August 7, 2018

Two kings & One crown (Pinchas)

This Shabbat in Israel we read Parshat Pinchas which describes the process by which Yehoshua was appointed successor to Moshe. Once Moshe was informed by G-d that Yehoshua was going to take over the leadership, he was told to ‘lay your hands upon him’ (Bemidbar 27:18), and to ‘give him your majesty’ (ibid. 27:20) which is explained by the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 21:15): ‘Lay your hands upon him – like one who kindles one candle from another; Give him your majesty – like one who pours from one vessel to another.’

However, as Professor Shaul Regev points out (in ‘Professors on the Parashah’), this Midrash seems to contradict itself since the act of lighting a candle does not diminish the original flame – implying that Moshe himself loses nothing by laying his hands on Yehoshua’s head, while the act of pouring from one vessel to another describes a situation in which the first vessel loses some of its contents.

To resolve this apparent contradiction, Professor Regev refers to the Keter Shem Tov of Rabbi Shem Tov Melamed, who explains that the transfer of leadership from Moshe to Yehoshua had two aspects – spiritual leadership (ie. prophecy) and social-political leadership (ie. sovereignty). As Rabbi Melamed explains: “Regarding prophecy, [the Midrash] says ‘like lighting one candle from another’, since Moshe lost nothing at all… [While] regarding sovereignty… [the Midrash] says ‘like pouring from one vessel to another’ since two kings cannot wear the same crown.”

Just like with Moshe & Yehoshua, this principle that two kings cannot wear the same crown (see Chullin 60b) is an important rule of thumb in communal leadership, and while every leader is encouraged to spiritually inspire whomever they meet, there are limits on how far they can involve themselves in debates and disagreements in communities not under their jurisdiction. As the Rema (Yoreh Deah 245:22) rules: “one may not rule regarding prohibitions and permissions, or teach or act with authority in another’s region”, with support for this ruling being found in Eruvin 94a where we are taught that ‘Rav did not wish to rule in the region of Shmuel’ (see Biur HaGra).

Based on this, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, in his essay titled ‘Communal Governance, Lay and Rabbinic: An Overview’ writes: “That a rabbi’s judgement should be definitive regarding communal issues of clear halakhic import, and that these issues can be distinguished from broader spiritual questions, should be obvious. While there may be some question as to whether the pesak of a local rav must be the final word governing the personal life of every member of his kehillah or whether, as is increasingly the case today, a congregant may opt to follow other, possibly greater, poskim, is perhaps debatable. With respect to public she’ailot, however, his decision is definitive. If recourse is indeed to be had to superior poskim, that cannot be the result of lay surfing of the Internet, but a freely chosen initiative of the rabbi.”

Though the Internet enables us to be inspired by teachers and leaders from the four corners of the globe, it can also have an erosive effect on communal authority (see Chaim Waxman’s article on ‘Toward a Sociology of Pesak’). So if you are looking for spiritual inspiration then use the power of technology to kindle your candle; but if you are in need of guidance – perhaps for personal, but certainly for communal matters – it is important to seek guidance from your local religious leader; firstly, because ‘two kings cannot wear the same crown’, and secondly, because by looking beyond the community for guidance for the community, you are weakening the vessel of communal leadership.

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