A d’var Torah for Parshat Beha’alotecha by Matt Nosanchuk, published in T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights.
Leadership lies at the center of our Jewish communal discourse, and rightfully so. Through tough times biblical, historical, and present, Jews have relied on a wide range of leaders, including patriarchs and matriarchs, kings and queens, prophets and prime ministers, soldiers and scholars, and, of course, rabbis and cantors, to bolster our spirits, rally our collective power, and even interface directly with God. But the who and how of leadership – who gets to assume it and how leaders should use their position – remains an open and contentious question. This week’s parshah, Beha’alotecha, places these challenging questions of leadership front and center.
In Beha’alotecha, the Jews, led by Moses, are deep in negotiations with God over how interactions with the Divine will occur in their time of wandering. As is characteristic of their not-so-fearless leader, Moses is distressed and disquieted by the role in which he has found himself.
Confronted with kvetching and insolent Israelites, Moses implores God, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant…I cannot carry all this people by myself, it is too much for me” (Numbers 11:11-14). Moses questions whether he can rise to the task of leading the Israelites. “It is too much for me,” he complains. Moses does not ask for the mantle of leadership. Rather, his reluctance demonstrates that leadership should be assumed with modesty and humility. Moses’s leadership stands in stark contrast to the presumptuous leaders of today, whose hubris is summarized in such proclamations as “I alone can fix it.”
Moses’s humility before God is one of several threads of leadership that come into view in Beha’alotecha. Earlier in the parshah, God declares that the Levites, one of the twelve tribes, will serve the Divine directly by assuming responsibility for the upkeep of the mishkan, the center of spiritual life. The Levites are often thought of as abused members of the community. Tasked with maintaining the community’s central institution, they do not even get a break for Shabbat. The terms of their contract with God – designated as “an elevation offering” and taken “for Myself [God] in place of all the first issue of the womb, of all the first-born of the Israelites” (Numbers 8:15-16) – suggest subservience and a loss of agency. Indeed, it appears that they are shunted to the bottom rung of the societal ladder, the antipodes of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam at the top.
However, it would be wrong to write off the Levites as mere followers. On the contrary, they manifest a form of leadership – they are taking on the essential tasks of the community, the work that must be done for the Israelites’ spiritual journey to continue. Luckily, this is a form of leadership that we have begun to recognize through the coronavirus pandemic. The health care and essential workers of today are a modern-day incarnation of the Levites of the Torah. Both were thrust into positions of leadership due to circumstances beyond their control and arising from oppressions. For the Levites, it was God’s erasure of self-determination, and for today’s essential workers, it is the toxic intersection of racism, sexism, and classism that puts them in harm’s way day in and day out. In a community displaced and wrestling with a newly formed covenant, the Levites are instructed to put on their biblical PPE to perform the tasks necessary and essential to religious life (Numbers 8:8). Today, physicians, nurses, orderlies, lab techs, grocery store clerks, mail deliverers, transit workers, and others, perform the tasks necessary and essential to our lives wearing current-day PPE – if they can get it.
These two manifestations of leadership emanating from Beha’alotecha – Moses’s humble and self-effacing leadership and the Levites’ assumption of duties essential to the community – provide a guide to thinking about leadership in the Jewish community today. We created the New York Jewish Agenda (NYJA), a network of grasstops leaders dedicated to putting liberal Jewish values into action, to provide leadership that fills a void on the political spectrum. NYJA recognizes that exercising leadership demands modesty, self-reflection, and humility as we engage leaders who have not been brought together before as a liberal Jewish voice. We will do work that advances the essential well-being of our communities in New York City and State, while recognizing the indispensable leadership of those who are marginalized or overlooked in our society and amplifying their voices.
NYJA is committed to emulating the lessons of Beha’alotecha as we work to put liberal Jewish values into action in New York City and State. As we each consider our role as leaders in this moment, we must exemplify humility and recognize the indispensable leadership of those who are committed to carrying out essential, life-saving, and life-sustaining work.