Who are those most fit to serve as Jewish leaders


Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7

Behaalotcha presents us with a checklist of qualities necessary for Jewish leaders. Although the list is certainly not exhaustive, it does explore some characteristics of Jewish leadership that are as timely today as they were in the time of Moses, our teacher.

After Moses complains — and with good reason — that he cannot handle the whole burden of leadership by himself, G-d tells him (Numbers 11:16): "Gather for Me seventy men" who will assist you in your responsibilities. The Midrash asks why the Torah uses the word ish for "men," as it denotes the singular "man," rather than the word anashim, which means "men."

The Midrash then explains that this is meant to bring to mind two other verses in the Torah that contain the word ish, both of which should define a Jewish leader. He must be similar to G-d who is described (Exodus 15:3) as a Man (ish) of war." He must, on the other hand, be similar to Moses of whom the Torah states, "The man [ish] Moses was the most modest of men" (Numbers 12:3).

Rabbi Shlomo Breuer explains that we see here an interesting duality.

A Jewish leader must be modest. No matter how much power he holds in his hands, he must meticulously avoid abusing his office. He must treat every Jew with honor and respect. He must not, however, take humility so far that his leadership loses its value. There must be a hand of iron inside the velvet glove. He must be at times a "man of war," prepared, as was Moses, to courageously stand up to rebuke the people and put them in their place when it is appropriate. Moses told the people, "You were rebellious against G-d from the day I first met You." (Deuteronomy 9:24) Then at the very end of the Torah (Deut. 31:7) we read that "Moses said to Joshua in front of all Israel, 'Be strong'" (Chazak ve'ematz).

That is the way the verse is normally read. But the cantillation marks in the Torah reveal a different reading. "Moses said to Joshua, 'In front of all Israel be strong'" (Chazak ve'ematz). Stand by your principles. Be forceful. Don't allow the Jewish people to intimidate you.

That is what the word ish signifies. The Jewish leader must be a blend of Moses' modest attributes and G-d's commanding presence.

Last but not least is the question, who were the 70 men who were gathered to share in Moses' leadership duties? The Midrash tells us that these men had been appointed by Pharaoh as overseers for the Jews while they were enslaved. It was their responsibility to make sure that these Jews produced their daily quota of bricks. One day Pharaoh's aides made a careful count of the bricks and found the number to be less than the required quota. The Jewish overseers were summoned and commanded to inform the Egyptians as to which Jews specifically failed to fill their quota. These brave overseers steadfastly refused to do so and were brutally punished. Their refusal to incriminate their fellow Jews left their bodies battered but their consciences clear. Their egoism and instinct for self-preservation had been overcome by the love they felt toward their brothers and by the pity that surged over all selfish reactions.

It was these men who were deemed most fit to serve as leaders of the Jewish people. From the days of our father, Abraham, to our own generation there have always been Jews who have sacrificed their own safety and welfare on behalf of their fellow Jews. They serve as models for all of us and certainly for anyone considering the possibility of assuming a leadership position in the Jewish community.

Shabbat Shalom.