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Parashah Bamidbar

Are Positions of Authority Good or Bad?

Translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds, United Kingdom

Parashah Bamidbar
Parashah Bamidbar

In this week’s Parashah, we shall read about the appointment of the princes, the princes of Am Yisrael. After this Hashem commanded to gather all of Am Yisrael and to count them. As it states at the beginning to Moshe and Aron, “Take a census of the entire Bnei Yisrael community” (Bamidbar 1:2) and following this it states that Moshe took the princes and they gathered all of the congregation of the Bnei Yisrael. Rabbeinu HaAlshich z”l (Rav Moshe Alshich 1508-1593) asks why wasn’t everything done more expediently that Moshe gather all of Am Yisrael. He could have announced who the princes of Am Yisrael were and immediately they could have counted Am Yisrael? Why was it necessary to first appoint the princes and then only after that to gather the congregation? He answers that Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t want to cause offense to even one person in Am Yisrael and if he were to have gathered everyone then anyone who wouldn’t have been announced as being a prince, for sure would have been very offended as to why they didn’t choose him? Therefore Moshe first appointed the princes in their own right so as not to publicly embarrass anyone who wasn’t chosen. Indeed, it is known that the generation of the wilderness was a “Dor Deiah” – “Knowledgeable Generation”, elevated people, and for sure they knew what Shemaya would eventually say in Avot: “Love work and shun positions of authority”, if so if they didn’t appoint them to positions of authority why should they have been offended? On the contrary! They will merit living tranquil lives without the challenge of despised leadership! In the work Torat Chessed (in the name of HaRav Shmuel Binyan), he explains that we find on Gemara Berachot (55a) that for anyone who lords themselves their days and years are shortened. They prove this in the Gemara from Yosef HaTzaddik, that because he was a king, despite being the younger brother, nevertheless, he passed away before them all prior to fulfilling 120 years. This was because he lorded himself. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (14a) relates that Rebbi Zeira would obscure himself from the community so that they wouldn’t appoint him to a position of authority. This was because he had heard from Rebbi Elazar, “that positions of authority bury their holders”. However, after Rebbi Zeira heard from Rebbi Elazar that a person is only elevated to a position of greatness if all of their sins are forbidden, he conceded to become known and they appointed him as a Rav. It is extremely astonishing, that on the one hand positions bury their holders, and yet on the other hand, a person is only elevated to a position of greatness if all of their sins are forbidden! If so, is authority good or bad? These two sides were said by Rebbi Elazar, so what does he mean? This may be understood based on what our chachamim said elsewhere (Horayot 10a): The Gemara relates that Rabban Gamliel and Rebbi Yehoshua travelled by boat. Rabban Gamliel brought bread with him, whilst Rebbi Yehoshua brought both bread and flour. On the journey, the ship strayed and the journey was protracted. They all finished their bread, whilst Rebbi Yehoshua who had brought flour with him, baked fresh bread, which he shared with Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel asked: How did you know that the journey would last longer to bring flour in addition to bread? Rebbi Yehoshua responded: There is a star that occasionally appears in the distance and it causes the sailors to become confused. Since I knew that this star was scheduled to appear at this time (changing the order of the stars thus causing the sailors to err in their navigation) I understood that it was very conceivable that the journey would be extended. He asked Rabban Gamliel, if you are so wise, why do you travel by ship in order to earn a living? With such wisdom, you could surely earn in Eretz Yisrael! Rebbi Yehoshua responded: Before you ask about me, pay attention to your pupils, for you have two pupils, Rebbi Elazar ben Chisma and Rebbi Yochanan ben Gudgoda, who are both exceedingly poor, they are wise and no less so than me, and yet they have no bread to eat or clothes to wear! Rabban Gamliel, the Prince of Am Yisrael, listened to this and when he returned home he called Rebbi Elazar and Rebbi Yochanan and sought to appoint them to positions of authority. However, they didn’t concede to come. He messaged them again and said to them: Year appear to think that I am attempting to give you positions of authority? I am actually giving you servitude!” The fundamentals of this are now understood. When do positions of authority bury their holders and one must despise them, and when on the contrary do they bring forgiveness, exoneration, and great goodness to people who are appointed? When the purpose of the position is to attain honour that everyone is subservient to them (as it was with Yosef HaTzaddik, albeit against his will), then, the authority buries them and shortens their life. But when the leader intends, and feels a servant of the Tzibbur, then their purpose is correct and righteous, and the authority will bring them goodness and berachah. This is what we witnessed with the great Rabbanim of am Yisrael and with Maran Rabbeinu zt”l, that was literally devoted to the Tzibbur. Even when things were difficult, Maran zt”l would tire his feet [see Bava Batra 8a] and lose precious time [for himself] for the sake of the Tzibbur with tremendous dedication and unlimited love. Therefore he merited also to a fulfilled Rabbanut in every sense and also to a good and long life. Shabbat Shalom!


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