Character Over Skill – Bemidbar 5783

D'var Torah | Numbers

In describing the joyous return of exiles to Israel, the prophet Isaiah mentions three different types of terrain: midbar, tziyyah, and aravah (Isaiah 35:1). Aravah refers to a broad, flat, plain as evidenced by current Hebrew usage. Tziyyah, according to the commentators, is an arid area like a desert. Midbar is a wilderness: a sparsely inhabited and undeveloped place, devoid of settlement. The fourth book of the Torah focuses on the trials and hardships the Israelites endured on their journey to Israel following the revelatory event at Sinai.

Implied by the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:2), the trek required two essential components. First, the physical needs of the people in this largely uninhabited space needed to be supplied. The provisions they had taken along with them were insufficient. Food, water, and shelter were necessities that had to be provided. Without these essentials, people would die. And second, the trek required competent leadership to guide the people along and manage organizational affairs. Without direction the people would be lost – spiritually as well as geographically. To meet these needs, the Midrash asserts that the three children of Amram and Yocheved: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, came to the rescue.

By the virtue of Moses, manna provided a necessary food supplement. By virtue of Miriam, sufficient water was located along the route. And by virtue of Aaron, clouds of glory serve as a protective shelter throughout the march. “Through their merit,” says the Midrash, “Israel was sustained.” Noteworthy is the fact that the Midrash does not say ‘through their efforts’ but “through their merit.” What earned the people Israel food, water, and shelter was not the skill or ingenuity of their leaders but their worthiness. It is a remarkable testament to importance of character over ability.

From time to time, when political campaigns are underway, it is a commonplace for opponents to challenge the experience or abilities of other candidates. The claim is based on the assumption that someone who has served in a similar position previously is better equipped to lead. However, as a teacher of mine once pointed out, some people merely have one year of experience twenty times. In other words, that some have been in a similar position before says nothing about what they learned.  More important than experience is character. Leaders should be judged on the ethics by which they live rather than by the skill they possess.


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

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