We are all familiar with the concept of leadership. However, when we ask ourselves what makes a good leader, we should be focusing on ourselves; we must understand that we all play leadership roles in one way or another. Whenever we engage with other people, whether in our family context or our work environment, we serve as an example. Leadership begins with who we are as individuals.
In this week’s parsha, we have two paradigmatic examples of leadership: Moses and Pinchas. We read about how G-d instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as his successor. Even though Moses was still going to lead the people till his death, He made it known to the people now that Moses’ successor is Joshua. In fact, the request for a successor came from Moses, which demonstrates his remarkable generosity of spirit and his dedication to the Jewish people. Moses was the greatest leader we’ve ever had and yet he was the most humble of all people. His humility is in stark contrast with Bilam about whom we read last week, the evil prophet who used all of his leadership skills and talents for evil in the world. According to Talmudic tradition, he was also guilty of promiscuity and a number of other perversions.
In last week’s portion we read about how Pinchas saved the day by killing Zimri, the son of Salu, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, who sinned with Kozbi, one of the Midianite women. A huge scandal broke out among the people and Pinchas, with bravery and courage, called Zimri to accountability. This parsha, which bears his name, discusses his reward.
The contrast between these two leaders, Pinchas and Zimri, is striking. Zimri was the leader of the tribe of Shimon, which was a very prestigious position; there were only twelve tribal leaders and he was one of them. Pinchas, even though he was the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, did not have any position himself. He came without position, without rank, and through his bravery and zealousness earned his status as a priest. He demonstrated the right kind of leadership, determination and principles, while Zimri, who was technically a “leader”, did not have these leadership qualities.
What is it that made Moses who he was, that made Pinchas who he was?
Absolute definitions vs relative definitions
The key to understanding what makes a leader lies in a Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers. The very first Mishna in chapter 4 defines four qualities that everybody wants: wisdom, strength, wealth and honour. The Mishna asks: Who is indeed wise? Someone who learns from every person. Who is strong? Someone who is able to conquer his evil inclination. Who is wealthy? Someone who is happy with his lot. Who has honour? Someone who gives honour to others.
The conventional understanding is that wisdom is defined by how much one knows, by one’s IQ; wealth is defined by the bank balance and the amount of possessions and properties a person owns; strength is defined by power – for example, military or economic power; and honour is defined by the honour others give us.
The Mishna, however, gives different definitions for these attributes. The Maharal of Prague explains that the common theme in the Mishna’s definitions is that they are all absolute values, not relative ones. There is a natural human tendency to measure ourselves in terms relative to other people, not in absolute terms. We are always comparing ourselves, always looking around. The Mishna is instructing us not to do that, and that our point of reference has to be internal. The Mishna’s definitions teach us that we must stand before G-d and develop our own definitions and sense of value, which is absolute and not relative to anything outside of us.
Normally we define wisdom in terms of IQ, but that is a relative definition because a high IQ can be compared to a lower one; in a society where not many people go to university, a person with an undergraduate degree might be regarded as a wise person, while in another society where people have post-graduate degrees and even doctorates, an undergraduate degree does not measure up. IQ and academic degrees are not an absolute definition of wisdom. The Mishna’s definition of wisdom is an absolute definition; it says wisdom is measured in terms of one’s desire to learn from others, which is internally directed and not based on anything outside of us. The wise person is the person who has a deep desire to learn, to expand their knowledge and understanding and to use that knowledge to improve who they are.
Strength is measured in all different kinds of ways but always relative to others. Countries measure strength – military strength, economic strength – but these are all relative concepts: military strength is only relative to the enemy’s strength; economic strength is relative to the competitor. The Mishna offers an absolute definition of strength: the internal strength to conquer our own desires, to be in control of who we are and to do the right thing, to override the natural human instincts and desires which may lure us away from the path of goodness in the world. This is the internal, absolute definition of strength.
Wealth is generally measured in terms relative to other people. The Mishna gives the absolute definition, not a relative one: true wealth is when we feel that we have what we need.
Lastly, the Mishna defines honour as the ability to give honour to others. If we define honour as the honour and recognition we receive, then our sense of honour and self-worth is based on what other people give, which is a relative definition as it places our point of reference outside of ourselves. The real person of honour is someone who has an internally directed sense of self-worth and the generosity of spirit to be able to give honour freely to others.
The theme of this Mishna is that we need to define ourselves in absolute terms as we stand before G-d, and not be looking around to see what’s going on around us. Furthermore, the Mishna is showing us that being a great person starts internally. This is why the real definition of Torah leadership is leadership that begins from the inside out.
What makes a leader?
The Telzer Rav, Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, asks what makes a leader. Can a person really lead, really rule over other people? He explains that even a great tyrant can’t rule over people unless he has some form of consent. In a democracy, the ruler has the consent of the majority of the people governed. But even in tyrannical rule, the greatest tyrant needs the support of the military. We have seen this recently in the Middle East, where tyrannies and dictatorships that had stood for years crumbled because the public support, be it in the form of the police or the army, had ceased; even a tyrant can’t rule over people forever. Every single human being is created in G-d’s image and has a Divine spark, which does not allow another human being to rule over him or her without consent. Says the Telzer Rav, the only person one can truly rule over is oneself. This is why the essence of Jewish leadership is leadership that starts with ruling over oneself. Having control over ourselves and not constantly looking over our shoulder trying to define ourselves in terms of others but rather defining ourselves in terms of who we are – that, says the Telzer Rav, is what inspires people and then they allow themselves to be led by others. This applies in the context of our families – our children are always looking at us as an example, and when they see a sense of greatness within us they are drawn to it and model their behaviour and sense of self accordingly. So, too, in any endeavour in life, be it in the family context, the workplace or the community. True Jewish leadership starts with oneself.
This was the difference between Pinchas and Zimri, and between Moses and Bilam: Pinchas had control over himself. He had the presence of mind, self-discipline, integrity and a sense of personal greatness that Zimri did not have. Even as the leader of the tribe of Shimon, he could not control himself and this led to his downfall. Bilam as well was degenerate, with no self-control or internal sense of dignity and always seeking honour from others. In contrast, Moses was the most humble of all people. He was a great person internally, which enabled him to develop into the great leader that he was.
Leadership begins with the mastery over oneself
Especially in our times, when there is so much emphasis on externally based values, we need to develop an internally directed sense of self-worth. The Telzer Rav quotes from the Gemara that says in the days leading up to the Final Redemption, the leaders of the generation will be like dogs. He quotes from Rav Yisrael Salanter, who explains this comparison to a dog as follows: a dog running next to a carriage, which then outruns the carriage, appears as though he is leading. But when the carriage gets to a fork in the road, we see who is really leading; the dog stops and waits to see which direction the carriage takes, and then follows.
Rav Yisrael Salanter explains that this is what the Gemara means when it says that in the times leading up to the Final Redemption, the leaders are going to be like dogs. The leaders will be looking over their shoulder, taking a poll about what they should and shouldn’t do, and seeking public opinion on everything. They look like they are leading but they are actually just following because their point of reference is outside of themselves; it is in society, and not grounded in an internal sense of what is right and wrong, of what is moral. They have no principles to give them an internal sense of direction.
Obviously, every leader – and us as individuals – must take the people around us into account; Torah mandates that we be balanced, that we show recognition and sensitivity to the others. But our starting point has to be that we stand before G-d and that we develop ourselves in accordance with His principles. Thus, when we ask ourselves what makes a good leader, we should really be asking what makes a good person. Leadership starts with each one of us as individuals, and only when we become great people in our own private lives can we then expand to influence others.