Monday, May 13, 2013

Leadership & Revelation at Sinai

I write this blog on erev Shavuot 2013. This year I am teaching at Temple Beth Am during Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which will soon be my new place of employment. This year I chose to explore models of decentralized leadership in Jewish history.

Temple Beth Am Shavuot 2013
I am curious about leadership models in Judaism. Throughout Jewish history, the Israelites/Jews seem to swing between centralized models of leadership (Kings and Priests) and distributed models (Rabbis). I have always been fascinated by the model of Mosaic leadership, as Moshe seems to model both centralized and distributed leadership models throughout his leadership of the Israelites in and out of Egypt and through the desert. Erica Brown explores Moshe's leadership in the dessert in her new book "Leadership in the Wilderness", where she focuses on authority and anarchy in the book of Numbers. I am curious about the experience of Sinai.

So why not start with Moshe at his greatest leadership achievement: The Revelation at Sinai. Does Revelation occur through a process of centralized leadership or distributed leadership? Does it matter?

1. Yitro
The narrative of Revelation doesn't begin with the 10 Commandments. Rather, with a non-Israelite who was not even present for the Revelation. Yitro.

Chapter 18 of Shmot/Exodus begins with Yitro arriving at the Israelite camp, at the mountain of God. He is immediately idetnfiied as a person of authority and leadership, a "priest of Midian". After Moshe welcomes his father-in-law graciously, along with his brother Aaron and all the elders (a leadership pow wow), Moshe goes back to work "judging" the people. Upon observing his son-in-law's exhausting day and night leading the people, he asks:
'What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself alone, and all the people stand around you from morning until evening?' (Exodus, 18:14)
Moshe responds that he is doing his job. he tells them, "When the people come to ME to inquire about God, or matters between man and man, I tell them what I know to be the laws."

Yitro finds this model of leadership very unsatisfactory:
'The thing that you do is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; thou art not able to perform it yourself alone.'
Yitro addresses both the needs of the leader and the people in criticizing this centralized model of leadership.

He suggests an alternative model, shifting Moshe's role to facilitator, educator and ultimate judge, while identifying which men of the people the leadership should be distributed to:
Be there for the people before God, and you bring the causes unto God. And you should teach them the statutes and the laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, that fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring to, but every small matter they shall judge themselves; so shall they make it easier for you and bear the burden with you. 23 If you should do this thing, and God command you to do so, then you shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace.'
Yitro, through his great wisdom of experience, provides a model that addresses his concern for his son-in-law's well being, as well as that of the people. His model primary objective is not change the nature of the judgement, but to provide a systematic design for shifting the burden of leadership from one central figure to be dispersed amongst other able people. Moshe's leadership is still primary, but the burden is shared.

Moshe, acting as a good leader, listen to his father-in-law's advice and implements the model. Yitro, his working being done, and his wisdom shared, departs and goes back to his home, never to be heard from again.

2. Rashi vs. the Ramban
The medieval commentators, Rashi and Ramban present fundamentally different understandings of how to read and interpret biblical text. Their differences are not only rooted in their different approaches to how to analyze and interpret the text, but even a theological difference. This Yitro narrative provides a critical point of contention for them.

In his brilliant expose of the Yitro narrative, Menachem Liebtag explains that this moment in the text is a shift from narrative to instruction. He argues that:
we posit that to enhance our appreciation of Chumash, we must study not only the mitzvot, but also the manner of their presentation. This requires that we consistently pay attention to the 'structure' of the 'parshiot' in Chumash, as well as to their content.
There is a considerable question about where the text adjust chronological progression of the narrative in order to support the communication of the mitzvot (commandments for connectedness). This is often referred to as popularly known as "ein mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah" (there is no chronological order in the Torah).

Leibtag explains the different positions of Rashi and Ramban:
Rashi, together with many other commentators (and numerous Midrashim), consistently holds that "ein mukdam u'm'uchar," while Ramban, amongst others, consistently argues that "yaish mukdam u'm'uchar," i.e. Chumash does follow chronological order.
However, Rashi's opinion, "ein mukdam u'm'uchar," should not be understood as some 'wildcard' answer that allows one to totally disregard the order in which Chumash is written. Rashi holds that the mitzvot in Chumash are organized by topic, i.e. thematically, and not necessarily in the actual chronological order in which God gave them to Moshe Rabbeinu. Therefore, whenever 'thematically convenient,' we find that Rashi will freely 'move' parshiot around.
Ramban argues time and time again that unless there is 'clear cut' proof that a certain parshia is out of order, one must always assume that the events as well as the mitzvot in Chumash are recorded in the same order as they occurred. For example, the commandment to build the Mishkan was given before "chet ha'egel" despite its thematic connection to that event! (See Ramban.
Even though this controversy of "mukdam u'm'uchar" relates primarily to 'parshiot' dealing with mitzvot, there are even instances when this controversy relates to the narrative itself.
Yitro's arrival to the camp, and his role in transforming Moshe's leadership model, presents a prime case of confusion about chronological order. For how could Moshe be sitting in judgement about God's laws prior to having received them through the process of Revelation.

Three possibilities imerge.
  1. Ibn Ezra: Yitro's transformation of Moshe's leadership took place after Revelation (there is no chronological order in the Torah)
  2. Ramban: Yitro's transformation of Moshe's leadership took place before Revelation (arguing that without conclusive proof, the entire narrative took place when it is written
  3. Rashi: Yitro arrive before Revelation, stuck around for the fireworks, and then after Moshe returned with the second set of tablets transformed Moshe's model of leadership.
 Leibtag points out that these medival commentators follow a progression of logic when a narrative appears to be 'out of order,'. We can either:
    1) Attempt to keep the chronological order, then deal with each problematic detail individually.
    2) Keep the chronological order up until the first detail that is problematic. At that point, explain why the narrative records details that happen later.
    3) Change the chronological order, and then explain the thematic reason why the Torah places the 'parshia' in this specific location.
So why does this matter.

3. Preparing for Sinai.
In Chapter 19 of Shemot/Exodus, God, Moshe and the Israelites proceed through a process of creating a convental agreement that results in God's Revelation, but only after a precise process of preparation and boundary setting. Many people presume this process presents a model of unilateral decision making by Moshe on God's behalf, however upon a close reading of the text, it is clearly anything but. Rather, the chapter presents a model of collaborative decision making in which God, through God's agent, Moshe, engages in a back and forth with the Israelites to affirm their agreement first to become "You shall be my own treasure, from among all people; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.", but only if the Israelites agree to "listen unto My voice indeed, and guard My covenant." (Exodus 19:5-6) 

I find these two verses to be the keys to understanding the relationship between God and the People of Israel (for all eternity) and our very mission as a Jewish people. Upon the Israelites acceptance of thi primary covenantal directive, God offers to, "'I will come down to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever." (Exodus 19:9)

From this we see a slight alteration from what most people expectations of God's intentions for Revelation. This verse clearly paints God's intentions for Revelation as not an event for the people to become connected with God, but rather to validate Moshe's leadership. The people will hear God speak TO Moshe, so that they will believe Moshe forever.

This text provides the basis for Menachem Leibtag brilliant commentary on the Revelation at Sinai.
 Leibtag recognizes that :
It appears from this pasuk (verse) that God plans to use Moshe Rabbeinu as an intermediary to convey His laws to Bnei Yisrael, consistent with Moshe's role as liaison until this time. Nonetheless, God insists that the people 'overhear' His communion with Moshe, so that they truly believe that these laws originate from God, not Moshe.
Why? Leibtag finds a hint in that the after Moshe reports God's intentions to the people, it does not continue with the people's agreement and Moshe reporting back to God, but rather, "And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, rand be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai."

WHOA. Big Shift. Instead of God talking to Moshe, now suddenly God will speak directly with the people, in their own sight, but only after a period of preparation.

WHAT HAPPENED? Leibtag argues that unlike many people's assumptions that this process was unidirectional, quite the opposite, the people had a say. There was an original Plan A that God directed Moshe to offer the people after they accepted the Covenant of Sinai, and the people wanted Plan B.
As we noted earlier, 19:9 implies that Moshe will act as an intermediary; from now on, we refer to this as Plan A. 19:11, however, implies that Bnei Yisrael themselves will see God; from now on, we refer to this as Plan B.

According to Leibtag the key to understanding what the purpose of Revelation was all about is understanding that the text provides a blueprint to God's model of engagement with the People through his facilitator, Moshe. A singular plan shifts to a secondary plan, motivated by the people's wills and desires for a more direct relationship with God than was originally intended. This text provides insight that Exodues 19:5-6 is the key texts we should all be honoring in our daily lives, while Revelation was the carrot that the Israelites wanted a bigger bite of.

4. What happened?
Things never go as planned in Biblical text, especially when we want more than we can chew. Unlike God's original intention of speaking to Moshe and having the Israelites be exposed secondarily, Revelation begins with God, "And God spoke all these words saying"...we all know what comes next..the 10 Utterances (Asseret Hadibrot).

However, immediately upon listing these utterances, the verse reads, "And all the people perceived thunder and lightning, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off." Did the people have this Revelation before or after God spoke?

What was their response, "And they said unto Moses: 'Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.' And Moses said unto the people: 'Fear not; for God is come to prove you, and that His fear may be before you, that ye sin not.' And the people stood afar off; but Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was."

Leibtag explains the sequence as follows:
This short narrative provides us with a perfect explanation for why God chooses to revert from Plan B back to Plan A. The reason is quite simple - the people were frightened and overwhelmed by this intense experience of "hitgalut," and they therefore 'change their minds.'
So maybe Plan B wasn't so perfect.  Leibtag summarizes his analysis:
To summarize, in chapter 19, it was unclear whether or not Bnei Yisrael would hear the Dibrot according to Plan A (as God originally had planned) or at the higher level of Plan B (as Bnei Yisrael requested). Later, in chapter 20, the Torah describes how Bnei Yisrael were frightened and requested to revert back to Plan A. Ramban claims that this story took place before Matan Torah, and thus the people heard all ten commandments through Moshe (Plan A). Rashi maintains that this story took place during the Dibrot; hence the first two Dibrot were transmitted according to Plan B, while the remainder were heard according to Plan A
 For a complete read of Leibtag's thorough exploreation, go to his site:

5. Moshe the Leader
Leibtag's analysis of The Revelation narrative of Exodues 19-20 provides great insight into why Yitro's arrival must have been before Revelation, as the Ramban and Rashi posit. It has less to do with Moshe's need to judge and whether they had God's mitzvot to address. Rather the key is whether Moshe as a leader could have been prepared to serve in the role of leader as faciliator that God and the people needed for the experiences described in Chapters 19 and 20 that follow Yitro's arrival.

In the cementing of the Covenant of Sinai and proposition for Revelation (Exodus 19, 1-8), the shifting from Plan A to Plan B (Exodus 19:9-18) and the highs and lows of the Revelation (Exodues 19:19-20:17), Moshe's leadership is flexible, open to suggestion and adaptable to the needs and voice of the people.

All the more so, in an interesting side note, the one time Moshe departs from playing his facilitator role, and doesn't merely rely God's instruction is when he tells the people, "And he said unto the people: 'Be ready against the third day; come not near a woman." (Exodus 19:15). This gender specific insruction, so out of place from the rest of the instructions, only comes from Moshe, perhaps a window into the what happens when a facilitative leader shifts to a directive leader and suddenly the human elements of gender distinction enters the Revelation experience.

So what does this have to do with Yitro? I really wonder what made Moshe, the prince of Egypt, who until know has struggled to lead the people in any way other than as a authority figure punishing the Egyptians and their Phaoroah, splitting the sea, providing food and drink in the dessert, fighting off the Amelikes, suddenly is able to shift into this new facilitative role. What transformed this leader to completely modify his approach?

6. The power of Yitro's distributed leadership.
While the text utilizes Yitro's entrance to provide a valuable lesson of humility for the long suffering leader of the Israelites, it also provides him a way to ease his burdens. Greater than this it provides a model of leadership that can last forever. Yet, the greatest lesson might be that Yitro HAD TO ARRIVE BEFORE REVELATION. Yitro had to prepare Moshe to be a facilitative leader. By sharing the burden of teaching and judging with the able men provided from the people, Moshe could both develop trust in the people to share the decision making and be prepared to serve in the more necessary role as facilitator. Without Yitro, the non-Israelite, the outsider, who doesn't even stick around this would not be possible. What Yitro had was the ability to see the big picture, what Ron Heifitz calls, seeing from the Balcony. In Heifitz' terms, Yitro's outsider status, couples with experience and wisdom, found an opportunity to provide adaptive leadership, a seemingly critical lesson for Moshe to prepare him for Sinai.
See Heifitz describe what adaptive leadership is in this video:

7. Postscript
So does Moshe learn his lesson. It is unclear. Mosaic leadership is defined by Moshe's seemingly swinging pendulum between facilitated and directed leadership. Quite frankly, when he is not facilitating distributive leadership bad things happen: Golden Calf, Korach, the Spies, etc. When Moshe uses distributed leadership and acts as a facilitator, progress occurs, as with the Daughters of Tzelafchad.

What lesson can we learn for both our understanding of Jewish history and our contemporary age?

Do we historically emphasize certain models of leadership? Is the time right for leadership that is more facilitative than directed? Do we need to support structures throughout Judaism and within our organizations that emphasize distributed leadership? Do we need to alleviate the burden from our greatest leaders, while not relying on charismatic leadership to guide us?

Can we learn that we do not need central authority?
Let's all agree that we need to empower every Jew to achieve our collective mission:


  1. Yechiel, your blog post is a great breakdown of how Moshe uses leadership, and how his decisions affected the Jewish people. What I find fascinating is that he never ends up choosing distributed OR centralized leadership. He vacillates back and forth. Why do you think that is? And even as he sets up the judge system to help with settling disputes, we only catch glimpses of their impact on his leadership. Same thing with Yehoshua: he pops up now and then, sometimes as wise counsel, and sometimes only as a kind of glorified assistant. Seems to me the Torah (once again) takes a measured approach: distributed leadership is crucial, but sometimes we really do need a central leader to help us make the right choices. Thanks for sharing some good Torah before Shavuos!

    1. Charles, thank you for your insight and excellent questions.
      I think that you are right that the Torah has a love/hate relationship with both centralized and distributed leadership. perhaps it is situational, and the trick is for leaders to be able to read the situation appropriately to know when it is contextually appropriate. Which means the Torah thinks leaders needs to be flexible, nimble and constantly reflecting and reading their followers and context.
      this, I believe, is ultimately Moshe's greatest failure. Even to the end Moshe is a leader "in process", never fully maturing as a leader, and struggling with the consequences of this to his last breath.