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The value of output and the output of values -  Parshat Naso

Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

At the end of Parshat Naso, there is a long passage detailing the sacrifices of the Nesiim, the princes, as part of the dedication of the Mishkan.  In introducing the role of the Nessiim offering these sacrifices the verse reads as follows:

וַיַּקְרִ֙יבוּ֙ נְשִׂיאֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רָאשֵׁ֖י בֵּ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם הֵ֚ם נְשִׂיאֵ֣י הַמַּטֹּ֔ת הֵ֥ם הָעֹמְדִ֖ים עַל־הַפְּקֻדִֽים׃

The princes of Israel drew near, the heads of ancestral houses, the princes over the tribes who presided over the counting of Israel.

Rashi is bothered by the extremely wordy and seemingly redundant second half of the pasuk,
הֵ֚ם נְשִׂיאֵ֣י הַמַּטֹּ֔ת הֵ֥ם הָעֹמְדִ֖ים עַל־הַפְּקֻדִֽים, with the word הם, “they were,” used twice as if to imply that we already know these princes well from an old and unrelated context.    In Rashi's own words:

הם נשיאי המטות – שהיו שוטרים עליהם במצרים

These princes who gave the dedication sacrifices were the self-same princes over the tribes who had been appointed as the overseers of Israel in Egypt.

The word matot in this midrash has a double-meaning, referring not only to the tribes but the rods used lash these Israelite leaders.  In Egypt being a leader of your tribe meant
שהיו מוכים עליהם, that you were punished with lashes for the “failure” of Israel to meet the undoable demands of the Egyptian taskmasters.

The midrash Sifrei that Rashi cites here underscores the level of selfless accountability involved in true leadership, in which leaders are the protectors of their people, willing to take blows from their cruel oppressors on behalf of their people, whom they shield.  Described here is a type of natural midah keneged midah, a real-life, measure-for-measure, reward. Leaders who are strong enough to take the hit for their people benefit on the other end of their devotion, during better days when they can then take part in and enjoy nachas from the successes of their people.
But I believe there is an additional layer to what the midrash is saying about leadership. Why did the Egyptians specifically place Jewish leaders in charge of maximizing the output of the slaves?  Because of the dynamics of
שעבוד מצרים, of the Egyptian subjugation. Egypt's primary goal was not to build up Egypt; their primary goal was to break down Israel.

What better way to break a people’s spirit than to take its leaders, the people to whom they turn in times of challenge and turn those very leaders against their People? In that impossibly inhumane situation what does a great leader do? 

For everyone's sake the great leader will try to maximize productivity.  But given that Egypt's goal was to break down the Jewish spirit, the whole point was to make demands so unrealistic that no level of productivity could ever suffice.  In response to this impossible demand, at a certain point the Jewish overseers simply said no to their Egyptian taskmasters. They could try to squeeze more out of their brothers and sisters. But they refused. They refused to hurt someone else in order to avoid getting hurt themselves.

In putting a spotlight on these incredible Jewish overseers, I believe the midrash is reminding us that there are two different aspects of leadership. There is the leadership of helping a group accomplish a concrete goal, what we might call GTD, getting things done, to borrow the terminology of the productivity guru David Allen. But then there is the leadership of helping a group stay true to its values.

In the ideal world, these two aspects of leadership coincide, even if they are not always identical. After all, people usually accomplish goals more successfully when they have a sense of a larger mission. But what happens when the aspects of leadership – motivating productivity and staying true to a mission – come into immediate conflict? Never did this happen more poignantly than for BY in Egypt. And never was the response of the challenged leader more profound – to choose allegiance to values over motivation for productivity – when due to the cruelty of the subjugation, refusing to push for greater output translated into the harshest of punishments for those leaders.

After all, this is the reason God made us slaves in the first place – so that we could understand oppression from the inside and build a society best equipped to overcome the tendency toward the very oppressions often perpetrated in other societies.

Leadership isn’t just about getting a job done; it is about maintaining a vision. And nothing challenges our leadership more than when the job at hand conflicts directly with the larger vision we have. In those moments, the leader’s job is not business as usual. The leader’s job is to stop, to think creatively, and to strive to use the crisis as a moment of growth.

In appointing their leaders as overseers of their work, the Egyptians hoped to turn Israel’s leadership against her.  Instead, they gave Israel the protectors they so desperately needed.

Rashi in that passage note that the Nessiim who took the hit for the Jewish people were now asked – as a reward for their devotion – to do TWO things.  As the verse says of them, 
הֵ֚ם נְשִׂיאֵ֣י הַמַּטֹּ֔ת הֵ֥ם הָעֹמְדִ֖ים עַל־הַפְּקֻדִֽים; the very same princes who protected their people in Egypt not only offered the dedicatory sacrifices; they were the ones who oversaw the census, הם העמדים על הפקדים.

In Egypt, productivity and values were thrown into conflict. The princes had to choose between the two, and they chose values over productivity. Now the princes were given the opportunity to accomplish both simultaneously. Rashi in that same passage we quoted goes on to explain that the princes were given the opportunity – now under positive circumstances – to combine an act that demonstrated commitment to values, the offering of the korbanot, with one that demonstrated a commitment to productivity, overseeing the census. They were now given the opportunity to get things done and to show commitment to the vision of their values such that the two were mutually beneficial.

Balancing competing aspects of good leadership is always both challenging and important, whether in a for-profit or non-for-profit setting. Achieving such balance where fidelity to values stands at the center of the leadership endeavor is even more challenging. And all-the-more indispensable.


Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784