The Essence Of Leadership


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

The first model is Pinchas himself, a man given to rage and violence in defense of God’s honor. Most commentators reject his model, but the Torah rewards Pinchas with the “covenant of peace” and “eternal priesthood” [Numbers 25:1-15]. After an Israelite man and a Midianite woman were cohabiting in public, “in the sight of Moses and the entire assembly,” Pinchas takes a spear and executes both the man and the woman. Commentators have compared Pinchas to Elijah (as does the haftarah that is sometimes read alongside Pinchas), because the Bible calls them both “zealots.” Elijah, too, was a loyal defender of God, but God pointedly appears to Elijah “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.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 8:08 p.m.
Torah: Num. 25:10-30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Havdalah: 9:08 p.m.

The Israelite camp, moreover, is called a “congregation” — an edah — a gathering where everyone gets counted. The ideal leader, then, has no more power than a leader of prayer, someone 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 saying, “Do not let God’s congregation be like sheep who have no shepherd” [Num. 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.

Having opened with Pinchas, we meet another leadership model as the Torah moves on to his opposite, Joshua, chosen to be the leader after Moses. Joshua is “someone with spirit (ru’ach) in him” [Num. 27:15-23]. 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 Pinchas, 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 when Solomon is chosen [I Kings 1:2], 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.