Two Types of Leadership
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

This week the people’s complaints lead to Moshe’s breakdown. He cries out to Hashem, asking to give up. It is the lowest emotional point of his entire career as a leader. But what causes such a strong reaction? Moshe has never reacted with such despair and yet the people have complained so many times before. When leaders face repeated challenges, they usually grow stronger each time. They learn how to respond. They find coping strategies. So why does Moshe seem to do the opposite? Something has changed, but what? Why the breakdown, the burnout, the despair?

The difference between technical and adaptive leadership provides great insight. A technical challenge is when you have a problem and someone else has the solution. For example, if you are ill, your doctor may diagnose your condition and prescribe a pill. All you have to do is to take it correctly. Adaptive challenges are different. They arise when we are part of the problem. If your doctor tells you: “I can’t just give you a pill. You are going to have to stick to a healthy diet, exercise, more sleep... pills can’t help you until you improve your habits.” Then it is up to you to make the changes.

Sometimes there is no quick fix for things, no miracle pill, no simple following of instructions. We have to make the effort to change, as the world changes. What’s more, our leaders cannot do this for us. They can inspire us to change, but we have to follow through ourselves.

When Moshe first began to lead, he used technical leadership. The Israelites were enslaved, so God sent the Ten Plagues through Moshe. Then they needed to escape from Pharaoh’s army so Moshe lifted his staff, and God split the Red Sea. With every problem, Moshe led them, and God provided the solutions through him. But now Bnei Yisrael have completed the first stage of their journey. They have reached Sinai and received the Torah. Now Moshe’s role has changed. He must get the people to learn to do things for themselves and trust in God instead of relying on Moshe to sort everything out. It is precisely because Moshe understands this that he is devastated when he sees that the people haven’t changed. They are still complaining about the food, almost precisely as they did before Har Sinai, and before they had built the Mishkan together. Moshe has to teach them to adapt, but he senses that they are unable to change their pattern of response, the result of years of slavery. They are passive and overly dependent. They have lost the capacity for self-motivated action. 

Adaptive leadership is intensely complex. People tend to resist change. It is easier to stick to old habits, even when we are capable of more. As we eventually discover, it will take a new generation, born in freedom, to develop the strengths needed for self-governance, which is the precondition of freedom. With the insight of the greatest of the Prophets, Moshe intuitively sees all this. Hence his despair. He feels his work as an adaptive leader is not working. 

Of course, the Torah does not leave it there. In Judaism, despair is never the last word. God comforts Moshe, He tells him to recruit elders to join his team, and He gives him the strength to carry on.

Adaptive leadership is, for Judaism, the highest form of leadership. But the Torah tells us that it is not easy, and that those who try it will face anger and criticism. Moshe remains the most outstanding leader we have ever known, the man who almost single-handedly shaped the Israelites into a nation. But remember God’s words: “Be Strong and Be Courageous.” Exceptional courage is required. Change always requires this. Fighting an enemy is hard, and fighting with yourself is harder still. Helping people find the strength to change is the highest leadership challenge of all.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. Why do you think Moshe felt so much despair?
  2. Can you think of other examples of adaptive leaders in the Tanach?Did they display the ability to be flexible and intuitive over time?
  3. What do you think it means to be an adaptive leader in today’s world?
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Parsha in Passing

In this week’s parsha Aharon is commanded to light the lamps of the Menorah, and the tribe of Levi is initiated into the service in the Mishkan. A “Second Passover” is instituted in response to the petition “Why should we be deprived?” by a group of Israelites who were unable to bring the Korban Pesach at its appointed time because they were ritually impure, and therefore secluded. 

God instructs Moshe on the procedures for Israel’s journeys and encampments in the desert, and the people’s journey in formation from Mount Sinai, where they had been camped for nearly a year. 

The people are dissatisfied with the manna and demand that Moshe supply them with meat. Moshe appoints 70 elders, to whom he imparts his spirit, to assist him in governing the people. Then Miriam speaks negatively of Moshe and is punished with leprosy; Moshe prays for her healing, and the entire community waits seven days for her recovery.

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Parsha People

COMPLAINERS manna revolt protest bnei yisrael jewish people revolting placards bnei yisrael

The Complainers: The complainers whined for meat and bread, ignoring the manna, their daily spread.

Pesach Sheni Observers: A second chance for those once unclean, to share the Passover and recall the Exodus scene.

The Technical Leader: Technical leaders fix what’s near, giving answers, calm and clear.

The Adaptive Leader: We strive to be leaders guiding the change,
helping others rearrange.

Miriam: I regret my words, they were unkind. But Moshe, my brother, won’t leave me behind.

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Parsha Practical

Pikuach Nefesh is the notion that when someone’s life is in danger, no matter the circumstances, everything should be done to save that person. The principle of Pikuach Nefesh teaches the importance of flexibility and adaptability within the framework of halachah. For example, although we take great care to keep Shabbat, it’s important to break those rules if someone’s life is at risk!

The concept of Pikach Nefesh asks us to adapt to situations and make decisions that reflect the core value of preserving life. And Pikuach Nefesh serves as a model for other areas of life and leadership where flexibility and adaptability are necessary. It teaches that adherence to principles should not become rigid to the point of endangering lives or people’s well-being. 

Leaders and individuals should be encouraged to be responsive and sensitive to the needs of others, adapting their actions to ensure the best outcomes for those they are responsible for. In Judaism we see this very clearly, for Judaism upholds the sanctity of life and the importance of compassionate decision-making in the face of changing circumstances.

  • Consider a time when you’ve had to change or adapt with the times. How did that feel and what helped you make the necessary changes?
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Parsha Playoff

In “Follow the Leader with a Twist” one person starts as the leader, and everyone in the group copies their actions and words. At random intervals the leadership role shifts to another person, who then changes the actions, requiring the group to adapt quickly (Every 30 seconds? Or whenever the leader winks at you? Decide how handovers will work before play commences). The leader and the participants must all be observant, quick-thinking, and, most importantly, adaptive! 

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Parsha Philosophy

Rabbi Sacks uses Moshe’s life to examine adaptive leadership challenges. In Shemot, Moshe’s leadership is technical, with God directly solving the Israelites’ problems. In Bamidbar, however, Moshe faces adaptive challenges, needing to inspire the people to take responsibility and change behaviours formed during slavery. Moshe’s mental breakdown this week highlights the burden he carried. It’s a heavy load to bear! Despite all their progress, and even making a brit with God, the people continue to complain and resist change. Rabbi Sacks stresses that adaptive leadership requires a shift in mindset. It can be emotionally taxing and it is often met with pushback, making it the most challenging yet noble form of leadership. True leaders must guide their people through nuanced transformations, which requires exceptional courage and resilience.

  • When are times when it’s essential to be an adaptive leader, and when is it important to be a flexible leader?
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Parsha Parable

Rooting for you

In the centre of a town lies a beautiful garden that once thrived under the care of a wise and experienced gardener. She was admired by all for her ability to bring forth lush greenery, vibrant flowers, and abundant fruits. Whenever a plant showed signs of distress, she knew exactly how to revive it, how much water to provide, the right fertiliser, and what pests to remove. The villagers all used the garden, but they relied on her entirely for its survival.

One day, the gardener gathered the villagers together and made an announcement. “The time has come for me to teach you how to care for each plant. Our garden’s true potential will only be realised when each of you learns to nurture it yourselves.” Then she handed out seeds and tools, giving each villager a specific area to tend.

Well, things did not go well. All the villagers struggled with the work. They grumbled and complained, longing for the days when the gardener did everything. They missed the ease of simply enjoying their garden without having to work on it or worry about it. Some even tried to convince the gardener to take back all the responsibilities. But the gardener remained firm. She provided guidance and encouragement and occasionally stepped in to demonstrate techniques, but less and less did she help. And over time, the villagers began to understand their plants. They learnt to adapt their methods and gain insight from their mistakes. The garden flourished in ways it never had before, with each plant and each section reflecting the unique care of its tender.

Years later, when the gardener could no longer work at all, she basked in a deckchair as the garden continued to bloom beautifully around her, tended by the skilled hands of the many villagers. They had all grown to love the work, each contributing to the garden’s resilience, growth, and splendour.

little old lady gardener enjoys fruits of her labour around trees and flowers blooing in the garden she tended
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Parsha Puzzle


 I was first on 21 Nissan 2448, I was first on 1 Nissan 2449, and I was first on 20 Iyar 2449. Who am I? 

This Week's Parsha Puzzle Answer:

 I am Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first to jump into the Yam Suf (Red Sea), the first to bring the sacrifice of the tribal princes to the Mishkan, and the first in the travel formation.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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