Even great leaders may be tempted to express exasperation and to shift blame upon those they lead. In this week’s parasha, Moses complains to the people that God’s displeasure with him is rooted in their failures. Moses reveals that God told him, “It is too much for you!” (Deut. 3:26) Moses felt the people had let him down. He must have been crushed to hear God’s assessment that he simply lacked the ability to deliver.
The Talmud explains that in this episode God is merely returning the words Moses earlier himself had dished out to others. In the midst of the Korach rebellion, Moses had stung the rebels by saying, “It is too much for you, sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:7). Now it is Moses’s turn to receive that rebuke. Moses is frustrated that the people have let him down. But instead of focusing on their limits, the Talmud suggests he focus on his own.
The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov, that he would extend his prayers for many hours. His followers would pray more quickly. This discrepancy created time and opportunity; they would leave the synagogue and take care of a few things, always careful to return in time to be with their master at the moment he had finally completed his prayers. On one occasion, the Baal Shem Tov abruptly finished his prayers just as the disciples were leaving the room. Surprised, they ran back to the room and asked their teacher for an explanation. He told them the following parable: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a magnificent exotic bird was spotted nesting on the top of the tallest imaginable tree. The king of that land greatly desired this unique bird, but he had no ladder nearly tall enough. So, he asked the people of his kingdom to stand upon one another’s shoulders, and they made a human ladder that slowly reached as high as the nest. This took an awfully long time. Eventually, the people toward the bottom grew bored, gave up, and left. This triggered the collapse of the entire enterprise.
Leadership can be frustrating. At times it feels like others have let us down. But the message of “It is too much for you” isn’t meant to be an insult or reprimand. It is an insight and a gift. Some tasks are so great, they can’t be accomplished alone. This forces us to reach out and enlist the support of others. Giving up on them reveals not their limits but our own. The impending collapse comes about when they’ve shared the burden but no longer see the point, or its reward.
Rabbi Mitch Levine