David Walk

Motivator in chief

It seems that my two countries, my native and my adopted, are always in the throes of an election campaign. I’m, perhaps, a romantic to believe that once upon a time, leaders led their nations while today all they seem to do is run for office. But we can’t do without leadership, so we muddle through with the best available candidates. This week’s Torah reading informs us in no uncertain terms that B’nai Yisrael can’t go leaderless. We’re informed of that fact by no less an authority on leadership than Moshe Rabbeinu, ‘May the Lord, God of the spirit of all flesh, appoint a person over the community…so that the community of God will not be like a flock without a shepherd (Bamidbar 27:16-17).’

We love the shepherd-flock metaphor. It has worked in literature for generals, politicians, clergy and, of course, God. However, in this scenario we’re given a more concrete description of the job: who will go forth before them and come back before them, who will lead them out and bring them in (verse 17). Notice the repetition. This ruler will not only influence the flock to perform, but will guide by example, being the first to sally forth and return. 

This description of helmsman-ship is reiterated at the end of Moshe’s life: I am no longer able to go forth and come back (Devarim 31:2). That’s when it’s time to hang it up. The ‘it’ being a symbol of leadership. 

Rashi explains that this is in distinction to gentile rulers who sit in their palaces while the nation musters for national needs. A Jewish chief must lead personally and by example. The repetition of ‘leading out and bringing in’ denotes that the ability of the nation to return safely is predicated upon the ZECHUT, merit, of the ruler. 

The Sforno opines that the repetition is to teach us that the chief not only leads into war, but also leads in affairs of state, government policy and the economy. 

The most original way of explaining the repetition, in my opinion, is suggested by the Me’or V’ShemshRav Kalman Kalonymous HaLevi Epstein. The Rebbe begins with a different question. He wants to know why the Midrash (Tanchuma, Pinchas 11) compares the transfer of power from Moshe to Yehoshua with two seemingly contradictory metaphors. First, we describe the hand off, ‘laid his hands upon him (verse 18),’ as a candle lighting another wick. The new flame is indistinguishable from the original.  

Then, the Midrash compares the transmission, ‘invest him with some of your splendor (M’HODICHA, verse 20),’ to pouring a liquid from one vessel to another. In that analogy, some of the product is inevitably lost in the transfer. The term HOD is usually associated with royalty, and is variously translated as ‘majesty’, ‘aura’, ‘grandeur’. In this case, the Ibn Ezra describes it a ‘authority’, while Targum Yonatan translates it as ‘your glorious radiance’ (ZIV YIKORCH), apparently referring to the glow which emanated from Moshe’s head, since Har Sinai. 

Well, which is it? Did Moshe give it all to Yehoshua or just part of it? And, the answer is, clearly: Both! 

On the prosaic level, Moshe transferred all of the power of office, but there would always be differences of leadership styles, based on the personality of the new chief. That’s not what the Me’or V’Shemesh had in mind. 

Rav Epstein explains the metaphor of the NER or candle as being an abbreviation for the attributes of NEFESH (life force) and RUACH (spirit), while HOD represents NESHAMA (soul). Even Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest pedagogue in history could only give over a portion of himself to Yehoshua, the greatest disciple in history.  

This approach gives us an amazing insight into the repetition in the instructions. The first ‘going out and coming in’ refers to the actual activity and its physical results. However, the second mention of those verbs refers to the ‘soul’ of the new leader. Each leader must express her/his personality or ‘soul’ while guiding the nation. We have every right to make demands on the performance of a leader, but not necessarily on their personality, within ethical limits. 

We constantly bemoan the reality that we don’t have leaders like we used to. Often that’s true. On the other hand, we have to let our shepherds be themselves. We don’t want them trying to be something or someone they’re not. In democracies, we must constantly grade our politicians, but we can’t use an absolute scale.

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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