Let’s discuss leadership

Doesn’t it feel like we’re always bemoaning our lack of effective leadership? This is especially true in times of crisis. Well, right now the world is experiencing unusual upheavals and there aren’t powerful voices guiding us. We’re lacking a Churchill, Truman or Begin standing up to assume responsibility. There’s a saying that people get the leadership they deserve. That’s pretty depressing. 

But at least this week’s Torah reading presents us with exemplars of responsible leadership. One could posit that Bamidbar’s major subject, after the description of the desert sojourn, is leadership. And that’s especially true in this week’s plot to supplant Moshe Rabbeinu  and Aharon HaCohen.  

According to the Midrash (Bamber Raba 18:1), Korach begins his attempt to wrest power from Aharon by complaining about being passed over to lead the Levitical family of Kahat. That position had been given to Elzaphon (Bamidbar 3:30). However, Elzaphon’s father was younger than the father of Korach. This point of view is based on the pre-modern concept of primogeniture, or power to the eldest son. 

 Plus, there are Datan and Aviram from the tribe of Reuven, again, oldest son of Ya’akov. They’re complaining about the appointment of Yehoshua to lead the Jews into the Holy Land. Why should the leadership go to the Tribe of Ephraim son of Yosef? It should go to the Tribe of Reuven. 

Notice that the Midrash avoids claiming that the rebellion is directly against Moshe and Aharon themselves. In this approach, no one wants to debate the legitimacy of Divine appointments. The nation has seen the hand of God upon these two leaders. 

Very clever. But the continuation of the story is clearly an attack on Moshe and Aharon. It just wasn’t a frontal attack. First, they question the legitimacy of the appointees. If that works, they’ll get around to the main event, attacking Moshe and Aharon. 

Ultimately, the response will be given by God, miraculously. But let’s present the case for those who have been appointed. How have they displayed leadership skills? 

The most famous answer for Moshe was stated in Chapter 12: Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth (verse three). 

However, I’d like to suggest another approach. Last week, when we heard the brazen rejection of the Divine plan to conquer Israel, how did the leaders react to the nation’s acceptance of the negative report? Calev (head of Yehuda) and Yehoshua tear their garments (12:6). That is an act of mourning in the face of impending tragedy. Moshe and Aharon fall on their face (verse 5). They display repentance. Moshe repeats that reaction this week (16:4). Sincere public TESHUVA denotes responsibility for the situation.  

Moshe’s humility is wonderful, but his sense of responsibility is crucial. That’s Moshe (and Aharon, last week) declaring, ‘The Shekel stops here!’ Look no further for a responsible party, 

But what about Elzahon? Why did he jump the line to become leader of the Levitical family of Kehat? 

That answer is found in Sefer Vayikra, when the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, died in the Mishkan for bringing a ‘strange fire’. Someone had to go into the Holy of Holies to bring out the bodies. It was Elzaphon and Mishael, his brother, whom Moshe chose. Why? The Talmud (Sukkah 25b) explains that they were very modest, never trying to answer legal questions in front of Moshe their teacher. The Netziv explains: (Moshe) chose the sons of Uziel, because he knew they were loving colleagues (REI’IM), who felt Aharon’s pain (Vayikra 10:4).  

The Netziv doesn’t disagree with the Talmudic statement; I believe that he’s adding to it. We now have the three Torah requirements for great leadership; 

  1. Humility 
  1. Acceptance of Responsibility 
  1. Empathy 

When we vote for our leaders, we should begin our deliberation with this list. If considering these characteristics doesn’t produce a clear winner, then start to ask about policies, experience, yada, yada, yada. 

My favorite contemporary politician is Sen. Joe Lieberman. I got to know him and his wonderful family, during my time in Stamford, CT, his hometown. I once asked him about voting for President of the United States, and he said, ‘When you vote for powerful positions, it’s all about character.’ Amen! I think that our parsha would agree. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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