The late Pinchas Sapir (née Kozlowski) was the brother of my late grandmother, Rachel Kozlowski, and when I was very young he would sometimes come to our kibbutz, Ramat Yohanan, to visit her. On one of Sapir’s visits, I proudly told my fellow kindergarteners that he was Israel’s Finance Minister and that meant he was the richest man in the country, because he controlled the finances of the entire State of Israel… But I must admit that I was at a loss to explain why Uncle Pinchas, even though he was the Finance Minister, lived in such a modest one-bedroom home in Kfar Saba.
Pinchas Sapir’s character is well-illustrated by this story, told to me by Steve Stulman, who heard it from his friend Harold Hill of New York:
“It was in the 60s, during the time Pinchas Sapir was Finance Minister,” related Harold, “and I was on a visit to Israel to examine some investments in the young Jewish State. Sapir and his wife Shoshana picked up my wife and me to drive us to their home in Kfar Saba for dinner. While we were in the car, Sapir and Shoshana talked to each other in Hebrew, not realizing that I understood the language. ‘Pinchas,’ said Shoshana quietly, ‘winter is coming and the house will be cold. The old heater doesn’t work anymore–we need to buy a new one.’ ‘Shoshana,’ replied Pinchas, ‘I’m not certain we can afford to buy a new heater this year…’ “
Pinchas Sapir was uncompromising in his management of Israel’s industry and economy, overseeing its development with a firm hand. He followed Israel’s economy closely, without benefit of a laptop computer or smartphone, using only his famous black notebook and little paper notes. Everyone knew that a note from Sapir was more binding than a written legal document. Today such a management style would certainly be considered highly inappropriate, to put it mildly. But Sapir’s modesty and ability to be satisfied with so little for himself were legendary, and it was clear that what drove him was his concern for the country, the urgent national requirement for economic development and job opportunities that would allow Israel to absorb waves of new immigrants. There was never the slightest suspicion that he had used his position for personal gain. Everyone knew that what he did, he did because he believed it to be the right thing, never because it profited himself or his relatives. This next story illustrates this quality very well:
At a recent book launch at Moadon Tzavta in Tel Aviv for a new Biography of Pinchas Sapir by Michal Sapir (Pinchas’s granddaughter), Michal’s father Amos was asked about his mother Shoshana. “My mother didn’t have an easy life,” related Amos. “Dad was rarely at home. Our mother coped with the financial challenges. Apart from raising the family more or less by herself, on the weekends she had to host many people at our home and our financial resources were very limited. All her life she bought on installment plans… One of my mother’s creative methods for dealing with the household finances was to sell the daily newspapers that Dad brought home to read to the fishmonger in Kfar Saba, for a few pennies…“
Compare that with the situation today. Israel is currently facing a housing shortage and it is becoming increasingly difficult for average Israelis to afford an apartment. Nevertheless, we recently learned that a senior minister in the government “in response to pressure from the public” had sold his ostentatious apartment in an exclusive tower complex in Tel Aviv for 26 million shekels, and instead purchased a “smaller, more modest apartment” for a mere 8 million.
Deuteronomy (17:20) defines the behavior expected of the King. “Thus he will not act haughtily towards his fellows or deviate from the commandment to the right or to the left – that the days of his reign over the kingdom may be long.” Humility and modesty are very powerful qualities for someone in public service, someone who aspires to be a leader. These qualities allow their possessors to lead and to be role models. While we do not want the wife of a government minister to have to sell old newspapers to the fishmonger to make ends meet, nevertheless a little humility and modesty in our leaders of today would certainly not come amiss.