B’ha-alotekha 5778

D'var Torah | Numbers

John Back McMaster, a contemporary historian of Abraham Lincoln, told this story of an old man who had come a great distance to shake President Lincoln’s hand at a Washington, D. C. reception. The old man was disappointed because the ushers allowed no one to come close enough to shake Mr. Lincoln’s hand. So just before leaving, the old man waved his hat at the presidents and shouted: “Mr. President I am from up in New York State where we believe that God Almighty and Abraham Lincoln are going to save this country!” Jovially, the presidents waved back at him and said, “My friend, you’re half right.”


Perhaps because so much is expected of our leaders that they are considered to be partners with God. (Lincoln left it up to us to determine who is the senior partner.) But thinking of our leaders as demigods creates the impression that they can be aloof, distant, inaccessible, and even cold. Moses suffered from this misapprehension. He was thought to be so different, so outré, so godly that no one dared assist him in performing his administrative  duties. The results were disastrous. Moses was the first Jewish professional to suffer from burnout. “I cannot carry all this people by myself,” he says, “it is too much for me.” God offers him one alternative: delegate. God says that He will “draw upon the spirit” that is in Moses “and put it upon them” so “they will share the burden of the people” and Moses need not “bear it alone” (Numbers 11:17).


How exactly that “spirit” can be taken from Moses and shared with his deputies goes unstated. But twelfth century commentator, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, explains. Spirit is like wisdom: it can be transferred from one person to another without diminishing from the first. The analogy, he adds, is a candle. Light can be transferred from one candle to another without diminishing the light of the first candle. So Moses can invest others with his wisdom, his enthusiasm, his light.


The same is true for every person. Each individual has the possibility of being a candle lighter; giving his or her energy, knowledge, enthusiasm, and abilities to others without losing any of their own. This important point is emphasized by the opening words of the portion of the Torah read this week: when the lamps are lit. Others are waiting for our light. Let’s ensure they are enlightened.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter