Parshas Pinchas: Leaders are not shepherds!

What a REAL leader looks like…

We live in very bizarre times, where supposed leaders of World Powers are often people we would not want our children to view as role models, given some of the crass comments they have made, or scandalous behaviour they have engaged in. And sometimes, in the circus that is 21st century world politics, we wonder what a leader should look like.

Rabbi Yechezkel of Shinova, or the Shinover Rav as he was known, focuses on a rather odd-looking verse in this week’s parshah. Moshe was concerned about the welfare of his people after his death. He tells Hashem that he does not want the Jewish people to be כצאן אשר אין להם רועה    ‘like a flock (of sheep), that does not have a shepherd’ (Bamidbar 27:17).

No doubt you, the eagle-eyed reader, have just raised your eyebrows when you saw the comma in that sentence. Well, they’re about to go up higher. You see, that was not a typo! If the Torah were to be talking about a single flock that lacked a shepherd, it surely would have said כצאן שאין להם רואה!

Strangely, The Torah appears to be suggesting that farmers tend to raise their sheep without the help of a shepherd. But that was certainly not the case, at least not then!

The Shinover Rav’s answer sums up the Torah’s definition of a leader. True, each responsible farmer needs a good shepherd to ensure that the sheep are well fed and cared for. But the shepherd’s job is not to care about the sheep. Come the end of the season, the sheep will be fleeced for its wool or killed for its meat. Moshe did not want a corrupt politician to lead the Jewish people. His criteria for a leader was simple: He had to be someone who cared for the people and the people only.

In the Jewish world, leaders do not require multi-million dollar campaigns to impress people. in fact, our Gedolei Hador (Great men of the generation) have zero interest in becoming public figures. Given a choice, they would rather be left alone to study Torah all day uninterrupted. But figures like Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the latter of whom has a 3 digit age, avail themselves to the public daily, often pushing the limits of their health to do so.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef OBM was once in the midst of a desperate search for a Halachic permit that would allow a woman whose husband had permanently disappeared to remarry, when he suffered a major heart attack and collapsed. When the Rabbi regained consciousness in the ambulance, he insisted that he be returned back home. Only when he had been able to find the answer that the poor woman needed did he allow his family and the paramedics to take him to the hospital.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM was once given a gift: an automatic letter opener to assist him with the countless letters that came through his letter box. But he never used it. “If a Jew writes a letter to me in tears” said the Rebbe, “How can I callously rip it open?”

Looking for a shepherd? Look for someone with authority. Looking for a leader? Look for someone with authority who puts his people first!

Bolok: Listen to your donkey!

Go through life with your eyes open

This week, the Torah takes us out of the Jewish camp to nearby Moab. King Bolok, who wasn’t too happy with his new neighbours, sent out Bil’am who had prophetic abilities on par with those of Moshe Rabeinu.
The Chofetz Chaim makes an interesting observation.
Each story in the Torah is sectioned into paragraphs, each ending with singular letter pey ((ף or samek (ס). The story of Bolok and Bil’am reads like one long paragraph, with no lone peys or Samekhs in sight!
The Chofetz Chaim goes on to explain that the Torah was written by Moshe, as dictated word for word by G-D. The single Peys and Samekhs were points at which Moshe, in his great humility, would stop and contemplate what he had just written. BIl’am wasn’t in the habit of contemplating. Stubborn as the mule he used, His default modus operandi was to jump into something without considering the ramifications of what he was doing. Act first, think later- if he had to think at all.
When his donkey sat down in the middle of the road and became the only donkey ever to talk, Bilom was completely unmoved. It didn’t make the slightest dent on his conscience. When he felt he was right, nothing could convince him otherwise. The Midrash tells us that Bilaam had previously been advisor to Pharaoh. Before the plague of hail, the people were warned to take their cattle indoors. Bilom was one of the handful of people who ignored that advice, and had his cattle wiped out by blocks of fire and ice from Heaven.
We all have our ‘talking donkey’ moments. Things happen to us, often unexpected. Miraculous things, challenging things. These things should shake us up and remind us to refocus, to show us when we are perhaps veering off the right path. But too often our eyes are closed, and we miss what’s right in front of us. When we keep our eyes open, we will identify the opportunities in our path without having to be prodded by Hashem.
Our donkeys are talking to us. Are we listening?

Chofetz Chaim

Parshas Chukas: The nature of the beast (or the cow!)

Your greatest weakness can become your greatest strength!

What does one do about a bad character trait, a part of his nature that he’s not crazy about?
Well, many people would tell you to eradicate it.
But perhaps that’s not actually necessary.
Parshas Chukas discusses the laws of the Red Heifer used in the Tabernacle to purify people who were ritually impure.
The Torah is usually very specific when describing commandments. When the Torah speaks about the Passover Sacrificial lamb, it calls it ‘the statute of the Passover’. However, the laws of the Red Heifer are introduced as ‘the Statute of the Torah’.
Why the vague description? Wouldn’t ‘the statute of purity’ make a better headline?
The red heifer is an interesting creature. It’s ashes could ‘purify the impure and impurify the pure’.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that this is really a principal that can be applied to the entire Torah. Generally, actions or deeds aren’t inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Those categorizations depend on the context in which the action was done. Take picking up an item. If the object was something you found in the street and you intended to return it, picking it up was the right thing to do. if you found that item in someone’s home, and you’re intention was to steal it, then that act becomes a sin.
The same hold true with character traits. Contrary to what we often think, a trait is only as good as the situation it is used in. When we are protecting the honour of G-D, anger may be appropriate (although, in this case, we would need to check ourselves uber-carefully first!). Kindness to the wrong people is misplaced, as history has shown us (think: the Munich Agreement).
Perhaps, therefor, the answer to the problem of having a nature that gets you into trouble is to channel it differently. Recent studies have found that lazy people are often more intelligent than those of us who are more active (which is certainly a compliment to the author of this post!). That doesn’t mean that lazy so-and-sos don’t need to pull their socks up. Rather, that same laziness that kept you in bed for an extra hour could allow you to spend time thinking and brainstorming in quiet times.
Let’s not change our unique natures, but use them correctly.

Parshas Korach- Keep an eye on yourself

Beware of your ego!

It was a risky campaign. Korach, a very learned man in his own right, joined forces with Dasan and Aviran to overthrow a leader appointed by G-D Himself!
Moshe challenged Korach and his followers to show up the next day with pans of incense. Since that is forbidden by the Torah, they would all die, aside from the man whom G-D chose as the leader. Korach took up the challenge, knowing full well the risks involved.
Korach was known to be an intelligent man. What possessed him to gamble with his life this way?
Rashi tells us that Korach ‘erred with his eye’. He saw, through prophetic vision, that his descendants would include the prophet Samuel, who, in Rashi’s words, ‘was equal to Moshe and Aharon together. He also saw that his descendants would be among the levi’im, the priests who sang in the Temple, who were all endowed with ‘Divine vision’, a vision that is almost prophetic and is reserved only for the holiest people. Korach concluded that he would escape punishment so that he would have another child, to replace his own sons who would be killed for their part.
What he didn’t expect was that his sons would repent sincerely at the last minute, and thus be saved. Korach’s distinguished lineage would be perpetuated through them.
Rabbi Meir Shapiro quotes a teaching in Judaism that says that G-D created man with two eyes: one to appreciate the handiwork of the Creator, and the other to see his own lowliness as a human being.
Rabbi Shapiro explains that Korach failed to use his second eye correctly. His focus was on his own greatness and sense of entitlement, rather than viewing himself honestly and humbly. This clouded his vision and led him to make poor choices. Moshe, on the other hand, used both eyes well throughout his life, as the Torah tells us, ‘his eye never became haughty’.
Our egos have a way of distorting our reality. They are the underlying mechanisms that cause us to make poor judgements, to fail to learn from our mistakes, to hurt those closest to us just so we can be ‘right’. Korach’s story highlights our need to turn our critical eye inwards and take an honest look at ourselves. If we are to make good choices, we must ensure that they come from a place of pure humility and selflessness, free of any agendas and ulterior motives.


Parshas Shelach: Great man or great grasshopper- YOU choose!

Only you can choose your destiny…

Sometimes we come up against the opinions of others about ourselves. “you’re a lazy so and so”, “You won’t accomplish anything”. We take the words to heart, and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first people on record to address that mistake where the spies. In their damning report of their expedition to Israel they recounted:
וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם (במדבר פרק י”ג פס’ ל”ג):
“And we were, in our eyes, like grasshoppers. And so we were in their eyes [like grasshoppers] (Bamidbar 13:33)

Rashi tells us that the spies had heard the giants talking among themselves about grasshoppers who looked like men, which they understood to be a reference to them.
Noted educator Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstien observes (in a shiur that can be accessed at that the spies said ‘we felt like grasshoppers in our eyes, and therefore we were grasshoppers in their eyes’. In other words, they were admitting that it was their perception of themselves that affected the way the giants viewed them, and not the other way around.
As I’ve heard from one veteran teacher, the best way for a parent to help a child being bullied (in addition to telling him/her to tell his teacher and ensuring that the bully is dealt with appropriately) is to empower the child to choose what he/she thinks of himself/herself, rather than relying on the views of the bully. This equips him/her with a reservoir of resilience that he/she can draw on later in life.
We could extend the lesson taught by the spies to the way we view our life circumstances in general. Victor Frankl was a Jewish Psychiatrist who spent much of World War 2 as a prisoner of Auschwitz. He observed that those who survived the longest were the ones who lived for others, the ones who gave up their bread, the ones who supported the sick people on the death marches. Frankl summed up his conclusions in his famous book, Man’s search for Meaning:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
We are not affected by our circumstances and other’s views of us. We affect our circumstances and other’s views of us.

Action leads to passion

“I don’t have the passion for growing. I don’t want to grow!”

Does this sound familiar to you?

Let’s face it. We all sometimes feel that mitzvos are chores, tasks that we don’t particularly enjoy. We’d rather serve Hashem when we feel inspired to.

Rashi tells us how Aharon was upset to learn that he would not be able to attend the inauguration of the Nesi’im. Hashem had to comfort him and told him that he would be doing a job much greater than that of the Nesi’im. He would light the Menorah.

But why was Aharon so desperate to be at the inauguration? He had plenty of zechusim already!?

מלא מחזיק, ריקן אינו מחזיק- one who is full (of Torah and mitzvos) can hold (more), one who is empty cannot hold (.ברכות מ)

The Mashgiach of Ponevezh explains: Paradoxically, the more one satiates his neshomah the hungrier he gets for more spiritual food. Conversely, a person who is ’empty’ spiritually will not feel that hunger for more, and will avoid any opportunity to grow. That is why Chazal also said that תלמידי חכמים have no rest, in This World or the Next World (.ברכות סד). Their actions created a cycle which fuels their passion to do more. That is how they grow.

Aharon had a lifetime of mitzvos behind him at that point. But that didn’t stop his passion for Yiddishkeit, it fuelled it! The more he accomplished, the bigger his drive for accomplishment got.

The hunger for mitzvos comes from doing them and putting thought into them, even if we have to push ourselves. It comes from trying to focus on some of shemoneh esrei during Maariv, after long day at the office. From going out of your way to smile even when you’re not in the best of moods. By being proactive, we can reach a level where we will look forward to doing mitzvos.

Yes, we need passion. But it starts with action.

(from Sefer Talelei Oros)