picture from the parasha man smiling 521.
(photo credit: Israel Weiss (firstname.lastname@example.org) http://artfram)
I write this commentary just as the date was announced for elections for
Israel’s chief rabbis, and just after the disgraceful public utterance of
unsubstantiated vilification by a former chief rabbi against a leading candidate
for the chief rabbinate – which in turn was followed by screaming headlines
informing us of the “house arrest” of a current Ashkenazi chief rabbi for
suspected money laundering and acceptance of bribes.
The tragic irony is
that we have also commenced the three-week period of mourning for the
destruction of both the First and Second Temples, national destructions brought
about according to our sages largely because of rabbinical infighting (sinat
hinam or baseless hatred) and our leadership’s loss of its ethical compass
(Isaiah 1, Jeremiah 9).
Let us look to the Bible for direction as to what
ought be the purpose and major qualifications of the chief rabbinate.
this week’s portion, we read – for the second time – of the death of Aaron atop
Mount Hor, as a kind of accompaniment to the closing travelogue of the various
encampments of the Israelites during their desert sojourn.
When we are
initially told of his demise in the portion of Hukat, we read that “the entire
household of Israel wept for Aaron for 30 days” (Numbers 20:29). When the Bible
informs us of the death of Moses, who was our greatest prophet and the great
liberator and lawgiver of Israel (apparently greater than Aaron), we read, “and
the children of Israel wept for Moses for 30 days” (Deuteronomy
The classical commentator Rashi notes a glaring absence at Moses’s
funeral: “[Only] the males [mourned for Moses], whereas for Aaron, the entire
House of Israel mourned, men and women; that was because Aaron was a seeker
after peace and effectuated peace between neighbors and between husbands and
A comparison of these two leaders may well highlight two crucial
aspects of rabbinic leadership today.
In the last portion of the Book of
Deuteronomy, the opening verse refers to Moses as “a man of God,” and in the
very last chapter Moses is referred to as a “servant of the Lord.”
we have seen how Moses constantly sought God’s “fellowship” (as it were), how
Moses was the most unique of prophets, to whom God spoke “mouth to mouth,” and
that his “heaviness of speech” may well refer to the kind of conversation which
interested him – matters of theology, jurisprudence and philosophy – rather than
to a physiological problem of stuttering or stammering.
Moses spends much
time atop Mount Sinai, perhaps even in the supernal realm of God’s presence, and
he takes his “tent of meeting” with God “outside the camp,” far away from the
camp of human social intercourse.
Aaron, on the other hand, is a man of
the people, wearing an apron ephod with two shoulder straps sporting two shoham
stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 Tribes, the people of
Israel. Likewise, on the high priest’s breastplate of judgment were precious
stones, each inscribed with the name of a different tribe, so that Aaron bore
the names of the sons of Israel on his heart.
Moses was first and
foremost a devoted man of God, who saw his task as faithfully communicating the
vision of a God of “compassionate righteousness and moral justice” to Israel and
the world. Hence he slays the Egyptian taskmaster to protect the Hebrew slave,
chastises the Hebrew who struck his brother Hebrew, and rescues the shepherd
Midianite daughters of Jethro from their shepherd Midianite
Hence he liberated the Hebrews from Egyptian subjugation.
Hence he revealed God’s Decalogue at Sinai, the most succinct expression of
ethical probity in human history, based upon humanity’s having been created to
be free in the divine image.
Similarly, the chief rabbi of Israel must,
first and foremost, be a supremely honest individual, above suspicion and
without avarice. He must be fearless in the face of graft and corruption,
establishing moral probity as the greatest Israeli product.
He must be
deeply learned, committed to solving problems of Jewish law such as women bound
to recalcitrant husbands, issues whose lack of solution not only causes tragic
individual suffering, but also brings disrepute upon our holy Torah and the God
who gave it.
Aaron the High Priest was a man of the people, “one who
loved peace and pursued peace, loved all human beings and brought them close to
Torah.” He took responsibility for every single Jew, carrying the tribal names
of all upon his shoulders and within his heart. He was responsible for the
Temple ritual, the synagogue liturgy, Sabbath and festivals, rites of passage
and life-cycle events. He had to minister to all nonjudgmentally and
So too the chief rabbi, who must recognize that Israel is the
homeland of every Jew – not only the Orthodox Jew – and that we must make the
House of Israel open and welcoming to all. He must love the convert from the
moment he asks about conversion.
We’ve had such chief rabbis in the past.
If it is not possible today, then it would behoove us to dissolve the office for
the sake of Heaven.
Shabbat shalom.Matot-Masei, Numbers
30:2-36:13, is read on July 6.The writer is the founder and chancellor
of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat