Bamidbar (Israel): Leaders

Even the greatest leader is human, and therefore fallible,

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

In its opening sentences, the Book of Numbers lists twelve of Israel’s leaders – the leaders of each of the twelve Tribes:

“Each man will be the head of his Tribe:... of Reuben: Elizur son of Shedeur; of Simeon: Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai; of Judah: Nachshon son of Amminadab; of Issachar: Nethanel son of Zuar; of Zebulun: Eliab son of Helon; for Joseph’s sons – of Ephraim: Elishama son of Ammihud; of Manasseh: Gamaliel son of Pedahzur; of Benjamin: Abidan son of Gideoni; of Dan: Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai; of Asher: Pagiel son of Ochran; of Gad: Eliasaph son of Deuel; of Naphtali: Ahira son of Enan” (Numbers 1:4-15).

And then, having named these twelve tribal leaders, the Torah continues: “These are the ones summoned by the community, princes of their fathers’ tribes; they are the leaders of the thousands of Israel” (v. 16).

Rashi comments: “‘The ones summoned by the community’ – the ones who are called to every matter of importance to the community”.

The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) writes: “‘The ones summoned by the community’ – meaning that the community would do nothing without calling them”.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, (1809-1879) identifies three aspects in these tribal leaders: They were (1) the ones summoned by the community; (2) princes of their fathers’ tribes; and (3) leaders of the thousands of Israel.

The Malbim then analyses in detail: “‘These are the ones summoned by the community’ – let us define His reasons for choosing these men:

They were ‘the ones summoned by the community’, meaning that they were heads of the Sanhedrins. Important matters had to be decided upon by a king, a prophet, a Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and a Sanhedrin; Moshe was both king and prophet, Aaron was Kohen Gadol, and these leaders were heads of the Sanhedrins, because a community is defined as such when it is led by a Sanhedrin. Because they were ‘princes of their fathers’ tribes’, and they had been called to apportion the Land of Israel according to the number of people in each Tribe. Because they were ‘leaders of the thousands of Israel’, they were responsible for arranging the army for war – each soldier under the command of the leader of a thousand”.

Clearly, these twelve tribal leaders were highly-regarded – and justifiably so. They had been entrusted with the holiest and the most exalted of tasks. Indisputably worthy leaders of Israel.

These were the leaders who, as we will read next week in Parashat Nasso, “brought the sacrifices for the dedication of the Altar on the day it was anointed” (Numbers 7:10), each one bringing his offering on behalf of his Tribe for twelve consecutive days (vs. 12-83). And, as Rabban Gamliel said, “the sacrifices which these princes brought were as beloved by G-d as the two Tablets of Stone” (Vayikra Rabbah 8:3

And this makes their later downfall all the worse, their later betrayal all the more disappointing and depressing. Because, as the Midrash tells us, the “men of the Children of Israel, 250 princes of the community, those summoned for the convocations, men of renown” (Numbers 16:2) who joined forces with Korah and with Dathan and Abiram in their rebellion against Moshe just three-and-a-half months later, were none other than “Elizur son of Shedeur and his colleagues, those who ‘are mentioned by name’ (Numbers 1:17)” (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3 and Tanhuma, Korah 2).

And even though Nachshon son of Amminadab, prince of the Tribe of Judah, was the man who had demonstrated his absolute faith and trust in G-d just over a year earlier by jumping into the Red Sea before it had even split, and it was in his merit  that it split (Sotah 37a; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Massechet ve-Vayehi 5 s.v. ויבאו בני ישראל; Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 14) – meaning that Nachshon son of Amminadab had in effect saved the entire Jewish nation from destruction;

and even though Nethanel son of Zuar was a Ben Torah (Bereishit Rabbah 72:5, Sifri Zuta 7:18);

– nevertheless they, too, were later swept down together with their faithless colleagues.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the word קְרוּאֵי (“the ones summoned”) is spelt defectively here: it is written קְריּאֵי, with a yud instead of a vav. Loosely based on Pesikta Zutra, he explains: “This [defective vav] is because of Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, who is the same as Zimri son of Sallu . And similarly, when recounting Korah and his band , the same word is spelt קְרִאֵי, without the vav entirely [as opposed to a yud, which could be a diminished vav]. This is because [in Korah’s band] they were all evil, but here [in Parashat Bamidbar, only Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai was evil], but all the others were righteous”.

As Rabban Gamliel II admonished, “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Even the greatest leader is human, and therefore fallible. Let us recall here the tragic case of Yochanan Kohen Gadol:

“Yochanan served in the High Priesthood for eighty years, and eventually became a Sadducee” (Berachot 29a), which means that eighty times Yochanan entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and eighty times he emerged unhurt – meaning that for eighty years he had no sin! The Kohen Gadol who entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was literally risking his life for the Nation of Israel. He entered to gain atonement for the nation, knowing that if he had any unforgiven sin since the previous Yom Kippur, he would die.

By serving in his office on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol demonstrated tremendous self-sacrifice for and dedication to Israel. Yet after such a lifetime, even Yochanan was ultimately seduced into the heresy of Sadduceeism.

Having said that, Rabban Gamliel II continued his admonition: “and don’t judge your fellow until you have come to his place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). It is impossible for someone who has never held high office to understand the pressures and demands and expectations to which a leader is subjected, so maybe only someone who has experienced leadership is in a position to judge another leader.

And this leads us directly into the Haftarah (the prophetic reading) for Bamidbar.

The Haftarah is Hosea 2:1-22, opening with the prophecy: “The number of the Children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea which can be neither measured nor counted...”. Many commentators have offered this as the connexion with the Parashah: Parashat Bamidbar opens with the census in the Sinai Desert, counting the Children of Israel Tribe by Tribe, for a total of 603,550 Jewish men aged 20 and above, and the prophet foresees the time when the Children of Israel will be too numerous to count.

Though this is clearly a connexion, I find another, less obvious, link.

Hosea prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah, Yotam, Ahaz, and Yehizkiyah (Hezekiah), kings of Judah, and Yaravam II (Jeroboam II), king of Israel (Hosea 1:1) – that is to say, his 90-year ministry spanned the final decades of Israeli independence (the northern kingdom), about a century-and-a-half before Judea (the southern kingdom) was conquered.

Both kingdoms were in severe decline, and against this backdrop G-d told Hosea: “Your children have sinned! [Hosea] should have responded: They are Your children, the children of those whom Your favoured, children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! Shower Your mercy upon them! Not enough that he did not say that, he even said to Him: Lord of the World! The entire world belongs to You – exchange them for another nation!” (Pesachim 87a).

This was not the appropriate response expected of a prophet.

And so G-d said: “What shall I do to this old man? – I will say to him: Go and marry a harlot, who will bear you children of harlotry! And after that I will say to him: Send her away from your presence! If he will be able to send her away, then I too will send Israel away” (ibid.).

Sure enough, the Book of Hosea records that G-d’s first charge to Hosea was: “Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, because the Land has assuredly gone whoring away from Hashem” (Hosea 1:2).

Obeying G-d’s charge, Hosea “went and took Gomer daughter of Divlaim, and she became pregnant and bore him a son” (v. 3).

The Talmud (Pesachim 87a) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Hosea 515) interpret her name “Gomer” to have explicit sexual connotations – that everyone had relations with her (the verb “gomer” means “finish, complete”, and the secondary sexual meaning is retained in modern Hebrew).

And Gomer bore Hosea three children: a son, Yizre’el (Jezreel), connoting that G-d would soon exact punishment for the spilt blood of Yizre’el and put an end to the Israeli monarchy; a daughter, Lo-Ruchama (Not-given-compassion), connoting that G-d would no longer have compassion on Israel (though He would still have compassion on Judah); and a son, Lo-Ammi (Not-My-Nation), connoting that Israel was no longer G-d’s nation and He was no longer their G-d.

Despite the unflattering names of these children, and despite Gomer’s faithlessness to Hosea, the prophet was bound to them with such love that he forgave them all their flaws. Of course he could not drive away his wife and children whom he loved.

And thus he realised how G-d could never drive away the Children of Israel in perpetuity. Yes, He could delay their return to the Land of Israel for forty years; yes, He could exile them from their Land; yes, He could subject them to horrific punishments for their faithlessness.

But He would never reject them entirely.

And only a leader who had experienced the pain of faithlessness, of betrayal by the woman he loved, could faithfully represent G-d’s undying love for His faithless children.

The Haftarah finishes with the G-d’s resounding promise that He and His children would yet return to be reunited: “And I will betroth you unto Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in loving-kindness and in compassion; and I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness – and you will know Hashem” (Hosea 2:21).

These words are of course instantly familiar to anyone who puts on Tefillin: they are the words that a Jew says as he winds the strap of the Tefillin three times round his middle finger – symbolising the wedding ring that the groom puts on his bride’s finger.

This takes on special significance this year 5776: as Shabbat ends, Yom Herut Yerushalyim begins – the 28th of Iyyar, the day that we returned to Jerusalem 49 years ago during the Six Day War.

G-d, indeedm had not rejected His nation. Yes, we had been in exile for close on 2,000 years. Yes, even when we finally re-established independence in our ancestral homeland it was only in a fraction of the historical Land of Israel.

And we had no plans at all to liberate any more of Israel, content to leave the majority of it under continued foreign occupation.

Bu G-d had other plans, and He forced us to fight for Israel, even against our will. And ever since then, successive governments of Israel have offered, pleaded, cajoled the surrounding Arabs to take back the land which they lost.

Two years ago, we suggested that the fact that almost half a century of Israeli attempts to give away Jerusalem have invariably failed is a miracle no less than the miracle of the Six Day War itself.

Contemporary with the prophet Hosea was the prophet Isaiah. He depicted G-d as רַב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ, “mighty to save” (Isaiah 63:1), when He saves Israel from attacking hostile nations. And this phrase has, of course, been integrated into our daily prayers.

I cautiously suggest that we might just occasionally read this as רָב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ – a kamatz instead of a patach under the reish. G-d is not only רַב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ, “mighty to save”, He also רָב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ, “fights to save”. He fights to save Israel from their enemies – even, when necessary, when that means fighting against Israel’s own determination not to win.