In people we trust

This week ends with us teetering in the wake of two decisions – one a 4-4 Supreme Court tie, the other made by 33 million in England with slightly more than 50%.  Counsel from historic thought leaders from both settings seems timely.  The British historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin used to warn against trusting mono-causal claims.  Many different factors contribute to unfolding events.  And Justice Louis D. Brandeis, the 100th anniversary of whose confirmation to the Supreme Court we observe this month, warned, “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.” 

With emotional and economic instability all around, we would be well served to consult timeless lessons from a sacred text trusted by both Berlin and Brandeis.   In this week’s portion of Torah, Moses becomes overwhelmed by the people’s murmurings.  He is brought to the brink.  “Why have you done bad to your servant…to set the burden of this entire people on me” (Num. 11:11). Hitting rock bottom, Moses stuns readers by concluding his words to the Lord: “And if this is how you treat me, kill me” (Num. 11:15).  Leaving aside the question of whether this is any way to talk to God, what brings Moses’ to this low point as a leader?  His despair over leading such an ungratefully negative people is compounded by hurtful or unhelpful communication from those nearest to him like Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua. 

What helps? Beginning to shift from turning inward to turning outward.  Sixteen times in just five verses Moses uses first-person singular words like “I” and “me” (Num. 11:11-15).  God’s remedy is not to give him a pep talk or introduce him to a leadership coach.  It is to enable him to see beyond himself by showing him how his teachings and lessons are influencing seventy elders from the broader community.  God says to Moses, “I will draw from the spirit that is on you and put it upon them” (Num.11:17).  Rabbi Yohanan taught in the Talmud (Brachot 5b, Nedarim 7b, Sanhedrin 95a). “a prisoner cannot release himself from prison.”  The door to recovery always opens outward.

Restoring betrayed trust is never easy.  “In a high-trust relationship” writes Stephen Covey, “you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning.  In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.”  But Moses’ recovery instills a belief that trust can be rebuilt.  It requires candor, disentangling impact from intent, and negotiating new terms.  But it is possible to both restore and re-earn trust. 

The claim that we get the leaders we deserve, although valid, carries a cynical odor.   A more fragrant belief, from biblical portions and of biblical proportions, points to a different outcome.  May we be inspired by a recovering Moses who eventually exclaimed, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets.”

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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