Devarim: Sought: Ideal Leaders

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue…
If…you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” …he shall not keep many horses…and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left…(Devarim 16:18-20, 17:14-20)

Let them be clear of claims of corruption,
reputations unsullied by charges of graft.

Let them be honest in all of their dealings,
and also be humble and willing to learn.

Let them not have consorted with numerous partners;
let their hands not be brimming with ill-gotten gains.

Let the words of the prophets resound in their ears;
let them wrestle profoundly with moral concerns.

We’re searching for leaders of crystal transparency
through whom the light of the Lord will shine forth;

who will heed the command that echoes in darkness
“Justice, justice you shall pursue!”

In a commentary on Parashat Shofetim from 2015,, Professor Shuly Rubin Schwartz notes that the 2016 US presidential election primary season was launched with more than two dozen potential candidates. She points out that observing the ways in which they advocated for public support lent itself to focusing not only on each candidate, but also on which leadership qualities we both look for and reject in our elected officials.
Prof Rubin Schwartz observes that Parashat Shofetim examines a variety of leaders, including judges, officers, priests, kings and military leaders. She says that here we find “insights on the leadership qualities the Torah deems essential to the establishment and sustenance of a just society, qualities applicable not only to elected officials today but to anyone in a position of authority or responsibility over others. In this parashah devoted to the central theme of “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” [“Justice, Justice shall you pursue,”] (Deut. 16:20) the Torah teaches that the social order will thrive only when all leaders are attuned to upholding justice. A straightforward goal, but the parashah acknowledges that the reality is inevitably more complicated. Even the most inspiring leaders will struggle, and the parashah opens by exhorting leaders not to succumb to all-too-human impulses to play favorites or take bribes. (Deut. 16:19).”

In a commentary from 2014 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the parasha as “the classic source of the three types of leadership in Judaism, called by the sages the “three crowns”: of priesthood, kingship and Torah.” (Mishnah Avot 4:13. Maimonides, Talmud Torah, 3:1). He continues, “Power, in the human arena, is to be divided and distributed, not concentrated in a single person or office. So, in biblical Israel, there were kings, priests and prophets. Kings had secular or governmental power. Priests were the leaders in the religious domain, presiding over the service in the Temple and other rites, and giving rulings on matters to do with holiness and purity. Prophets were mandated by God to be critical of the corruptions of power and to recall the people to their religious vocation whenever they drifted from it.
“Our parsha deals with all three roles.” Rabbi Sacks notes that with regard to the kingship, the Torah is very clear on what the king may not do: acquire great numbers of horses, take many wives and amass great riches. (Devarim 17: 16-17) And he adds that as we learn, later on in the Bible, even the wisest of kings, King Solomon himself, succumbed to these temptations.
He adds that “consistent with the fundamental Judaic idea that leadership is service, not dominion or power or status or superiority, the king is commanded to be humble: he must constantly read the Torah “so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God … and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites” (17: 19-20). It is not easy to be humble when everyone is bowing down before you and when you have the power of life and death over your subjects.”
Rabbi Sacks mentions the ambivalence (reflected from the Torah itself) among the commentators regarding whether the monarchy was a positive institution or not, but notes that there was one extremely significant aspect of royalty – that the king is mandated to study continually. He adds that Joshua, who succeeded Moses as leader, is enjoined in very similar words “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
So Rabbi Sacks concludes “Though few of us are destined to be kings, presidents or prime ministers, there is a general principle at stake. Leaders learn. They read. They study. They take time to familiarise themselves with the world of ideas. Only thus do they gain the perspective to be able to see further and clearer than others. To be a Jewish leader means spending time to study both Torah and chokhmah: chokhmah to understand the world as it is, Torah to understand the world as it ought to be.
Leaders should never stop learning. That is how they grow and teach others to grow with them.”

In a further commentary from 2016, Rabbi Sacks expands on the theme of the Divine mandate addressed to the king, to remain humble. He says “Great leaders have many qualities, but humility is usually not one of them. With rare exceptions they tend to be ambitious, with a high measure of self regard. They expect to be obeyed, honoured, respected, even feared…”
So he suggests that this instruction to the king is surprising and powerful. The Torah, he notes, is speaking about a king, in ancient times, when kings commanded absolute power. Rabbi Sacks says, “If a king, whom all are bound to honour, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his brethren” – how much more so the rest of us…”
Rabbi Sacks continues “This is a clear example of how spirituality makes a difference to the way we act, feel and think. Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the centre of our world. God is.” He cites research published in 2014 by the Harvard Business Review that showed that “The best leaders are humble leaders.”* He says that such leaders “learn from criticism. They are confident enough to empower others and praise their contributions. They take personal risks for the sake of the greater good. They inspire loyalty and strong team spirit.”

And finally, in a commentary on Shofetim from 2005,, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch addresses the responsibility that is so often shirked by those who hold public office. He considers the horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which left devastation in its wake and engendered great suffering, while the federal government had been unprepared for a disaster that was just waiting to occur. He says “In the months ahead, investigative commissions without number will seek to plot missteps, assign blame, and propose initiatives. But how will politicians, for whom winning is everything, cleanse themselves collectively of guilt where no one is directly culpable? How do we spiritually atone for the stain left on our body politic by Katrina’s assault?
“This week’s parashah, which takes up the contours of good governance, among other subjects, actually addresses the issue with an exotic proposal.” He then describes the ritual of the beheaded heifer (which I addressed in a post in 2015 This ritual was prescribed for the leaders of a community to confess and atone for an unsolved, unpunished murder that happened on their “watch”. Rabbi Schorsch notes “the intent of the confession is to exonerate the elders of facilitating the travesty by their indifference.” He continues, “I have often wondered if office holders should not be made to undergo a rite of purification when the public suspects their culpability. Not an investigation in which they exercise their right to defend their actions, but a sacred setting in which they might give voice to their feelings of remorse and sense of fallibility. Their oath of office, taken on a Bible, implies a duty to God as well as society. An occasional confession in the house of worship of their choice might even reinforce the sanctity of their public trust. It certainly would give authority a more human face.”
He concludes, “…the ideal remains valid even in contemporary America. Office holders are accountable to God as well as to their constituencies, otherwise they would not swear on Scripture. And for God, humility has always been one of the qualifications of leadership. Moses looms as the greatest of ancient Israel’s leaders because in part at least he was also the humblest of men (Numbers 12:3).”

*Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, ‘The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders’, Harvard Business Review, 12 May 2014.


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