A Lesson In Leadership


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 7:54 p.m. (Fri.); 9:01 p.m.
(Sat.); 9:02 p.m. (Sun.)
Torah: Num. 1:1-4:20 (Sat.); Exodus 19:1-20:23 (Sun.); Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 (Mon.); Num. 28:26-31 (Sun. & Mon.)
Haftorah: Hosea 1:1-22 (Sat.); Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12 (Sun.); Habakuk 2:20-3:19 (Mon.)
Havdalah: 9:03 p.m. (Mon.)

The tribe of Levi was divided into three major families, the descendants of Gershon, Kohath and Merari, Levi’s three sons. Moses and Aaron are told to take a census of the families, and are instructed on the various duties assigned to each family regarding the transport of the Tabernacle in the desert. Although Kohath was not the oldest of the families, it was the first to be counted and assigned the most prestigious of the duties. (The continuation of the count of the families of Gershon and Merari and their duties is found in next week’s sedra, Nasso).

The Gershonites, descendants of the eldest of Levi’s sons, were given the task of preparing the parts of the Tabernacle and the Tent of the Meeting that they were to carry. These included the accessories that were needed for erecting the Tabernacle. In addition, there were the items needed for the service the Levites performed, which included the musical instruments. This directive concludes by saying simply that the Gershonites were to be under the authority of Itamar, one of the remaining two sons of Aaron [Numbers 4:28]. (Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, died when they brought an unauthorized “strange fire” into the Tabernacle soon after it was inaugurated.)

The Merarites were assigned the task of preparing and carrying the heaviest parts of the Tabernacle.  This section ends with the almost verbatim conclusion of the Gershonites regarding the supervision: “This is the work of the families of sons of Merari according to their work in the Tent of Meeting, under the authority of Itamar, the son of Aaron the Kohen [Num. 4:33].

Let us return to the end of this week’s reading regarding the family of Kohath, and contrast the description of their assignments with those of the Gershonites and Merarites. Kohath was to carry the Holy Ark of the Covenant. They were also to carry the holy utensils, including the Table of the Show-Bread, the Menorah, the Golden Altar and the Copper Altar. But when it came to the supervision of the Kohathites, this was assigned to Elazar, Aaron’s son and Itamar’s older brother.

A careful reading of Elazar’s assignment shows a departure from the description of Itamar’s (simply stated as “under the authority of Itamar”). However, Elazar “shall have responsibility of the oil for the light, the fragrant incense, the daily grain offering, and the anointing oil, with the oversight of the whole Tabernacle and all that is in it, of the Sanctuary and its vessels” [Num. 4:16].

We read in the Talmud how the priests fought over the right to perform the most prestigious of the Temple services. They drew lots to get their assignments. One can only envision how the Kohathites battled to be the ones to carry the Holy Ark, or the Altars, or the Menorah and the other vessels. Compared to these, who would want to be responsible for just the lighting or anointing oils or the flour or the incense?

This is where real leadership comes to the fore. On the one hand, Itamar supervised the carrying of the Tabernacle’s structural items by the Gershonites and Merarites. By contrast, Elazar personally took on the assignment not only of the items that were towards the bottom of the list that were available to the Kohathites, but he made sure that each of the top choices were individually assigned to particular individuals [Rashi on Num. 4:16] — and he probably had to be prepared to receive their complaints. Rashi explains that not only did Elazar supervise those under his jurisdiction, but he personally carried the items that were less in demand by the Kohath family.

Leadership requires assuming responsibility, often requiring unpopular decisions and taking on less desirable assignments. Originally the Israelite first-born were to serve as the priests in the Tabernacle. But after the sin of the Golden Calf Moses asked for volunteers to go into battle with him to destroy the idolaters. His famous words were, “Mi La’Shem Ailai!” “Who is for Hashem, join me.” Only the tribe of Levi responded and for that they took the place of the first-born. The family of Aaron came from the Levite family of Kohath. And the future Kohen Gadol, the High Priest following Aaron was Elazar, who was not reluctant to take on the sometimes less popular responsibilities, beyond the call of duty.

In the present era, commanders in the Israel Defense Forces say “Acharai,” follow me, as they lead their charges into battle. Their models were the likes of Moses, the Levites and Elazar the Kohen. May the Jewish people always have this kind of leadership in the difficult road that lies ahead for our people.

Fred Ehrman is a national vice president of the Orthodox Union, chairman of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions of Israel, honorary president of Lincoln Square Synagogue and honorary president of Manhattan Day School.