Yonatan Sinclair
Former Bnei Akiva Shaliach
Currently Bnei Akiva Limmud Director and Head of Australian Desk


Light and Humility

How do I balance being a leader and being humble? When is the right time to step up, and when should I step down and let others take charge? As leaders in communities, youth movements, and the workplace, these are questions that we encounter quite often. I believe that this week's parasha, Beha'alotcha, contains an insight that we can learn from and imitate when we come across this common dilemma.

Our parasha starts with the commandment to Aharon to kindle, or "fix the lights", of the Menorah. Chazal spend a lot of time analyzing this passage as it seems to be a repetition of the section on how the Menorah was built, which was already found both in Parashat Teruma and in Parashat Vayakhel, in Sefer Shmot.
Chazal use this passage to focus not on the Menorah itself but on its purpose, and most of all: Who is the Menorah's light for? What is its purpose in lighting up the Mishkan? The main explanation put forward by Chazal in the famous Midrash Rabba is that the purpose of the light in the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash was not to light up the room for Hashem (or the Kohanim), but rather to shine out to the world – to reflect the same light that we receive from Hashem, and use it to light up the outside. That is why the windows of the Beit Hamikdash were built in such a way that light emanated to the outside, rather than keeping the light in. The midrash then shares a famous idea:  Israel is called a light unto the nations, and that is what the light of the Menorah represents – the "job" Am Yisrael have, of "lighting" up the world so that all nations recognize the greatness of Hashem.

Am Yisrael are called upon to be a light to the nations – to be out there in the front, to lead fearlessly and to take center stage amongst all the nations. To shine and to stand out just as a torch goes in front of us on a dark night. The light helps to emphasize what is seen, and casts a shadow on what is not under the light.

It is interesting, however, that later on in our parasha we read about several characters who try to avoid the "limelight," try to get out of being the center of attention, and who actually say (to themselves or to God) that they do not wish to "shine" unto others, nor to share their vision, wisdom, or prophecy – they do not wish to lead. These individuals are:

  1. Moshe, who asks God to release him from the burden of leadership, and basically to find a new leader for Am Yisrael.
  2. Eldad and Meidad, who would rather not prophesize, and who hide in the camp rather than gathering outside the mishkan to receive Moshe's gift of prophecy.
  3. Yehoshua (according to Chazal), who deemed himself so worthless that he wanted to imprison Eldad and Meidad for suggesting that Moshe was going to die and that he, Yehoshua, would lead the people into the land.
In all these cases we find characters who choose or wish to choose – apparently contrary the message of the Menorah – not to shine, not to share their light with others.

So what is the Torah's apparent resolution of this dilemma? How should I approach my students, chanichim, workmates, clients, followers? What kind of leader does the Torah "model" for me? Should I lead like the Menorah – from the front, shining unto the whole world, or must I idealize "anava," step aside, keep quiet, hide, and not draw attention to myself?

I suggest we view the way that Moshe passed his ability to prophesize on to the seventy elders as the ideal example of balanced leadership. When Moshe gives over his prophecy the Torah uses the word "vaya'atzel," which is translated literally as 'And he took off', which, according to the Midrash, comes from a word that means: "To share without diminishing your own." Here the midrash shares with us a beautiful idea:
Just like a candle shares its light and does not become diminished – so too, Moshe's prophecy did not become diminished.

When Moshe gave the seventy elders the ability to prophesize, he shared his leadership. He empowered others to take initiative and lead alongside him. This act of sharing did not hinder or detract one little bit from his own ability to lead. Leadership – the "Moshe" style of leadership – is one where I am not afraid to cooperate with others, to step aside and empower others, and to encourage as much initiative as possible in my followers. Moshe still kept on shining and leading, but now he had seventy people to help him.

Jewish leadership sets forward the following model: One can be strong and radiant, one can lead, give others energy and inspiration, and guide people through darkness – and one can do all that with the utmost humility. Sharing the light and helping others to shine their own light does not diminish the leader's light – on the contrary, it strengthens the light of Hashem in this world.