Who should lead the Jewish people?


Both our parasha and Parashat Korach contain an expression that refers to Hashem’s unique knowledge of mankind: “the G-d of the spirits of all flesh” (Bamidbar 16:22 and 27:16).

The original Hebrew for “the G-d of the spirits of all flesh” is “Elokei haruchot l’kol basar.” In his commentary on Parashat Korach, Rashi bases himself upon Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Korach 7, and explains the phrase as “He who knows the innermost thoughts of man” (“yodeah machshavot”): 

“You know the thoughts of man; You know who has committed a sin and who has not committed a sin. You know who has rebelled and who has not rebelled. You know the spirit [i.e. nature] of each one of them. Therefore, the Torah utilizes the expression: ‘Elokei haruchot l’kol basar.’”

In our parasha, however, Rashi explicates this expression in a different manner: “The unique nature of every living person (da’ato shel kol echad v’echad) is manifestly evident before You, O Ruler of the world, and [You know] that they are not similar to one another” (27:16).

In contrast to his first explanation, which focuses upon people’s thought processes and behaviors, here Rashi emphasizes the mahut adam — Hashem’s knowledge of the fundamental essence of each person and every detail of their being. Taken in tandem, he is teaching us that the Master of the Universe knows all aspects of mankind, including our thoughts, motivations and intentions. In short, He knows the spirit of each of us.

In contrast to Rashi’s comments, the beloved Chasidic rebbe, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev zt”l, one of the greatest advocates of the Jewish people, simultaneously emphasizes and reinterprets the words “l’kol basar” (“all flesh”) that conclude our phrase, “Elokei haruchot l’kol basar”:

“A human being is, after all, comprised of flesh and blood. As a result, he has numerous needs that must be fulfilled in pursuit of his livelihood. [They are, in fact, so diverse in nature,] that, on occasion, they may very well cause one to be unable to serve Hashem at all times. (Kedushat Levi, Parashat Pinchas, s.v. yivkode Hashem).

Rav Levi Yitzchak recognizes that mankind is imperfect; as such, there will inevitably be times when the pursuit of livelihood will negatively impact our service of Hashem. Based on his boundless love for the Jewish people, Rav Levi Yitzchak presents this observation in a non-pejorative manner, and intimates that this fundamental human failing should never drive a wedge between the Almighty and His people. He extends this notion, suggesting that the ideal Jewish leader, like Hashem Himself, should not only accept man’s inherently flawed nature, but be willing and able to be melamed zechut (find merit) in our actions:

“This, then, is the meaning of ‘Let the L-rd, the G-d of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation’ (Bamidbar 27:16), that is, a judge and a leader who will continuously be melamed zechut on the Jewish people — just like You, Hashem, are melamed zechut on an individual who does not continuously serve You [due to the daily demands of making a living].”

In Rav Levi Yitzchak’s view, Moshe was beseeching Hashem to choose his successor based upon the capacity to find the good in the Jewish people — even when their actions would fall far short of what they ideally should be. In this sense, a true leader of the Jewish people is one who focuses upon the possibilities and promise of our nation, rather than upon our pitfalls.

Hashem found this crucial quality in Yehoshua, whom the Torah calls “a man of spirit” (ish asher ruach bo — Bamidbar 27:18-20). Like Moshe Rabbeinu, Yehoshua was blessed with the capacity to be melamed zechut upon the entire Jewish people.

This, I believe, is the meaning of the phrase, “ish asher ruach bo,” that Hashem used when He presented Yehoshua as the next leader of the Jewish people. Significantly, “ruach” is the very same word used to describe the Almighty as “Elokei haruchot l’kol basar.”

May Hashem continue to be melamed zechut upon us and bring the Messiah, the “ish asher ruach bo,” speedily and in our time.