Numbers Make Our Leaders Great Again
(Parshat Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89)
I find my eyes drawn these days to the 11th blessing of the daily amidah prayer, the petition for righteousness, which begins by saying: “Restore judges to us as in the early days and wise counselors as of old”—in other words, “Make our leaders great again.” Our newspapers are full of leaders in business, religion, and politics gaining notoriety through deceit, corruption, and scandal, with our newest member of Congress assaulting a journalist (and initially blaming him for the violent encounter) as just one recent example. When leaders often seem to lack wisdom, integrity, and a capacity to serve selflessly, this week’s Torah portion, Naso, can teach us some positive lessons about leadership, the qualities leaders should display, and the behavior they should execute.
The twelve tribal leaders, or nesi’im (singular: nasi), play a prominent role in this week’s reading, and make several appearances elsewhere in the Torah. (The word nasi—from the same Hebrew root as Naso—indicates one who is lifted or raised up; it is also used to refer to the modern-day president of the State of Israel, and was the term for the political and/or rabbinic leader of the Jewish people during the time of the Second Temple.) One back story provided by a midrash from rabbinic literature is that these leaders had been foremen during the enslavement in Egypt, and had accepted beatings from taskmasters rather than punish their fellow Israelites. Another midrash faults the nesi’im for sitting back during the construction of the Tabernacle at the end of the book of Exodus, letting everyone else contribute to the construction first; the people were so generous that there was little left for the nesi’im to donate.
In Naso, the nesi’im, apparently having learned their lesson, now rush forward to give gifts before the dedication of the Tabernacle. And in last week’s Torah portion, the nesi’im were called on to play a critical role in carrying out a census, a process that according to the commentator Nachmanides involved paying attention to each individual’s strengths. In sum, thus far they have taught us that good leadership involves defending the people, being willing to suffer in order to protect them, leading by example with generosity, and paying attention to the people one is supposed to lead.
Several columns of Parshat Naso, in the usually spare text of the Torah, are devoted to detailing the offerings of the nesi’im, with 72 verses describing 12 identical renditions of the items of precious metal and the sacrificial animals that each tribal leader brought as a gift. Many commentators ask why a text in which we ascribe meaning to each letter and word would incorporate so much repetition. One midrash explains that while each tribe brought identical offerings, each leader brought a different kavanah, a different intention, to his offering—in the same way that while the words of our liturgy stay fairly constant, each person brings a different intention to his or her prayers each time the words are used. Similarly, the words of our Torah are fixed, but our people produce a myriad of distinct divrei Torah for each portion every year.
According to the 14th-century commentator Gersonides, the identical offerings also teach us that the leaders were not trying to one-up each other—that their gifts and their service are, as we say, “not about them.” In discussing the qualities and qualifications of the one who leads prayers, the medieval codes of Jewish law say that he or she should not prolong the prayers unnecessarily, and the 19th-century Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan adds that one who uses a beautiful voice to enhance the prayers is to be praised, but a prayer leader should not daven in a fancy way to show off to the congregation, or simply to enjoy the sound of his or her own voice.
Whatever beauty a cantor brings to a service is admirable, but must be in service of the congregation, the prayers, and God, with a minimum amount of accompanying ego. This seems like a crucial ingredient in leadership in general, though one that is almost impossible to measure in someone else, and difficult to assess even in oneself.
Jewish tradition vacillates between venerating the past and hoping that the future will be better than the present, with each generation building on what the previous one has accomplished. Although at times it seems like some of our contemporary political leaders have reached a new nadir, there are countless others who toil away, often avoiding the headlines, in a sincere attempt to improve the world, putting society’s needs ahead of their own. Few of us will be CEOs, president of countries, or even presidents of synagogues, but each of us can exercise leadership to make a difference in our family, our workplace, our community, and our society.
May we take to heart the lessons of our nesi’im from this week’s Torah portion, and work to exercise leadership that is uniquely ours, but not egotistical— “not about us,” but intended to help the people we are trying to serve. And as “judges may be restored to us as in the early days and wise counselors as of old,” may we empower more leaders of this type—and may we hear about more of them on the nightly news.
Ken Richmond has been the Cantor at Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s cantorial school in 2004 as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and was a member of the Lev Shalem Mahzor Committee. He and his wife, Rabbi Shira Shazeer (HCRS ‘10) are klezmer musicians and are raising their boys with Yiddish as their first language.
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