In Parashat BeHaalotcha, we are witness to a unique event: the choosing of leaders. The Torah even “lets us in” on which factors played part in how these Jewish leaders were chosen.
In our parasha (ch. 11), Moshe reaches his breaking point – “I can’t carry the burden of this people alone, for it is too heavy for me”, and asks G-d to find people who can share the burden of leadership with him. How does G-d pick these leaders? After all, there was no shortage of righteous and talented Jews around.
G-d immediately singles out a specific group from which the next Jewish leadership will be chosen: “Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers over them”. Rashi explains: “Those whom you recognize, who were appointed over them as officers in Egypt during the rigorous labor, and they (the officers) had pity on them (the Israelites) and were beaten because of them.” Though this may appear a rather surprising choice, a deeper probe into the matter will reveal to us a tremendous lesson, so pertinent for today.
The Criteria: “Ahavat Yisrael”
Who in the world were these Jewish police officers? Let us back track to the book of “Shmot” (Chapter 5). Pharo lays down a rather heavy if not impossible edict on his Jewish slaves. They must produce a specific quota of bricks without even being given straw. The Jewish officers were ordered by the Egyptian taskmasters to oversee that this quota was met. If not, the officers would be blamed for it and beaten. Thus, they were in a dilemma. Either they turn over their brothers and by doing so save their own skin, or they can refuse orders, and be severely punished for it. In short, these “officers” were supposed to be Jewish “kappos”. But these policeman, unlike others who have been placed in similar situations in our sad history, refused to bear down on their already suffering brethren, and did not hand over the names of Jews who could not meet the quota. The result? The Egyptian taskmasters thrashed the refusenik policeman instead of the Jewish slaves: “And the officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharo’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten..” (5:14)
If we take this seriously, and not relate to it like some fairy tale we heard in kindergarten, we would get goose bumps all over just contemplating such heroism. What can be a more inspiring description of “Ahavat Yisrael” and caring for a fellow Jew by someone in authority. Not only did they not exploit their power, but these officers understood that sometimes they must bear the suffering of their brothers. This is what God saw. And He did not forget. The minute there was a need for leadership, He knew whom to turn to. God did not seek out people with charisma, nor did he pick talented organizers or even the greatest Torah scholars. One thing: “Ahavat Yisrael”.
The centrality of this attribute cannot be disputed. The two greatest leaders in Jewish history, Moshe Rabbeinu and David, were former shepherds. The sages teach us that God tested them through their ability to care for their flock and show mercy on those they are responsible over.
Today, everyone speaks of “Ahavat Yisrael”. But too often it is merely a slogan. When selecting the leaders, God did not choose those who make nice speeches about “Ahavat Yisrael”. God wanted people with a “previous record”: a record of suffering for one’s brothers; a record of placing one’s personal welfare secondary to that of one’s people. A record of m’sirut nefesh – going out on the line for a fellow Jew.