The Scouts as Stubborn, Old Guard Leaders: The Torah's Warning Tale
This week’s parashah (Shelach-Lekha; Bemidbar 13-15) focuses on the second of the Israelites’ two most devastating moments of collective failure in the desert — the mass rebellion and breakdown after the scouts overstepped their jurisdiction for reconnaissance by insisting that the land was unconquerable. Before everything goes haywire, the Torah introduces the scouts by name and tribe, and describing them, saying that “they were all people, leaders of the children of Israel”– “כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה”. Why this extraneous clause, “they were all people/kulam anashim“? The Torah could have just said that “they were all leaders of the children of Israel/כלם ראשי בני ישראל”. The Zohar records a fascinating midrash teasing out what might be hinted at in this emphasized clause:
“‘They were all people’: All of them were worthy and were leaders of Israel, but they took bad council for themselves. Why did they take this council? They reasoned, ‘If Israel will be brought up to the land, we will be removed from leadership and Moshe will appoint other leaders, for we are worthy in the desert to be leaders, but in the land, we will not be worthy’. Because they took this bad council for themselves, they died, along with everyone who took their word. (Zohar III (Bemidbar, Shlach-Lekha, 156b)
וישלח אותם משה וגו’, כלם אנשים, כלהו זכאין הוו ורישי דישראל הוו אבל אינון דברו לגרמייהו עיטא בישא אמאי נטלו עיטא דא אלא אמרו אי ייעלון ישראל לארעא נתעבר אנן מלמהוי רישין וימני משה רישין אחרנין דהא אנן זכינן במדברא למהוי רישין אבל בארעא לא נזכי ועל דנטלי עיטא בישא לגרמייהו מיתו אינון וכל אינון דנטלן מלייהו:
The scouts emerged into positions of leadership in the context of tribal nomadic life. As my teacher, Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, points out, this might even be reflected by the fact that several of their names are names of animals (Kalev ben Yefuneh: kelev = dog; Gadi ben Susi: sus = horse; Amiel ben Gemali: gamal = camel). Entering the land, they quickly saw their future before them and were just outclassed. With their desert-appropriate skill set, they saw everyone in the land as overwhelming giants. They reflected the failure of imagination that is all too typical among leaders. They could not adjust to the idea of adapting to new knowledge or completing their public service in the context in which their skill set was useful and gracefully transitioning to others with different, newly appropriate skills, when time came to do so. They were stuck on leadership, not community service. And like so many after them, they clung to their familiar gilded ghetto, rather than believing in, and doing their part in accepting, the unfamiliar liberation and redemption that awaited them.
This midrash is about the incentive structure in community leadership. It is about every time someone thinks first about what kind of leadership job s/he wants or feels entitled to hold and only then about what kind of organization s/he can find or found that would justify that. It’s about people at the top of a pyramid who blame those in the rank-and-file for deserting when they evolve and when new needs arise that aren’t in their wheelhouse. It’s about a lot of the conversations here in Jewschool over the past 10+ years.
Liberation and public service are definitionally in battle with people like the Zohar’s conception of the scouts, who are hell-sent on holding onto their status at all costs. Machine politics are built on that, equally resilient and strong whether it’s a machine of corporate tycoons, military personnel, dynastic political power, non-profit organization management, or minority constituency advocates. (How many minority populations, exploited by the majority, get further exploited by their community representatives who figure out a way to get enough coins tossed at them to manage the ghetto, rather than undermining the causes of its exploitation?)
This story is the insistent affirmation that context matters, that every context is not the same as the next, that managers who manage in relation to the context with which they are familiar, rather than the one that surrounds them, can bring devastation to the community. Rav Bigman even explains the apparently random and unrelated mitzvot that are recorded immediately following the spies story in this light: once we enter the land, our sacrifices must include produce from landed agriculture (15:1-13), and non-tribal migrant residents are covered by the same laws as blueblood, landed citizens (15;14-16). Yes, the paradigm will change.
One of the motivations to bunker down around familiar paradigms is that along with their static nature is an agreement over terminology that enables people to work. The process of reframing and adjusting is not only scary because of the unknown and because those currently in authority may cease to be qualified for their own jobs. It’s also scary because people may hold many different, competing views of what new paradigm is called for. Rowdy dispute forces everyone to acknowledge that many of us are probably wrong; consensus around yesterday’s paradigm allows us the delusion that we’re all right, even though we’re almost certainly all wrong. This parasha holds a mirror to us, exposing our consensus as fool’s gold.
“They were all people”: By pinning this insight into the story on such a general word — “people” — perhaps the Zohar is signaling that this tragic flaw in the scouts’ leadership thinking is basic to human nature: people possessing any privilege do not easily relinquish it. The midrash names that and criticizes it, but, to my eyes, doesn’t particularly point toward how to overcome this weakness in human nature. Perhaps our community conversations about the challenges of the moment and about leadership should proceed from the point of departure that the fear of losing status that is basic to human nature incentivizes leaders to define organizational challenges in concert with their skills and expertise, and, from that recognition, to move toward brainstorming structural innovation to counterbalance it with competing incentives. The alternative does not look good.