A model of leadership

A model of leadership

Pinchas | Numbers 25:10-30:1

Leadership is a hot topic. Overall, “top-down” hierarchical structures are giving way to collaborative team approaches. Our sedra this week provides several models on the subject. 

The first model (that tradition rightly rejects) is Pinchas himself. Finding an Israelite cohabiting with a Midianite woman, he summarily executes them both. Other commentators compare Pinchas with Elijah (from this week’s haftorah), because the Bible calls them both “zealots.” Elijah, too, was a loyal defender of God, but with Elijah, God pointedly appears “not in fire, wind, or thunder, but in a still small voice.” The lesson (says Tzvi Yisra’el) is that “Godliness is incubated in the hearts of others not by the fire of zealotry, but by kindly words of reason and goodness.” So leaders must be principled, but also soft-spoken, kind, and wise. 

How do leaders make decisions? The hierarchical extreme, an absolute monarch, never consults with anyone, and the Torah clearly opposes that, as we learn from Samuel’s warning against appointing a King. Our sedra alludes to this event, says Degel Machaneh Ephraim, when Moses prays, “Appoint a man over the congregation.” Not a king, mind you, but just “a man” (or “woman,” we would add) — an ordinary human being, that is. 

The Israelite camp, moreover, is called a “congregation” (v. 27:17) — an edah — the word the rabbis use for a minyan, a gathering where everyone gets counted. The ideal leader, then, has no more power than a leader of prayer, who determines what happens in the service, but only as an appointee who makes sure everyone gets counted.

That does not mean that a leader simply follows the crowd, doing whatever the people seem to want. Our sedra has Moses say, “Do not let God’s congregation be like sheep who have no shepherd” (27:17). The Hebrew for “have no shepherd” is “ein lahem ro’eh,” but the word “ein” (says Itturei Torah) can also be read as “ayin,” meaning “nothing.” It is as if Moses pleads, “Do not let God’s congregation have a ‘nothing’ as their shepherd.” 

Either extreme spells disaster: authoritarian personalities who never listen to anyone, and “nothings” who never stop listening to everyone: extremist visionaries who unhesitatingly enforce their own opinions even though they might be wrong, and fearful populists who are quick to abandon their own opinions even though they might be right. 

Not for nothing does this week’s reading include the choice of Joshua as Moses’s successor. Having opened with the disastrous example of Pinchas, it moves on to his opposite, “someone with spirit (ru’ach) in him.” (27:16). But what is “spirit?” Surely Rashi is right in observing that everyone has “spirit” — it’s what keeps human beings alive. But each person’s spirit is different, so leaders must be able to deal patiently with those who think differently and who may even disagree. Here is the very opposite of Korach, says Menachem Mendel of Kotsk: someone who is patient with others, not someone who flies into a rage. 

Ibn Ezra, too, knows that “everyone has some inner spirit.” He enlarges on the demand for patience, by referring us to I Kings 1:2 where Solomon is chosen just as Joshua was. David’s advice to Solomon is, “Be strong and become an adult.” The Targum adds, “an adult  who fears sin.” Adults work well with everyone; they are strong enough within to make hard decisions; but they must be ever wary of committing grave injustices in the decisions they make.

The Torah advocates just such leaders. They are people of vision who, nonetheless, consult the people. In reaching decisions, they show patience, listen even to those whose spirited opinions differ, and remain cognizant of their own tendency to use their power wrongly.

We sense their conviction, trust their motives, admire their character, and believe in them. We follow them not just for what they say and do, but for who they are.

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