Parashat Balak — Leadership and Mystery


This is my first blog entry for the Times of Israel.  Every week for more than ten years I have been sharing my thoughts on the parashat ha-shavuah. Since I am an academic, my points of view differ from a rabbi or yeshiva trained person.  I try to point out the sociological or organizational perspective. That is what does the Torah portion teach us about how we run our organization or community? I conclude with discussion questions so that you can think and discuss the ideas that I suggest in the article. One never knows how the discussion will turn out. I met my wife because she answered some of the questions.

Parashat Hukat  July 9, 2022

“Take your staff and assemble the congregation.” (20:8) God tells Moshe after the Israelites complained because of the lack of water.  “Bring a red cow, faultless and without blemish … and give it to Eliezer … “ (19:2-3) This is done so that the defilement can be removed.   “Do you agree to give halitzah to this woman?”  This was asked of a brother who has a widowed sister-in-law before the halitzah [1] ritual can be performed.

The first two are from the parasha and last is included because the Daf Yomi just finished Mesehet Yevamot.  What do these potential events have in common?  In most of my divrei Torah I talk about the business lesson or what is the message for the organization.  Each of these events are rare occurrences and have a mysterious component that defies logic and reason.  While the big pictures of the event are reasonable and understandable, the details are based in a Divine commandment and defy logic based on other themes.  On July 7th I heard a lecture and saw a demonstration of procedure for halitzah.  Each of the steps are based on a Talmudic text. As I heard and saw the demonstration, I asked myself how does the sociology or group dynamic work?  How does a ritual like this develop when the possibility of performing it is so rare.  The presenter gave examples from the aftermath of 9/11 when several childless widows needed release from a levirate marriage.  In the presenter’s 24 years of beit din work, he participated in only about 26 ceremonies, i.e. about 1 per year.

Moshe carried his staff with him whenever he walked.  He had it when he appeared before Pharaoh.  He used the staff for help with other activities and to support walking. When God told him to take the staff, he had every reason that it would be used in the procedure for getting water from the rock.

The red cow (heifer) ceremony is strictly a Divine commandment that has no logic to us, but the idea of ritual purity is important.  Many attempts have been to understand the procedures.  Even King Solomon was unable satisfactorily to explain this mystery.   We don’t know if the rational is there and beyond human ability to understand or the rational exists and we have not yet found it.

Why did Moshe exhibit anger toward the rock? Previously at Rephidim (Shemot 17:1-7) when they had no water God instructed Moshe what to do. He did it and the people had water. When the people crossed the Sea of Reeds (Shemot 15:22-26) they had no sweet water and Moshe showed them how to make the water sweet. The big difference is that Miriam, his sister was with him until now.  She was his emotional pillar.  She was a co-leader and confidant.  Water from a well that accompanied the people was in her merit. [2] After she died Moshe needed to find new wells.

These three examples are also about the role of leadership.  No leader can survive without skilled and competent helpers. Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam were a team. Yitro advised Moshe years earlier to appoint judges and tribal leaders, but family members were his closest confidants. After Miriam died, Moshe had an uncertainty that didn’t previously exist.  Without Miriam part of his emotional grounding was lost.  He hit the rock because Miriam was not there to restrain him. A confidant or advisor knows something that the leader does not.  A confidant cares more about you, than the issue. Confidants sometimes need to tell leaders something that they don’t like. Advisors warn you about external dangers from people and things.  Confidants warn you about internal doubt and uncertainty and balance the logical and emotional feelings.  It is not possible to experience the joy and accomplishment of leadership without the pains of experience. Communication skills are required by leaders and much of the time they need help to deliver the best messages.

Sometimes those in the background are not seen by the public.  Confidants and experts are not known to the public.  Even when Miriam said unkind remarks about the wife of her brother, Moshe stood beside her and asked God to heal her.

The business lesson is that all leaders need confidants, advisors, and trusted experts. They support the different aspects of the personality and physical needs.  We don’t always know the logic for rituals, rules, laws, etc, but we still need to follow them.  The goals of getting water, removing defilement, and releasing a widow are important for the community, however we don’t always know the path to the goal.

[1] When a man dies without children and has a brother, the obligation is for him to marry her to carry on the family line.  This is called a levirate marriage.  If he does not want to marry her, haklitzah is the ceremony to release her to remarry.  The Ashkenazim and Sephardim disagree as to which more important, the levirate marriage or the haklitzah.  In 1950 the Israeli Sephardic chief rabbinate said that halitzah is required, but not everyone accepted the ruling.

[2] Talmud Ta’anit 9a

Note:  Since I often think about the about leadership and running the organization, early in the week I had an idea of connecting leadership to Moshe’s experience hitting the rock.  While reading in preparation for this article, I read “Chukkat (5774) – Miriam, Moses’ Friend” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the YU Torah website. (  Much of what I have to say above is similar to what Rabbi Sacks wrote.

Discussion questions

1.    How does your relationship with your siblings affect your professional life?  What are the pros and cons of have a sibling as a business confidant?

2.    How does having not enough faith merit not entering the Land of Israel?  Do you think the Israelites had 100% faith in God? Why weren’t the unfaithful banished from the Land of Israel?

3.    What is the role of mystery in the organization?  Should there be mysterious events or rituals?

About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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