The Rise and Fall of Leaders

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.

The start of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, could mark the biggest riddle in Scriptures. G-d commands Moses to send the leaders of the tribes to spy out the Land of Canaan, the imminent destination of the Jewish people. On the other hand, G-d appears to harbor reservations, saying “Send for yourself…”

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, acknowledges the dichotomy. G-d had already assured the Jews that the land was “good.” But they still insisted on a report.

“By their lives, I am giving them room to err in the words of the spies so that they will not inherit [the land],” G-d said.

Was G-d setting a trap? Was it unreasonable to survey the land in which millions of Jews would soon enter? Would not any other leadership do the same?

Moses Ben Nachman, known his Hebrew acronym Ramban, agrees that proper planning would have been expected of any leader. The leader would have determined the best route to the Land of Canaan, assess its defenses, map the topography and find the water sources.

But the tribal princes went way beyond this. Most of them treated their mission as if they had been authorized to approve G-d’s command to enter the Land of Canaan. Their mission was no longer technical; instead, it would decide the fate of the Jewish people. When they returned, 10 out of the 12 princes claimed that the Jews were too weak to conquer the land. So, what were the millions of Jews stranded in the desert to do? The answer was not long in coming: Return to Egypt.

History has pointed to two types of people who claim leadership. The first category consists of statesmen, or what the dictionary describes as those who “exhibit great wisdom and ability in directing the affairs of a government or in dealing with important public issues.” These people care first about their country and then about their affairs.

Then, there is the second type. They are politicians. The website defines a politician as “a seeker or holder of public office, who is more concerned about winning favor or retaining power than about maintaining principles.” Politics becomes a path to wealth and power. Success depends on staying in office at all cost. The people are just pawns.

The Midrash Rabbah says the tribal princes started out righteous. But once they were given their mission their egos took over. They planned to seize power from Moses and Aaron. They warned each other that if the tribes enter the land, the princes would fade into oblivion.

So, the tribal leaders turned into politicians. They lied about the Land of Canaan. The biggest lie was what ensured their fate: They told the people that the land G-d had promised them “consumed its inhabitants.” In other words, the great majority of them would die. That was the joke G-d was playing on them.

Then, they resorted to incitement. The princes blamed the entire odyssey in the desert on Moses and Aaron and urged the people to revolt, to attack the leaders and prepare for the return to Egypt. The first step would be to serve the idols of their former masters.

The mistake of every politician and even stateman is their determination to stay in office forever. Once in office, they become consumed by hate and envy for those who might succeed them. Most of their energy is spent on blocking their rivals rather than helping their country.

Sometimes, a leader is told that his time is up, that he should resign and return to G-d. Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister in 1995 and preparing for reelection. He was raised without Torah or faith and at one point told Israeli journalist Yisrael Katzover, a correspondent for the haredi daily Hamodia, that he was not anti-religious, merely ignorant.

Now, Rabin returned to Katzover, who wrote under the name A. Peer, and asked for a meeting with Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter, the leader of the Gur hasidic sect and head of Agudat Yisrael. Rabin hoped that Agudah and other Orthodox parties would support his reelection.

A secret meeting was arranged in Haifa in September and Rabin and the Gur leader spoke for nearly 90 minutes. Afterwards, according to Katzover’s autobiography Insider, the rabbi, the seventh leader of the Gur dynasty, gave his impression of Rabin.

“We spoke for a long time,” the rabbi said. “I don’t doubt that he is a good general. But he wasn’t successful and he won’t be successful — for one simple reason. He is a missing a crucial element. He doesn’t have siyatta diShmaya [help from heaven] and without siyatta diShmaya there is no way for him to succeed.”

“He came to speak to me about joining the new government,” he added. “But I told him that he won’t be running for elections next time around.”

A few days later, Katzover was summoned to Rabin, who asked about the Gur leader. Katzover repeated that the rabbi was certain that the prime minister would not run in the forthcoming elections.

Rabin was defiant. “He’s talking like my young challengers in the Labor Party, who also think I shouldn’t run again. There are many others who share his opinion. But they are making a mistake because I’m going to run!”

Several weeks later, Rabin was shot dead at an election rally by an agent of the Shin Bet. The Gur rabbi, who had become leader immediately after Rabin was elected in 1992, refused to comment. Five months later, the rabbi died at age 69.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.