Leadership in the Wilderness
(Maggid Books, 2013)
What does a leader need to do to inspire followers who are stuck? Most people today would use the loose term “vision” to answer the question, actually believing that a word that is so hard to define would somehow be appealing and lofty enough to satisfy eager listeners. In actuality, the word may buy the leader more time to come up with a concrete answer. “A vision of what?” may be a more appropriate response.
Into the conversation on vision enters a concept developed by Chip and Dan Heath, two brothers who coauthored the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. They believe that we should chisel away at small attainable objectives that can be tackled in months or years, through creating a picture of what life will look like when we achieve a particular goal or vision.
Not giving people that positive portrait of the future will hamper any change effort: “We want what we might call a destination postcard—a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible.”1 When someone sends you a postcard, what they are saying, in essence, is, “Wish you were here. This is a beautiful place to me. Look at the image on the front. This is what it would look like if you could actually join me.” These future snapshots must be compelling and realistic.
Moshe used a type of postcard in Devarim. There, he created a picture of what the Land of Israel would look like at its absolute material best. Rather than a destination postcard, I think of it as an aspiration postcard:
“For the L‑rd, your G‑d, is bringing you to a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey, a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing, a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten and are satisfied, you will bless G‑d, your G‑d, for the good land that He has given you.” (Devarim 8:7–10)
In the parched wilderness, Moshe created a compelling vision of gushing rivers. In a place of topographical monotony, Moshe offered the lush and variegated landscape of mountains and valleys. In a place where need was constant and distracting, Moshe offered a portrait of a land that lacked nothing. At a time of discontent, when all the people could do was complain about what they did not have, Moshe gave them a spiritual destination. In that place, they would finally be satisfied with what they had, and they would bless G‑d as a result.
This destination postcard was a stretch of the imagination for the ancient Israelites. A life without complaint was nowhere tenable in their decades without life’s basic necessities ready and available. Moshe understood that for a people beset by problems expressed through material need, he had to create a vision that was material in nature. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observes that this vision was offered in Devarim to set a verbal entrance into a new stage of Israelite life:
“For the school of the wandering in the wilderness has come to an end. You are about to enter the future for which that whole exceptional condition on earth was to be a preparation. And now you have to prove and confirm, in a normal condition of men and nations, what you were to learn in that wonderful preparatory school, and may not unlearn it in the altered, happy conditions . . .”2
For Rabbi Hirsch, the decades in the wilderness were the school to build the character of the Israelites and prepare them for a different life. Everything the Israelites experienced in the wilderness had educational value to position them to live the dream.
Moshe, however, understood that these altered conditions may not have had an ameliorative effect when he continued presenting a picture of the future (as described in Devarim 8: 11–18).
The stability of a homeland may offer temporary respite from the harsh conditions of the wilderness, but it may wean the people from dependency on G‑d because they might falsely believe that they are self-determining. When lost and unsure, they had no choice but to live with G‑d in their midst. Even angry and bitter, enmeshed in overly sentimental portraits of life in Egypt, the Israelites were surrounded by G‑d’s clouds of glory. In the wilderness, there was no place where life was physically satisfying, and there was no place where G‑d was not. In the Land of Israel, Moshe warned that they would be physically sated, but could create a landscape where G‑d did not reside.
Creating an aspiration postcard begins with finding the image that will best inspire followers to take a leap of faith in a leader. It is an image that is just as important to followers as it is to leaders. A vision must resonate not only with those who create it but with those who must actualize it.
[Moshe’s] destination postcard was late in arriving. By the time the Israelites were “in the book of Devarim,” there were far fewer of them to enjoy the portrait of a land without stint that Moshe had created for them. One only wonders what the wilderness experience might have looked like had Moshe offered an image of gushing water, sweet fruit trees, and hills replete with minerals at their first sign of thirst in Sh’mos 15. Visionary leadership involves more than creating in the present a picture of an unimaginable future. It is also about when to unleash that vision so that the dream does not seem too far away. v
1. Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 76.
2. Hirsch, The Pentateuch with Translation and Commentary, 143.
Erica Brown is an American Jewish writer and educator who lectures widely on subjects of Jewish interest. She is scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and a consultant to other Jewish organizations. Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers is published by Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem. It is available from Amazon and Jewish bookstores everywhere.