Moses, knowing he will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, asks God who the next leader will be. He implores God using an unusual name: “Let Adonai, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community” (Numbers 27:16). Elohei ha-ruchot, God of the spirits of all creatures. Why does Moses use this name in addressing God here?
The great commentators of the middle ages offer some insight. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain, then wandering Europe) offers simply: “God is the One who knows which spirit is suitable.” Every person has a particular spirit to them, and God knows which spirit will best lead the people after Moses.
Ibn Ezra does not clarify what about that spirit will make it suitable. Rashi (1040-1105, France) helps us understand. “Why is this expression used? Moses said to God: Lord of the Universe! The personality of each person is revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to his or her individual character.” The God of all spirits must appoint a leader who likewise can be a leader of all spirits, attuned to the particular needs and characteristics of each member of the community.
Of course, this isn’t easy! So Chizkuni (c. 1240, France) adds an additional aspect of what a leader’s spirit needs. “[…whose spirit] is such that they will have the fortitude to persevere in going where they are going.” Leading, and especially taking up Moses’ mantle, will require a hardy, patient, and persistent soul.
Finally, the Ha’amek Davar (1816-1893, Belarus) suggests that the full phrase, “God of the spirits of all flesh” needs to be examined. Flesh, he writes, connotes pleasure. One’s ruach, or spirit or intellect, is drawn towards what pleases that particular person. It is hard to lead the people of Israel, so only someone whose spirit is toughened, ready to forfeit personal pleasure, will succeed.
There is an interesting progression in these teachings, starting with an appreciation for the vibrancy of human spirit and culminating with an emptying of human vibrancy in favor of delight-less duty. Is that really how we want to lead? Is a hard selfless soul truly the paragon of leadership?
“Tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone, who lend the best of ourselves to it, and with joy,” writes Audre Lord in her essay, “A Burst of Light.” With all due respect to the Ha’amek Davar (whose insights I very much appreciate in other parts of the Torah), leadership cannot only be about toughness. If we are to reach tomorrow and hope to call it a “promised land”, joy and delight and pleasure must also be prioritized and democratized by our leaders.
Author Ross Gay, in The Book of Delights, writes, “Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things—the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this—joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.”
Elohai haruchot – God of the spirits of all creatures… Great Invisible Joy of Union… As Moses prepares to go away from his people, in his sorrow, he pleads with God to choose a new leader keeping in mind the invisible, joyous, interconnected deep truth of life that we point to with the word spiritual. Leaders who can inspire discipline and delight will ultimately guide us to the better world we seek.