally fled Egypt, God said that Pharaoh would come after them precisely because they were going to the wilderness: “They are astray in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them” (Ex. 14:3). Pharaoh did not think they could go far, imprisoned as they would be by nature. The wilderness closes in on people. The Hebrew term in the verse, “sagar,” implies a place that treacherously imprisons inhabitants. The landscape locks people in, and they do not come out. God used the very same rationale in having them enter the wilderness in the first place: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God said: ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness” (Ex. 13:17–18). In the wilderness, the Israelites would suffer disorientation and would, therefore, not be able to find their way back to Egypt even if they were to change their minds in fear. Remorse and regret have no place to lodge because the wilderness constrains its inhabitants, punishing them with its sameness, blinding them to exit routes and clarity.
In Hebrew, we call the fourth book of the Pentateuch “Bemidbar” to reflect this chaos, but everything about the book of Numbers is enigmatic, even its title. In English, Numbers is so called because it begins with a census and is even referred to in rabbinic literature as the “Book of the Count.” A census is one way that we organize our world, show responsibility for it, and make an accounting. To confront chaos, humans do the only thing that they can do. They organize themselves and prepare for the uncertainty that they face. The census provided two critical pieces of information: the number of those men between the ages of twenty and sixty who could perform army service, and the number of Levites between the ages of thirty and sixty. The census was not only a way to account for the group; it was also the mechanism by which the human protection and the spiritual salvation of the encampment were enumerated. Numbers are used to categorize, measure, evaluate, and keep track of that which matters. As the Israelites began the second month of the second year of a forty-year journey, God commanded Moses to count them. They were counted multiple times during their desert trek. The leader must make, at regular intervals, a full reckoning of all of his followers.
The Israelites were counted several times before the end of Numbers. Every time such a count is made, we wonder what occasions it; indeed, our intrigue was shared by Bible commentators throughout the ages. In the wilderness, the survival of the morally fittest was worthy of observation. “When the plague was over, the Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community’” (Num. 26:2). Twenty-four thousand people had been killed in a plague in Shittim, the site of Israelite idol worship under the seduction of Moabite women. Such a count was necessary after the plague to assess the casualties of this war against immorality. Indeed, if we scan the book of Numbers, we find that tens of thousands of Israelites had been killed in various plagues and skirmishes, and, as Abraham Ibn Ezra comments, the number of Israelites was depleted nearly by half from the time of their Exodus from Egypt. Looking back, this sea change in population was important to note. It is the most tragic commentary on poor followship (the act of following).
Most commentators, however, relate to the census not as a reflection on the past, but as a signal of what was about to happen in the near future: the children of Israel would soon arrive at the borders of the Promised Land. This event required a count of arms-bearers to ensure a secure army presence. In addition, the Land of Israel was about to be apportioned into plots according to tribes, and the number of individuals in any particular tribe would determine the size of land received. This explains why the verse also included the clause that individuals be counted, “by their ancestral houses” (Num. 26:2). The census assured the Israelites that they were still strong in number and represented a large enough population to settle the land.
The message of a census is that numbers rather than individuals matter. Although a large grouping can create a sense of strength and vitality in an otherwise desolate place, a census often imparts the feeling that individual worth is less significant than tribal affiliation or military might. Rashi, citing a midrash, takes a different view, and it is one that makes the census seem more humane. He first explains, as earlier observed, that the plague had a devastating effect, and the Israelites needed a recount to assess their numbers.3Rashi, Numbers 26:1. He uses a parable to explain. When a shepherd realizes that wolves have found his flock, he counts each and every sheep to see which are left. Rashi’s second explanation continues the theme of the parable. When the children of Israel left Egypt and were trusted to Moses’ care, they were counted. When Moses himself was on the cusp of death, he had to count his sheep again before handing them back to their Creator. Instead of an activity void of names and feelings, the census becomes, in the words of Rashi, an act of love, affection, and accountability on the part of God or Moses or both.
Traveling through the words of commentators, we find that the census was either prompted by a need for salvage after a plague, an act of preparation before entering the Land of Israel, or the last testament of a leader acknowledging that his time had come and that it was time to return the gift with which he had been entrusted. Underpinning all three of these explanations is the idea that counting people takes place before or after a seismic shift. It is, then, in the face of great and uncertain change, that numbers again become important. They provide a physical anchor, a sense of solidity in a time of potential havoc. Numbers need not be regarded as impersonal or irrelevant to the narrative. In Once Upon a Number, John Allen Paulos makes the argument that numbers and words serve each other. “Describing the world may be thought of as an Olympic contest between simplifiers – scientists in general, statisticians in particular – and complicators – humanists in general, storytellers in particular. It is a contest both should win.”4John Allen Paulos, Once Upon a Number (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 16. Our numbers help tell the story of leadership.
Numbers ground leaders in reality. But wilderness – midbar – defies all that the word “numbers” signifies. One book has two titles that wrestle each other and reveal two contradictory faces of the biblical text.
Order. Anarchy. Numbers. Fear. Freedom. Hunger. Independence. Loneliness. These struggles and others are present in the midbar – a place of beauty, escape, and self-destruction – and are everywhere imprinted on the pages of the Hebrew Bible. The wilderness is a place of liberation, expansiveness, passion, contemplation, and divine protection. In the book of Nehemiah, God’s grace peaked in the wilderness:
You, in Your abundant compassion, did not abandon them in the wilderness. The pillar of the cloud did not depart from them to lead them on the way by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to give them light in the way they were to go. You endowed them with Your good spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold Your manna from their mouth; You gave them water when they were thirsty. Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness so that they lacked nothing; their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell. (Neh. 9:19–21)
In this depiction, the Israelites were not lost, but were offered careful guidance in both light and dark. All of their material needs were tended to, and all of the usual problems they might have anticipated on such a journey were avoided. Harsh weather did not eat away their clothes, even as the years passed. Seemingly endless perambulation did not swell their feet. Every provision was divinely provided. They were in good spirits for decades. They experienced no longing. They had utter dependence on a God who nurtured them with intimacy. A midrash that supports this reading describes the Israelites in the wilderness as if they were walking in a spiritual dreamscape: “They looked as if in a state of ecstasy.”5Bava Batra 74a, attributed to Rabba bar bar Hana.
This portrait, however, does not corroborate with large swaths of the Numbers narrative. In the text, the wilderness was also a place where nutritional sources were limited and cravings went unsatisfied. The Israelites had no idea where they were or how long they would be there. The desert snared its travelers, who found themselves lost and meandering, without the assiduous direction-setting described in Nehemiah’s revision. Feet did ache. Throats were parched. Hearts were wracked with the weight of failure. Bodies were consumed with despair. Leaders wept in hopelessness.
Out of the three seminal protagonists who forged the Exodus – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – two died in the book of Numbers, and all three died in the wilderness. Moses died alone, buried in a valley overlooking a place of Israelite debauchery. Miriam’s death catches us completely by surprise in the opening of Numbers 20 and merits only a clause in one verse: “and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron” (Num. 20:1–2). There is no recorded communal burial. It is as if the sands quickly covered her, as the Israelites marched on, complaining insensitively about their unquenchable thirst to two fresh mourners.6The well-known midrash that opens the account of Miriam’s death in Numbers 20 spins the narrative into a positive reading of what sounds like an ignominious end, by juxtaposing Miriam’s death with the lack of water, crediting a well in Miriam’s honor that disappeared when she died. But even this “consolation prize” cannot distract the reader from the brutal reality of the text. No one but her brothers mourned her; the Israelites were too self-absorbed in their physical needs to notice. The woman who, as a young girl, watched over the Israelites’ chief savior and ensured his early nurturing, the woman who led the women in joyous song later as the Israelites crossed the sea, suffered a cruel death of indifference. The wilderness even devoured human compassion. As death became a looming reality, the grieving brothers barely picked up their heads at the loss. Miriam was one of many, an entire generation who disappeared into oblivion. The text informs us of the fate of tribes who were poised to conquer the land: “Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest when they recorded the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness’” (Num. 26:64–65). Tens of thousands died in the midbar, fulfilling God’s prediction: “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘I will do to you just as you have urged Me. In this very wilderness shall your carcasses fall’” (Num. 14:28–29). The verse offers a visual shock: littered on the desert floor were the bones of those who once journeyed to freedom. Carcasses fell in the wilderness without name or marker, affirming the observations of one scholar: “The omission of particular, discrete sites of burial has the effect of turning the wilderness in its entirety into a vast and terrible burying ground.”7Adriane B. Leveen, “Falling in the Wilderness: Death Reports in the Book of Numbers,” Prooftexts 22, no. 3 (2002): 262.
Bible scholar Robert Cohn notes that in the wilderness texts, there was not one single birth recorded.8Robert L. Cohn, The Shape of Sacred Space: Four Biblical Studies (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), 16. And we wonder as we read this fact how we did not notice this before. Contrast this with the introduction to Exodus, which records the Israelite population growing with reptilian fecundity:9See Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in The Particulars of Rapture (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 19, on the almost unnatural growth in the first chapters of Exodus, encapsulated by the verse’s choice of verb, “vayishretzu” (they swarmed): “This can mean the blessing of extraordinary increase; but it connotes a reptilian fecundity, which introduces a bizarre note in the description of human fertility…‘vayishretzu’ is a repellent description for a family fallen from greatness.” “The Israelites were fertile and prolific [vayishretzu]; they multiplied and increased very greatly so that the land was filled with them” (Ex. 1:7). Oppression only augmented their numbers in the first real fulfillment of the Genesis promise to be fruitful and multiply: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that they [the Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites” (Ex. 1:12). It is hard to imagine in any subsequent period of Jewish history that a host country would fear the Jews because of their numerical strength. Yet the punishing conditions of Egypt did not serve as an obstacle to fertility in the only biblical text to make good on the Abrahamic promise to make the Israelites “too many to count.” Egypt, a place regarded in the Bible as one of sustenance, sexuality, and plenty, stimulated a commitment to birth, even as Pharaoh’s decree was designed to minimize the national growth spurt. The midbar, a place regarded in the Bible as a desolate wasteland, shriveled the Israelites into a fraction of their count in a place of relative freedom. In the Korah rebellion, the earth actually swallowed the mutinous, and in an almost dismissively brief postscript to the Moabite seduction of Numbers 25, the text concludes: “Those who died of the plague numbered 24,000” (Num. 25:9). In a space large enough and expansive enough to hold a nation, the Israelites gradually shrunk in size until not one of the generation who left Egypt – except for Moses (who completed the journey but was denied entry), Joshua, and Caleb – made it out alive. Desolation breeds isolation.
Adriane Leveen notes the jarring change from Numbers’ hopeful beginnings once death is introduced on this scale:
While Numbers narrates the variety of ways in which people die it only records the burial of members of the generation once, with extreme brevity (cf. Nums. 11:34). The lack of specificity when it comes to the people’s location at the end of their lives is especially startling when contrasted to the introduction of that very same generation at the opening of Numbers. Those who were so meticulously accounted for – each tribe named, numbered and assigned a specific placement around the tabernacle in the camp – are now left, in their deaths, unburied and unmarked somewhere in the wilderness.10Leveen, “Falling in the Wilderness,” 246–47.
The midbar was a place of terror and anarchy that tried men’s souls, weakened the strong, and emasculated those who thought themselves invincible. Just as fiercely as it was a place that created intense bonds of intimacy did it put relationships to the test. Psalms 106:14 censures those in the midbar: “They were seized with craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the wasteland.” In Psalms 78:40, the midbar was a place of desolation: “How often did they defy Him in the wilderness, did they grieve Him in the wasteland!” The desert was a place of flash floods and ravenous beasts. It was a place of loss, plagues, and death. Everywhere in the book of Numbers were the casualties of the wilderness, like bone-white animal carcasses decomposing into the sand.
Planning for Uncertainty
How did a journey of such promise turn so quickly into a death march? How did the sands of refuge and freedom become the spiritual quicksand of a generation, swallowing its rebellious travelers and confounding its most heroic leaders? This book is divided into three sections that incrementally illustrate a response to these questions and, in so doing, offer a leadership map for negotiating clouds, swamps, and tracts of wilderness. Each section corresponds with one of the three steps to leadership outlined below and presents the major and minor events of the book of Numbers to trace how successful leadership in the wilderness is eventually accomplished through trial and error. Immersing ourselves in this wilderness narrative will allow us to trace these steps and learn its lessons far away in time and place.
The three steps to leadership in unstable times build on each other:
1. Prepare for uncertainty while accepting the insecurity of transitions. Every transition involves loss. Transitions are, by their very nature, unstable and temporary. The best way to make them tolerable and help followers sustain patience is to prepare the people to control what they can, and offer a vision of the future that is as specific as possible. Leaders can help followers understand the perils and insecurity of uncertainty. Instability is normal. The leader must articulate this.
2. Anticipate the breakdown of leadership. The leader must prepare to be challenged. This development may take years but, once it surfaces, it can swallow leaders almost immediately. Even leaders who can create a viable picture of the future may find themselves questioned by the very followers who once offered support if the vision takes too long to materialize. When abstract promises do not soon yield real dividends, people begin to protest, and the unrest can devolve into violence. Forty years of waiting and walking represented the outer limit of any personal or collective patience, even though radical social transformations often take a generation or more to come to fruition.
3. After transition, leaders need to rebuild and reestablish trust. Trust is fragile, but it can be regained by renegotiating the relationship of leader with follower. Without trust, there is no real future for the leader. The leader must help followers understand the negative costs of impatience and reinforce the vision in the wake of a leadership breakdown. The leader must be able to show followers his or her capacity for both survival and flexibility. In times of transition, the rigid leader is the failed leader. The future is usually built by those executing the vision and those resisting it.
The process of leading in times of uncertainty can involve a change of followers or leaders or both. Many leaders are unwilling or unable to lead differently as leadership needs evolve. The vision overtakes them or followers protest to the point of overturning the leader’s authority. Many followers resist leaders until they make themselves irrelevant. The vision is actualized but with a new set of followers who are more disciplined and future-oriented. Transformation efforts of all kinds require adaptability and the capacity to be nimble while not compromising on the integrity of the end point. It is hard to find this in a leader. It is harder to find this in followers. But when we do, we just might find ourselves on the edge of the Promised Land.