Editor’s Note: Before his passing, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks prepared a year’s worth of Covenant & Conversation columns based on his new book, “Lessons in Leadership.” The Jewish Press is honored to publish these columns, which are being distributed weekly by The Office of Rabbi Sacks.
The parsha of Pinchas contains a master class on leadership, as Moses confronts his own mortality and asks G-d to appoint a successor. The great leaders care about succession. In parshat Chayei Sarah we saw Abraham instruct his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, so that the family of the covenant would continue. King David chose Solomon. Elijah, at G-d’s bidding, appointed Elisha to carry on his work.
In the case of Moses, the Sages sensed a certain sadness at his realization that he would not be succeeded by either of his sons, Gershom or Eliezer. The invisible crown of Torah, Keter Torah, does not pass dynastically from father to son as do the crowns of priesthood and kingship. Charisma rarely does. What is instructive, though, is the language Moses uses in framing his request:
“May the Lord, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, choose a person (ish) over the congregation who will go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num. 27:16)
Three basic leadership lessons can be learned from this choice of words. The first, noted by Rashi, is implicit in the unusually long description of G-d as “the Lord, G-d of the spirits of all flesh.” This means, Rashi explains, “Master of the universe, the character of each person is revealed to You, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will bear with each person according to their individual character.”
The Rambam says that this is a basic feature of the human condition. Homo sapiens is the most diverse of all life forms. Therefore cooperation is essential – because we are each different, others are strong where we are weak and vice versa – but cohesion is also difficult, because we each respond to challenges in different ways. That is what makes leadership necessary, but also demanding:
This great variety, and the necessity of social life, are essential elements in human nature. But the well-being of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of each person; they must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all, so that the natural variety should be counterbalanced by the uniformity of legislation, and the order of society be well established. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 2, chapter 40)
A true leader respects differences, but like the conductor of an orchestra, ensures that the many different instruments play their part in harmony with the rest.
The second hint is contained in the word ish, “a person” over the congregation. G-d says, “Take for yourself Joshua, a person, ish, of spirit (v. 18). The word ish here indicates something other than gender. This can be seen in the two places where the Torah uses the phrase ha-ish Moshe, “the man Moses.”
One is in Exodus: “The man Moses was highly respected [gadol me’od, literally “very great”] in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and the people. (Ex. 11:3)
The second is in Numbers: Now the man Moses was very humble (ana me’od), more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. (Num. 12:3)
Note the two characteristics, seemingly opposed – great and humble – both of which Moses had in high degree (me’od). This is the combination of attributes Rabbi Yochanan attributed to G-d himself: “Wherever you find G-d’s greatness, there you find His humility.”
An ish in the context of leadership is not a male but rather someone who is a mensch, a person whose greatness is lightly worn, who cares about the people others often ignore, “the orphan, the widow and the stranger,” who spends as much time with the people at the margins of society as with the elites, who is courteous to everyone equally and who receives respect because they give respect.
The real puzzlement, however, lies in the third clause: “Choose a person over the congregation who will go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in.” This sounds like saying the same thing twice, which the Torah tends not to do. What does it mean?
The Torah is hinting here at one of the most challenging aspects of leadership, namely timing and pace. The first phrase is simple: “who will go out before them and come in before them.” This means that a leader must lead from the front. They cannot be like the apocryphal remark of a British politician: “Of course I follow the party. After all, I am their leader.”
The second phrase is vital: “who will lead them out and bring them in.” This means: a leader must lead from the front, but he or she must not be so far out in front that when they turn around, they find that no one is following. Pace is of the essence. Sometimes a leader can go too fast. That is when tragedies occur.
Moses knew this himself from the episode of the spies. As Maimonides says in The Guide, the task of fighting battles and conquering the land was too much for a generation born into slavery. It could only be done by their children, those born in freedom. Sometimes a journey that seems small on the map takes forty years.
Respect for differences, care for the lowly and powerless as well as the powerful and great, and a willingness to go no faster than people can bear – these are three essential attributes of a leader, as Moses knew from experience, and as Joshua learned through long apprenticeship to the great man himself.