When the Torah describes the count of the tribe of Levi, at the onset of this week’s reading, it uses the expression “raise the head of the tribe of Levi.” At first glance this is a strange way of to present the matter. The Torah should say directly, “count the tribe of Levi.” By using the expression “raise the head” the Torah communicates to us a subtle but vital lesson. And that is that pure numbers by themselves are insufficient when we wish to appreciate the value of tribes, groups, or individuals. For if that group or individual does not have a sense of pride, a sense of mission and purpose, then numbers alone, in the long run, are almost worthless.
The Levites were assigned a special role in Jewish society and temple service. The were also to be the teachers of Israel and, perhaps just as importantly, the role models for Jewish generations and public service. It is no accident of random choice that the greatest public servant the world has ever known, our teacher Moshe, was a Levite. Because, unless leadership feels the impetus of mission and exalted responsibility upon itself, it can never achieve the fulfilment of its assigned task.
This can only be accomplished by raising one’s head, by having a sense of pride and self-worth and an individual commitment to excellence in the performance of one’s duties and obligations, be they personal or societal. By using the phrase, “raise the head,” the Torah emphasizes to us the correct and eternal way of assessing human numbers and accomplishments.
Modesty and humility are necessary traits for all of us and they are extremely necessary for those who find themselves in positions of public leadership, spiritual guidance, and education. Yet, in this these areas of human character, like in all other areas of thought and behavior, a proper sense of balance is required. Our teacher Moshe is the most humble and self-effacing of all human beings, yet he realizes that he is Moshe, that his face shines with Godly eternity and that upon him lies the responsibility for preserving the Jewish people and their loyalty to Torah. Therefore, his head is raised while at the same time his inner self retains the humility that characterizes his nature. This is a very delicate balancing act and many a potentially great leader has failed because of an excess of pride, on one hand, and meekness on the other.
We find for instance that King Saul was reprimanded by the prophet Samuel for being overly modest and therefore weak in his response to public pressure. The prophet said to him, “You may be small in your own eyes, but you are the head and leader of the tribes of Israel.” Throughout history all of us, and especially those that find themselves in roles of familial, social, educational, and religious leadership are challenged by this exquisite balancing act – how to have a humble heart and a raised head at one and the same time, a demand that the Torah places upon us.