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Leadership and Arrogance

Parashat Bamidbar 5784

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

This upcoming Shabbat, we will begin reading the Book of Bamidbar – the fourth of the Five Books of the Torah, which narrates the experiences of the Israelites on their journey from Egypt to the Land of Canaan. In rabbinic literature, this book is referred to as “Chumash HaPekudim” (the Book of Numbers) due to the censuses described at the beginning and end of the book. This is also reflected in the Latin (Numeri) and English (Numbers) titles.

The command to conduct the first census was given to Moses with the following words:

“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel… from twenty years of age and up… you shall count them…”
(Numbers 1:2-3).

The literal translation of the word “שאו” (se’u) used in the command to take a census is “lift up.” Simply put, as many commentators have noted, “to lift up the head” is a metaphorical expression for conducting a census. However, some sensed an additional implied meaning in this word: to uplift. The command was not only to count the Israelites but also to elevate them, to designate a special status to each person counted. The individual is not just a number within the overall count of the nation; each person holds intrinsic importance.

However, one tribe was not included in the census. This was the tribe of Levi – the tribe entrusted with the spiritual leadership of the people. Regarding this tribe, it was said to Moses, himself a member of the tribe, to count them separately: “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, and you shall not reckon their sum among the children of Israel” (Numbers 1:49). The linguistic deviation in this verse is striking: “you shall not number– and you shall not reckon their sum.” Why this redundancy?

Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Schreiber), a leader of Hungarian Jewry in the early 19th century and considered the spiritual father of modern Hungarian Jewry, typically referred to by his works as the “Chatam Sofer,” addressed this linguistic anomaly in his commentary on the Book of Numbers. He explained that the emphasis on the tribe of Levi was not incidental.

As mentioned, the literal meaning of the Hebrew phrase in the verse, “lifting up the head,” carries a dual meaning – to count and to uplift. The instruction not to “lift up the heads” of the Levites pertains not only to the census but also to their appropriate stance relative to the people. Indeed, the tribe of Levi consists of teachers, leaders, and priests, but they must be cautious not to feel superior to the people. Leadership is not synonymous with arrogance. The tribe of Levi should be counted separately and simultaneously warned not to regard themselves as having superior status. They have a role, a responsibility, a mission to fulfill, but this does not justify arrogance.

While the role of leadership was exclusively designated for the biblical tribe of Levi, in reality, many of us find ourselves in positions of leadership – as teachers, parents, community leaders, or professionals. A superficial understanding of the role of leadership assumes that the leader can know all the answers and hold all the solutions. From this perspective, we fail to see the other person, genuinely listen to their voice, and create a dynamic of positive influence. Such an attitude can be coercive, but coercion has an expiration date. The child will grow up, the student will graduate, and the employee will find a new job – and then, it is uncertain whether any of our leadership impact will remain.

However, if we understand that a leader is called upon to be in a position of continuous learning, to embrace the perspectives of others around them, to value the abilities of others, and to work in genuine partnership – this approach to leadership will have a long-lasting impact. From this perspective, we can instill values and educate in a deep and meaningful way. Understanding that leadership is a role, not an authority, leads to success.

Nearly two thousand years ago, the great sage of the first century, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, expressed this to his students who were preparing for roles of spiritual leadership: “Do you think I am granting you authority? I am giving you servitude!” (Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 10).