Tolerance for individuality

Tolerance for individuality

Pinchas | Numbers 25:10-30:1

Every parent knows this fact, and every teacher can confirm it. No two children are alike. 

The fact that groups of human beings are diverse is the central problem for would-be leaders. It is a simple matter to lead a homogeneous group; it is far more difficult to take charge of a group with internal conflict and clashing interests.

This is one of the themes of this week’s parsha. In it Moses learns that his life is about to come to a close. He will be allowed to glimpse the Promised Land, but soon afterward will be “gathered to his kin.”

Acting responsibly, Moses sets about finding a successor and asks the Almighty to help him, addressing God in a most peculiar way. Generally, the translation reads something like: “Lord, Source of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them….”

What is the meaning of “Source of the spirits of all flesh”? And why does Moses use this term to begin his search for a new leader?

Rashi understands that Moses wants to find someone who can cope with individual differences, with every conceivable type of spirit. He is searching for a successor who can deal with all the Jews.

It would seem that Moses is looking for a tolerant person who will not be perturbed by the assortment of characters he will be asked to lead.

The Almighty informs Moses he has found just such a man, someone who has “spirit within him” and who presumably can deal patiently with everyone he encounters. That man is none other than his disciple Joshua.

I have always found the choice of Joshua very puzzling. We have read quite a bit about Joshua over the past few weeks. What is most striking to me is that he does not come across at all as a patient and tolerant individual. Quite the contrary; when the other spies disagreed with him, he challenged them eloquently and forcefully.

More dramatically, when Eldad and Medad, of whom we are told that “the spirit rested upon them,” seclude themselves and begin to act like prophets, it is Joshua who demands that Moses strike them down. It is Moses who shows tolerance, not Joshua.

I concluded long ago that although it is important for a leader to be able to recognize the differing qualities of his followers, it is not important that he acquiesce to these differences. Rather, he must actively declare his vision and assert his leadership. He must tolerate the differences he encounters but cannot allow them to deter him from attaining the group’s ideals and objectives.

Daily, we read of leaders who either are strong and dictatorial or so sensitive to every subgroup that they are totally ineffective.

In this week’s Torah portion we encounter the perfect balance: Joshua, the man who can work with every one, no matter how demanding, but who has the wisdom and fortitude to transcend short-sighted particular interests in his pursuit of the overarching goal and greater common good. 

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