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The Systems of the Jewish Year

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By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In this week’s parsha, Moses is suffering from the incessant complaints of the Jews. Eventually he says to G-d: “I cannot bear all this people alone, for it is too heavy for me. If You would deal thus with me, please kill me, if I have found favor in Your sight, so that I need not see my wretchedness!” (Num. 11:14-15). G-d responds to this heartfelt plea by telling Moses to appoint seventy men from the elders of Israel, to whom Moses can delegate tasks. Interestingly, these men will not be simply administrative assistants. They will actually go with Moses to the Tent of the Meeting, where he listens to G-d, and share some of the holy spirit which rests on him. In this way they will share the burden of leadership with him.

How are these seventy men to be chosen? We read (11:16): “And the L-rd said to Moses: Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be elders and officers of the people,” which does not seem to help much. Rashi explains: this means men who had been appointed overseers of the Jews back in Egypt, and who had treated the Jews under their control kindly, and allowed themselves to be beaten, rather than enforce the cruel decrees of the Egyptians.

This is very interesting! For if we were to think: what are the characteristics of the ideal leader?—or if we were to read some book on leadership from the library, we would come up with a list of qualities, such as: an imposing presence, an upright bearing, a good speaking voice, being able to present bold ideas and a bold vision, and so forth. And these may be good characteristics for a political leader in the normal sense. But we see from Rashi’s commentary that these do not constitute the basic qualities of leadership in Judaism. From the Torah perspective, the basic quality of a leader is the desire to protect those in one’s charge, to the extent of being willing to suffer for them.

I read recently, in the Jewish Observer, a story concerning the visit of the Chafetz Chaim to a world convention of Agudas Yisroel in Vienna, some time before World War II. A reporter for one of the large Viennese (secular) newspapers was covering this event. He was at the hall where the meeting was being held, and where people were waiting for the arrival of the main speaker, the Chafetz Chaim himself. There was a thick mass of participants milling about.

Suddenly they parted, and the reporter saw the Chafetz Chaim walking down the hall. But what a surprise! Instead ofa proud-looking, erect, imposing figure, striding down the hall, the reporter saw a little old man (over seventy), less than five foot high, bent over, shuffling slowly forward, supported on each side by a disciple. The reporter was astounded. Was this the famed spiritual leader of World Jewry? And indeed it was, and there is really no paradox here, because (as we know) the Chafetz Chaim did indeed embody those qualities which are important for a Jewish spiritual leader.

Recently I met a Jew from Iran, who told me about his great-grandfather, who was a famous tzaddik in Iran (then Persia). This man died when he was fifty, and here is how it happened. There was a plague in a certain Jewish town in Persia. The town elders tried everything to stop it, but nothing worked. Eventually they thought of calling this man for help. He chose ten men, noted for their piety, from all over Persia, and traveled with them to the town.

When they arrived there, they made ten circuits of the town, reciting psalms. My informant’s great-grandfather then walked to the center of the town, surrounded by his ten helpers, and prayed that the plague should stop, and that he should die instead of the townsfolk. And the plague stopped, and he died. What I want to bring out here is not the miracle, but the characteristic of a Jewish leader which this man exemplified—the willingness to sacrifice oneself for those in one’s charge.

Rabbi ... Wolbe, the famed and saintly mashgiach (spiritual counsellor) of Yeshivas ... in Jerusalem, once attended a Chanukka party at the Yeshiva. As he came into the hall where the party was being held, he heard all the students singing in unison the well-known song “ANA, ANA, ANA, avda de-Kudesha berich Hu” (Aramaic for “I, I, I, am the servant of the Holy One, blessed be He").

He exclaimed: “The words are wrong! They should be: “Ana AVDA, AVDA, AVDA de-Kudesha berich Hu” ("I am the servant, the servant, the servant of the Holy One, blessed be He!"). He was saying, in effect: there is too much “I” here, and too little “servant”. This statement of Rabbi Wolbe illustrates what is important for a Jewish leader—not to be concerned with one’s own ego, but to serve G-d and one’s fellow-Jews.

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