Top quality of a leader: Leadership

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Jonah Zinn

One does not need to look far these days to find someone questioning the qualifications of our leaders. It is a topic of constant discussion and strong feelings on television, social media, and daily conversation with friends and even total strangers. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what our leaders should be doing, and everyone seems more than willing to share their views.

Our Torah portion this week also offers an opinion on what it takes to lead a nation. After being commanded to ascend the mountain from which he will see the promised land and then die, Moses’ initial response is not self-pity or personal concern. Rather, Moses appeals to God to “appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17).

Commentators throughout the generations have offered diverse opinions on what exactly Moses understood to be the necessary characteristics of his successor. Some understood this statement in a pragmatic sense: The Israelites needed a military leader who would lead them into battle and back safely. Other commentators offered a different approach.  

Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, a disciple of the Chofetz who in his later years served as the Rosh Yeshiva of the Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, understood Moses’ plea as a statement that a true leader is one who goes out before the people and does not adjust their views to what the masses want. A true leader, Meltzer asserts, brings their people up rather than going down to them. According to this view, true leaders are resolved in their values and their convictions. They work to achieve their vision even when their vision differs from the professed will of the masses.


A story about the founder of the Musar movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter, further expounds on this understanding. According to the story, Rabbi Salanter was once asked to explain the Talmudic prediction from Sanhedrin 97a, which states that in the days before the coming of the Messiah, “The face (the leadership) of the generation will have the face of a dog.” 

Rabbi Salanter said: “Have you ever seen a man and a dog walking? The dog always runs ahead. So to the casual observer it seems that the dog is the leader. But every now and then the dog turns around to see where his master wants to go and changes direction accordingly.

“Today, our world abounds with such ‘leaders,’ ” Rabbi Salanter continued. “But a true leader is not one who merely ‘goes and comes before the people,’ while looking over his shoulder to see if they are still following him. He is also the one who ‘takes them out and brings them in’ – who leads them where he knows they must go.”

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.