When It’s Time to Change A Leader: Parashat Chukat

Over the past several weeks, two high profile organizations made stunning changes in leadership. Travis Kalanick, the founder and CEO of UBER, the ride sharing company, was forced to step down as its leader amidst accusations that he has fostered a workplace culture of abuse, discrimination, disrespect of women and sexual harassment. This led the five major investors in Uber to demand that Mr. Kalanick leave his post immediately.

Phil Jackson of the New York Knicks was forced to step down as President of the professional basketball team. Jackson came to the Knicks in 1967 as a player, went on to win eleven championships as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and the LA Lakers, and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Yet, in his three years as President of the Knicks the team got worse. His critics charged that he was wedded to the triangle defense, a system with which he had success as a coach but which most current teams had abandoned in a more up-tempo game. His relationship with players deteriorated as he tried to fit them into a system that did not play to their individual strengths. As his team was losing more and more, he became critical of more successful teams, those that relied on the three point shot, like the two time champion Golden State Warriors. He made poor strategic decisions in trying to build the team. So, after three years of futility, he and the Knicks came to a parting of the ways.

Sometimes the reasons for a change in leadership may be obvious, as in the case of Travis Kalanick of Uber and Phil Jackson of the New York Knicks. They make the newspapers and are exhaustively analyzed by business and sports journalists. Other times the change in leadership is shrouded in mystery, as in the case of Moses and the People of Israel in this weeks’ parasha. For it is in this week’s Torah portion that G-d, the chief investor and most passionate fan,  so to speak, of the Jewish people, decides that the CEO that he appointed over 40 years earlier  to lead this enterprise, Moses, must go. The Jewish people are about to enter the Land of Canaan. But they are thirsty, and complain to Moses. G-d tells Moses come before the people and order a rock to yield water before their very eyes. Instead, Moses takes his rod, assembles the people before the rock, and addresses them. “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses strikes the rock, twice, with his rod, and water gushes forth.

G-d responds to Moses, “Because you did not affirm my sanctity before the Jewish people, you shall not lead them into the Land that I have given them.” And generations upon generations of rabbis and scholars have analyzed and debated the reasons that G-d gave Moses the pink slip.

Generations upon generations of rabbis and scholars have tried to reconcile the harshness of this verdict with the seemingly minor transgressions of Moses in this situation. They recognize that Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it. In this, they acknowledge that Moses did not precisely follow G-d’s command. They recognize that Moses called the people “rebels”. In this he was perhaps not as patient and compassionate as he ought to have been with the people’s complaining. He did address the people saying, “Shall WE get water for you out of the rock?” seemingly taking personal credit for a miracle performed by G-d. But none of these, nor all of them together, seem to be valid reasons for G-d to give Moses his notice. After all, everybody is entitled to a bad day once every 40 years….We all come upon situations where, for one reason or another, we are not at our very best. Where is G-d’s mercy? Where is G-d’s compassion? Where is G-d’s understanding for the enormous burdens that Moses has endured over forty years?  Where is G-d’s appreciation for the sacrifice of his servant, Moses? Where is G-d’s vaunted forgiveness – “slow to anger, abundant in kindness” and so forth and so on.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was the pre-eminent Modern Orthodox rabbi of his generation. He died in 2015 at age of 81. Rabbi Lichtenstein suggests that this episode represents just the beginning of difficulties that Moses will have in relating to the People of Israel throughout the remainder of the Book of Numbers. A daunting gap has opened between the leader, Moses, and the Israelites, the people he is leading. The generation that Moses led out of Egypt has died. Moses is speaking to a younger generation, those who have not known slavery. He was hopeful that this younger generation, born into freedom, would be different from the generations of their parents and grandparents. Yet his hopes are dashed. They gripe about the very same things that their parents and grandparents complained about! The incident at the rock is emblematic of the rift that has grown between Moses and his people. He can no longer lead them.

Several years ago the business magazine, Forbes, published an article entitled “Eight Clear Signs Its Time to Make a Leadership Change”.  One sign is that the leader’s style and approach are outdated. They can no longer inspire and motivate. They themselves have stopped learning and growing. Could it be that Moses style, his way of communicating, was not reaching the new generation? Was he becoming increasingly frustrated with his inability to inspire them? Was this newest generation equally exasperated with his ways?  Another sign that it is time for a leadership change is that the leader begins to mistreat others.  This is a sign the leader feels weak. The leader compensates by becoming abusive in an attempt to make him or herself feel important. In other words, the statement, “Can WE bring water out of the rock” is a sign that Moses feels he is beginning to lose the respect of the younger generation that has grown up in the desert. Finally, there are a number of episodes in the rest of the Book of Numbers where Moses appears to be passive and unable to make a decision. He is no longer influencing the direction of events, but rather, reacting to them. For example, when the Israelites lapse into idolatry at a place called Baal-peor, Moses tells others to deal with the situation. He then goes to the Tabernacle and weeps at its entrance. Seeing ones leader openly display his vulnerabilities — like withdrawing and crying during a crisis –does not inspire confidence and may be another sign that a change is in order.

We can now understand that it was not this one event which caused G-d to replace Moses with Joshua as the Israelites entered the Promised Land. The one event at the rock was simply symbolic of the crisis in leadership that the Israelites were enduring as a new generation arose in the wilderness.

Whether one is 40 years old and leading a modern tech company like Uber, a legendary 71 year old hall-of-famer leading a basketball team, or a 120 year old and leading a holy nation, sometimes a change in leadership is necessary to advance the overall mission of the group. We might feel some sympathy for Moses, but we ought not feel that this change at the top was unjust.

Shabbat Shalom