Numbers Radical Compassion: Moses and the Master of Berditchev
According to folklore, the 18th-century Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was once walking through the streets of the city on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (which falls during the summer), when he saw a most unexpected site: a Jewish man he knew eating lunch by the side of the road. Ordinarily, this would have been far from remarkable, but the ninth of Av is a fast day marking the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and other historical calamities. Traditional Jews do not eat or drink for just over 24 hours.
The rabbi quietly approached the man and engaged him in conversation.
“Dear sir, perhaps you have forgotten that today is the ninth of Av, and that we are forbidden to eat on this somber day?”
“No,” responded the man, “I am well aware of the date and of its rules and regulations.”
“Then perhaps your health is so poor that you had no choice but to eat in order to remain alive,” the rabbi inquired.
“No, I am in excellent health,” stated the man without hesitation.
The rabbi continued with this same line of questioning, hoping with all of his heart that this man was not brazenly sinning in public on this holy day.
But as the word “no” and its explanations continued to emerge from the man’s mouth (between bites of food!), Rabbi Levi Yitzhak ran out of questions. And so, he lifted his hands toward the heavens and declared: “Master of the Universe, you see how precious your children are, even when they sin they cannot lie!”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was renowned for his love and protection of the members of his community (see more stories about him in Elie Weisel’s “Souls on Fire”). In one Hasidic legend after another, he is depicted as a master of compassion who defended his people against any would-be foes, earthly or heavenly. That same spirit of compassion also emerges in many of his sermons; one powerful example can be found in his commentary, Kedushat Levi, on this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas.
In chapter 27 of the book of Numbers, we learn that the Israelites are slowly moving closer to the Promised Land. As they approach their final destination, God instructs Moses to ascend a mountaintop and survey the country. God reminds Moses that he will not enter the land because of a past sin (the infamous incident of striking the rock at Kadesh, in Numbers 20:11).
In response, Moses says the following to God:
Let YHWH, the Source of the spirit of all flesh, appoint a person over the community who will go out before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, so that YHWH’s community may not be like sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:15-17).
In commenting on this statement, Levi Yitzhak homes in on the unusual description of God as “the Source of the spirit of all flesh”:
The verse instructs us to judge the people of Israel favorably, even if they are unable to do the will of the Creator at all times, as angels do. This is the case only because they are so gripped by trying to make a living. This is why Abraham our Father, a man of mercy… gave food to the angels who came to visit him [a common rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 18:2], though he knew that angels do not eat. He did so in order to teach them about human needs, so that they not judge Israel harshly.
Levi Yitzhak takes a verse in which Moses exhibits great empathy for the Israelites (and in which he puts aside his own fate for the moment), and makes it a timeless message about compassionate leadership and the struggles of the Jewish people: Do not judge the community too harshly when they stumble. Inspire them to live holy lives, but know that they are going to falter sometimes. Be like Abraham, who taught his angelic guests about the bodily needs of human beings by offering them food. Be like Moses, who pleads for God to choose as his successor a leader who understands the challenges that people of flesh and blood face in their spiritual journeys.
As the Rabbi of Berditchev writes further on:
This is why Moses said, “YHWH, the Source of the spirit of all flesh.” Because man is flesh and blood, he must labor for his livelihood, and therefore, there are times when he does not serve God steadily…Just as you are the Source of the spirit of all flesh and you judge them [Israel] favorably, so shall you “appoint a person over the community,” a leader of Israel, that will also speak favorably of them.
In other words, if God — the ultimate Spirit — can tolerate the shortcomings of human beings, designate a human leader who will do the same. As Rabbi Levi Yitzhak teaches repeatedly (including in his discussion of Moses’ sin at Kadesh), a true leader does not beat people down, but helps to raise them up by reminding them of their potential as beings created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27).
This presentation of Moses by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak is very different from the biblical description of Pinchas, the namesake of our portion and a fiery zealot, earlier in the book of Numbers (see chapters 24-25).
Leaders must demand the best of their communities, work with them to achieve their highest aims and know that they will inevitably trip and fall from time to time. In such moments, the compassionate leader does not shy away from rebuke, but does so in a constructive manner.
We are human beings, not angels, insists the Master of Berditchev, but we can seek to emulate God by cultivating a spirit of compassion.
Rabbi Or Rose is the director of the former Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and in 2016, became the Founding Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College.