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Adapted by Shaul Barth
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise,
whose yahrzeit is 21 Tammuz. Yehi zikhro barukh.
Parashat Pinchas presents two models of leadership: that of Pinchas and that of Yehoshua. Yehoshua's leadership style is characterized by close, step-by-step accompaniment of Moshe, the previous leader, until Yehoshua is appointed as his successor. This process, by definition, entails the new leader assuming his position at a relatively late stage in life. Indeed, according to the Seder Olam, Yehoshua was 82 years old when Moshe passed away.
Pinchas, in contrast, is a young man who, at a certain moment, feels that it is time to act. He embodies the teaching, In a place where there are no men, try to be a man." In the midst of helplessness and a leadership vacuum, while the leaders of Israel are weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting," someone arises – with no appointment or authorization – and does something that is not exactly in keeping with halakhic rules, simply out of a sense that somebody has to do something.
I shall not discuss here Pinchas's deed itself. Rather, I shall attempt to learn something from the conduct of someone who was not awarded leadership, but rather decided to take it on. Pinchas acted out of a profound awareness that if he was not going to act, no one else would do what had to be done. Ultimately, God agrees and approves of his action.
When God revealed Himself to Moshe at the burning bush, entrusting him with the leadership of Am Yisrael, Moshe did not acquiesce at once; he first protested. Chassidic teachings attribute this to Moshe's humility. However, if we read this in a straightforward way, we can all identify strongly with Moshe. Suddenly, in the middle of his life, God is telling him to leave his home, his family, his source of livelihood and his routine, for a mission that is going to deprive him of any private life whatsoever.
Moshe argues until God was angry with Moshe." I am certain that if, following this statement, Moshe had continued to hesitate, God would have agreed with him and sent him back to shepherd his father-in-law's flocks for the rest of his days. For God, a thousand years are like a single day that has passed;" He could wait until someone else came upon the burning bush and agreed to accept the job. Who knows how many times in Jewish history we have lost out on first-rate leaders simply because, at the critical moment, the candidates were not willing to accept the responsibility? History has been changed thanks to people who took charge of the situation around them – and I am not referring here to the political realm. I refer to people who have made significant contributions in the spheres of security, the economy, academia - private individuals who have said to themselves, Where there are no men, try to be a man."
Among the prophets, there were some who continued on the path of Moshe. Yirmiyahu, for example, in the prophecy of his consecration, cries out: Ah, Lord God – Behold, I know not how to speak, for I am a child." Yishayahu, in contrast, hears God's voice saying, Whom shall I send; who shall go for us?" and he answers of his own initiative, Here I am, send me." This may be one of the many reasons for Yishayahu's success in preventing the threatened destruction by the hand of Ashur during the days of Chizkiyahu, in contrast to Yirmiyahu's lack of success in preventing the destruction in the days of Tzidkiyahu. Not every person merits to hear, with prophetic clarity, the voice of God calling to him: Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?" However, every person hears such a voice from within himself, with the clarity appropriate to him and his level, at some time during his life.
Many students of our yeshiva are about to take part as counselors in Bnei Akiva's annual Shabbat Irgun. Bnei Akiva, more than any other body, seems to educate towards hearing God's voice as heard by Yishayahu and Pinchas. It also educates one to answer, Here I am, send me." The importance of leadership cannot be overstated. In Mesillat Yesharim, the trait of chassidut" (piety) comes only near the end of the process of self-perfection, following after watchfulness, alacrity, cleanliness, abstention, and purity. The trait of piety" is acquired by people of great spiritual refinement, and it demands the highest level of focused behavior, including the performance of commandments for the sake of God, and concern for God's honor. This trait also includes a person being willing to offer himself for the sake of the community, out of his understanding that he is able to provide something that is missing from the nation. This quality is the foundation of leadership.
However, there is also another quality that a leader needs. The secret of Shemuel's leadership is his declaration: Whose ox have I taken; whose donkey have I taken?" He did not act in order to receive any sort of reward. This is related to the leadership of Yehoshua, which I mentioned above. And now – fear God and serve Him, wholeheartedly and in truth… if it seems bad to you to serve God, choose yourselves this day whom you will serve: the gods that your fathers served, who were on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Emori, in whose land you dwell. But I and my household shall serve the Lord" (Yehoshua 24:14-15).
A leader who does not need a luxury car at the nation's expense is also a leader who will not make decisions on the basis of surveys; he will not change his mind in accordance with a prevailing mood. Rather, he will be prepared to lead the nation in accordance with his principles and his conscience, with no need for strategic advisors analyzing how he might find favor with every passing fad.
Leadership therefore involves an inherent paradox. There is no servitude like that of a leader, a servant to a holy nation." His entire private life is devoted to his mission, with no expectation of any reward. However, there is also no freedom like that of a leader – if he acts in accordance with his principles and his conscience, rather than with a view to finding favor with others.
I feel more than a grain of pride as I mention the General Secretary who brought about the great revolution in Bnei Akiva, transforming it from a subsidiary of the Religious Kibbutz Movement into a Torah-centered mass movement, and led it to become what it is today. He is a graduate of our yeshiva – a Gushnik" – named Avraham Lipschitz. He paved the way not only for Bnei Akiva, but also for us, as yeshiva students, showing our power to contribute and to bring about change.
Youngsters in Bnei Akiva are drawn after younger role models who inspire them. Many years ago I came to the yeshiva because of Rav Chanan Porat and Rav Yoel Bin-Nun who, at the time, were more or less the same age as our yeshiva students today. People in their twenties are capable of great things. Bnei Akiva, which presents Torah as a blueprint for a better future, is badly needed today amongst Am Yisrael. Those who are capable of molding the movement in this direction are young people like you.
Bnei Akiva is only one example of the need to invest our abilities in the building of the land and its revival. A few weeks ago, the yeshiva hosted a Shabbat reunion for the members of its 24th graduating class. During the course of the Shabbat I was exposed to leadership at its best and most powerful. I was amazed at what our graduates have succeeded in achieving outside of the yeshiva: one is a pillar of the Ofakim development town, keeping up its morale and its spiritual level. Another, a hi-tech professional, established a sterling community in a neighborhood of Modi'in – a city that was depicted, at first, as a secular city," but where Torah now occupies a place of honor. Another graduate heads a large Ethiopian community in Kiryat Menachem, Jerusalem.
People such as these, regardless of which profession they decided to pursue and where they live, have chosen to influence and mold the environment that surrounds them. This concern for the future of Am Yisrael is needed today more than ever before. While for our students this aspiration may be consigned to the distant future, it is a good idea to consider oneself an apprentice in the meantime. In Bnei Akiva as in other frameworks, it is important to assume responsibility.
Within the yeshiva, too, the same idea applies. Take responsibility for yourselves. When I agreed to serve as Rosh Yeshiva, I did so as part of a whole group that is prepared to take responsibility for what happens here. I refer not only to the Ramim, but also to every individual student. Leadership means, inter alia, learning how not to be swallowed up within the frameworks that surround you over the course of your life. It is important that you absorb as much Torah as possible – and in the manner that will help you build your leadership ability and leave your mark, rather than being swallowed up in the system and its conventions, both in the present and in the future.
(This sicha was delivered during the week of Parashat Toldot 5768 , prior to Bnei Akiva's annual Shabbat Irgun.)