A man sees a mother and her three children struggling to stay above water in a lake in southern Israel. He dives in. Rescues them, saves their lives. Is unable to get himself out of the water and drowns.
Father of three Michael Ben Zikri z”l gave every last breath last Friday afternoon, all the strength he had, to save the lives of this mother and her kids, residents of the Bedouin Arab town of Hura. Later the extended family from Hura came to bury their new Jewish hero in the Israeli town of Ashkelon.
Across the Middle East, those in countries who have no relations with Israel, praised this man who put his own safety aside and focused solely on saving lives.
Hero perhaps, although one who eulogized Michael said of him “what he did on Friday was not an act of heroism to him, but a way of life… “Anytime a person was in trouble, Michael was the first to help”.
Sounds to be like a leader of people, of a man with a well-serviced, reliable moral compass.
Through his tragic death, across Israel and the Middle East he will be remembered as a hero by many. More than that he has left a legacy and shown us perhaps the ingredients of a genuine leader.
Our Torah portion this week serves up some diverse kinds of leaders. We met Pinchas last week, after whom the Parasha this week is named, who God defends and praises after his act of killing two people – a man from the people of Israel and a Midianite woman with home the other man was carrying out lewd, unabashed sexual acts in the public eye, at the entrance to the holy Tent of Meeting. Many men among the people had been teased into immoral acts and idolatry by women from Moab and Midian, arch-enemy nations of the people of Israel.
As a result of these indiscretions, it is written that a plague ravished the nation. Traditional commentators say that this act by Pinchas, brutal on face value, put an end to a plague that had already killed 24,000 and in doing so lowered God’s own desire for vengeance against His people.
There is no end of debate each year as we read this portion. About this character Pinchas and our search to understand how his form of leadership and heroism was deemed “right time, right place, all right” in the desert context of a developing nation named Israel.
Sometimes leaders do take decisions in the spur of a moment, others after great consideration. National, political, religious, cultural, community and sporting leaders are evaluated and remembered differently by different people. The same person can be reviled by some and celebrated and honored by others.
Nevertheless, if we are looking to perhaps identify true leadership qualities, we needn’t go further still than this Torah portion. Very aware that his time is coming to an end and that the nation required someone to lead them into the Promised Land, Moses put his own interests aside, his own disappointment at being denied entry into the land, and approached God for direction as to passing the reins to a new leader.
Appointment of a new leader would hasten his own departure from the world, but this not in any shape or form tempt Moses to pursue a delay in the leadership transition.
As beautiful as poetry, Moses lays out his vision for the new leader: “… Appoint a man over the assembly, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in and let the assembly of God not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16,17)
A man of courage, someone who, like an IDF officer today, who goes out to battle in front of his soldiers and does not direct his comrades from the relative safety of the rear. Who leaves no one behind and is a trusted guide and shepherd to a nation. Who shall go in before them into the new land and face the battles and challenges that will ensue.
In front of the entire people the baton is passed to Joshua. We know him from his partnership with Caleb, the two of them who alone remained loyal and committed to the Promised Land despite the frightening stories and panic that the other ten spies brought back to the ears of the nation.
Moses and Joshua and in the minds of many, Pinchas too – leaders deeply committed to the people and made decisions and took actions with the good, safety and spirituality of the nation in mind. It was never about the “me”. Not about self-preservation. Always about the collective. No space for politics or self-promotion that would cloud their vision and decision-making.
In this turbulent year 2020 – and we are only halfway through it – leaders of families, communities, nations and countries are being asked too to lead from the front, to be responsible, dependable, calm and humble leaders to those who look to them for hope, security and transparent policy.
Their legacies – reviled or saluted – await them in the months ahead.