Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            The book of Numbers has two major themes, and they both are prominent in this week's Torah reading.  They are numbers (Duh!), and leadership.  As for the numbers we have a repeat of the census in our parsha, and we have the number intensive list of sacrifices brought on an annual basis in the Holy Temple.  Since, as a former history major, I'm a little intimidated by numbers, I'll discuss a couple of aspects of leadership.  I'll make believe that I know what I'm talking about.

            Two week's ago, in parshat Chukat, we encountered two aspects of leadership.  The first was in the song chanted by the Jews in thanksgiving to God for the miraculous well of the desert.  The Jewish leadership was referred to as nedivei ha'am or the generous of the nation.  Great leadership requires a giving spirit.  If one goes looking for positions based upon what that individual can get out of it, please, don't go into leadership.  The correct question is, 'What can I contribute?' not, 'What's in it for me?'  The second aspect was found in the lyrics of another song.  It begins, 'Thus proclaimed the rulers.'  The Hebrew word that I translated as rulers is moshlim, and presents us with a pun.  This word can also mean a presenter of parables or teller of tales.  This informs us that a great Jewish leader must have the sensibilities of a poet or least the soul of a spinner of yarns.  Strict literalists need not apply; the prosaic amongst us can become lawyers.

            Okay, now comes the cool part.  In the Torah reading of Chukat two great Jewish leaders die.  First, there is Miriam, and then Aharon passes on.  I think that the first term, nadiv or generous of spirit, refers to Miriam, who gave freely of herself for others, most famously when Moshe was a baby floating down the Nile.  Next there was Aharon.  He was reputed to have played a little loose with the literal truth when peace was better served by a convenient untruth.  We study the lives of these marvelous forebears, not because they were superhuman, but because we can learn from them for the purpose of emulation.  So, the parsha was describing the strengths of these departing leaders.

            This week's Torah reading continues this theme of leadership.  However, before I move on to that, I want to mention that I've just been reading two different sources on leadership.  The first was very short and secular and I saw it in the August 2011 edition of Psychology Today.  It was a review of a new book about leadership.  The premise is that to be a great leader it helps to be at least a little crazy.  It catalogues the psychological conditions of many of history's outstanding leaders.  It confirms something I've always believed, that to go into Jewish leadership you must be crazy, or, at the very least, it helps.

            The second source is an entire book on the Jewish angle of this phenomenon by Dr. Erica Brown entitled Inspired Jewish Leadership.  It's a wonderful book, and deserves more comment that I'm giving it here.  In her introduction, Erica brings up an oft asked question which is germane to my topic.  Are leaders born or made?  And, of course, the answer is both, nature and nurture are required.  The combination of inherent special character and skills, together with the ability to adapt and grow in office are the hallmarks of truly amazing leaders. Erica makes an important observation.  She points out that leadership skills can't be taught, but they can be learned.  We see this most clearly in Moshe.  He began his career as reticent and tongue tied, and ended it forceful and eloquent.  The special individuals who become true giants are able to assimilate the requisite skills, and add them to their innate talents. This point is powerfully expressed in our parsha.

            When God reminds Moshe that he will not be leading the Jews into Israel, Moshe asks if it's the time to make sure that the Jewish nation isn't like a flock without a shepherd.  He wants to make sure that the transition of leadership takes place before he dies, like happened in the succession of the High Priest from his brother Aharon to his nephew Elazar.  But Moshe addresses God in a unique way.  He calls to God as he Lord of Spirits.  Now, before some foolish readers think that I'm advocating for Divine approval of those hard drinking Kiddush clubs, let me explain.  These spirits are embedded in the human soul, not distilled in Scotland.  Rashi explains that Moshe meant that God understood the unique spirit of every individual.  Others opined that God knows the specific spirit mandated by the needs of each generation.  In the spirit of our discussion, I'd like to posit that Moshe refers to God as controlling spirits in the plural, because we are supposed to possess more than one spirit in our lives.  He felt that this happened in his own life and career, and he observed this in his beloved disciple and successor, Joshua.  Joshua began his leadership career as a military man leading the Jews into battle against the Amalekites, forty years earlier.  Now he must add to that resume, spiritual and political prowess needed for the nation building job ahead, not unlike George Washington's transition from general to statesman.

            Every successful life, I believe, must go through these transitions.  We must constantly be remaking ourselves as we progress through the stages of life.  Skills sufficient for childhood aren't good enough for adolescent challenges, and these talents must be augmented to perform well as professional, spouse and parent.  To be a good leader you must as well be a good human being, and the fascinating vignettes about these inspiring people provide the lessons we must learn.  We must develop the generosity of Miriam, the soul of Aharon and the flexibility of Moshe.  Then, maybe, we can lead others, because we've learned to lead ourselves.   



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