In his book Good to Great Jim Collins analyzes what enabled 11 companies, including Coca Cola, Gillette, Wells Fargo and GE, to transition from good to great. Among his findings were that to become great, companies need to develop a culture of personal discipline, avoid radical change and restructuring and, most interesting, have a “Level 5” leader at the top, a visionary who share his vision with an inner circle of team members and works with them to guide the company to new heights.
In this week’s parasha, Chukat, we have another opportunity to speculate on the type of leader that Moses was. In the first 13 verses of chapter 20, we read the familiar of Moses striking a rock to make it produce drinking water for his complaining people, an act for which he is punished by being condemned to die in the wilderness and being denied the privilege of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Long considered a bewildering fate for Israel’s great leader, this Torah story makes us wonder what did Moses could have done that was so wrong.
Many commentators spanning the generations offer their take on the story. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the “Ramban,” 1194-1270, Spain) suggests that Moses was punished for the sin of misleading his people into thinking it was he, and not God, who had the power to produce water. Relying on the verse that says “Shall we get water,” Ramban suggests that Moses mistakenly implies that he too has the power to work miracles. A responsible reading of the text does not permit that conclusion. But perhaps we can say that great leaders watch every word they say and are careful to avoid misimpressions.
Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain) suggests that the sin of Moses can be found in needing to be told to work a miracle, meaning that Moses may not have possessed the requisite faith to assure his people that God would provide for them. Could it be that Moses did not have faith in God? Great leaders trust their instincts; Jewish leaders ought to possess faith in God and/or in the People of Israel.
Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany) suggests that Moses was punished because he lost his temper. He needed to keep his cool and remain calm, the best pathway to staying in control and in charge of the situation. Great leaders don’t allow anger and temper to get the best of them.
Everett Fox (Bible scholar at Clark University, MA) suggests that the sin of Moses is that he embarrasses God in public by disobeying Him. Great leaders, says Fox, reserve criticism of their boss and employees for private moments.
My own take on the story is that Moses is not punished by God. Rather, God comes to the sad conclusion that it’s time for a change in leadership if the people are to make progress. Moses was the right leader for his time, a man able to understand and make use of miracles (the Ten Plagues, signs and wonders, manna and quail from heaven) for that was what he was accustomed to doing from his upbringing in Egypt. But God asked him to “speak” to the rock, not to strike it, and Moses couldn’t make the transition to a new way of being.
Our tradition credits Moses with being God’s greatest prophet and our people’s greatest leader. Perhaps that acclaim is sentimental, which is perfectly fine. Perhaps he was not a “Level 5” leader. Our task is simply to study his life and his leadership career, measure ourselves against him, and learn what we can about becoming the best we can be in whatever we do.