Water from the Well: Leadership and Peace

A Water from the Well blog post, Parashat Tetzaveh
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

In this Torah portion, God instructs Moses to endow Aaron with the office of the priesthood. Many commentators have noted that this is the only portion in all of Torah wherein Moses’ story appears, but Moses’ name is not mentioned. In this parashah, Moses elevates his brother Aaron. It is striking that after reading the book of Genesis, in which the theme of sibling rivalry is so prominent, we see here brothers who willingly share the mantle of leadership. Contrast this with the stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, where we see a family divided. It is through fraternal conflict that the Israelites are eventually brought down to Egypt and their descendants enslaved.

How beautiful, then, that the Exodus from Egypt depends on the loving partnership of two brothers, with the younger, Moses, leading Aaron, the firstborn. For Moses agrees to take on the task of leading the people only after God assures him that his older brother, Aaron, would be happy to help. (Ex. 4:14-16)

Now, here in this parashah, Moses invests his brother Aaron and all of Aaron’s descendants with the priesthood. Moses not only takes a back seat to Aaron in this holy endeavor, but is commanded to be the one to elevate his brother to the priesthood.  Perhaps the reason that Moses’ name is not mentioned in this entire portion is because he must diminish himself, do a tzimtum, to allow for his brother’s light to shine and demonstrate another expression of leadership. In doing so, Moses reveals the quality of humility, a quality for which the Torah herself will praise him, as the most humble man that ever walked the earth. (Num. 12:3) Moreover, it is this key attribute that qualifies Moses to be the leader at a time of dynamic change for his people and for the world.

Let us take a concrete lesson from his example. Character matters! Let us take note of the character of those who strive for positions of leadership. Ego-invested leadership serves the Self and therefore, cannot be trusted to serve the highest good of the community. According to the Torah, humility is a key requirement for a leader to be truly of service.

R. Jonathan Sacks, z’tzl, comments that there is “a deeper message in this story, the principle of the separation of powers, which opposes the concentration of leadership into one person or institution. All human authority needs checks and balances if it is to remain uncorrupted. In particular, political and religious leadership, keter malchut and keter kehunah, should never be combined. Moses wore the crowns of political and prophetic leadership, Aaron that of priesthood. The division allowed each to be a check on the other.”

I believe R. Sacks was offering this important advice and warning regarding the concentration and co-mingling of religious and political power in Israel.
This is a deep and important insight and one that we should certainly consider when we choose our leaders here at home, but also when we evaluate the leadership model in Israel.

Additionally, Rav Kook taught a useful principle based on the following Talmudic passage: Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina, “Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said, ‘All of your children are taught by God, and great is the peace of your children.’ ” (Berachot 64a)

Rav Kook understands this to mean that peace is achieved through honoring the truths that are revealed through multiple perspectives. Torah scholars increase peace in the world by virtue of their disagreements!  He states:

“There are those who err in thinking that world peace will only be built by means of one united point of view… Yet truthfully this is not so, for true peace cannot come into the world except by means of a “variegated” peace.  A “variegated” peace means that multiple sides and approaches are seen; and it becomes clear how there is a place for them all, each one according to its worth, its place, and its content as it appears, for …in each of them there is an aspect by which… the light of Divine truth will be revealed.” (Olat Ra-a-yah, Part I)

May new leaders arise for our time, for this moment; leaders who embody humility; leaders who are able to share power; leaders who value disparate points of view and who acknowledge the necessity of multiple perspectives in achieving a realistic and variegated peace.

Hinei Mah tov u’mah nai’im shevet achim gam yachad:  “Look how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together! Like the good oil on the head, dripping onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that drips down to the hem of his garments!” (Psalm 133:1-2)




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