In mid-July 2006, Congregation Shalhevet Hamaccabim was planning to hold its annual special kabbalat shabbat service honoring our recent high school graduates, soon-to-be army inductees. Like Carleen and Asher Bar-on, I have a daughter who was about to begin her army service. In honor of the occasion I volunteered to deliver the d’var torah — something I had never done before. I chose a theme that was appropriate for our soon-to-be soldiers, and had already prepared my text when we learned that the Bar-on’s middle child, Yaniv, had been killed on the Lebanese border. By Friday I had rewritten the ending, and my d’var torah became a message to a kehila in mourning. I delivered the d’var torah again (in English) at an evening service during Yaniv’s shiva.
D’var Torah, in memory of St. Sgt. Yaniv Bar-On, of blessed memory
This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, relates an important event in the history of the people of Israel – the chosing of Yehoshua to succeed Moshe as the people’s new leader.
The Israelites are encamped at Shittim. They are soon going to enter into the promised land. But as we know, Moshe will not be leading the people. The time has come for a new leader.
ַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה אֶל-הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה; וּרְאֵה, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי, לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ, וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל-עַמֶּיךָ גַּם-אָתָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר נֶאֱסַף, אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ.
God tells Moshe to go up the mountain and look upon the land, which He is giving to the people of Israel. God reminds Moshe that he will die, like his brother Aharon, before he enters the land.
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר.
יִפְקֹד יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל-בָּשָׂר, אִישׁ, עַל-הָעֵדָה
Moshe, a true and great leader, does not argue with God. He does not focus on his own fate. Instead his concern is to make sure that the Jews will still have someone to lead them after he is gone. He asks God to select a worthy leader for the people, one who will lead them like a shepherd.
And who does God select?
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, קַח-לְךָ אֶת-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן–אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר-רוּחַ בּוֹ; וְסָמַכְתָּ אֶת-יָדְךָ, עָלָיו.
Why is Yehoshua selected? Because “he is a man in whom there is spirit.”
That sounds like a very small requirement for someone who is about to assume such an important role as leader of the Jewish people.
However, we do know a few things about Yehoshua.
We know that Yehoshua was a faithful servant to Moshe. He accompanied Moshe part of the way when Moshe climbed Har Sinai to accept the ten commandments (Exodus 32:17), and then waited for Moshe to return.
In Exodus Moshe appoints Yehoshua to lead the army in the battle again the Amelekim, and Yehoshua defeats them in an overwhelming victory. (Exodus 17:8-16)
Yehoshua was one of the twelve spies who were sent to scout the land of Canaan. (Num. 13:16, 17). Of the twelve spies, only Yehoshua and Caleb returned with a positive report.
And besides Caleb, Yehoshua was the only one of his generation to be born in Egypt, to go through the Exodus, survive the forty years in the wilderness, and enter the promised land.
So Yehoshua does indeed have leadership qualities.
But let’s go back to the one particular characteristic that is mentioned in God’s declaration: RUACH.
What does it mean?
In one sense, ruach is like the blowing of wind — something physical and loud. A person with physical ruach is joyful, enthusiastic and energetic. It is someone whose spirit excites us and causes us to laugh and sing and participate. As we used to say in our youth movements: “enthusiasm generates enthusiasm.”
And in other sense, ruach is the breath of God – something peaceful and quiet. A personal with inner spirit has faith, sensitivity, wisdom. Spirit, spirituality, inspiration. Ruach elohim.
Yehoshua had BOTH kinds of ruach. It does not say (like in many other places in the bible) “ruach elohim“, which would indicate only his spiritual faith. It says “ruach” — in all its meanings.
Yehoshua’s ruach was what qualified him for the leadership role.
The Talmud explains that the greatness of Yehoshua was that he stayed by Moshe’s side — day-in, day-out. In his own quiet and consistent way, Yehoshua made it his priority to draw close to God, to absorb Jewish wisdom, and to do whatever he could to help others do the same.
In fact, the Talmud says that Yehoshua came to the study hall early each morning to set up the chairs and would put them away at the end of the day. It is said that if carry a chair from one place to another and then sit on it yourself, you are just a shlepper. But if you bring a chair for someone else, then it elevates you. Instead of a shlepper you become ba’al chessed, a kindhearted person who helps others!
The rabbinic sages interpreted the ruach of Yehoshua as his unique ability to focus on other people’s needs and NOT his own wants and desires. That is the true definition of leadership.
In looking at Yehoshua, and the meaning of his spirit, we can learn that there is ruach in all of us. Each and every living being has the spirit of God within. Each of us has the ruach that gives us the potential to help others, to give of ourselves, to inspire. Our ruach does not necessarily need to turn us into leaders. It is sufficient that we behave with compassion and kindess, that we recognize the needs of others and put them ahead of our own.
Last week, our kehila experienced the most horrible tragedy that a family can endure. The death of a child, Yaniv, a soldier serving in the IDF, in defense of the state and people of Israel.
When Yaniv’s commander spoke at the funeral, he described Yaniv in the same words that I had used to explain Yehoshua’s character when I delivered this d’var torah last Friday night. His serenity and sensitivity, his care and concern for his comrades, and his willingness to accept and perform any task that was needed.
Certainly Yaniv demonstrated true ruach – the ultimate and selfless giving of himself, of his own life, for the sake of others.
My prayer tonight is that the special and powerful ruach of our kehila (congregation), will remain strong, that we may strengthen and support each other, and especially Carleen, Asher, Hadas, Eitan and all the members of the Bar-on family as they struggle to cope with the loss of their Yaniv. May his memory be blessed.
And may the strength of our ruach help us all through these most difficult days for the entire nation of Israel.