The installation ceremony of a new rabbi almost always contains the passage from this week’s sidra, “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who will go out before them, come in before them, lead them out and bring them in” (Num. 27:16-17).
When I quote this verse I have to be personal and recall that it was used at my own installation in each of the three congregations I served, and also used by me on a number of occasions when it was my privilege to install other rabbis.
I often asked myself what was really meant by the words ish al ha-edah, generally translated “a man over the congregation”. Some interpretations focus on the word ish, “a man”. Apart from the gender aspect, there is an important insight of the Chassidic teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, who says, “ish – a human being amongst human beings, not an angel, not a seraph”.
Congregations that think they need to hold out until they find the perfect rabbi, the angel-rabbi, have the wrong idea; the perfect rabbi has never been born, and never will be. They are right to seek the right rabbi, but what that means is the best rabbi they can find at that moment.
What is meant by al ha-edah, over the congregation? The key is the word al, which admittedly means “above”, because a congregation must be able to look up to their rabbi, but al also means “with”; the rabbi who keeps aloof and is not part of his congregation’s joys and sorrows, agonies and anxieties, is neither a rabbi nor a human being.
The point becomes clear when we see that the verse I have quoted calls the Almighty “the God of the spirits of all flesh”. Rashi explains that just as God sees and understands the differences between the human beings He has created, so the rabbi must understand that no-one is a carbon copy of any other. His task is to speak to them all in their own character-language.