Contemporary rabbis tend to emphasize dialogue, care and spiritual midwifery, while back in the day rabbis were prone to sermonize, perform, and exercise detachment. As laudatory as this shift most certainly is, there may be an element of the old ways worthy of reconsideration. Could rabbinic distance have value?
In this week’s parasha, Moses calls upon God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh” and advises God on what to look for in choosing his replacement. Moses, perhaps mindful of his experience with recalcitrancy, insists the new leader be visible to the point of having an overarching presence, lest the people become like a flock of “sheep who have no shepherd.” A midrash, exploiting the ambiguity of “God of the spirits of all flesh,” notes that each human personality is unique. Therefore, an appropriate leader must be one “who will endure each and every one according to his personality.” Pleasing everyone is out of the question. “Spirited” personalities must simply be endured.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner famously described the rationale for rabbis cultivating some distance by making an analogy to the village clock, which was always set on a high tower. “People,” the rabbi explained, “assume that the purpose of having a clock so high up is so everyone will be able to see the correct time from a great distance. The actual reason, however, is that if the clock were easily accessible to everyone then each one would look at his own watch and adjust the clock based on what he perceived to be the correct time. Each person would think: ‘The village clock is wrong!’”
Every villager may spend his or her time anyway they like, but constantly adjusting the standard clock to match each villager’s watch invites chaos. Leaders become unreliable when it is too easy and too tempting to buffet them about. Rabbis rightly recognize and celebrate diversity, just not at the expense of leaving the flock without a shepherd.
Rabbi Mitch Levine