A Moment of Torah with Rabbi Neil Sandler
Parshat Shelach Lecha 5782
By Rabbi Neil Sandler
Leading a community can be quite challenging and requires strong commitment. As the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness move ever closer to the Land of Israel and desire to learn more about it and its nature, they need leadership that will meet the challenge and guide them. In the main, they don't find such leadership in those who set out to scout the Land.
You may be familiar with this narrative in Parshat Shelach Lecha. Moses appoints representatives from each of the Israelite tribes to scout it. They enter the Land of Israel, see that it is a "Land of milk and honey," but are overcome by the "giant" residents of the Land who will surely defeat them if they seek to enter. Apart from Joshua and Caleb, the scouts were emphatic – "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger that we." (Nu. 13:31) The scouts caused the Israelites to become paralyzed in fear and to rebel against the sacred mission of moving forward. For this behavior, the Israelites were punished with an additional 38 years in the desert wilderness before they could enter the Promised Land. In actuality, this divine "punishment" was simply a recognition of the reality; the Israelite generation that had experienced slavery in Egypt was not ready to enter the Land of Israel. They were not ready to develop a relationship with the Holy One that would grow in this unique place. That task would await the next generation of Israelites… all because of the leadership failings of the "nesi'im," the chieftains of each tribe.
Rashbam, the medieval commentator, brings a somewhat different understanding to the word, "nasi," chieftan. He considers the root of the word and loosely translates it in Nu. 13:2 as "one who is 'lifted up.'" Rashbam goes on to describe that to be "lifted up" entails bravery and bold action. The problem with this understanding is that, again with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the individuals who went to scout the Land were neither particularly brave nor prepared to act in bold fashion.
Ironically, Rashbam's interpretation of "nasi" as related to "lifted up" might reflect a negative quality in each of these individuals. Perhaps they "lifted themselves up" above others and paid others little regard. How could such individuals ever be exemplary leaders? If they were so focused on themselves, how could they meet the challenge of leadership and maintain a strong commitment to the task of entering the Land when, admittedly, it would be difficult. Their failings' leading to the failure of the Israelites to continue the journey to the Land of Israel was inevitable.
This story can be instructive. People rise to the top as leaders for any number of reasons. Most wish to give of themselves and serve their community. They are sincere, dedicated people who have the interests of their community at heart. Sometimes, though, again for different reasons, our leaders can misguidedly "lift up" themselves. In the process of doing so, they show their unworthiness to lead others. Unfortunately, their self-interest usually brings difficulty and perhaps pain to those they were supposed to serve well.
May we always be blessed with leaders who are committed to the community and its best interests. May they inspire us through their example as we show our admiration and appreciation for them.