Parshat Pinchas: The Spirit of a Leader

What makes a leader?  Ideally, a leader is not simply an individual with “leadership qualities” but one who has realized his potential in the principal areas of human endeavor.  Rabbi Soloveitchik, referring to these areas as “gestures”, enumerates them as: the intellectual, the ethical, and the aesthetic.  The individual who is accomplished in these gestures wins our respect and admiration and is, naturally, an ideal leader.  In this context, the question – what makes a leader – is as relevant to individuals as it is to leaders, for we must all strive to realize our potential in these areas.

In this week’s parsha Moses requests a successor to lead the people, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17). God responds, “Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit” (27:18).

Most telling here is the reference to the spirit: Moses refers to God as “the God of the spirits” (Elohei Haruchot) and God refers to Joshua as “a man in whom is spirit (ruach).”  Clearly “spirit” has everything do with leadership – specifically, leadership animated by the divine spirit, Ruach Elokim, as intimated by the name Elohai Haruchot.

What does divine spirit have to do with leadership?  The Torah names just three individuals as having the spirit of God (Ruach Elokim) – Joseph (Genesis 41:38), Betzalel (Exodus 31:3; 35:31), and Balaam (Numbers 24:2).  What do these three, rather disparate, characters have to teach about the spirit of God?  I believe that each character is a paragon of one the three “gestures” of human endeavor – intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic – each one realizing his gesture so wholly that he ultimately performed it imbued with the spirit of God.

Joseph, upon interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams of feasting and famine, advised him to prepare for the years of famine during the years of feasting.  Joseph’s perspicacity so impressed Pharaoh that he exclaimed to his advisors, “Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom the spirit of God is?”  He then turned to Joseph and said, “Forasmuch as God hath shown thee all this, there is none so insightful and wise as thou” (Genesis 41:39).  Joseph here exhibits such mastery of the intellectual gesture – with insight and wisdom – that he is recognized as possessing an intellect inspired by the spirit of God.

Balaam, in spite of his notorious desire to curse Israel – or perhaps because of it –represents the epitome of ethics, performing God’s will even when it runs counter to his own.  Indeed, if there is a consistent theme running throughout Balaam’s speeches it is that, fight though he might, he will only say that which God permits him to say.  Time and again he explains, “the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak” (Numbers 22:38); “Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord putteth in my mouth?” (23:12); “All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do” (23:26).  Is this not the very definition of ethics, to do that which God says?  And so he concludes, “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; what the Lord speaketh, that will I speak” (24:12-13).  Rashbam (24:1) explains that “the spirit of God” rested upon Balaam when he mastered the ethical and made his will God’s will and blessed Israel.

Betzalel, the consummate artist, naturally represents mastery of the aesthetic gesture.  As a result of his great talent, explains Rabbi Hirsch (Exodus 31:3), God “filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise skillful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of workmanship” (Exodus 31:2-5).

It is my contention that the ideal leader must be accomplished in all three gestures – to the point that he is worthy of being imbued with the spirit of God.  Appropriately, this is precisely what is conveyed in the appointment of Joshua:

And the Lord said unto Moses: Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay thy hand upon him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him charge in their sight. And thou shalt put of thy glory [me-hodecha] upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. (Numbers 27:18-20).

Malbim (27:18) explains that this “spirit” of Joshua, prior to his installation, denotes his accomplishment “in all honorable virtues” and thus making him worthy to receive “an abundant extra spirit” – the spirit of God.  But more to the point, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “There are three actions involved here: [1] Moses was to lay his hand on Joshua, [2] have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly, and [3] give him ‘some of your authority [me-hodecha]’.”

The first gesture that Moses performs to install Joshua is the laying of his hand(s) on Joshua – an act, Rashi (Numbers 27:23) explains, “filling him with wisdom in abundance.”  In this first gesture Joshua is clearly imbued with a new level of intellect, one that is moved by the spirit of God.

Moses’ second gesture of installation is to stand Joshua before Eleazar and the entire congregation to “give him charge in their sight.”  This charge, enacted in a kind of foreshadowing of Joshua’s role as leader, is described as follows: “he will stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord” to go to war (Rashi).  The act of inquiring of the Lord before promulgating the executive order to go to war is the ultimate ethical gesture; for, as we have noted above, making one’s will dependent on God’s will is the very definition of ethics.  Now here, though not explicitly imbued with a new spirit, Joshua’s most fateful act as a leader is imbued with the spirit of God.

In the third and final gesture of installation, Moses gives Joshua of his “hod” (glory, authority).  Rabbi Ovadia Seforno explains that “hod” is the “authority” needed for the people to honor him.  In a similar vein, Nechama Leibowitz brings Italian commentator Isaac Reggio to explain how Moses here conferred his charisma upon Joshua so that he would command the respect of the people.  Reggio explains that since it is impossible to transfer charisma, it was God who in fact so imbued Joshua.

Interestingly, this “hod”, be it charisma, honor or authority, is purely aesthetic in nature.  For, though we are used to thinking about aesthetics in terms of beauty, the aesthetic gesture includes all sense perception.  The feelings engendered by the sublime, the exalted, the majestic, are all very much part of the aesthetic gesture (Kant).  Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that God’s “kavod [honor] stresses the majesty element [in the divine, which is] a pure aesthetic phenomenon which fascinates and frightens man” (Worship, p.60).  This “majesty element” is also to be found in man, as the Psalmist writes, “Thou … hast crowned him with honor and majesty (kavod v’hadar)” (8:6).

As such, Joshua mastered all three areas of human activity and consequently was imbued with the spirit of God making him the quintessential leader.  Interestingly, the ultimate leader, known as “the Messiah”, is described as being imbued with the spirit of God in specifically the three gestures, “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding [i.e., intellectual], the spirit of counsel and might [i.e., aesthetic], the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord [i.e., ethical]” (Isaiah 11:2).

In Joshua we discovered the qualities of the ideal leader, qualities that we long to behold in that ultimate leader, the Messiah.  Until that time, let us strive to realize our own potential in the three gestures of human endeavor, let us strive to achieve the spirit of a leader.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at