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B'Midbar/Numbers 11:11 Why have You done evil to Your servant and why have I not found favour in Your eyes?
These words are spoken by Moshe toHaShem when a spell of grumbling and incitement has broken out in the Israelite camp. Whether started by " the mixed assembly" which had come out from Egypt with the Israelites - translated as "the riffraff in their midst" by the New JPS translation - or the Israelites themselves, the narrative reports that, "Moshe heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent. The L-RD was very angry, and Moshe was distressed" (B'Midbar 11:10, JPS). Moshe then turns and starts a rant against the L-rd with these words.
The two phrases each start with the word - literally, "for what" - 'why'. The two verbs "you have done evil" or perhaps "you have caused evil", and "I found", are both in uniquehapax legomena spellings. is the Hif'il 2ms affix form of the root , "to break, to be evil", so here "to do or cause evil, to act wickedly", is followed by , "to or against your servant". , the Qal 1cs prefix form of the root , "to find, reach, obtain", here with the negative particle "I have not found", is missing its . The Baal HaTurim points out that a parallel anomaly, a missing from the root , to come out, is found in Job 1:21 - " Naked, I came out" - and connects the two together as if Moshe is saying, "If I did not find favour it your eyes, then why did I emerge from my mother's womb?"
A number of the classic Jewish commentators turn this into something that sounds like a petulant spat, along the lines of, "Well, I told You this would happen, but You wouldn't listen."Ibn Ezra starts by telling us that "the text reveals what Moshe blurted out on the spur of the moment", while the Sforno extends Moshe's words: "Why have you done evil to your servant? ... by sending me, against my will, to bring this people out of Egypt. Why have I not found favour? ... when I said 'Please send someone else' (Shemot 4:13, ESV)." Ibn Ezra would have Moshe demand, "Why did you not grant my request when I asked you to send someone else?" Rabbi Hirsch, making the rhetoric sound more diplomatic, makes much the same point: "My mission, for which from the very beginning I felt myself unqualified, is my misfortune. I would gladly bear it if I could see any good for other people resulting from it. But through my lack of ability the people are going to ruin and my suffering is useless."
The modern commentators start to pick up on the same line. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, asks indignantly, "'Why have you done bad to your servant?' Is this the way to talk to G-d?!", but then goes on to talk about the way that a certain robust quality can demonstrate the depth of relationship. He concludes that, "Moshe is not seen as bad for speaking this way to G-d, and he is not punished. It is rather part of his close relationship with G-d, and part of the Torah's central story." Jacob Milgrom compares Moshe's words on this occasion, ", Why have you done evil to Your servant?" with the very similar, ", Why have you done evil to this people?" (Shemot 5:22), after Moshe and Aharon have been in to speak to Pharaoh for the first time, resulting in harder work for the Israelites: make the same quota of bricks but gather your own straw. Milgrom remarks dryly that "Moshe's selfless concern for his people has apparently evaporated." Perhaps Moshe's concern for his people just hit saturation point for the day and he reacted from a position of overload.
Leadership, as many people have found out, is a lonely place. In industry and commerce, it is the leaders (also known as 'managers') who have to coax, cajole and sometimes coerce the workers into doing the work; it is the leaders who have to hand out the pink slips. Leaders are isolated, often in competition with other leaders for promotion or even their own jobs; leaders cannot share and talk without revealing weaknesses that another leader is bound to exploit. Leaders have to be perfect and are constantly watched by their peers and their superiors - no pressure! Little wonder that sometimes things slip out; in an off-guard moment, the veneer cracks and someone gets a tongue-lashing or unjust criticism. Burnout and stress-related-illnesses follow. To borrow a line from Gilbert and Sullivan: "A leader's lot is not a happy one, happy one."1
In ministry too, leaders are often under immense pressure, trying to serve their ministries, fellowships, congregations, house-groups, callings - oh, and don't forget, G-d as well! Anne Jackson's book, "Mad Church Disease"2 relates how in just two weeks, thousands of church leaders from all over the world admitted that they were in or close to burnout and the degree of isolation that they experienced in their situations. Long hours, inadequate support, lack of accountability, an over-pliant family - many factors contribute to the almost intolerable pressure that many ministry leaders and families experience. Bill Hybels admitted at a leadership conference: "the way I was doing the work of G-d was destroying the work of G-d in my life." As well as not talking to their families and the people around them - except officially, of course, mustn't let the side down - leaders who are in burnout have generally stopped talking to G-d and can easily feel that their current circumstances are G-d's fault. After all, it was He who got them into this mess in the first place!
The writer to the Hebrews presents part of the dichotomy of leadership, when he says, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7, ESV). This seems to place leaders very firmly in the goldfish bowl - being always in the public eye and used as an example. The people are to remember how their leaders speak, look, act and live; then they are to imitate them, right? No, that isn't what the writer says; he says "imitate their faith". Leaders don't always get their practice exactly right, but the way of life they are trying to lead - being in loving relationship G-d and following Him, however imperfectly - leads to the outcome that people see G-d in them and can aspire to being similarly transparent and letting G-d be seen in them too.
Hebrews goes on: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you" (vv. 17, ESV). Here is the responsibility for followers - those who are following a leader, be that a mentoring relationship, being part of a congregation, training or work. Followers are to submit to their leader(s) without causing stress and emotional anxiety. Does that mean not failing, always getting everything right? Of course not, that is part of the learning process - trying new things out that don't always work - and leaders know that it will happen. But it does mean regularly turning up when you are supposed to - accidents and emergencies permitting - with good grace and doing what you are supposed to do. That way leaders can lead, without having to live in high-stress who-will-let-me-down-next mode.
Back in the 70s, along with 'chorus', 'phaser' and 'wah-wah', guitarists used to have an effects pedal called 'fuzz', also sometimes called 'overdrive'. The way this effect worked was to amplify the signal until it saturated the circuit, leaving the notes or pitch unchanged, but giving a harsher or fuzzier sound. By driving the circuit into saturation, it turned pleasant sounding sine waves into buzzy, harsh sounding square waves, clipped at the top and bottom. That may be fine for blues and rock music, but less suitable for more melodic styles or ballads. How do we want ourselves and our leaders to be working? Always in saturation, clamped at the supply rails and unable to show any variation in tone, or comfortably within mid-range, able to adapt to louder and softer situations as needed on the job? Believers and leaders in particular need room and space, they need time for their own devotional relationship with G-d, they need down-time and relaxation away from the coal-face, they need to be able to laugh and cry away from the public gaze, they need to be able to share their hopes and fears without disturbing those close to or depending on them. A far cry, you ask? We should allow our leaders that grace and they should be able to accept it. Otherwise they may growl at G-d and at us!
1. - A. Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance, 1879
2. - Anne Jackson, Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic, Zondervan, 2009
Further Study: 1 Timothy 5:17-22; 1 Peter 5:1-5
Application: Are you closer to burnout than you might care to admit? Working too hard and always struggling to get stuff done against a deadline? Time to speak with the Master Scheduler to see what on your schedule that isn't on His!
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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