“What Makes a Good Leader?”
Rabbi Shelton Donnell
At the conclusion of Parashat Pinhas we come to the end of the saga of the Israelites in the wilderness. The people is encamped across the Jordan prepared to enter the land of Canaan and take possession of it. As for Moses however, it time for him to take his leave from the people, “ADONAI said to Moses, ‘Ascend the heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was. For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water.’ These are the Waters of Meribah-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin” (Num. 27:12-14)
At this moment, Moses’ only response is a single request: “’Let ADONAI, the Source of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so the ADONAI’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’
“Then ADONAI answered Moses, ‘Single out Joshua the son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey’” (Num. 27:16-20).
The Torah does not explicate those qualities required of the new leader however, the midrashim (as usual) fill in the gaps as we find in Midrash Numbers Rabbah (21:2), “Moses said to God, ‘Sovereign of the universe, certainly the thoughts of each and every person are known to You and You are aware that no two people think alike. When I depart from them, please appoint over them a leader who will consider each one individually.’ Note that ‘the spirit [of all flesh]’ is not written, rather, ‘the spirits [of all flesh]’ in the plural.’” And as the midrash continues it brings in Moses’ request that his sons might inherit his honor, but God responds [citing Proverbs 27:18], One who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit; [And one who cares for his master will be honored.]… Your sons sat about and did not busy themselves with Torah while Joshua diligently served you and paid you honor — from morning ‘til night he arranged the benches in your council chamber and put out the seating mats — he served you to the best of his ability, and so it is appropriate that he should serve Israel and not miss out on his reward. Thus take Joshua the son of Nun as it is written, One who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit.’ This teaches us that only those who work for it merit to inherit.”
According to the commentary, the Me’am Lo’ez, God commanded Moses to appoint Joshua personally in order to honor Moses. This is because Moses himself asked God to find someone of discernment, someone “who who shall go out before them and come in before them… so the ADONAI’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” Because he was concerned for the people and not for himself, God honored him in this way.
And more, according to the Me’am Lo’ez, God said to Moses, “For as I am the One who has insight into the hearts and innermost thoughts of human beings and who knows the spirit of each one, I know that he is a man of discernment, of wisdom, an analytical ability, good counsel and perfected in everything. And you will lay your hands upon him and teach him other desirable qualities and superior understanding. You will exhort him with words of encouragement and say to him: “Fortunate are you to have the privilege of guiding the children of God!”
“You will make it clear to him that they are a people of dissenters and trouble-makers, so that he should resolve to lead them with exceptional forbearance and patience.”
Tacitus once observed regarding Emperor Galba’s character, “No one would have doubted his ability to reign had he never been emperor” (Histories 1:49).
According to the parasha, the midrash and the Me’am Lo’ez, what are some of the desired characteristics of a good leader?
- The commentary of the Me’am Lo’ez described Joshua as “perfected in everything,” but then continues, “And you will lay your hands upon him and teach him other desirable qualities and superior understanding.” Why? If Joshua was already “perfected” what was there left to teach him?
- Why did God instruct Moses to tell Joshua, “Fortunate are you to have the privilege of guiding the children of God!” And then, afterwards stipulate, “You will make it clear to him that they are a people of dissenters and trouble-makers, so that he should resolve to lead them with exceptional forbearance and patience”?
- How would you explain the meaning of Tacitus’ saying in light of our portion and the commentaries?