The Loneliness of Leadership



This letter is being sent out on the seventh day of the month of Adar. The Talmud cites the tradition that Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher – was born on this day, and he also passed away on this day (Megillah 13b).  


I will begin this letter by citing a relevant teaching regarding the leadership role of Moshe. I will then discus how this teaching can deepen our understanding and appreciation of the leadership role of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and other spiritual guardians of Jerusalem. The teaching is from Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, a leading sage of the 19th century and a spiritual guardian of Jerusalem.


Dear Friends,


After Moshe Rebbeinu passed away, the Torah states:


“The Children of Israel cried for Moshe” (Deuteronomy 34:8).


But earlier, when describing the mourning for Aharon HaKohen after he passed away, the Torah states that “the entire Family of Israel” cried for Aharon (Numbers 20:29). In other words, “everyone” in Israel cried over the loss of Aharon.


The contrast between the Torah’s description of the mourning for Moshe and the Torah’s description of the mourning for Aharon suggests that the crying for Aharon was more inclusive – i.e., everyone cried for Aharon, but not for Moshe. Even if that was the case, Rav Diskin asked, why did the Torah, through this contrast, emphasize the lesser degree of mourning for Moshe Rebbeinu? The following is a summary of Rav Diskin’s answer:


The mention of the less-inclusive mourning for Moshe was, in fact, a form of praise for him. To understand this, we need to realize that Moshe and Aharon had different roles. As our tradition teaches, the role of Aharon was to pursue shalom and make shalom among the people (see Pirkei Avos 1:12). As a skilled peace-maker, Aharon had a unifying role; thus, the Torah tells us that everyone mourned his passing – an indication that he successfully fulfilled his mission.


Moshe’s role, however, was to be a leader of the people, and in that task, he often had to act contrary to popular opinion. For example, there were occasions when he had to take a courageous stand on behalf of Torah values, when there were people who were actively opposing these values. The Torah therefore tells us that not everyone mourned his passing – an indication that he, too, successfully fulfilled his mission.


As we previously discussed, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld had both a peace-making role and a leadership role. When Rav Yosef Chaim passed away in 1932, a prominent government official alluded to Rav Yosef Chaim’s two roles in his letter of condolence to the chareidi organization, Agudath Israel, where Rav Yosef Chaim had served as a leader. The government official was Norman Bentwich, a Jew who served as Attorney General for the British administration in Zion, and who identified with the ideology of the World Zionist Organization. Bentwich discovered that Rav Yosef Chaim, in his role as a leader, opposed the ideology of the W.Z.O., for it claimed that a commitment to nationalism has replaced the commitment to the Torah as the raison d’etre of our people. As Bentwich got to know Rav Yosef Chaim, he also discovered the peace-loving nature of this loving sage. In his letter of condolence to Agudath Israel, Bentwich wrote:


“Together with all who knew him, I was deeply pained to learn of the passing of the great Rav Sonnenfeld. In all our dealings, I recognized that he was the tzaddik of his generation, a lover and pursuer of shalom. Even though we did not always agree, I realized that his intent was for the sake of Heaven.”


In the era of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, secular ideologies were becoming popular among the Jewish people, including the ideology of secular nationalism. Many Jews were therefore abandoning the mitzvos of the Torah – the spiritual precepts of the Divine Teaching. It therefore took courage in this era to criticize the secular and nationalistic ideology of the World Zionist Organization, especially since the founder of this organization, Theodor Herzl, made the following claim: The establishment of a secular and western Jewish state will cause all the peoples to respect us, and the State would therefore solve the problem of anti-Semitism. In response to those who felt that the establishment of the State will be a drawn-out affair with anti-Semitism continuing, Herzl wrote:


“But no; once we begin to execute the plan, anti-Semitism will cease at once and everywhere. For it is the conclusion of peace.” (“The Jewish State” by Theodor Herzl – cited in “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg.)


Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, however, remembered that Moshe Rebbeinu revealed to us the following way to gain the respect of all the peoples:


“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and fulfill them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation!’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)


Herzl wrote that the establishment of the State is “the conclusion of peace.” Rav Yosef Chaim, however, remembered that Moshe Rebbeunu conveyed to us the following Divine message regarding the path which concludes with peace:


“If you will walk in My statutes and keep My mitzvos and fulfill them; then I will give your rains in their season, and the land will yield its produce…you will live securely in your land; and I will provide peace in the land.” (Leviticus 26:3-6).


Many Jews, including many religious Jews, were caught up in the excitement over Herzl’s vision and the establishment of the World Zionist Organization. Rav Yosef Chaim responded to this exuberant excitement in a letter to his brother in 1903, and he stressed that the “Zionism” of this organization has no secure future, for it has cut itself off from the life-giving spiritual roots of our people. And he made the following observation: If we yearn to settle in our land in order to properly fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah, then the bond forged between the people and the land would be “truly powerful”; moreover, “it would strike roots deep enough that it would not be easily swayed or uprooted.” He added:


“However, a Zionism based on nationalism, while disdaining religion and mitzvos, deprives itself of its very source of existence. We already lived once in this land as a separate nation with nationalistic roots, yet our departure from Torah then caused its destruction and our exile from our land.” [This spiritual cause of the exile is mentioned by Moshe and other prophets, and examples can be found in the following verses: Leviticus 26:14-33, Jeremiah 5:19, Jeremiah 9:10-13, and Ezekiel 39:23.]


Rav Yosef Chaim, who was actively involved in the establishment of new Torah-committed Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside the Old City walls, and in the establishment of new Torah-committed agricultural settlements, concludes his letter with the following hopeful observation:


“In truth, in the thirty-one years since I have arrived here, greater changes have taken place than in the previous thousand years combined! Beyond doubt, more than one thousand Jewish buildings have been built. The expansion of the Holy City, the recent construction of magnificent buildings beyond our wildest hopes, the continuing construction of railroads, the new settlements, areas desolate for generations now verdant and alive – is it possible not to see the hand of Divine Providence in all of this? We must work at settling the land with an attitude of trust in God Who gave us His holy Torah. Certainly, if we are faithful to it, we will merit to dwell here securely and will always find favor and mercy, ‘for He will command His angels on your behalf, to protect you in all your ways’ (Psalm 91:11).”


Most activists within the W.Z.O., including some religious activists, rejected Rav Yosef Chaim’s view that a “Zionism” which is cut off from its spiritual roots has no secure future. A number of these activists engaged in personal and nasty attacks on Rav Yosef Chaim, despite the fact that he himself never engaged in such ugly tactics. As the following story reveals, this sensitive and loving sage was deeply hurt by these personal and nasty attacks


During Rav Yosef Chaim’s last years, Rav Yekusiel Yehudah Gruenwald, the son of a childhood friend, visited him at his summer residence in the Diskin orphanage, where Rav Yosef Chaim stayed at his own expense. The visitor, a Rav in Columbus, Ohio, and a prominent thinker and writer, recorded an account of this meeting, and the following are some excerpts from this account of his meeting with the elderly and physically frail sage:


“The conversation turned to the painful questions of politics, divisiveness, and discord in Jerusalem. Immediately, the bowed form grew erect and the smile faded from his lips. Rav Yosef Chaim exclaimed feelingly, ‘They call me a fanctic. Why? They criticize me because I clamor against the threat to traditional Judaism. The secular papers, as well as some of those claiming to be religious, slander and ridicule me while forgetting that the other camp is trying to uproot the entire Torah…They hound us incessantly because we want to transmit the Torah to our children in holiness and purity, just as we received it from our parents. Can there be compromise in matters of conscience?’


“…A stream of tears sprang from the eyes of the aged tzaddik.  His body trembling, he continued, ‘They compare themselves to the Maccabees. Didn’t the Maccabees risk their lives for the sake of Shabbos? … Our sole wealth and joy is the Torah; without it, the Jewish nation has no special claim to prominence.’


“Dr Wallach, (who was present) tried to calm him. Rav Yosef Chaim sat down and wept…There sat before me one of our greatest spiritual giants – the kind that appears once in a generation, and maybe twice in an era. ‘Happy is the nation that possesses such’ (Psalm 144:15).”


A day after the funeral of Rav Yosef Chaim, the following comments appeared in the Zionist publication, Doar HaYom, written by one of its correspondents:


“The great adversary is already dead and buried, and the two camps will no doubt continue their lives and their disputes. Tomorrow or two days hence, I am sure that I, too, will continue to follow my way, our way. But today, while the air is still filled with the great cries of the orphans, I ask myself – worried and trembling – ‘Are we sure that we are right? Maybe the true redemption was, after all, to be found in the great and zealous faith of this amazing, legendary Rav, who never budged from his impoverished dwelling in the Old City; perhaps it really is there, among our fasting, pious adversaries and not by us who sing the songs of victories? Maybe?”


May Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, help all the members of the Family of Israel to rediscover the path to true redemption. As Moshe Rebbeinu proclaimed to our people regarding the future exile and redemption:


“It shall be that when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you. And you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then Hashem, your God, will bring back your captivity and have compassion on you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem, your God, has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there Hashem, your God, will gather you in and from there He will take you. Hashem, your God will bring you to the Land that your ancestors possessed and you shall possess it; He will do good to you and make you more numerous than your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5)


Be Well and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


A Related Teaching and Comment:


1. When Moshe passed away, teaches the Talmud (Sota 13b), Hashem eulogized him by declaring that now that Moshe is gone, “Who will rise up for Me against evildoers? Who will stand up for Me against those who commit iniquity?” (Psalm 94:16).


2. As Rav Yeshoshua Leib Diskin explained, the less-inclusive mourning for Moshe was actually praiseworthy for Moshe, for in his role as leader of the people, he often had to act contrary to public opinion. This explanation of Rabbi Diskin is cited in the following biography: “Rabbi Sherer” by Yonoson Rosenblum. This is a biography of the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who served as the director of Agudath Israel of America. This teaching of Rav Diskin was conveyed to Rabbi Sherer by Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, a leading sage in Eretz Yisrael who served as the head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak.


For information on this fascinating and highly recommended biography, visit:  


3. Most of the information in the above letter is from “Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. The well-documented historical accounts in this book can help us to understand the roots of current conflicts and problems within Israeli society. For information on this highly recommended work, visit:


Some of you may be interested in the original and larger Hebrew edition – HaIsh AlHaChomah – which has additional documentation.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision