D’var Torah: On leadership and the individual

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 July 2017

There are some portions of Torah which are crammed full of ideas and narratives.  Tomorrow’s portion, Pinchas is such a portion: the second half of the story of Pinchas’ zealotry; a full census of the people, the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, which Isy will read for us in the morning; the passing of leadership from Joshua to Moses; and, in case all that wasn’t enough, two full chapters of sacrificial law.

So much is in it, so many big themes.  But I want to speak about just five words.

When God reveals to Moses that he is soon to die, and Moses asks that he be allowed to pass on leadership to someone else, Moses addresses God using a quite unusual name: “Adonai elohei ha-ruchot l’chol basar”, “The Eternal God of the spirits of all flesh”.
It is an odd formulation.  Rarely used elsewhere in Torah.  And, in particular, it contains what seems an odd plural – why the spirits of all flesh?

The midrash Tanchuma, and later Rashi in his commentary on Torah, turn this phrase into a lesson about leadership and individuality.  In using this phrase, they suggest, Moses was saying to God, “God, the mind of each person is known by you, and no two are alike” – that is, you are God of all the varied spirits of all flesh – “so when I leave them appoint someone who will accept every person according to their individuality.”  As Tanchuma puts it, God should appoint, “adam she-yhei sovel l’chol echad v’echad l’fi daato” – “someone who can carry each and every one according to their mind”.

A qualification for leadership of the people, this tells us, is the ability to see beyond the whole community and to respond to the needs of each individual. And so, according to Rashi, when God replies to Moses “Take Joshua… a man with ruach in him” this should be understood as “someone able to deal with the ruach of each person.”

We sometimes think of Judaism, of religion in general, as an exercise in conformity, in which our individuality needs to be subsumed into the whole.  This is sometimes true, and sometimes joyful – there is great power when we sing together and lose ourselves, greater impact on the world when we speak with a single voice.
But as he prepares to pass over leadership, Moses reminds us that this is not just a collective exercise: we each have individual interests, desires, needs.  The responsibility of leadership is to hold this balance, to benefit the group, while also seeing beyond the whole to the individual.

This is one of our communal values: When we offer variety in study, in worship, when we seek to build new forms of tefillah for, and with, those who need it, we do so because we recognise the need to respond to the spirit of each person.  That we never as a community judge the worth of an activity on the numbers who attend, but only ever on the experience of those who participated, reflects the importance of the individual as well as the whole.

As a big community, it would be easy to lose sight of the importance of each, individual Jewish journey.  When he refers to God as “Adonai elohei ha-ruchot l’chol basar”, just those five words in a full-to-bursting parashah, Moses reminds us that leadership – leadership of the People, and leadership of a community – is not about imposing uniformity but about celebrating and facilitating our diversity.