Ecclesiastes famously taught: “The race is not to the swift.” Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on being first and fastest—but sometimes, the most sacred work, with the greatest reward, is done by those who bring up the rear.
This week’s Torah portion, B’ha-alotechah, describes the marching order of the twelve tribes as they made their way through the wilderness. Judah took the lead, followed by Issachar, Zebulon and Reuben. Each tribe had its place, with the division of Dan coming last.
Torah describes the role of Dan as m’assef—the gatherers. In his commentary, Rashi suggests that their special task was to collect all the lost objects dropped on the way and return them to their owners. They were also responsible for gathering in straying individuals from the lead tribes that had become lost or fallen behind.
Why was this role assigned to the tribe of Dan? Midrash proposes that while the Danites’ religious faith was weak [since their territory would later become a haven for idol worshippers], their love for their fellow Israelites was very powerful. God recognized this admirable trait and gave them a job that played to their strength.
There is an important lesson here for all of us. Every community needs leaders, to generate vision, determine direction, and blaze the trail for those who follow. But we also need “gatherers”—those who care for the stragglers and see that we all make it to the Promised Land. The leaders tend to get the glory but the gatherers are no less essential.
Furthermore, these roles are mutable. Sometimes those inclined to lead must instead shepherd from the back, while those accustomed to bringing up the rear must step forward. We are all called to be both leaders and gatherers at various times and circumstances. May we recognize the worth of each of these callings.