Deep in the desert, Moses called on the Jewish people to donate to the Tabernacle. The response was overwhelming: Men brought gold, silver, copper and acacia wood. Women delivered their mirrors and spun blue, purple and crimson wool for the fabric needed in G-d’s house.
Then, it was the turn of the leaders:
“And the princes brought the Shoham stones and filling stones for the Ephod and the Choshen, and the spice and the oil for lighting and for the anointing oil, and for the incense.”
The Torah says nothing more. But there is one giveaway. The Hebrew word for “princes” is missing a letter.
Naturally, the ultimate commentator Rabbi Shimon Yitzhaki, or Rashi, quotes the Talmud to explain the deficiency.
“Rabbi Nathan said, ‘What did the princes see to be the first to donate in the dedication of the altar and not donate first in the construction of the Tabernacle?’ The princes said: ‘Let the public donate and what is missing we will complete. When the public donated everything…they brought the Shoham stones, etc. Therefore, they donated first in the dedication of the altar. Because they tarried at first a letter is missing from their name…”
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim, born in Luntschitz, Poland in 1550, was the disciple of Rabbi Judah Lowe, known as the Maharal of Prague. In his commentary on the Torah, Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo explains the mindset of the princes of Israel. In essence, the leaders were in competition with their own people.
The princes, the Kli Yakar says, felt superior and refrained from donating because they were certain that they would leave nothing for the masses to contribute. After all, they reasoned, where would ordinary Jews, not long ago slaves, obtain such precious items as olive oil, spices and purple wool. The last thing the princes wanted was to delay construction of the Tabernacle because of a lack of material or reluctance by the people to provide them. So, they decided to provide anything missing from the construction project.
“There was undoubtedly a spirit of pride in saying in a boastful way, ‘Who will complete what we miss, but we will complete everything that the public misses.'”
Perhaps the biggest mistake made by leaders is thinking that their real job is to administer — that they need to stand with their laptop and compute taxes, jobs or infrastructure. Equipped with the minutiae of governance, they feel superior to their constituency. They often use that superiority to justify inadequate or even harsh policies. They turn their knowledge into manipulation.
Simply put, a leader is supposed to lead. He is supposed to inspire his constituency to serve G-d. The best way to inspire is to set an example. When leaders take the first step, the people follow — often enthusiastically.
Leadership requires a person to always remember that the needs of the people — whether material or spiritual — come first. On the battlefield, the leader is the first one to confront the enemy. He does not direct the war from a plasma screen.
The ancient judge Ehud led a people under occupation by the Moabites. G-d commanded Ehud to free the demoralized Jews but didn’t say how. Ehud knew that he had to first strike the heart of the occupation. He came to Eglon, the king of Moab, with a tribute and said he had a message from G-d. When the two men were alone, Ehud stabbed Eglon in his massive belly. He managed to escape and then raised an army of 10,000 that drove Moab out of the Land of Israel.
Indeed, a leader can do virtually anything to improve the lot of his people. But that requires that he be honest, open, humble, just and devoted to G-d. There cannot be any double standard.
King David outlines such traits in Psalms 15:
“He walks upright, operates with righteousness and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue; he does no harm to his neighbor. Neither does he reproach his kinsman.”
These guidelines defy politics, based on ego, rivalry, propaganda, vengeance and displays of power. Concern for the people is almost never a factor in the race for leadership. Everything revolves around the candidate, who always needs an enemy to manipulate the people. The result is usually national disaster — whether war, economic collapse or civil strife.
Not long after World War II, Hermann Goering, awaiting execution at Nuremberg, mused over how Hitler and his colleagues had manipulated an entire nation to genocide and eventually self-destruction. It was all a game.
“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? … The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
The Jewish people are commanded otherwise. The leaders must be gentle with their flock. They must bring the people to G-d by example and persuasion. A true leader does not think of legacy or remind the people of his achievements.
The princes in this week’s Torah portion were not bad people. But the Kli Yakar says that their air of superiority pushed G-d out of the picture. He cannot tolerate braggarts of any sort. In the words of Psalms 101, “I will not suffer those haughty of eye and proud of heart,”
So, G-d removed one letter from the Hebrew word for princes, nesi’im. That letter was Yud, which signifies the divine presence and flees any trace of arrogance.
In the end, G-d thanked the little people for their generosity. They did not spend the vast amounts of the princes. But their donation was heartfelt and that was what G-d wanted.
“Every man and woman whose heart inspired them to generosity to bring for all the work that the Lord had commanded to make, through Moses, the children of Israel brought a gift for the Lord.”