The Function of a Leader

July 4, 2004

4 min read


Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

When Moses entreated God to appoint a leader to succeed him, God answered, "Before you command Me concerning My children, command My children concerning Me." Moses proceeded to command the Jewish people concerning the laws of the daily and holiday sacrifices.

In order to understand this Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni – Bamidbar 228), we must first understand the function of a Torah leader. When the Jewish people feared that Moses would not return from Mount Sinai, they beseeched Aaron to make them a leader who would walk before them. They viewed a leader as one who goes "before," accomplishing what his followers cannot. Thus, when Moses delayed, they felt helpless and in need of a new intermediary.

But when Moses requested that God choose a leader to replace him, he described the leader as one "who will go out before them and who will bring them out and bring them in." The leader was not to walk "before" the people; rather, he was to remain in constant contact with them. He could help bring them in and out by serving as a model to be emulated and as a guide and teacher, but the actual going in and out they would have to do for themselves.

The Talmud (Bava Basra 116a) instructs us that when a family member is sick one should go to a sage and ask for mercy. Meiri explains that from the sage one learns the ways of prayer so that he himself can ask for mercy for his sick relative. The ideal is not that the sage pray in one's place but that one learn from the sage how to pray.

Because Joshua was Moses' most devoted follower, he was chosen to succeed him. Joshua made himself completely subservient to Moses, never departing from his tent. The Talmud tells us: "The face of Moses was like the sun; that of Joshua like the moon. Woe for such a shame and such a disgrace." Joshua faithfully reflected the light of Moses, as the moon reflects the sun, and thereby disgraced all who did not. Joshua showed that he understood that a Jewish leader does not act instead of the people, but rather provides a model to follow. Because he understood this more clearly than any of his contemporaries, he was chosen to succeed Moses.


The Jewish leader has another crucial function: uniting the people in a common cause. Korach contended that if the entire congregation is holy, then there is no need for a leader to rule over them. He presented his challenge with the homily of a tallit that is wholly techelet (blue), which, he argued, should not require tzitzit. He contended that if a person is totally developed ethically, to the point where his clothing, his character and honor are represented by the techelet of God's throne, then the tzitzit, the reminders of the mitzvot, are superfluous. Similarly a leader, whose purpose is to coax and direct the people toward the proper goals, would also be unnecessary to one who is fully developed ethically.

Korach failed to appreciated the communal nature of the Jewish people, whose perfection is only reached through a united effort, one in which each Jew fulfills his unique role. The leader serves the function of an orchestra conductor, guiding each player so that the entire orchestra plays together. Even one whose character is perfect still needs a leader to show him how he can function and fulfill his part in harmony with the community.

Thus tzitzit are a reminder of all 613 mitzvot that the community as a whole is capable of performing, not the limited number of mitzvot any individual can perform.


God told Moses, "Before I appoint a leader to succeed you, first you must command the people concerning the sacrifices." An appreciation of the necessity of communal striving necessarily preceded the appointment of a leader. Just as the offerings of individuals only have meaning in the context of the person's striving to draw closer to God, so too, the communal sacrifices require the collective striving of the Jewish people for unity and harmony in service of God.

The Kohen is necessary for achieving this unity, but he cannot substitute for the striving of the people themselves. For this reason, representatives of the Levites and the tribes also had to be present at the bringing of each of the communal sacrifices.

The greatness of our leaders is commensurate with the caliber of their followers. May we be on a level to appreciate authority and to emulate our leaders in order that they be as the leaders of old, culminating with our ultimate leader, Moshiach.

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