Community Leadership and the Common Good | Parashat Bamidbar

There are periods in our lives in which we are neither here nor there. When we leave home, our land or our community and take Avraham Avinu as our example of Lech Lecha, moving toward a place we do not know, everything is seem to be difficult. We were accustomed to the people, to our home, to the streets and avenues of our city, and above all we knew how to deal with known troubles, for we knew our ground and how to keep walking there.

It happened to thousands and thousands of Jews who moved from Europe and from the Arab nations until the middle of the 20th century, and it happened to Spanish and Portuguese Jews at the end of the 15th century – and of course it happened to the Israelites on their/our exodus from Egypt. As they left, our ancestors had great faith and willingness to leave their homes behind and find themselves homeless in the middle of the wilderness.

However, in order to cross the wilderness, in every time of our own lives, we need much more than faith and willingness. We need leadership and management. This is what the Torah learns to us this week. We read in the Bamidbar Raba 1,2 that when our people walked through the desert, many of them, as usual, complained about the troubles in the wilderness and used to remember, nostalgic, “our good old lives” in Egypt. There was house and there was good food – and now we only have the wilderness and nowhere to go but a promised land; only a promise.

Then God replied: “Did I not give you three educators: Moses, Aaron and Miriam? Thanks to Moses you received the manna, the food that you needed; thanks to Aaron you were wrapped in clouds of glory; and thanks to Miriam you had water”. Food, water and a glorious protection; what should we need more? Maybe tikvah, hope?

The same midrash tells us that, according to Rabbi Hoshaia, seven clouds of glory led the People of Israel through the desert: four corresponded to the heavenly winds, one just above and one just below; and another wind was three days ahead of them. Its role was to clear the path from snakes and scorpions, to extinguish fire, to make way among the rocks, to make the descent to the valleys less steep and to flatten the ascent through the mountains. According to the midrash, those “winds” were Moses, Aaron and Miriam, the leadership who went ahead to ease the journey through the wilderness.

All this parasha deals, basically, with organization, with management. There was a chief for each of the twelve tribes. The Levites were detached for maintenance and custody of the Tabernacle. As an army, all the men from their 20’s were organized in camps, each one for a specific function. Each chief was responsible for maintaining order on a day-to-day basis.

Community management is essential, as essential as leadership. Just as, as we play chess, it is not enough to know the rules, but to predict future steps, a community needs good managers, but also needs leaders who see beyond, who anticipate challenges in advance and prepare the ground for others to go.

We often tend to value the role of leaders more than the managers. In many communities it is easier to find who wants to be a leader than who wants to be a treasurer, a pedagogical coordinator or who wants to take care of the infrastructure. But to manage is a huge responsibility, worthy of all merit. The Levites were given a great responsibility: by assuming the Tabernacle’s management, it was their responsibility to manage the economic, social and legal issues of the People of Israel on their journey through the wilderness. The role of chiefs often does not appear as much as that of leaders, but it is critical for the welfare of the group as a whole.

On the other hand, the thinker Yeshaiahu Leibovitz z”l quotes the Baal Haturim, that is, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, and warns that when someone stands out as a chief, it must be careful that he/she will not to take advantage of his/her position in own benefit rather than serve the community. In Pirkei Avot, the Rabbis are even more emphatic: “Beware of those in power, for they pretend to be friends of one only for their own benefit; they act kindly when it suits them, but they do not support the other in an hour of need” (Avot 2:3).

Nowadays, when we struggle to live according to democratic principles around the world, even when we are not in the role of chiefs or leaders, we have the duty of being vigilant, charging our leaders and chiefs to behave with honesty in dealing with the common good and willingness to serve the community.

At the ideal limit, what God expects of us is that we be a nation of priests. At the last WUPJ conference CONNECTIONS that I attended in Jerusalem, in 2013, Rabbi Sergio Bergman, honored on that time for 20 years of good social work and Jewish leadership, said that he did nothing alone but that the success of the “Fundacion Judaica”, a network with more than 20 communities in Argentina, was the result of the partnership of many professionals and volunteers in chief and leadership positions. In other words, a nation of priests cannot and should not be a nation of people who seek only prestige. A nation of priests should be made up of people who devote a portion of their time to the common good. Only then, together, we can beat the snakes and scorpions that appear on the way and make lighter our climbing and descents that wait for us in our own journeys. Only then will we reach our Promised Land together.


About the author:

Rabbi Uri Lam is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.