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The Value of Intermediaries

I am the CEO of a pretty flat organization; I like information to flow freely, so that we avoid the issues that happen when everyone lies to everyone above or below them in order to “manage expectations” and look good. I hate that corporations systemically encourage that kind of “finessing” in order for a person to succeed. Isn’t it better to directly link people, to reduce the chances of translation errors mucking everything up in the layers between the line worker and the CEO?

Well, yes. And, no. After all, most conversations are about gaining information and assessing. They are about bouncing ideas off of other people to see whether they make sense or not. And the “big picture” guy may not actually be the right person to speak to the employee who just wants a steady paycheck and no hassle. It helps to have someone in the middle.

That role is not for everyone, of course. The person in the middle has to be tolerant and thoughtful, providing a buffer between the incompatible layers of the organization. That person must be a superb listener, but also highly discrete. Deeply negative comments – in either direction – can poison a relationship, a corporate or community culture. So the person in the middle must, above all, never lose their cool. If they do, they lose the trust of everyone, and their usefulness comes to an end.

We realized that this is precisely how it works between G-d and the people in the wilderness. G-d almost never speaks directly to the people. Instead, He talks to Moses, and sometimes also to Aaron. Most of the time, G-d is giving instructions, ways for the people to interact with each other and with their creator.

But sometimes G-d actually loses his temper. He repeatedly threatens to destroy the Jewish people outright! And when He gets angry, it is Moshe’s job to absorb G-d’s anger, to defuse it, and above all, to not repeat it to the people below him. Moshe is the man in the middle. It is not an easy job, of course. But it is his job nonetheless: G-d vents at Moshe, and Moshe provides feedback to G-d and the people, at the same time as protecting the people from direct exposure to the divine voice.

And it worked. At least most of the time – up until Moses stops functioning as the go-between, and loses his temper.

Set the scene: Miriam dies, and there is no water. The people complain, and Moses and Aaron, at a loss, asks G-d what to do: G-d tells Moses to speak to the rock and produce water. Here’s what happens next:

Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

G-d immediately responds:

G-d said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

What is the connection to G-d’s sanctity, His holiness? I think the answer is plain: Moses took the frustration that both he and G-d had had over several decades with the people, and he finally blew up. Moses communicates the anger downward. And losing your cool never contributes to the holiness, the sanctity, of a relationship.

The anger that we feel may need to be expressed; we may need to get it out, to talk it over, perhaps even to entertain the possibility of changing our mind. Sharing our frustration is a tool for management, a way to bounce our ideas and emotions off of someone before we commit it to action. But we have to be very careful about our choice of sounding board. There is an enormous value in not saying what one thinks!

Indeed, the specific word Moses uses, that is translated as “rebels,” is itself symbolically very significant in the Torah. The word is mara, which means bitterness, the kind of bitterness that comes from suspicion of disloyalty in a relationship. Esau’s choice of wives makes his mother mara because she doubts whether her son will remain connected to G-d. The Jewish people are tested with mara water after leaving Egypt, to judge whether they turned to worship Egyptian gods while they were in exile. The wife suspected of adultery drinks mara as a test of her fidelity. Mara is all about the corrosive doubts and mistrust that can destroy a relationship.

That Moses uses this specific word is thus freighted with meaning: the word is always used to acknowledge a wedge in a relationship, a gap that may never be closed. So calling the Jewish people mara is like a husband or a wife using the word “divorce.” Words like these, once spoken, can change the nature of a relationship forever more.

So perhaps it is the use of this word, above and beyond Moses losing his temper, that helps explain why Moses is told he cannot bring the people into the Promised Land. The Land is all about a permanent and tight relationship between G-d and His people. So anyone who casts doubt on the fidelity of the bond between G-d and man cannot be the same person whose job it is to introduce the Jewish people into the Land of Israel.

[This was an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter production]

Comments are welcome!

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