Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Pinchas

“Tolerance For Individuality”

Every parent knows this fact, and every teacher can confirm it. No two children are alike. Every mother of more than one child knows that all children are already different in the womb. Every experienced teacher knows that no two pupils learn in the exact same manner.

Indeed, it is the recognition of individual differences and knowledge of how to address those differences that is the hallmark of an effective and master teacher.

As we grow older many of the differences which once made us unique begin to fade away. The pressures of conformity which are natural in any society tend to make us imitate each other and become more and more alike as time goes on. Yet, sufficient differences remain so that we each retain at least a small measure of uniqueness.

The fact that groups of human beings are diverse, and that one person’s attitudes, opinions and emotions starkly contrast those of another, is the central problem for would-be leaders. It is a simple matter to lead a homogeneous group, one which is characterized by common beliefs and shared objectives. It is far more difficult to take charge of a group which is riddled by internal conflict and clashing interests.

The challenge of individual differences to leadership is one of the themes of this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1). In it Moses learns that his life, and his term as a leader of the Jewish people, is about to come to a close. He will be allowed to glimpse the promised land, but soon afterwards would be “gathered to his kin, just as his brother Aaron was.”

Acting responsibly, as he always did, Moses sets about finding a successor, and asks the Almighty to help him do so. In this request, Moses addresses God in a most peculiar way, using terminology that is most difficult to translate. Generally, the translation reads something like this: “Lord, Source of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them…”

What is the meaning of “Source of the spirits of all flesh”? And why does Moses use this term to begin his search for a new leader of the Jewish people?

Rashi understands that Moses wants to find someone who can cope with individual differences, with every conceivable type of spirit. He is searching for a successor who can deal with all the Jews in spite of how different they are from each other.

It would seem that Moses is looking for a tolerant person, with great equanimity, who will not be perturbed by the assortment of characters he will be asked to lead.

The Almighty informs Moses that he has found just such a man, someone who has “spirit within him”, and who presumably can deal patiently with everyone he encounters. That man, he is told, is none other than his disciple Joshua.

I have always found the choice of Joshua very puzzling. We have read quite a bit about Joshua over the past few weeks. What is most striking to me is that he does not come across at all as a patient individual who can tolerate all sorts of troublemakers. Quite the contrary. When the other spies disagree with him, he challenges them eloquently and forcefully.

More dramatically, when Eldad and Medad, of whom we are told that “the spirit rested upon them”, seclude themselves and begin to act as prophets, it is precisely Joshua who demands that Moses strike them down. It is Moses who shows tolerance for his would-be rivals, not Joshua.

Personally, I have concluded long ago that although it is important for a leader to be able to recognize the differing qualities of his followers, it is not important that he acquiesce to these differences. Rather, he must actively declare his vision and assert his leadership. He must tolerate the differences he encounters, but he cannot allow them to deter him from attaining the group’s ideals and objectives.

Of all of the classical Torah commentaries, one was written by an experienced and credentialed master politician. That man was Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, who was the minister of the treasury of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and one of their most valued advisors. He knew whereof he spoke, and this is what he said:

“You, the Source of all spirits, know well the hearts of men and their innards. Appoint someone who will be a majestic and authoritative leader. Appoint someone who will not yield to the crowd, but who will be a courageous man of action, decisive and strong.”

Yes, the leader must be sensitive to the different needs and demands of every component of his society. And he must try to address these needs. But not at the expense of what he sees as the overarching goal. He cannot allow his grand vision of what is best for the entire nation to be waylaid by squabbling minorities. In short, he must lead.

Daily, we read of leaders who either are strong and dictatorial, trampling upon the needs of individuals who are different. Alternatively, we read of those who are so sensitive to every subgroup that they are totally ineffective.

In this week’s Torah portion we encounter the perfect balance: Joshua, the man who can work with every one, no matter how demanding, but who has the wisdom and fortitude to transcend short-sighted particular interests in his pursuit of the overarching goal and greater common good.