In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
Moses learns he is not to enter the Promised Land. He asks God to appoint a new leader. What is required of a leader?
Let the LORD, Source of the breath 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 that the LORD’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.
The traditional commentary on this passage is that Moses was asking God for someone who could be an effective leader for a community at war, anticipating the Book of Joshua.
אשר יצא לפניהם ONE WHO MAY GO BEFORE THEM — not as is the way of the kings of the nations who sit at home and send their armies to battle, but as “I” have done — I who fought against Sihon and against Og, as it is said, (Numbers 21:34) “Do not fear him: “[for I have delivered him into thy hand … and thou shall do to him as thou didst unto Sihon, etc.]” and as is the way that Joshua followed, as it is said, (Joshua 5:3) “And Joshua went to him and said, Art thou for us [or for our adversaries]”. And so, too, in the case of David, it says, (I Samuel 18:16) “For he went out and came in before them” — went out at their head, and came in at their head (Sifrei Bamidbar 139:2).
Rashi, citing various Midrash, also points to the importance of emotional intelligence for a leader.
אלהי הרוחת GOD OF THE SPIRITS [OF ALL FLESH] — Why is this expression used? (i.e., why does it not state simply אלהי כל בשר?) He said to Him: “Lord of the Universe! the personality of each person is revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to his individual character (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 10; cf. Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 776).
The Sages seem unclear about whether a leader is participatory or authoritative, brutal or paternalistic.
The Gemara continues to interpret verses pertaining to judges and judgment. It is written: “And I charged your judges at that time” (Deuteronomy 1:16), and it is written soon thereafter: “And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do” (Deuteronomy 1:18). There is an apparent contradiction between these verses, as one indicates God commanded the judges and the other indicates He commanded the people. Rabbi Elazar says that Rabbi Simlai says: Moses issued a warning to the community that the awe of the judge must be upon them, and Moses issued a warning to the judge that he must bear the burden of the community. Up to what degree must the judge bear this burden? Rabbi Ḥanan, and some say Rabbi Shabbtai, says: It is as Moses said, that he carried Israel “as a nursing father carries the sucking child” (Numbers 11:12).
Similarly, a distinction is drawn between two verses where Moses commanded Joshua concerning his impending leadership: It is written: “For you shall go with these people into the land” (Deuteronomy 31:7), and it is written: “For you shall bring the children of Israel into the land” (Deuteronomy 31:23). Rabbi Yoḥanan reconciled the difference between these two charges and said: Moses said to Joshua, in the first verse: You and the elders of the generation will enter into Eretz Yisrael together with the people, i.e., the elders will assist you in the leadership. Subsequently, in the second verse, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Joshua: You yourself must bring the people: Take a rod and strike the people upon their skulls. There must be one clear and authoritative leader for the generation, and there may not be two or more leaders for the generation.
Note the strange gender-bending in the cited text — Moses as a nursing father!
Perhaps there is a special mystical bond between a true leader and the people:
Bamidbar Rabbah 19:28, Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Chukat 52:1
Moses is Israel and Israel is Moses. [This comes] to teach you that the head of a generation is surely equivalent to the whole generation.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, a 17th predecessor of the Hasidic movement, expands this idea — the true leader can represent every person in the community. But that will only happen with the Messiah.
Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Torah Shebikhtav, Pinchas, Torah Ohr 13
The following Midrash will illustrate what I have in mind: “Moses said to G–d that the man who would be appointed his successor should “possess” the mind of all six hundred thousand Jews, since each one of them must be ready to accept him as his personal leader, seeing that no two Jews are of the same mind.
Concerning what Moses had demanded at the very beginning however, namely, a man whose mind would evoke a 100% positive response from every Jew, such a man would not arise until the arrival of the Messiah … This is also what is referred to in Job 28,25: לעשות לרוח משקל, “who can determine the weight of the spirit” (evaluate correctly the mind of every person). The Midrash describes Moses as saying to G–d that only He knows the minds of all His creatures. Since G–d is aware that each Jew has a mind of his own, seeing that he, Moses, is about to depart from the scene, he asks G–d to appoint someone who is able to put up with all these opinions represented by the Jewish nation. It is puzzling why such a well-meant request should be answered by G–d in the manner described by the Midrash. Why did G–d postpone fulfilling Moses’ request until the coming of the Messiah?
Rabbi Horowitz does not directly answer his question.
There is a tension among the Sages about the wisdom of the common people. Leadership may be found in unusual places and it is not necessarily recognized.
The Gemara relates another story about the righteousness of common people. Rabbi Beroka Ḥoza’a was often found in the market of Bei Lefet, and Elijah the Prophet would often appear to him. Once Rabbi Beroka said to Elijah: Of all the people who come here, is there anyone in this market worthy of the World-to-Come? He said to him: No. In the meantime, Rabbi Beroka saw a man who was wearing black shoes, contrary to Jewish custom, and who did not place the sky-blue, dyed thread of ritual fringes on his garment. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: That man is worthy of the World-to-Come.
Rabbi Beroka ran after the man and said to him: What is your occupation? The man said to him: Go away now, as I have no time, but come back tomorrow and we will talk. The next day, Rabbi Beroka arrived and again said to him: What is your occupation? The man said to him: I am a prison guard [zandukana], and I imprison the men separately and the women separately, and I place my bed between them so that they will not come to transgression. When I see a Jewish woman upon whom gentiles have set their eyes, I risk my life to save her. One day, there was a betrothed young woman among us, upon whom the gentiles had set their eyes. I took dregs [durdayya] of red wine and threw them on the lower part of her dress, and I said: She is menstruating [dastana], so that they would leave her alone.
Rabbi Beroka said to him: What is the reason that you do not have threads of ritual fringes, and why do you wear black shoes? The man said to him: Since I come and go among gentiles, I dress this way so that they will not know that I am a Jew. When they issue a decree, I inform the Sages, and they pray for mercy and annul the decree. Rabbi Beroka further inquired: And what is the reason that when I said to you: What is your occupation, you said to me: Go away now but come tomorrow? The man said to him: At that moment, they had just issued a decree, and I said to myself: First I must go and inform the Sages, so that they will pray for mercy over this matter.
In the meantime, two brothers came to the marketplace. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: These two also have a share in the World-to-Come. Rabbi Beroka went over to the men and said to them: What is your occupation? They said to him: We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. Alternatively, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace. It is said that for this behavior one enjoys the profits of his actions in this world, and yet his reward is not diminished in the World-to-Come.
Already in the Talmud we see a shift — a leader must be someone learned and respected in Torah, and capable of motivating the community to observe mitzvot.
Avot D’Rabbi Natan 17:3
Set a plan for yourself to study Torah. How so? When Moses our teacher saw [that his children] were not learned enough (in Torah) to be able to rise to leadership after him, he wrapped himself up and arose to pray. He said before God: Master of the World! Let me know who should come in and go out as the head of this people, as it says (Numbers 27:15–17), “Moses spoke to the Eternal, saying, Let the Eternal, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who will go out before them and come in before them.” The Holy Blessed One replied to Moses: Moses, [take Joshua for yourself. Then the Holy Blessed One said to Moses]: Go and find a disseminator for him, and have him give a teaching at the head of the great men of Israel.1The disseminator transmits the words of the teacher to the multitude. By being told to establish a disseminator, Moses was being asked to appoint Joshua in his lifetime as a teacher of the nation. Immediately, Moses said to Joshua: Joshua, these that I turn over to you are not goats but kids, (and not sheep) but lambs. For they still have not taken on the mitzvot. They still have not become fully grown goats, as it says (Song of Songs 1:8), “If you do not know, most beautiful of women, go out and follow the footsteps of the flock, and graze your kids by the shepherd’s dwellings.”
For the Baal Shem Tov, in the 18th century, a leader should be a storyteller of his or her generation, who inspires the community and brings joy by elevating their experiences.
Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye, 18th century, Ukraine, student of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov.
I write in the name of my teacher: The explanation of the verse “Let the Eternal […] appoint a man over the congregation […] who will lead them out and lead them in” (Numbers 27[:16]) is that the head of the generation should be able to raise the words and stories of the people of that generation, to combine the physical and the spiritual, like the two comedians … “Words from a wise person’s mouth are gracious” [Ecclesiasters 10:13].