Unity in Leadership, Prophecy, and Wisdom

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 8 Part 2

How unified a leadership do we want? In democracies, we like checks and balances, diversity and multiplicity of opinion, to avoid getting trapped in one mode of thought. Ran assumes the opposite, that one leader is best. This shapes how he views the process of the elders joining Moshe Rabbenu’s leadership team.

Last time, Ran said Moshe had to be present for Miriam and Aharon’s rebuke because they were not able to have prophecy on such short notice.  That also explained why he was there for the anointing of the elders, who were not ready for independent prophecy.

The Elders as Offshoots of Moshe

But Ran offers another reason Hashem wanted Moshe there.  He takes for granted, without explanation, that societies run better with one leader.  For him, that is why the Torah obligates establishing a king; any other system leads to anarchy.

(Ran will discuss the role of the king more in upcoming drashot. As we read his view, we can weigh the values he saw in a single-leader society against the value we see in societies with more spread out leadership. With the current dysfunction in Congress, we might be more open to his claim about anarchy, which Plato also made, than we would have been years ago.)

Unfortunately, as Yitro had earlier pointed out to Moshe, it is difficult for one man to lead a large nation all on his own.  When Moshe threw up his hands once the people complained about the man, Hashem wanted the new leaders to function as one unit with Moshe, to maintain the single-source leadership. To ensure that, Hashem took the spirit for the elders from Moshe’s.

For Ran, that explains why Yehoshua and Moshe reacted differently to Eldad and Medad. Yehoshua saw them as interlopers, securing prophecy even after having been told they were not among the elders (according to one view), or choosing to stay back and seek prophecy on their own.  They were either protesting the elder-selection process or serving as a competitive source of prophecy to Moshe, in Yehoshu’a’s view.

Moshe’s calming response was that Hashem’s granting them prophecy should reassure them of Eldad and Medad’s fitting with the current leadership.

The Value of Teachers and the Decline of Prophecy and Wisdom

Ran’s belief that proximity to a person at a higher level can elevate the one at the lower level gives a value to the presence of teachers beyond their technical roles. Since the teacher—of wisdom or prophecy—is at a higher level than the student, the teacher can help the student advance in ways independent of the explicit act of teaching.

He uses that to explain why Ketubbot 111a stresses the added value of studying with a teacher, and why R. Yehudah haNasi said (Eruvin 13b) that his greater success at Torah study was having seen R. Meir from behind. He hadn’t received actual learning from R. Meir; he had been in his presence. (This obviously militates against distance learning in all its forms, but that’s a different discussion).

If all learning is jumpstarted by a teacher, whose proximity takes us beyond what we are ready for, we become an offshoot of that teacher (as with the elders—not only did they need Moshe because they weren’t ready for prophecy, Hashem wanted them to be offshoot prophets, to maintain the unity of leadership).

If so, since Moshe Rabbenu is the original source of prophecy and Torah knowledge (as Avot reminds us in its first Mishnah, Moshe brought the Torah down from Sinai and passed it along), everyone who follows are offshoots, and cannot surpass him.

Ran takes this as a logical necessity, when it’s not. While Miriam and Aharon needed Moshe there that time, for example, they theoretically could have surpassed him in prophecy at other times. Even if Devarim 34:10 tells us that Moshe’s prophecy was unique, it does not force the conclusion that no disciple prophet could be greater than his direct master (a first-grade teacher might be the reason students are able to grasp the letters of the alphabet when they aren’t yet ready for it, in Ran’s system, but that does not translate into their never being able to surpass that teacher in the understanding of the letters).

Ran does assume it, though, as we see from his reading of Elisha and Eliyahu.

Elisha Seeing the Elevated Eliyahu

The day Eliyahu was taken up to heaven, he asked Elisha what he wanted as a parting gift, and then says that Elisha’s request for double Eliyahu’s spirit was a difficult one.  If Elisha were to see him taken to heaven, Eliyahu says, he’ll know he’s got it.  Ran wants to know why the request was so difficult, and what would change if he saw Eliyahu go.

His answer is that since Elisha’s prophecy was nurtured and grown off of Eliyahu’s, asking to surpass it is difficult if not impossible.  At the moment of being taken up to Heaven, however, Eliyahu himself would be reaching a level he never did in his life. Witnessing that would be a new source for Elisha’s prophecy, and could then double what Eliyahu had previously.

Forging and Forcing Unity

This wasn’t Ran’s central point, so he does not deal with it fully. We will have to wait for other drashot to see whether and how his interest in centralized leadership, of later generations building off of their teachers, and of all wisdom and prophecy extending from Moshe, figure in his thought.

What he has said clearly is that the process of selecting elders included Moshe out of necessity and will. The necessity was their lack of readiness.  The will was that they should jell with Moshe, not oppose him. To guarantee that, their prophecy was made an offshoot of his. Yet Ran also recognizes that Hashem could sometimes do that even without Moshe being present, such as Eldad and Medad.   That suggests that unity does not require keeping everyone in lockstep with the original leader, that there are other ways to achieve the kind of unity Ran saw as necessary for a healthy polity.

But that’s not for this drasha. The next and last piece in this drasha is inherent nature,  whether and how we can overcome it, and what that says about when bad things happen to good people.

About Gidon Rothstein

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