Jewish Leadership is Much More Than A Game of Thrones©

Jewish Leadership is Much More Than A Game of Thrones©
Rabbi David Baum, Parashat Pinchas

It’s the middle of the summer, but #winterishere

What I mean by that is the new season of Game of Thrones is about to begin again. 

Let me begin by saying that this show is not for the young, and is graphic when it comes to sex and violence, and I do not give it my seal of approval, but then again, our holy document isn’t so tame, like in last week’s parashah Balak which ended with mass fornication only ending when a priest named Pinchas took a spear, and let me read you the exact words:  “stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly.”  Numbers 25:8

But people are obsessed with this series for many other reasons.  Game of Thrones is aptly named because that is essentially what it is - a series of leaders vying for a seat on the Iron Throne, to be the king or queen of the seven kingdoms. 

The throne was made by an infamous king who conquered the land and took the swords of all of his enemies, fusing them together to make a throne.

The author George RR Martin writes that according to legend (which he made up himself), the reason that the blades on the throne are sharp is so that no ruler should ever sit comfortably.  In this world, power is not given easily given away, but it is taken brutally. 

I bring this up because in our foundation document, the Torah, we read very little about a monarchy except in the book of Deuteronomy.  Moses has been the leader for a seemingly unending term - but all men must die, and Moses knows he is coming to the end of his life, and his turn as leader of the Israel. 

Knowing that he is about to die, Moses turns to God and asks him to appoint a successor:

Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num. 27-15:17).

Rashi comments: “This is to tell the praise of the righteous – that when they are about to leave this world, they put aside their personal needs and become preoccupied with the needs of the community.”

Great leaders think about the long-term future. Like Moses, they are concerned with succession and continuity.  

God tells Moses to appoint Joshua, ‘a man in whom is the spirit’. He gives him precise instructions about how this transfer would occur: 

“Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Elazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him… At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” (Num. 27:18-21).

There are two major lines in this passage:
  • God asks Moses to physically lay his hand upon Joshua
  • God asks Moses to give some of his authority…

The Midrash explains what the laying of the hands signified: 

“And lay your hand on him – this is like lighting one candle with another. Give him some of your authority – this is like emptying one vessel into another.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:15)

Power and influence are often thought of as being the same kind of thing: those who have power have influence and vice versa. In fact, though, they are quite different. If I have total power and then decide to share it with nine others, I now have only one-tenth of the power I had before. If I have a certain measure of influence and then share it with nine others, I do not have less. I have more. Instead of one person radiating this influence, there are now ten. Power works by division, influence by multiplication.  Kings have power - prophets have influence - and Moses was both. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the following comment: “A king had power. He ruled. He made military, economic and political decisions. Those who disobeyed him faced the possible penalty of death. A prophet had no power whatsoever. He commanded no battalions. He had no way of enforcing his views. But he had massive influence. Today we barely remember the names of most of Israel’s and Judah’s kings. But the words of the prophets continue to inspire by the sheer force of their vision and ideals. As the famous 19th century Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said: When a king dies, his power ends; when a prophet dies, his influence begins.”

When Moses the prophet lays his hands upon Joshua, the Hebrew words used are Samachta.  The concept of Smicha, when one rabbi would make another person a rabbi, came from this word.  When God tells Moses to “Give him some of your authority [me-hodecha]” this refers to the second role. It means, invest him with the power you hold as a king.

When Moses gives him some of his power, he diminishes part of himself.  But I wanted to focus on the first part, Simcha.  

When one rabbi, a leader in scholarship and law, makes another person a rabbi, what exactly do they give them when they place their hands on their head?  We often think that it is about giving power to someone else, but it isn’t - when we lay our hands upon someone, we give them the power of influence. 

Influence is like lighting one candle with another. Sharing your influence with someone else does not mean you have less; you have more. When we use the flame of a candle to light another candle, the first is not diminished. There is now more light in the world. 

Imagine you are looking at this scene, Moses and Joshua, two men, one placing his hand on the other - if we pan out, we see the entire people, and in them, we see us - the Or LaGoyim - the light unto the nations. 

Can a people survive without power?  The answer is complicated.  Our people’s political power was taken away 2,000 years ago when we lost self-rule in the land of Israel and were dispersed among the nations.  But in the last 2,000 years, our influence grew tremendously. 

And we not only survived under difficult circumstances, but we thrived, we began another phase of being - as influencers. 

Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes that the Jewish people, through the Torah, gave the world 14 truths that changed it for the better.  Let me share just a couple of them with you:  the concept of one God above nature; morality is God’s supreme demand on all human beings; the value of human beings - that human life is sacred; the equality of human beings - that we have a common ancestor; humanity has free will; the impoverished, the needy, and the stranger must be treated properly; and of course, the weekend - a day of rest for all - servants and animals included - everyone is entitled to the most elementary thing - time off. 

Being Jewish in the 21st Century, with a large focus on the modern state of Israel, has us squarely focused on power.  Without Jewish power, our fates are left to others, and the evidence of the Holocaust along with several other tragedies in the last 2,000 years is the evidence.  Ultimately, if a people do not have power, they cannot survive forever.  But if they do not have positive influence, well, what is the use of surviving? 

As a people today, we are arguably the most powerful than we ever have been, both in Israel and America.  For many Jews, power has become an obsession - we support Jewish organizations that bolster Jewish physical power, the body of Israel (not just the modern state, but the people of Israel around the world); but if we neglect the soul, the positive influence we have can be lost.  

We are in the midst of the three weeks that lead us to the 9th of Av, a day when we mark the end of our power, a day when we reflect upon the tragedies that have befallen us  because we lacked power, but it all began when we lost our soul, our positive influence, when we let boundless hatred, Sinat Chinam, overtake us. 

During these days, let us remember that power if vital, but influence is the light that makes us who we are.


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