This week’s Torah portion begins with listing the leaders from each of the Israelite tribes who are to be sent to spy out the land to which God has been leading them. Each one is described as a “nasi,” which means “leader.” R. Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudilkov (18th century), in his work Degel Mahane Efraim, points out that the word “nasi” is comprised of two other Hebrew words: “Yesh” (“there is”) and “Aiyin” (“there is not”).
This insight calls to mind the famous kabbalistic doctrine of tizmtzum. Tizmtzum refers to the notion that, in order to make the Creation possible, God “contracted” or withdrew God’s reality in order to make room for the universe to come into existence in the vacuum left by God’s absence. Similarly, a good leader needs to know how to strategically “contract” his/her presence in order to allow the group or institution being led to grow and flourish. This doctrine is theologically paradoxical. If all reality is infused with Godliness, how can God be absent from reality? Perhaps the answer lies in a consideration of leadership.
Leadership calls upon leaders to make choices. Some situations call for leading with “yesh”/“there is” – which means leading with substance, out in front and even forcefully, like a force of nature. Other situations call for “Aiyin”/“there is not;” a subtle, behind the scenes approach, in which the leader’s contribution may lie undetected, yet his/her impact sets in motion profound and enduring results. The former may call for courage and strength, whereas the latter depend more upon wisdom and humility.
Rabbi Mitch Levine