As we all know, a few weeks ago there was a General Election, and we now have a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, and a new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. In previous governments, the Deputy PM has stood in when the PM has not been available; although past Deputies have had their own specific responsibilities as well. But the deal brokered between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties for the new coalition government, means that Nick Clegg is much more than a ‘stand-in’. Are David Cameron and Nick Clegg offering a new form of co-leadership?
Let me leave you with that question, as I turn now to this week’s Torah portion. On the face of it, Parashat Chukkat, at Numbers chapter 20, provides a snapshot of co-leadership in the wilderness in the form of Moses and Aaron – not unlike a PM and Deputy PM – making efforts to control an unruly mob desperate with thirst. We read (20:9-11):
Moses took the rod from before the Eternal, as [God] had commanded him. / Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock, and he said to them: ‘Listen now, you rebels, are we to bring for you water out of this rock?’ / And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice, then water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle.
But that’s not the end of the story; the text continues (:12):
Then the Eternal said to Moses and Aaron: ‘because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, consequently, you shall not bring this assembly into the land, which I have given to them.’
So what did Moses and Aaron do wrong? The Spanish mediaeval commentator, Nachmanides, Rabbi Mosheh ben Nachman, also known as the Ramban, suggested that the mistake they made was to give the congregation the impression that they were going to produce water out of the rock – rather than God: Instead of saying, ‘…are we to bring for you water out of this rock?’ Moses should have said: ‘…is the Eternal One to bring you out water?’ Alternatively, most interpreters assume that what Moses did wrong was to strike the rock, when God told him to speak to it – as we read a little earlier (:7-8):
The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: / ‘Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you, and Aaron, your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, so that it gives out its water.’
But another Spanish mediaeval commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, ever the rationalist, provided the most plausible explanation: when God said, ‘Speak’, Moses was supposed to strike the rock – striking is the only language a rock understands – the mistake he made, was to strike it twice.
So, what’s the point of this brief foray into mediaeval biblical exegesis? If we think of Moses and Aaron as co-leaders, trying their best to handle a challenging situation, it’s obvious that they had a daunting task, because they didn’t just have to produce the required result, they also had to demonstrate to the people, the power of God: So, in a real sense, neither Moses, nor Aaron, could lead the people; that role belonged to the Eternal One alone; all they could do was communicate God’s will to the people, and demonstrate that God was in charge.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that David Cameron and Nick Clegg may be compared to Moses and Aaron; but the story of the failure of these two wilderness leaders to affirm God’s leadership in the eyes of the people – with tragic consequences for themselves – could prompt us to think about how the new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister should exercise leadership in the current financial crisis: In place of the usual ‘ping-pong’ politics, should they model compromise and flexibility? Instead of drawing on testosterone to fuel the habitual adversarial style of political debate, should they be using the coalition of their parties to foster a spirit of common endeavour?
And what do we expect them to do? Accomplish the feat of banishing the deficit, while protecting all essential services? Provide moral leadership by taking pay cuts and living more frugally? Since we live in a democracy, and not a theocracy, the new PM and deputy PM, may not be answerable to God, but they are answerable to their parties and to us, the voters: so, again, what do we expect them to do? – and how will they demonstrate that they have fulfilled all the multi-various expectations thrust upon them by their respective parties, and by the heterogeneous electorate? With the people clamouring on the one hand, and God demanding, on the other, Moses and Aaron had an impossible assignment; but compared with the complexity of what David Cameron and Nick Clegg are expected to accomplish, that relatively minor matter of finding water in the desert seems quite straight-forward.
But of course, there was more to it than that: Water is always a problem in the desert. Why were the people clamouring for water at that moment? The beginning of Numbers chapter 20 provides an answer (:1-2):
The Israelites, all the congregation, came into the wilderness of Tzin in the first month; and the people dwelt in Kadeish; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. / And there was no water for the congregation; so they assembled together against Moses and against Aaron.
The French medieval commentator, Rashi, noted the connection between Miriam’s death and the congregation’s murmurings for water. Curiously, the reference to Miriam’s death marks a return to the narrative after a lacuna in the text of thirty-eight years. What happened during those lost years? The Sages spoke of ‘Miriam’s Well’, which accompanied the people on all their journeys through the wilderness (Shabbat 35a).
The legend of Miriam’s Well is delightful, and it suggests that Miriam’s leadership was essential. And yet, Miriam is almost completely absent from the Torah narratives: There is the story of her helping to save the life of her baby brother Moses in Sh’mot, Exodus chapter 2 (:1-2); there is an even briefer snippet about her leading the women in song and dances with timbrels at the Sea of Reeds in B’shallach, Exodus chapter 15 (:20-21). After that, the narrative does not include Miriam again until Parashat B’ha’a lot’cha, which we read two weeks ago. But when she reappears there, the story is very revealing. The text tells us at the beginning of Numbers chapter 12 (:1):
Va-t’dabbeir Miryam – v’Aharon – b’Moshe: Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses.
Va-t’dabbeir – She spoke: Miriam is the prime-mover. We read (:1-2):
Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses because of the Cushite woman, whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said: has the Eternal One, indeed, spoken only with Moses? Has he not spoken also with us?
Why did Miriam object to Moses’ new wife? Was she perhaps angry on Tzipporah’s behalf? We don’t know, but certainly, she had much more reason to be aggrieved than Aaron about Moses’ exclusive relationship with God – and significantly, she was the only one who was punished: with a temporary dose of tzara’at – leprosy (:10). Despite being the eldest sibling, despite being described as a n’vi’ah, a prophet, Miriam’s leadership role is completely marginalised in the Torah. And yet, the people couldn’t continue their journey without her. The tale concludes (12:15):
Miriam was shut away outside the camp for seven days; and the people did not journey on until Miriam was brought in again.
So, why was Miriam’s death mentioned only in passing? All the text says is (20:1) – and I repeat: ‘and the people dwelt in Kadeish; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.’ By contrast, seven verses are devoted to Aaron’s death at Mount Hor a short while afterwards (20:23-29), where we read (:29):
When all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, all the house of Israel.
Are we to understand that in place of formal mourning rites for Miriam, the people, in their grief and loss, clamoured for water? And what of Miriam’s brothers? Did Moses and Aaron find it so difficult to control the people because they, too, were grief-stricken? After all, Moses owed his life to his resourceful and courageous older sister; was that why he became so enraged as he stood before that rock? And as he looked at that rock, did his thoughts turn, perhaps, to another rock; the stone that marked Miriam’s grave?
Which brings me back to Messer’s Cameron and Clegg and the challenges they must grapple with: As they make efforts to provide effective leadership in the current crisis, isn’t it obvious what is lacking? Where were the women during the Prime Ministerial debates? Where are the women in the new government? Once again, the majority of the ministers are men. Once again, after thirteen years of Tony Blair, followed by Gordon Brown, another two youngish men-in-suits sit at the helm of British politics. And as the Labour Party goes about finding a new leader, are we any doubt that he will be another youngish man, too? Of course, all the recent male-leaders are ‘new men’, who probably know how to navigate themselves around the kitchen, as well as around the Cabinet, and participate in the care of their children. But nevertheless, as long as the government and the majority of the political parties are so male-dominated, can we really expect a new form of leadership, and a new approach to the problems we face?
Of course, there is another question: Would women really manage it all any differently? After all, look at Margaret Thatcher – known as ‘the best man’ in her Cabinet. But Margaret Thatcher was a lone woman. As I draw to a close, let us reflect on Miriam at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:20-21):
Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. / And Miriam sang to them…
Moses’ leadership depended on his special ‘mouth to mouth’ (Numbers 12:8), ‘face to face’ relationship with God (Deuteronomy 34:10), which set him apart from the people; Aaron’s priestly leadership separated him from the people, too. By contrast, on the one occasion that the Torah mentions Miriam as a leader, she stands, not alone, but with the women who follow her; taking a timbrel in her hand, she empowers the women to do likewise. But Miriam did not just lead the women; she sang to all the people; the women and the men; the Hebrew says she sang lahem – to them, masculine, not lahen, to them, feminine: Hebrew is a completely gendered language, and the use of the masculine form on its own denotes both genders. Miriam modeled an inclusive form of leadership that was empowering and enabling of others – both women and men. The American anarchist, Emma Goldman, is reputed to have said, ‘If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.’ Maybe, just maybe, if not just one woman came to the fore, but, rather, many women participated in leadership, on equal terms, women and men might all get a chance to dance during the revolution, and begin to find new inclusive ways to lead and to govern, and new approaches to resolving crises and conflicts: Bimheirah b’yameinu – speedily in our own day. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, 19th June 2010 – 7th Tammuz 5770