The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bemidbar: Trials & Tribulations in Times of Transition, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Behaalotcha: The Anatomy of Leadership – What Must the Leader Ignite?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“When you kindle the Menora…” (Numbers 8:2)

Our Torah portion recounts the watershed experience of the Israelites in the desert: the beginning of the end, the devastating denouement which unravels into the demise of an entire generation locked out of the Promised Land. What caused the miracles of the Exodus, the inspiration of the Sinai Revelation, the desert constellation of proud, flag-raising tribes surrounding the Sanctuary of God to so pitifully degenerate into the faithless, fearful, rebellious, and reactionary squabbles which characterize the succeeding chapters of the book of Numbers?

Our sages signal the beginning of the change by dramatically suggesting that chapter eleven of the book of Numbers begins a new and separate biblical book: the verse opens, vayehi, literally “and it was,” but onomatopoeically suggesting trouble, vay, woe and distress (vayehi ha’am k’mitonenim). It is a small but tragic book within a book which we are now about to read, a tale of self-destruction. How did it happen? In order to attempt to answer the initial question, let us review this Torah reading of Behaalotcha from its very beginning – which is Numbers, chapter eight – and we shall find that in addition to our query concerning the genesis of the national disaster, many smaller questions abound.

First of all, our biblical portion appears to be recording a collection of disparate incidents which seem to lack any cohesive connection.

The portion of Behaalotcha begins with the kindling of the Menora by Aaron – a Sanctuary accoutrement and divine service which would have been far more appropriately placed in the portion of Tetzaveh, which initially discusses the construction of the Sanctuary and the role of Aaron and his descendants therein (Exodus 25–30). Indeed our most classic commentary, Rashi, is disturbed by this apparent misplacement, from the book of Exodus to the book of Numbers, and he therefore connects the opening of Behaalotcha to the description of the gifts of the princes of the tribes at the dedication ceremony of the Sanctuary (which we read at the conclusion of the previous biblical portion of Naso). Rashi cites a midrash in which Aaron is upset that the kohanim had been overlooked at the dedication ceremonies, and so, in effect, God tells Moses to appease Aaron: “Your task, [Aaron], is greater than theirs [the princes of the tribes)], because you will prepare and kindle the Menora” (Rashi, ad loc.).

But Rashi’s comments seem to raise more questions than they answer. First of all, if Rashi is correct, then the Menora kindling should have concluded the portion of Naso instead of opening the portion of Behaalotcha. Secondly, why would Aaron be satisfied for not having been given a public role in an auspicious ceremony with the consolation prize of the onerous task of cleaning and kindling the Menora early every morning before a non-existent audience?! It’s almost like telling the invited guest speaker at a fancy public dinner whom the hosts forgot to introduce that he ought not be concerned, since he will be honored with clearing the tables and cleaning the dishes early the next morning.

What then follows in the biblical text is a myriad of disparate incidents: the Levites are chosen over the firstborn for religious leadership, the second-chance opportunity of bringing the Paschal lamb sacrifice is provided for those who were ritually impure or a distance away from the Sanctuary on the fourteenth of Nisan, a cloud by day and a fire by night is directing the camp of Israel, the trumpet call which summons the nation to war and inaugurates the festivals is described, the heads of the army of each tribe are named, Yitro’s return to Midian is recorded, and the Ark of God is praised for its power to scatter the enemies of Israel. What conceptual scheme can possibly unite these various and disconnected commands and occurrences?

And then begins chapter eleven, the “new book” of the Bible:

“And it was [“vay,” “woe”] that the people were k’mitonenim [as murmurers] an evil thing in the ears of God; and when God heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of God raged a fire among them, which devoured them until the outermost part of the camp.” (Numbers 11:1)

Here the questions are even more disturbing. What does the term mitonen mean? As we saw in our last commentary, this is the only time the word appears in the Bible – and the commentaries are all perplexed. It sounds close to mitlonen, which means “to complain,” and therefore most translations render “murmerers,” following the Rashbam. But what were they murmuring against? The Bible does not record any reason for their murmurings, but does insist that it was considered evil by God, who expressed His apparent anger by dispatching a devouring fire.

And then, given the correlation between the fire and the murmuring, one would expect the Israelites to push all future complaints onto the “back burner.” But, then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Israelites cry out for meat (Numbers 11:4). This is the last thing we expect to hear, not only because it flies in the face of the punishment they just received but also because they seem to be complaining for no reason. After the splitting of the Reed Sea they had complained of hunger, and the Almighty solved the problem with the miraculous heaven-sent manna, a type of coriander seed; and long before Marx and Engels, each family received a sufficient portion for each family member – each in accordance with his or her need. Moreover, according to the Midrash, they certainly had no cause for complaint, since the taste of the individual portion of manna was determined by the culinary desires of the individual, when he or she made the blessing before tasting the “seed.” If one could think beef-wellington and receive that exact flavor from the manna – and without calories and cholesterol – who would need any other kind of food?

And then the most disturbing problem of all: when Moses bitterly complains to God about his difficulties in leading such an ungrateful, querulous, and impatient nation which is now desirous of meat, the Almighty responds, “Gather for Me seventy men from amongst the wise elders of Israel” in order to appoint rabbinical and judicial leaders to assist Moses in his duties of leadership. The people cry for meat – and God gives them rabbinical judges. How does the divine solution answer the problem?! (Although I am certainly aware of the fact that many congregations “devour” their rabbis, I hardly believe that God was thinking in such terms!)

I would like to begin my response to all of these questions by suggesting that – surprisingly and tragically – it is often when an individual has “everything,” and should be most grateful and satisfied, that he or she feels most at a loss. Witness the biblical testimony, “But now our souls are dried up, with nothing but the manna before our eyes” (Numbers 11:6). Why should their souls be dry? They ought to be fertile and blessed, energized with limitless possibilities! Why should newly-freed individuals, divinely protected against any onslaught from the elements, sound like inhabitants of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land? They should see the desert as their gateway to freedom! And why should manna affect their souls? It is the body which requires the nutrients, and it is the body which responds to delectable flavors and exotic tastes!

The great psychologist and founder of logotherapy, Victor Frankel, in his wise and thought-provoking book Man’s Search for Meaning, maintains that the most profound existential human desire is not the search for pleasure (as Freud thought), nor is it the search for power (as Jung and Adler thought), but is rather a search for meaning and significance! He argues that the concentration camp victim with the obsessive goal of saving the life of his child lived each day with more zest than the retired American millionaire who is bereft of plans, purpose, goals. “Pity the person who has realized his every dream” – because the true excitement of life is a byproduct of the striving, is the adrenalin produced in the heat of the chase to capture the prize.

The Bible introduced the downward slide of the Israelites with the Hebrew word k’mitonenim, translated as “like murmurers.” But the Hebrew mitlonen means murmur or complaint; mitonen is comprised of two Hebrew words, suggests Rabbi S.R. Hirsch – met, a corpse, and onen, a mourner found in the initial stage of mourning between the period of the death and burial of the deceased. This strange and compound word reflects a sense of impotence, malaise – the sadness, frustration, and emptiness which comes from a feeling that there is nothing left for the individual to do, there is no purpose to any of his actions at this point. The mourner is overwhelmed with feelings of frustration, purposelessness, emptiness. Ponder the fact that tiredness rarely comes from hard and satisfying work; the retired, bored businessman is the one who yawns the most.

When God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and provided them with all their needs in the desert, they lost the dreams and ideals which had sparked their lives and ignited their energies while they were still slaves in Egypt. Now they want “meat,” which may just be a way of saying that they want something to bite their teeth into! Enough with living the “life of Riley” in a divinely supported desert kollel!

Enough with the imagination creating the perfect menu. Fish is better, even those salty, smelly sardines which the Nile spit up together with its frothy film, because although they tasted putrid, while we ate them we could still dream of better times to come – and work to bring those dreams to fruition. Yes, we crave “cucumbers and watermelons and onions and leeks”! What these vegetables have in common is that they have to be planted, nurtured, and harvested. They require sun, water, care, patience, and, most important of all, work. No overnight onions, no express melons. The language of “dry souls” tells us that although God provided everything necessary for the body, the Israelite soul was bereft of purpose, significance, meaningful dedication to an ideal. We have seen that the author of HaKtav VeHaKabbala, Rabbi Yaakov Mecklenberg, interprets mitonenim as coming from the Hebrew ana, whither, where. The Israelites were wandering hither and thither, here, there, and everywhere in search of a goal and direction, desperately seeking a compass to point towards a clear vision and goal, a program of action that would give meaning and purpose to their lives. They had it all – and therefore they lacked what everyone needs most: a purpose to their lives, a reason for being, a program of action to give meaningful direction to their days.

I believe that both interpretations of mitonenim are saying the same thing. The nation which had been so certain of its mission when it came out of Egypt – the freed slaves who had felt in every fiber of their being that they were “a holy nation and kingdom of priests”; the Israelite who had sung at the Reed Sea, “You shall bring us and plant us in the mountain of Your inheritance…. Your hands, O God shall prepare a Sanctuary” (Exodus 15:16–17) – had lost their focus, had forgotten their ideal.

The Israelites did not know what they wanted because they did not understand what they needed – like a baby who is kvetching for something, and will continue to kvetch and reject whatever he is given because he doesn’t understand that he is teething and that is what is causing his discomfort. The Israelites thought it was the meat, or the fish, or the watermelon that they wanted – but each kvetch led to another kvetch, since what they really needed was a goal, a significant purpose.

And the truly tragic truth is that the Israelites lost their spiritual compass because they felt removed – even alienated – from Moses, that fiery leader who had initially inspired the Egyptian slaves with a vision of freedom in order to serve their God of compassion, morality, and peace in Israel, in order to spearhead a universal movement to enthrone God as King of the Universe (Exodus 15:18). But Moses couldn’t maintain the excitement, couldn’t sustain the vision, could no longer nourish the dream. Why not?

Perhaps it was because he had become too close to God, too involved in constant divine communication in order to receive the Torah, that he lacked the requisite time, energy, and patience to slowly and incrementally pastor and educate a stubborn and complaining people. Gersonides (also known as the Ralbag) goes so far as to interpret in this way the biblical words “they [the nation] would not listen to Moses because of his [Moses’] impatience,” his inability to inspire the Hebrews with their mission to bring about world redemption (Exodus 6:9, Gersonides ad loc.). Perhaps Moses simply became too tired…the kvetching nation could wear down even a Moses!

I believe this understanding will lead us to the glue which binds together the various segments of our Torah portion Behaalotcha: the search for leaders who will reignite the fire and reinspire the dream, a cadre of visionaries who will help Moses direct the people to begin working again towards their covenantal goal. Hence, after appointing Aaron as the custodian over the kindling of the Menora, our biblical portion explains that the firstborns lost their initial position of leadership to the kohanim because they worshipped the Golden Calf, because they followed false gods of materialistic and hedonistic excess. Our portion goes on to teach that if there are those who are ritually defiled and cannot participate in the national-religious ritual of the Paschal lamb at its appointed time they must be given another chance at another date (Pesaĥ Sheni); and this second chance even extends to those who were away from the place of sacrifice at the appointed time, and even to those who may have been there geographically but were distant psychologically, emotionally, religiously – even to those who may have been at the doorsteps of the Holy Temple, but lacked the will, the spiritual desire, to participate in the national sacrifice (Numbers 9:9, Rashi ad loc.). Leadership must reach out to the alienated, to the spiritually distant.

Religious inspirers must imbue the nation with the realization that they are being directed by God – in the guise of a cloud by day and a fire by night – and must instill within them the courage to go to war if need be to protect their nation, their mission, their future destiny. Leadership must point the people towards the idea of Torah, a morality and a lifestyle which expresses its goals by means of sacred-time celebrations, and which has the power – when adhered to – to scatter our enemies to the wind. Yitro, who originally counseled Moses concerning the necessity of additional rabbinic-judicial leadership, leaves the desert for Midian; perhaps he returned to his home because he had foreseen the crisis but was not listened to in time to have prevented it from coming.

Finally, why does our portion begin with the Menora? The Menora, or candelabrum, symbolizes the Israelite nation, light unto the nations of the world. The single most important task of leadership is to foster the fuel, to kindle the spark, to fan the flame, to ignite the imagination, to provide the illumination. This is what Rashi has God say to the kohanim, biologically destined to lead as teachers of Torah, in his opening commentary to Behaalotcha: “Your task is greater than theirs [the princes of the other tribes]: you kindle and prepare the Menora.” You must imbue the Menora, Israel entire (Klal Yisrael) the light of all the nations, with the vision and the mission to enter the Land of Israel and redeem the world.

Hence the truest task of a leader: to supply the vision and the volition, the dream and the desire. Moses did that most effectively for the Hebrews in Egypt, for fleeing freedmen at the shores of the Reed Sea, and he did it for all future generations of Jews through the divine words he left as his legacy for eternity. Perhaps it was precisely his second focus which made it impossible for him to truly lead the desert generation with the day-to-day, minute-to-minute concern that that congregation, as well as every congregation, require; perhaps it is truly “mission impossible” to be involved with the eternal generations as well as with one’s own temporal generation at one and the same time. But the angst of the desert generation calls out to leaders of every single generation to the end of time: give us meaning or you give us death; inspire our lives with significance, or we will dry up and die. Ignite our souls with a passionate ideal, and we will follow you to the ends of the earth.

A Hasidic Postscript

A Hasidic rebbe once told his disciples that every modern invention contains an important message from God. “What can we learn from the telephone?” they asked. “That what you say at one end of the world can be heard at the other end; two people can keep a secret – but only if one of them is dead.” “What can we learn from a telegram?” “That every word must be counted, and that every letter costs money.” “What can we learn from a train?” “That if you come one minute late, you can lose the entire trip. But most importantly, you can learn from a train that one fiery engine can move along thousands of people – but there must be fire in its belly!”

Shabbat Shalom


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