Lessons in Middle Management

In synagogue over the past number of weeks, we’ve been reading the numerous episodes having to do with the Israelites’ sojourn through the wilderness in the aftermath of the Exodus.

Things don’t go smoothly.

They complain. They kvetch. They act like children, whining that they don’t have enough to eat, they don’t have anything to drink. At least back in Egypt they had food.

“Why did you bring us all the way out here to die? Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt?” The entire genre of Jewish passive aggressive guilt can be traced right back to that line.

Each time, Moses is beleaguered. And who can blame him? Not only did he not volunteer for this job, but he actively tried to avoid it! Three times at the Burning Bush he refused God’s instructions—but you know, God doesn’t exactly take no for an answer.

To make matters worse, Moses doesn’t have much of a support staff. He leaves his brother Aaron in charge so he can ascend Mount Sinai and receive God’s word a scant forty days after having crossed the Red Sea in the greatest miracle ever witnessed by humanity. What does he come home to? The worst house party any parent could ever imagine after leaving their 17 year old unsupervised for a weekend.

And then the climactic event that we read just a couple of weeks ago: Moses, clearly in so far over his head in a terrible job that he never wanted, finally loses it. After the latest bout of “We don’t have enough to drink!” from the Israelites, God instructs Moses to speak to a rock, after which water would miraculously pour forth. But the instructions themselves were easily misunderstood, because during a similar incident that took place in the Book of Exodus, God instructed Moses to actually strike a rock in order to produce water. So predictably, Moses, who was angry, panicked, and at the end of his rope, struck the rock. Water poured out and the Israelites drank. No harm, no foul, right? A little bit of crossed wires on the execution, but close enough and everyone got what they needed.

Not exactly. God takes this opportunity to immediately (and I mean, in the very next sentence without a moment of hesitation) punish Moses with the only thing that could possibly mean anything to him. He would not be able to cross into the Promised Land with the people.

This would be like making a minor error at work that ultimately didn’t have any lasting consequences, and being fired on the spot, escorted out of the office, and being stripped of your pension.

One reason why these Biblical stories resonate so effectively is that readers of every generation can find a way to connect. We look to the characters and identify with their flaws and emotions. Who among us hasn’t ever found themselves in a position or role for which we felt unqualified or unappreciated?

But I think that if we are to hold the Israelites accountable for their behavior, and make Moses suffer what most people feel is a disproportionate punishment for an understandable lapse in following directions, then we must call out the one character who is most responsible for all of this: God.

God swooped in to save the Israelites, and a close reading of the text makes me wonder whether it was to really ease their suffering or to simply bolster God’s own grandeur. So we get ten plagues to show who’s the Boss (one or two would have easily done the job), a dramatic escape in front of the mighty Egyptian army, and finally the iconic and awe-inspiring parting of the waters and crossing of the sea. Wow! But then what? God clearly had no plan. Like some powerful but short sighted CEO, God impetuously made far-reaching changes without having much understanding of the culture of the company or the employees.

It seems like God never anticipated that when you bring 600,000 or so people out into the desert, they’re going to need a source of food and water. Sure, we read that the people complained, but why did they need to in the first place? What would have happened had they not complained that they were thirsty? Each time, God gets indignant that no one seems to be happy. Only after repeated expressions of discontent does God grudgingly provide for their needs.

“OK, strike (or speak to) that rock and they can have water.” (Ex. 17 and Num. 20)

“Fine, I’ll provide manna so they can eat.” (Ex. 16 and Num. 11)

“You want meat? I’ll give them more meat than they could ever eat.” (Num. 11)

“I’m going to fire every single employee and start a new company with you as the manager.” (Ex. 32 and Num. 16)

God resembles a rich and connected individual who throws money and influence around to create a company that will bring him wealth and fame but has no real experience in how to actually run a business. And Moses finds himself in the unfortunate position of being hired to run this organization, having to balance his employees’ needs while still having to answer to the unrealistic owner.

I like the model of modern Judaism much better. God has become a silent partner and the company is now employee owned and operated. Each branch office has the authority to make whatever decisions are best for that specific population. Sure, those three-day long annual shareholder meetings seem to go on forever, but it provides a way for everyone to get together and re-evaluate the company’s priorities.

Even so, on the last day of the meetings, everyone still complains that they’re thirsty.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

4 comments on “Lessons in Middle Management

  1. Ira Bruce Levine

    Dear Cantor Matt: it’s always a joy to read your commentary. I love how, in this week’s commentary, you contrast God’s biblical corporate management style to His more modern hands-off style, giving His employees full control of the company. A very apt description, clearly seen in my mind’s eye.

    There is one aspect of the Exodus story that always perplexed me, however. You wrote that some 600,000 — maybe more — Jews set off on their journey in the desert after God’s miraculous intervention on their behalf. That’s a lot of people. They wandered for some 40 years, according to the story. If that is true, why is there no evidence of their existence in the desert? If I’m correct, no archeologist has ever found a piece of pottery, jewelry, remnants of fire pits — nothing — that connects with the Exodus story. I know that desert sands are always shifting with the wind. If evidence existed, one can argue, surely it was covered by the shifting sand. One can also argue that enough time has gone by — some 4000 years, or thereabouts? — so that what was previously covered by the shifting sand has now come back into the light of day. Yet nothing has been found. Can you explain that? It makes me wonder if the Exodus story is real. It’s a nice story; a foundational story, to be sure. It is central to the Jewish identity. Did the Exodus actually happen, or was the story created — made up — to solidify the Jewish identity? Would love to know what you think.


    • Cantor Matt Axelrod

      Hi Ira–thanks for the comment and the warm words.

      If you’re looking for any explanation of a factual basis of the Torah, you’ve come to the wrong person. The words that we read represent religion, not history. These are our sacred stories, filled with lessons on morality and humanity. In my opinion, expending effort to justify the events in some historical basis defeats the whole purpose. care more about what the stories have to teach us and how different generations may interpret them. After all, after last week’s Torah portion, why didn’t you ask whether there was actually a talking donkey? : )


      • Ira Bruce Levine

        Well said, Cantor Matt. I agree, the Torah stories are filled with lessons as to how we might, or even should, live our lives, and lessons about the moral implications and consequences of our actions. In one quick reply, you have turned my thinking around (what does that say about me?). I will no longer look for the literal, but instead for the deeper meaning found in the words of Torah. Thank you.

        You cut me to the quick, however: I thought Mr. Ed was a real talking horse.


  2. Cantor Matt Axelrod

    Wait, he wasn’t?


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