The Essence of a Jewish Leader
In Parshat Yitro, we find an interesting dialogue between Moses and his father-in-law Yitro — a conversation that ultimately leads to the implementation of an organized judicial court system for the Jewish people.
The verses state, “Moshe sat down to judge the people. The people stood before Moshe from the morning until the evening (Shemot 18:13).” Our sages teach that the verses can be explained quite literally: Moses sat alone to settle disputes, while the people stood before him from morning until evening.
Yitro witnessed this system and asked his son-in-law about its rationale and efficacy. Moses responded, “because the people come to me to seek God, if any of them has a claim, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow. I make known the statutes of God and His teachings (Ibid., v. 15–16).” Interesting, to be sure, but what relevance does this entire episode have for our times? Why even mention the matter?
Rabbi Yehudah Amital relates a famous Hassidic tale that not only helps to shed light on the above Biblical text, but also offers a valuable lesson in rabbinical leadership. It has a significant message, and so acutely describes the mission of a true Jewish leader:
Reb Moshe of Kobrin used to travel to various Rebbes in order to learn from them. Once he decided to spend Shabbat with Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt. On Friday afternoons, Reb Avraham used to come to shul early, long before the congregation arrived, in order to chant Shir Hashirim — the Song of Songs. One such Friday afternoon, as Reb Avraham began chanting, Reb Moshe of Kobrin slipped in unnoticed and sat in a corner of the shul. Reb Avraham’s face was radiant under his shtreimel, and the sweet melody of the love song of God and His people filled the air. Reb Moshe sat transfixed, feeling as if he had entered the Holy of Holies.
Suddenly the door swung open and in walked a man with a grimy face … reeking of the smells of the barn. What important question can this man have, wondered Reb Moshe, that he comes to disturb the holy Reb Avraham at this moment?
The farmer approached Reb Avraham, wailing, “My cow, my cow! It is going to give birth and I’m afraid it will die!”
Reb Moshe was taken aback by this outburst, but Reb Avraham answered the man patiently, telling him where to go for help and who to speak to.
After the Shabbat evening meal, Reb Moshe could contain himself no longer. He asked Reb Avraham how he could have countenanced such rudeness.
“Did you hear what he asked me?” replied Reb Avraham.
“He asked about his cow,” answered Reb Moshe.
“My dear Reb Moshe, you weren’t listening carefully. The farmer wasn’t crying, ‘My cow, my cow,’ he was crying ‘Rebbe, Rebbe! I am so small, so distant. I want a connection with God; please help me.’ He simply wanted to speak to me, to establish a connection with me, and through me to connect to God. But how could he establish a connection with me? By discussing a passage of the Talmud or of the Zohar? No, he could only connect to me by discussing something he knew about — his cow (Virtual Beit Midrash, Sichah Parshat Yitro).
Yitro, like Reb Moshe of Kobrin, was shocked to find that Moses was dealing with the trivial problems of the people, and felt that engaging in such matters was below his stature. Moses, however, understood that he was not merely judging the people’s disputes, but rather that he was serving as a way for the people to connect with God — and that meant making himself approachable and available to them.
In answer to Yitro’s question of, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people,” Moses responds, “Because the people come to me to seek God.” And how do they seek God? Moses continues by saying, “When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” According to Rav Amital, in Moses’ eyes, the purpose of judging the people was not only to deliver a verdict in a particular case, but rather to serve as a crucial link in the chain of connecting the nation to God.
This Biblical episode drives home the point of what it means to be a true teacher of Torah, a rabbi and a Jewish leader. Though it is undoubtedly important to know the law and be able to apply it, there is far more to the role. A Jewish leader has the responsibility to maintain an attentive ear towards all, and to connect with the people in their language.
This lesson is similar to the vision that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook had for the future of the rabbinate in the Land of Israel:
Now that we desire to reestablish and repair our national lives, we must also implement penetrating reforms into the rabbinate of the Land Of Israel, to revive this essential spiritual force…Rabbis should and must play a prominent role in Israel’s national revival. They must work with the people in every facet of the building of the Land and the national restoration…A continuous, mutual connection must exist between the rabbinate and every productive force that exists within the land…[Rabbis must] constantly strive to bring people closer to each other and introduce a spirit of peace between all factions and parties, by way of the holy sparks that are shared in each and every Jewish soul (Ma’amarei Hare’iyah, HaRabbanut, pg. 53).
When Jewish leaders and rabbis are able to fulfill the example of Moses and the vision of Rav Kook, they serve as a brilliant link in the chain of bringing the Jewish people closer to God. May we merit leaders who emulate these ideals, and who can help us make an even greater connection to the Divine.