The People and the Book: Learning how to be a community

Leadership must go to those who can best teach, inspire and represent.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
WHILE STUDYING in Jerusalem many years ago, my Talmud teacher Nissan Ziskin’s wife Felice was more than due to give birth. As, I now realize, a very tactless way of asking how things were going, I asked him how many children he had. He replied by giving the number of his children at home, plus the students in his class, noting “the Talmud teaches that your students are like your children.”
With no close relatives in Israel, I appreciated this. That year my fellow students and teachers were the nearest I had to family and we frequently discussed “community,” where and how we would find again that family-like group of like-minded people.
The passage he was quoting (Sanhedrin 19b) is part of an exposition on puzzling Biblical verses. The rabbis explain the anomaly that the verse in this week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers, says “these are the generations of Aaron and Moses,” then names only Aaron’s sons, by saying Moses taught them, therefore Aaron’s sons became part of Moses’ future too. But, apart from the close and loving teaching that comes from a parent learning with their child, we think of teaching as a social, not family, role.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher upset many people when she said, “There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families.” Genesis describes individual men and women, their family relationships and covenantal encounters with God. Perhaps Thatcher preferred Genesis to Numbers; if Genesis is the Torah of the individual, Numbers is the Torah of community, where we see the tribes learning how to be a community.
As part of the shift from family to community, Numbers describes how each family’s first-borns, who had been dedicated to serve God were counted and replaced by the tribe of Levi, with a redemption sum paid to cover the difference in number. Levi’s tribal leaders act as high priest (Aaron) and lead the people, acting as their intermediary with God (Moses).
In a family, things can be informal, understood. In contrast, a large group needs explicit descriptions of how everything should function.
Shavuot, when we read the Ten Commandments in synagogue, commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, happens around the time we start reading Numbers, one of the neater links in the annual cycle. We read the obligations of the formal covenant made between God and the whole Jewish people, when we start to see each week how the covenant between God and the community worked out in practice.
It’s often been noted that there is a clear trajectory of improvement in Genesis. The Torah of the individual and family starts with Cain killing his brother Abel and ends with Joseph and his brothers embracing. Can we see a similar upward movement in Israel’s community life described in Numbers? No, not really.
A friend and I have a stock conversation at Kiddush.
Me: “How are you?”
Him: “I can’t complain.”
Me: ‘“Can’t complain? You call yourself an Israelite?”
Since the people complained about their rations, rebelled against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership and refused to believe it was safe to enter the land to which God was guiding them, rather than looking to see whether the people blossomed in response to God’s blessings, conveyed by Aaron and his sons and by Balaam, perhaps we should look at Moses their leader. He does grow into his role and flourish.
On being charged with his mission at the burning bush, Moses declared himself unable to speak in public at all. God told him Aaron would be his ‘prophet’ and transmit his message. Yet Moses soon found his voice, addressing Pharaoh and the people without needing a spokesman, defending the people to God. By the end of Numbers, Moses is ready to make his great last speech to the people, his final chance to inspire them to love God and keep God’s commandments. One of the most fascinating lessons Moses’ life teaches is the way his sons disappear from the story and his pupil Joshua succeeds him.
In Genesis, the covenant goes from father to son. Eleazar, Aaron’s son, inherited the high priesthood; blessing and sacrificing are skills, which can be passed down by both inheritance and training. But even a schoolchild’s knowledge of English history and royal rule suggests inheritance is a poor way to gain competent leadership; the Bible’s Book of Kings confirms this. Israel and Great Britain have both held elections this year and America’s 2016 election campaign has already begun.
Even those with teeth gritted at the electoral victory of a leader for whom we would never have voted can at least rejoice at a lesson of the Torah of community. Inheritance is fine for family, but leadership must go to those who can best teach, inspire and represent.
Rachel Montagu studied at Leo Baeck College, London and Machon Pardes, Jerusalem. She teaches Biblical Hebrew and Jewish Studies in London