Parashas Pinchas contains yet another census. The Torah lists all the different families by tribe and states their total numbers. In the midst of this listing, the Torah mentions the family of Korach, the one who started a failed rebellion against Moshe. The Torah wanted to emphasize that although Korach’s children were part of his rebellion, they did not perish like their father did. Rather, they had thoughts of repentance, and Hashem spared their lives. The Gemara relates that when their lives were spared, the children of Korach sang a song of praise to Hashem. What song did they choose to sing?
It’s understood that a number of the psalms were originally composed by the children of Korach. Those that were start by mentioning that they composed it. Perhaps the song they sang at that moment of salvation was Psalm 45, which starts with the verse: “For the Conductor on roses, of the children of Korach, a maskil, a song of dearness.” What does the reference to roses signify? Rashi explains that it’s a simile for a Torah scholar, who is like a rose in that he is meant to be soft and pleasant. The children of Korach specifically composed this psalm at the time of their repentance as a way to rectify their sin. Their whole dispute was with Moshe and Aharon, the greatest scholars of their time. By singing the praises of a Torah scholar, it was the completion of their repentance.
A problem with comparing a Torah scholar to a rose, suggesting that they are both soft and pleasant, is that it contradicts a teaching of our Sages. They inform us that any Torah scholar that is not as hard as steel is not a Torah scholar. This is learned from a verse that says that the word of Hashem is like a hammer that smashes a rock. Rashi explains that this means that Torah scholars should be strict and unwavering — seemingly the exact opposite of a rose.
A possible resolution is to differentiate between different types of Torah scholars. A Torah scholar who is in a position of leadership or is a judge, where they are supposed to guide and influence the masses, they are the ones that shouldn’t be soft. Otherwise, everyone will walk all over them and no one will listen. Rather, they should be as hard and unwavering as steel. They should maintain their principles and not bend to the whims of their community.
In contrast, those Torah scholars that are behind the scenes and are not directly involved in leading the community should be as soft and pleasant as a rose. Since they have no position of leadership, they don’t need to be as firm. It is about these latter Torah scholars that the children of Korach composed their song of repentance. However, even the first group of Torah scholars, who have a position of leadership, need to be as soft and pleasant as a rose. It is only with matters that pertain to their position that they have to be as hard as steel.
When the Sages describe the firmness of a Torah scholar, it’s right after discussing how a Torah scholar gets angry. Seemingly, the firmness is intended to be referring to anger. How could a Torah scholar be required to be someone who gets angry? Someone who gets angry forgets their learning, and if they are a prophet, they lose their power of prophecy! We learn this from Moshe; when he got angry, he forgot the law that Hashem taught him. We also learn this from Elisha; when he got angry, he lost his power of prophecy.
The answer is that the Gemara is dealing with a situation where no other mode of conduct will suffice. If a Torah scholar who is in a position of leadership can guide his community without using anger, then they are forbidden from using that trait. However, if it’s the only possible way to maintain order, then they must use it.
With this idea, we have a new understanding of the words of praise used to describe one of the Jews’ greatest leaders, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. He was known as “ נר ישראל” (the flame of Yisrael), “ ”עמוד הימיני (the right pillar), and “ פטיש החזק” (the hard hammer). He was the Nasi of the Jewish People, a prominent position of leadership. With this position, he guided the people as a hard hammer. However, opposite this, he was also a right pillar. The right is always associated with chessed (loving-kindness), meaning that even though he was hard as steel, he was also as soft as a rose. The fact that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had both allowed him to be the great leader that he was.
Each trait has its time and place. The greatness of a leader is in knowing when and how to employ each trait appropriately.
Excerpted from Be’er Yosef by Rabbi Refael Wolfe