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Parashat Beha'alotcha – Jews refusing orders – Rav Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane

In Parashat Beha'alotcha, 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 chapter 11 of our Parasha, Moshe Rabbeinu 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 smitten 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. Who in the world were these Jewish police officers? In Shemot Chapter 5, Pharaoh 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 can 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 “kapos”. But these policemen, 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” policemen instead of the Jewish slaves: “And the officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten...” (Shemot 5:14)

If we think of this seriously, and not relate to it like to some “fairy tale” we heard in kindergarten, we would get goose bumps all over contemplating such heroism. What can be a more inspiring description of Ahavat Yisrael and caring for a fellow Jew by someone in a position of authority. Not only didn't they exploit their power, but these officers understood that sometimes they must bear the suffering of their brothers. This is what G-d saw. And He did not forget. The minute there was a need for leadership, He knew whom to turn to. G-d did not seek out people with charisma, nor did he pick talented organizers or even Torah scholars. One thing: Ahavat Yisrael.

The centrality of this attribute cannot be disputed. The two greatest leaders in Jewish history, Moshe Rabbeinu and King David, were former shepherds. The sages teach us that G-d tested them via their ability to care for their flock and show mercy on those they are responsible over. Here we must stress a key point. Today, everyone speaks of “Ahavat” Yisrael. But too often it is merely a slogan. When selecting the leaders, G-d did not choose those who make nice speeches about “Ahavat Yisrael”. G-d 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.

How sweet it is to read again and again this Midrash about the Jewish policemen. After all, we are so familiar with the claims of the soldiers and policemen in Israel today: “I'm just a small cog in a big machine. I'm just following orders.” But that is not what the Jewish policemen did to their brothers in Egypt. The policemen saw the illegality and immorality in the cruel Egyptian decree, and refused the order! It is important to note that mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the Jewish People is not necessarily the readiness to die for them. Sometimes it may mean the readiness to be hated for your actions; the willingness to sit in jail for your people; or to be ostracized by the establishment. Such leadership stands in stark contrast to the self-indulgent politicians of today. But know that only when such alternative leadership sprouts, Am Yisrael will be redeemed.

From ' The Writings of Rav Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane, HY”D ', commentary on Parashat Beha'alotcha

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