The Torah and Group Development

Have you ever wondered why even the most effective groups sometimes experience a clash?

In 1965, Bruce W. Tuckman published “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” in the Psychological Bulletin and created what many see as the go-to model for understanding groups in the workplace and other areas of life.

Most groups, he suggested, went through stages of forming, storming, norming and performing. At first, the group comes together with excitement and begins focusing on the tasks it hopes to accomplish. Next, as the initial excitement wears off and the team begins seeing its limitations, team members experience conflict as they work to figure out what they can realistically do together – and grapple with questions of fairness ground rules. After this trying stage, groups can move forward into “norming,” setting their sights on what they can accomplish and going beyond feelings of disappointment and frustration about their limitations. As teams begin to achieve their goals, morale can improve, and the team can shift to “performing” its core functions. Depending on how long teams stay together, they can move through different epicycles – with new team members joining, more questioning of rules, reframing expectations, and achieving some additional goals. Finally, groups can disband – or adjourn – as a high school soccer team might after graduation, or business partners if they decide to sell their business.

In some ways, these stages correspond to the Israelite’s formation as a far larger and more complicated group. The Israelites first came together as slaves in Egypt – and formed more fully when they escaped in their great Exodus to freedom. But life in the desert was not so easy. The Israelites stormed about the lack of water and food – and especially when Moses left them for 40 days and 40 nights at Mount Sinai. They built a Golden Calf in Moses’ absence as a throwback to their idolatrous past, but when Moses raced down the mountain, he made clear that such idolatry would not be tolerated – even while protecting the Israelites from God’s fierce wrath. In a sign of norming, after reestablishing calm and punishing perpetrators, Moses went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second set of stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, acknowledging that even with the Israelite’s imperfections they were worthy of sacred norms and the chance to continue forward as a people. Then, in the book of Numbers – the book of the Torah that we begin this week – the Israelites position themselves to perform. Taking a careful census, Moses reviews the membership of each tribe and each clan, both in order to clarify subgroups and also to count the number of able-bodied men (yes, only men in those days) who could serve as fighters.

This careful review of the Israelite population clarifies roles and prepares the Israelites for their next steps towards (and eventually into) the Promised Land. Yet in a dramatic twist, adjourning comes before performing. In the Book of Deuteronomy, which we will read later this summer, Moses bids farewell to the Israelites, forever changing their dynamic, even as he emphasizes continuity in rules and affirms Joshua as his successor. Perhaps after another epicycle of storming and norming once again, the Israelites finally enter the Promised Land, several chapters after the Five Books of Moses draw to a close.

How fitting that the Torah leaves the final stage of group development to later sacred texts and our imaginations. The textual lacunae are widely recognized as the basis of rabbinic commentary – and perhaps also, group development. The legacies we leave as individuals are often swept up in the dynamics of the group as a whole, receding to our own memories as the broader narratives of the group continue on – or become renewed. Yet the role of individuals within the group is often indispensable. Even though group narratives often overwhelm individual accounts, it is the individuals who determine the success (or failure) of a group and also most fully experience what it means to belong.

After writing this article, I found an interesting piece by Dr. Shani Tzoref, Professor of Bible and Biblical Exegesis at the Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College and the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, and a Fellow at the Qumran Institute of the University of Göttingen. Professor Tzoref suggests that Tuckman’s stages of group development might be present in the Book of Numbers itself, rather than simply the Torah as a whole. While our reflections are different in focus and arc, hers is worthy of note as one that was published before my own and which uses meaningful linguistic analysis.

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