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What are the essential attributes of a leader?

What defines a good leader? This week Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., teaches us the four criteria for leaders detailed in Parashat Pinchas. Just as the State of Israel is heading to the voting booth once again, see what modern leaders might learn from this ancient text.

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Shalom. Unfortunately, the State of Israel is once again heading towards an election. But before I say something about leadership, I want to say something about the Jewish people. In a famous passage in Parashat Pinhas, the mantle of leadership is passed from Moshe to Yehoshua. One of the verses says, וצויתה אותו לעיניהם””, “and you shall commission him [i.e., Yehoshua] in their sight” (Numbers 27:19). Rashi says, “וצויתה אותו – על ישראל, דע שטרחנין הם, סרבנים הם…”, “you shall commission him — over Israel; know that the Jewish people are troublesome and obstinate”. It’s nice to know there’s nothing new under the sun1

This reminds me of a famous story about Ben Gurion meeting JFK in the early 1960s. President Kennedy says, “it’s really hard to be President of the United States. I’m the president of 190 million citizens!” And Ben Gurion replies, “no, it’s much harder to be the Prime Minister of Israel. I’m the Prime Minister of 2.3 million Prime Ministers!” Indeed, it is very hard to be the leader of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.

What are the attributes which we must look for in a leader? Interestingly enough, in just a few verses in our parashah (Numbers 27:15-17), we have four different answers to that question.  Here are the verses, with an emphasis on the four different answers:


“And Moses spoke to the Lord, saying:

Let the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh,

appoint a man 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”.


Why does it say ruhot, spirits in the plural? Rashi replies, quoting Midrash Tanhuma: “מנה עליהם מנהיג שיהא סובל כל אחד ואחד לפי דעתו”. The reason it says “spirits” in the plural, is that God should appoint a person who understands the “spirits” of the Jewish people. Not the “spirit” in the singular, but the “spirits” the plural. In other words, a person who can tolerate every single individual in his community or his people.

The second attribute: It says “איש על העדה”, “appoint a man over the community”. This reminds us of a famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (2:5) “ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש”, “and in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man”. In other words, in a place where there is no leadership or where people are not saying or doing the right thing, the leader must not be afraid to say and do the right thing. He has to be the איש, the person who does that.

The third attribute is in the phrase אשר יצא לפניהם ואשר יבוא לפניהם”” and Rashi explains, following Sifrei, that it’s talking about going out and coming in in battle. As we are told about King David in the First Book of Samuel (18:16), “כי הוא יוצא ובא לפניהם”, “because he goes out and comes in before them”. However, Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy 500 years ago, says “אשר יצא לפניהם – בעניין המלחמה; ואשר יוציאם – בענייני הנהגת המדינה”. The first part of the verse says he will go out before them — in matters of war, while the second part of the verse says that he will bring them out — in matters of leading the state. In other words, the leader has to, on the one hand, lead the people in war if necessary, but on the other hand, lead them in peace, which is much more important.

Finally, the fourth attribute, that the Jewish people should not be “כצאן אשר אין להם רועה”, “like sheep which have no shepherd”. This reminds us of the well-known passage about Moshe Rabbeinu in Exodus, chapter 3 (verse 1):  “ומשה היה רועה את צאן יתרו חותנו כהן מדין”, “and Moses was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law Yitro, Priest of Midian”; “וינהג את הצאן אחר המדבר”, “and he led the sheep beyond the wilderness”. A famous midrash says that because Moshe knew how to take care of each and every lamb, he would also know how to take care of each and every member of the Jewish people.

Thus, we see in this brief passage about leadership that there are four attributes that we need to look for in our leaders: that he should understand and tolerate the spirit of every individual; “השתדל להיות איש” — “in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man”; to lead them in war and in peace; and to look after every individual as a shepherd looks after every sheep in his flock.

May we have the wisdom to choose such leaders for the State of Israel.

Shavua tov, from Schechter.

Read the article on JPost now

**Beginning immediately after Pesach and until August, Parashat Hashavua in the Diaspora is one week ‘behind’ the Parasha in Israel. Shavua Tov@Schechter will follow the Diaspora schedule.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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