As this week’s Torah portions draws to a close and the Jewish people are on the eve of their entrance into the Land of Israel, Moses asks God to appoint a worthy successor to lead the people forward as they begin the next chapter in their national history. The verses state: “Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: “Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” The Lord said to Moses, “Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and you shall lay your hand upon him.”(Bamidbar 27:15-18) A closer inspection of the above verses sheds light on the important qualifications necessary to become a true rabbinic Jewish leader. The verses not only speak of the greatness of Joshua but have an additional purpose: to serve as our blueprint for contemporary Jewish leaders of today.
The first qualification mentioned in the verse above is “who will go forth before them and come before them.” Rashi explains this to mean that when Joshua was tasked to bring the people into battle, he led from the front. Unlike kings of the gentile nations who send their armies to war and wait comfortably from afar, a leader of the Jewish people should take part in their triumphs and defeats in a personal way. This style of leadership — of maintaining a finger on the pulse of the people and staying actively concerned for their well-being — is no less important during communal affairs in times of peace than it is during war. The involvement and care for the affairs of the community and the common man is one of the most fundamental tasks that a Jewish leader has. While discussing the nature of true saintliness in his seminal work Mesillat Yesharim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes, “These are the true shepherds of Israel whom the Holy One blessed be He greatly desires, who sacrifice themselves for His sheep, who concern themselves with their peace and well-being and exert themselves for it in every way possible, who always stand in the breach to pray for them, to nullify stern decrees and to open the gates of blessing for them.” (Mesillat Yesharim, ch. 19) According to Rabbi Luzzatto, the hallmark of a righteous individual is not only in their own personal spiritual heights rather it is in how dedicated they are to the people of Israel and their well-being.
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik relates a story about his grandfather, Rav Chaim of Brisk, which so beautifully encapsulates this idea. Rav Chaim, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, was once asked to explain the exact function of a rabbi. Rav Chaim replied, “ ‘To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.’ Neither ritual decisions nor political leadership constitutes the main task of halachik man. Far from it. The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halachik man follows, when he, as a rabbi and teacher in Israel, serves his community.”(Halachic Man, pg. 91) Far from living in an intellectual ivory tower, disassociated from the broader public, true Jewish leadership must show true concern and understanding for all of society’s needs — be they religious or otherwise.
The second attribute of a Jewish leader mentioned in the verse from this week’s Parsha is as follows: “…who will lead them out and bring them in.” Rashi explains that this implies that Joshua merited to lead the people because of his own personal righteousness, this was not an inherited title or hereditary position. Jewish tradition places the greatest importance on the individual, his actions and personal righteousness will solidify his place as a Jewish leader. Family history or pedigree will not determine their worth. This also means that each and every individual has the potential to achieve greatness regardless of their circumstances. As Maimonides teaches, the Torah and its study was entrusted to each and every Jew. “The crown of Torah is set aside, waiting, and ready for each Jew, as [implied by Deuteronomy 33:4]: ‘The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.’ Whoever desires may come and take it.”(Laws of Torah Study 3:1). Joshua was chosen to take up the mantle of leadership instead of Moses’ own sons despite their illustrious lineage because he was more suitable for the task than they.
The message that must be applied from the appointment of Joshua is clear: when looking for a true Jewish leader do not seek he who is out of touch with the people. Do not simply appoint the next leader based on his family lineage without regard to his own personal merits. Seek an individual who is intimately connected to and concerned with the troubles and issues facing the Jewish people, who is of upstanding moral character and can therefore take upon themselves the sometimes heavy mantle of Jewish leadership. Especially important in today’s turbulent times, a Jewish leader who follows in the footsteps of Joshua will ensure that “the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
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