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May 29, 2014 12:46 am

Exploring Leadership in the Wilderness (REVIEW)

avatar by Nathaniel Moldoff /

The interdisciplinary field of leadership studies is booming. University lecture halls on the topic are overflowing, and books by “leadership gurus” are flying off of bookshelves. The field is often informed by the social sciences, such as psychology, economics, and sociology—but can the humanities, and in particular religious studies, make any contributions to it?

According to Dr. Erica Brown, the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and master Jewish educator, an often-neglected book of the Torah may hold some clues as to what an authentic Jewish model of leadership might be. Her most recent book, “Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers,” attempts to provide today’s aspiring leaders, Jewish and non-Jewish, with practical guidance based on one of the most ancient and fundamental Jewish texts: Numbers (Bamidbar), the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible.

By moving outside the realm of more traditional Torah commentaries and homilies, and venturing into the worlds of literature, philosophy, and organizational psychology, Brown proposes a refreshing new framework within which to view the fascinating and often perplexing episodes and laws chronicled in Numbers. She gathers and presents an incredibly diverse array of source materials to create a comprehensive “leadership manual,” capable of providing leaders of any type of organization the insight to appropriately handle many types of expected and unexpected challenges, and the inspiration to continue forging ahead.

“Leadership in the Wilderness” is divided into three main parts, each focusing on a different stage in the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. These parts are then divided into chapters generally focusing on a particular lesson in leadership that corresponds to a specific episode or concept found in Numbers. Brown treats the assembly of Israelites as an archetypal organization, and Moses as the archetypal leader. Part One deals with the transition and uncertainty the Israelites faced having recently left servitude in Egypt and now finding themselves in the middle of a vast, seemingly untamable wilderness. Here, Brown discusses the impact of environment—both natural and artificial—on the stability of an organization, and how the different categories of people found among the Israelite camp represent different types of people found in an organization.

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Part Two is the natural extension of Part One. After a period of uncertainty and transition, leadership authority will inevitably break down, as was the case among the ancient Israelites. People make mistakes—even Moses, whose authority as a leader is questioned at every turn. After all the frustrating challenges to leadership discussed in Parts One and Two, Part Three shows how Moses and the Israelites learn from the trials and tribulations of the wilderness. They now understand how to carefully harness the power of language and how to selectively trust others who are offering innovative alternatives to the status quo.

Brown’s writing style and approach are highly reminiscent of several essays by the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Both authors comfortably integrate a wide range of source material in their writing, and they distill abstract philosophical ideas and seemingly antiquated biblical passages into practical morsels of wisdom that are applicable to almost any reader’s daily life. But unlike Sacks’ “Covenant and Conversation” (Koren, 2009 and 2010), which is arranged according to the weekly parsha (Torah portion) and offers a compilation of short essays that can be read on their own, “Leadership in the Wilderness” loosely follows the order of the biblical text and should be read as a single work.

My biggest frustration with this book was how the narrative of the book of Numbers would often get lost in a sea of contemporary literature and recent findings from the field of organizational psychology. I would strongly advise all readers to first familiarize (or re-familiarize) themselves with the actual text of Numbers, because while Brown manages to cover a large portion of the biblical text over the course of the book, some crucial context is lost when it is presented alongside so many other sources and ideas.

Brown clearly wrote this book with the broadest possible audience in mind. She explains most biblical and Jewish terms in such a way that the novice reader of the Hebrew Bible, and even non-Jews, would be able to follow her arguments. At the same time, more experienced students of Torah will surely find new layers of meaning in the text, made possible by the incorporation of many non-traditional sources. Readers should take to heart Brown’s insights on biblical examples of leadership and incorporate the Torah’s wisdom into their own leadership roles, whatever and wherever they may be.

Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers,” by Dr. Erica Brown, Maggid Press (May 2013), 241 pages, $24.95.

Nathaniel Moldoff is a student at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is a recent graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and is an aspiring Jewish communal professional.

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