True Leadership Qualifications

Vayomer Moshe el Aharon krav el hamizbei’ach (Vayikra 9:7)

In the beginning of Parashas Shemini, Moshe instructs Aharon to go to the Altar and bring offerings to effect atonement for himself and the Jewish people. Rashi writes that Moshe had to tell Aharon to approach the Altar because he sensed that Aharon was uncomfortable doing so due to his role in making the Golden Calf, to which Moshe responded, “Why are you embarrassed? It is for this reason that you were selected as Kohen Gadol.”

Harav Itzele Volozhiner explains that Moshe was telling him that the very fact that he felt unworthy of the job demonstrated a sense of humility that was a necessary prerequisite for the position, and was itself the greatest proof that Aharon was qualified and deserving.

Along these lines, when Hashem appeared to Moshe at the burning bush to appoint him to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moshe repeatedly demurred, asking (Shemos 3:11), “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Jewish people out of Egypt?” Hashem responded (3:12), “I will be with you, and this is the sign that I sent you.”

Rashi explains that the miraculous sight of the burning bush that was not consumed was the sign to which Hashem was referring. However, the Chasam Sofer explains that Hashem’s words can also be interpreted as saying that the fact that Moshe humbly viewed himself as unfit for the role was itself the sign proving why he was chosen. Hashem wants leaders who think of themselves as inherently unworthy of the position, and who only accept the responsibility because of Hashem’s insistence.

More recently, when the position of Chief Rabbi of Yerushalayim became available upon the death of Harav Avraham Yitzchak Kook in 1935, a delegation approached Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank to discuss the requirements and obligations of the position. After they finished their presentation, misunderstanding their intention due to his great humility, Rav Frank replied, “I am already aware of all of the struggles and challenges of the community. Why are you coming to tell me all of this?” They responded that they wanted him to accept the job of Chief Rabbi (which he did), and just as Moshe and Aharon before him, his humble attitude of unworthiness was itself the greatest proof of his suitability.

Harav Yissocher Frand notes that this concept stands in stark contrast to the values of the society in which we live. In the recent hard-fought election season, not once did we hear a candidate declare, “I don’t deserve to be president. I’m not up to the task and can’t fathom why anybody would choose me.” Instead, every single candidate pronounced that he or she was the worthiest person in the entire country and was uniquely capable of solving all of America’s woes.

This attitude is quite different than that of our modest and unassuming Jewish leaders, who are genuinely uncomfortable serving in roles for which they view themselves as completely unworthy, and which they paradoxically perform far better than their overconfident political counterparts.

Q: Although Nadav and Avihu sinned by bringing an alien fire that Hashem had not commanded them to bring (Vayikra 10:1), Hashem normally gives a person time to do teshuvah (repent). Why were they punished so severely with immediate death instead of being given an opportunity to repent their sin?

Q: Parashas Shemini concludes (11:44–47) by stressing the importance of keeping the laws of kosher food in order to become holy and pure. If a person is required to consume non-kosher food for the sake of his health, does it still cause him spiritual impurity?

A: The Netziv suggests that the reason for their instant death was that they sinned in the Mishkan, which is considered, like the Beis Hamikdash, to be the King’s palace as it is filled with the Divine Presence, and therefore sins committed there are judged more harshly.

Harav Aharon Leib Steinman questions this explanation, as he points out that many others sinned in the Beis Hamikdash throughout history without immediate consequences. Instead, he writes that in principle, all people should be punished instantly when they sin, but Hashem’s attribute of mercy causes Him to give people time to repent.

However, the most righteous individuals, such as Nadav and Avihu, are held to a higher standard and are punished as soon as they commit a sin, just as the generation which received the Torah was repeatedly punished instantly each time that they sinned in the wilderness.

A: Harav Chaim Soloveitchik explains that it isn’t the foods that inherently cause spiritual damage, but the prohibition against eating them. As such, the Brisker Rav maintains that somebody who must eat non-kosher food to save his life will not be negatively affected.

The Chasam Sofer and Meshech Chochmah disagree and argue that even in such a case, the inherent negative spiritual qualities in the food will cause damage. Harav Chaim Kanievsky suggests that if there is any other means to save one’s life, even by transgressing another prohibition such as desecrating Shabbos, one who consumes non-kosher food will be harmed, but if it is the only possible manner to save somebody, it will not harm him.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email