LEADERS WANTED – Numbers 27 – Pinchas – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LEADERS WANTED – Numbers 27 – Pinchas – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

After taking a census of his people, Moses gets a look at the Promised Land, although only from Mount Abarim, one of the peaks of the mountain called Nebo. He hears the Divine warning that, since he will not enter the Land himself, he can expect to die as his brother Aaron died, in solitude on a mountain top. But while Aaron had his son Elazar with him to anoint as High Priest to succeed him, his brother Moses to transfer his clothes to his son, and both of them to bury him, we will see at the end of Deuteronomy that Moses will die in total solitude and G-d will bury him. Moses will have plenty to do from now till then. This “mountain view” is therefore nothing but a preview. And an opportunity to speak with G-d.

How does Moses use this opportunity? Does he beg the Almighty to reconsider, to let him lead his people across the Jordan? Does he pray for immortality? Maybe he would like to, but he knows better. He asks the Eternal One for a successor, a leader “who will go before the people to take them out and bring them in,” one who will galvanize them to win wars, and inspire them to build their future in peace. Like the American vice-president, this successor takes over only after the death of the current leader. After witnessing the process of choosing such a potential successor for both of this year’s candidates, we can relate to Moses’ prayer.

The answer Moses gets can teach us lasting principles about choosing leaders. He is told to take Joshua, his lieutenant who grew into maturity as Moses’ devoted helper, one of only two spies who brought back a positive report about the Land, who in his youth was described in the Torah as a “boy who did not move out of the Tent of Meeting.” “Take Joshua,” says G-d, ”a man who has spirit… Place some of your glory on him… Let him stand before Elazar the Priest to hear the word of G-d.” Then Joshua and the people will take action.

Elazar, son of Aaron, will supply the law, but he will not be the leader. By now, he and his brother Itamar learned from their father and from their uncle Moses what their role should be. High Priest is not head of state. Ayatollahs are notably missing from Jewish history. The notable exception is the family we recall every Hanukkah – the Maccabees. Matisyohu – Mattathias, the senior head of the Hasmonean clan, is identified in our prayers as kohen gadol – the High Priest. He and his soldier sons freed the people from the Syrian Greeks who tried to eradicate their faith and their culture. And then they set up a theocratic dynasty which became corrupt and earned the disapproval of the rabbis of the Talmud, who played down Hanukkah rather than glorify that dynasty.

Speaking of dynasties, of course, we note that Moses also had two sons. Why are they ignored?

Rashi and other commentators ask why this story immediately follows the case of the daughters of Zelophehad who had no brothers and therefore needed a special ruling in order to inherit their father’s property. The ruling they get specifies “if a man dies and has no sons.” The Klee Yokor commentary adds the condition that maybe he had sons who were not deserving to inherit, who lacked knowledge, wisdom and leadership qualities that their father did not give them. They should not inherit his position. As we read Moses’ career, we must admit that he did not raise his sons. He was facing continuous crises in leading the People of Israel.

Where were his sons? Certainly they were elsewhere during most of their father’s years of leadership. Neither Gershom nor Eliezer shows up in the Torah narrative much after their birth in the desert, well before the Exodus.

Clearly, selecting a leader is no easy job. Not even for Moses. As our history progressed, from tribal chiefs to judges to kings, it didn’t get easier. And when David had to deal with his various sons, bloodshed and revolt scarred the country until Solomon, the wise one, secured the throne.

Democracy complicates the process still further. Whether in Israel or the United States, in Germany or Russia, in Cuba or Egypt or any other country officially using the election process, brilliant and successful leaders are rare. Chosen successors might or might not extend their achievements. Too often momentous mistakes can produce inept or misguided leaders. Results for the people can be disastrous.

No inherited authority in the U.S., for sure. Even John Quincy and George W had to be elected independently. Our foreseeable heir to the White House will not be Ivanka Trump or Chelsea Clinton (Jewish connections notwithstanding). So good luck to Messrs. Kaine and Pence.

Over and again, Moses’ prayer rings in our ears: “Let the G-d of the spirits of all flesh set a man over the people, who will bring them out and bring them in, so the nation will not be like a flock without a shepherd.”


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