The Traits of Leadership

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

This week, we will be reading the haftorah portion for Parshat Matot, not the one normally read for Parshat Pinchas. The story in the passed over haftorah highlights an important story concerning the prophet Eliyahu. In many ways, the study of that episode is of great assistance in understanding the personality of Pinchas. And, on a deeper level, the story concerning Eliyahu is a testament to the qualities of a great Jewish leader. So, while it is true it will not be read this week, an analysis of that section could be of great benefit. 

(Disclaimer - the incident with Eliyahu’s journey to Chorev and subsequent prophecy is extremely difficult to understand. The commentaries wrestle with much of the imagery and detail presented throughout the story. For the sake of this piece, the author will be limiting the content to one specific theme.)

The haftorah (when read) picks up right after the miraculous events at Har Carmel. The Jewish people acknowledged God as the one true God, the false prophets were killed, and one would assume Eliyahu’s popularity was at an all-time high. Unfortunately, a decree was issued by Izevel to kill him. Eliyahu flees to the desert (Melachim 1 19:4):

But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: 'It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.'”

What an astonishing request by Eliyahu! How could he ask for his life to be taken by God? (his reference to being “better” than his fathers is not the primary reason for his request)

Eliyahu falls asleep, and then is awoken by an angel, who gives him food and drink. He lies down again after eating, and is again contacted by this angel and instructed to begin journeying. He was able to travel a total of forty days and nights. Upon his arrival at Mount Chorev (he was never actually given directions there; instead, the path he took “naturally” led there), he entered into a cave, and the following conversation took place (ibid 9-10):

And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said unto him: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.'”

One of the most well-known prophetic events takes place after this. A strong wind, a tremendous sound, and a fiery blaze all pass by Eliyahu, throughout emphasizing God was not to be found in any of them. These very emphatic demonstrations are followed by a smaller, quieter sound.  Immediately afterwards, God asks Eliyahu the exact same question posed above. And Eliyahu offers the exact same answer, without any deviation. Breaking out of this repetitive loop, God gives Eliyahu a new mission, part of which is to prepare for the passing on of his role as “chief” prophet to Elisha.

What do we make of this episode? No doubt, there are multiple concepts at play here. Ultimately, as stated at the outset, the objective of this specific piece is to gain an insight into the personality of Eliyahu, and on a greater level, how a leader of the Jewish people must view himself. 

The starting point lies in the obvious similarity to Pinchas – both are a kenai, or “jealous”, of God (see the beginning of this week’s Torah portion). We were witness to this during the succumbing of the Jewish people to the women of Moav, as Pinchas dramatically kills the man and woman in the midst of their sin. The same was true of Eliyahu, described in great detail by the incident at Mount Carmel. When faced with a profaning of the name of God, when the Jewish people are breaking their covenant with God on the most basic level, drastic action must be taken. The source of falsehood must be annihilated immediately, replaced with the truth of God. The desire to reorient the situation is the source of this jealousy, the intolerance of the present status quo. Such an action halts the slide to destruction, the Jewish people rescued from the precipice. An individual who is capable of acting in such a manner, where every ounce of his existence is focused on righting the wrong, is very unique. It would appear both Pinchas and Eliyahu shred this trait (and are considered to be one and the same by many of the Sages). 

After the events at Mount Carmel, Eliyahu clearly had effected the Jewish people in a profound way. But it was incomplete, as he was condemned to death by Izevel – apparently, such a decree was not something the people as a whole were not completely opposed to much. Eliyahu thus saw his prior actions as being incomplete, maybe even a failure. His role as a prophet and leader, to serve God and deliver His message to the people, seemed to have run its course. As his existence was tied up to this reality, he saw no reason to continue to live. His service of God could no longer be expressed properly. Such an attitude reflects a complete subservience to his role. 

God directs him to Mount Horev, synonymous with Mount Sinai. Why there? No doubt, as mentioned above, there are clear allusions to Moshe throughout this journey; the same can be said as to why he was brought to this location. As will be demonstrated, God was harking back the His encounter with Moshe after the sin of the Jewish people with the golden calf. When confronted by God, Eliyahu defines himself by the jealousy manifested at Mount Carmel. It was this trait that God was challenging. How so? The Ralbag writes that God’s intention with His display of supernatural phenomenon was to encourage Eliyahu to have mercy on the Jewish people, rather than focus on their destruction due to their failings. The various physical phenomenon presented to Eliayhu reflected actions of destruction emanating from God. He wanted to direct them to the Jewish people, but was withholding due to the hope of repentance on their part. The Malbim offers a similar approach. God begins with dramatic demonstrations of powerful destructive elements. However, God ends with a quiet sound, indicating to Eliyahu the importance of using kind words to help convince the Jewish people to repent. What we are seeing from these commentaries is an important insight into Eliyahu’s personality. His trait of being “jealous” was one that was critical in saving the Jewish people from annihilation. But it was not the ideal trait to now slowly bring the Jewish people into a deeper state of repentance. God was attempting to give Eliyahu the chance to alter his approach. He was trying to steer Eliyahu to the road taken by Moshe. Eliyahu saw the Jewish people from the perspective of the kenau, an intolerance for any level of falsehood. After the “sound and light” show, Eliyahu is given another opportunity to express who he was. He answers as he did when first asked the same question. He is someone who is “jealous”, and is unable to change from that viewpoint. God then, in a nutshell, terminates Eliyahu’s role as “chief” prophet, and the subsequent legacy is passed to Elisha. 

This interaction between God and Eliyahu is one extremely critical to our understanding and expectations of our leaders, as well as an important warning to Jewish leaders themselves. As we currently are still in a state of exile, we as a nation require further repentance in order to return to God as He demands. There are times when we will require the shocking actions of someone like Pinchas or Eliyahu, the emotional upheaval challenging our assumptions and causing cataclysmic change. And there are others where we require more of a “hand-holding” approach, maybe charisma and charm, more expressed sympathy. The true message here, though, would appear to be directed towards the leaders themselves. A Jewish leader serves as an example for the nation, someone who is capable of taking the people and strengthening their relationship with God. When we first see Eliyahu in this story, we see a leader solely devoted to bringing about God’s will – not an ounce of selfishness is on display. He put his life on the line, his desire to stamp out falsehood his sole motivation. Our leaders today, whether they be rabbis or teachers or in any other religious position, must constantly be in a state of vigilance. They must be aware of the dangers of ego gratification, and how they exist to help bring about God’s will. The self must be removed as much as possible; no doubt, this is a serious obstacle to overcome. The other critical point is the self-understanding of one’s limitations. A leader may not necessarily have the right personality traits for the nation or for the individual. He may need to realize he is not the right person for the job. He needs to be willing to not just lead, but step aside when he realizes his approach is failing and he is unable to effect the people in the best possible way. Eliyahu was the right person at Mount Carmel and saved the Jewish people from extinction. However, he was not the right person to continue into the next phase. He recognized that he couldn’t do it, that his personality did not lend itself to continuation. He didn’t try and hide it or cover it up. Our leaders today must display the same degree of honesty in their own self-evaluation. They then can lead us together as we return to God and His ways.