Num. 8:1 – 12:16
Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss
In her book, “Leadership in the Wilderness,” Dr. Erica brown writes, “the role of preparation and organization in facing uncertainty cannot be underestimated.” We look to our leaders to guide us in moments of change. Leaders can also become the recipients of blame if anything goes wrong along the way.
But even strong leaders often doubt their abilities. Moses’ relationship with his parents is not mentioned—he grew up in the Egyptian palace, and then becomes a shepherd in the fields. It is his father-in-law, Yitro, who becomes his role model and trusted advisor. Yitro first gives Moses advice in Exodus where he suggests he delegate more of his work so that he doesn’t burn out.
Now in the book of Numbers, God has given Moses very clear instructions about how to begin this journey in the wilderness, following the clouds as an ancient compass to steer the Israelites in the right direction. God has entrusted Moses to be the leader. When God first appeared to Moses, we knew Moses doubted his own abilities, he said that he was slow of speech and was skeptical of his own qualifications for leadership—but God promised that God would be with him, and God did deliver on that promise, bringing ten plagues, freeing the Egyptians from slavery, splitting the sea, providing water in the desert and still, now in Numbers, Moses doubts his own leadership.
It has come to the point in Moses’ journey where he is to leave his father-in-law’s land and venture to the land that God has promised the Israelites. But Moses has become so dependent on Yitro’s guidance and fatherly support.
Our text tells us that
Moses said to Hobab son of Reul the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place which the Lord has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you, for the Lord has promised to be generous with Israel.” ‘I will not go,’ [Hobab] replied to him, ‘but I will return to my native land.’ [Moses] said, ‘Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So, if you come with us, we will extend the same bounty to you that the Lord extends to us.” (Numbers 10:29-32).
The preceding text tells us that God promised to be Moses’ “guide” by appearing in a form of a cloud to lead the Israelites through the wilderness. So why did Moses need a guide? Was Moses doubting God again or doubting his own abilities to lead on his own?
And who is Hobab? I had always been taught that Hobab was another name for Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. Yet, Dr. Erica Brown interprets Hobab to be Yitro’s son-therefore Moses’ brother-in-law.
Dr. Erica Brown explains that Hobab is a word that indicates friendship. She says, “it may well have been an honorific or a title that signified closeness, indicating the nature of closeness that Moses enjoyed with his brother-in-law.” I would offer that the same closeness would work if this was, indeed, Yitro, himself, as Brown further explains, “The fact that Moses invited Hobab to join him is no surprise given the relationship that Moses had with his father-in-law, whose counsel he had relied on upon setting up the governance of the camp.
It feels arrogant to disagree with Dr. Brown, as I greatly admire her scholarship, but wouldn’t the fact that Hobab is a nickname of friendship support the fact that this was an affectionate nickname that Moses had for his father-in-law. Either way, whether Hobab was truly Moses’ father-in-law or brother-in-law, the message is the same:
It is only when Hobab indicated that he is not part of Moses’ people but must return to his own that we get a glimpse of the leader’s panic. “Please do not leave us….” Moses pleas. Dr. Brown says that “for all of Moses’ prodigious leadership talents, navigating uncertain territory was not on the list. This was not a polite request for companionship but rather a desperate plea for guidance.”
It is interesting to note that in the verse, יֹּ֕אמֶר אַל־נָ֖א תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֑נוּ כִּ֣י ׀ עַל־כֵּ֣ן יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֲנֹתֵ֙נוּ֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם׃
He said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. (Numbers 10:31) the word that is translated as guide לְעֵינָֽיִם eynaim could also be translated as “eyes.” Moses wanted another set of eyes that could see in a place that he could not navigate.
This struck me because this week Rabbi Pokras and I were both asked to look at a document and check its accuracy. Rabbi Pokras mentioned that he would give it to me to look at after he checked it and my response was, “I am happy to look at it, but I trust your opinion.” His answer was interesting– “It never hurts to have another set of eyes to look something over.”
So now I am having an ah-ha moment! Maybe it wasn’t self-doubt that motivated Moses to ask Hobab to remain on the journey with him, perhaps it was for another set of eyes. I can relate to this. I have always worked in partnership with other clergy. It would feel lonely to me to not have someone to roll ideas off of, collaborate with, and to see things I am missing. I’m not sure if that’s my own self-doubt or rather, a lack of arrogance. Moses had the humility to know that partnership is beneficial. As Yitro had told him early on, he didn’t have to do the work alone—he could delegate to other people.
The dialogue ends there so we don’t really know if Horab or Yitro joined him on the journey.
I see this as a metaphor—that ideally, we should have people whose opinions we value to guide us, but there are times when we must trust ourselves to make decisions. Like Moses, sometimes we must walk alone and lead alone. We will encounter trusted advisers along that way, and if we have faith, we know that God is walking with us. It never hurts to ask for help, but we should know that we are capable of taking leadership all by ourselves.