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Tradition Today: Choosing trustworthy leaders

Who is worthy of being a leader? Soon we will be exercising our democratic right to choose our leaders for the years ahead.

Torah scribe
Photo by: Courtesy Derech AMI
Who is worthy of being a leader? Soon we will be exercising our democratic right to choose our leaders for the years ahead. Of course in our Israeli system we do not actually vote for people but for slates. Nevertheless we know who is running on each slate and should take that into consideration when casting our ballots. The Torah gives us some guidance concerning what to look for in our leaders.

The first advice we find there, strangely enough, comes not from God or Moses but from Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in law.

When Moses was overwhelmed in his work as leader of Israel, Jethro advised him to appoint others to help him, saying, “You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men, those who fear God, trustworthy men, those who spurn ill-gotten gain” (Exodus 18:21).

Thus Jethro sets out four qualifications for leadership: (1) capability, (2) fear of God (i.e. moral, ethical people), (3) trustworthiness, (4) people that spurn ill-gotten gain (such as bribes).

When Moses actually appoints leaders, however, the Torah says only that “Moses chose capable men” and appointed them (Exodus 18:25).

Did he have trouble finding men that fit all four criteria, or does the Torah merely give us the beginning of the list, understanding that it implies all four? I hope it was the latter, but I wonder. It is not so easy to find people who fit all of Jethro’s qualifications, as we have seen all too often. The number of our elected officials who find themselves in jail is proof of that.

The importance of proper leadership is emphasized again in Deuteronomy 16:18-20 when the Torah repeats that officials must be people who act justly, show no partiality and do not take bribes.

When deciding for whom to vote it would be wise to determine if the people on the list meet Jethro’s four criteria, or those of Deuteronomy.

Speaking of leadership, the Torah is very cautious about granting leaders too much power and very suspicious of the way in which they will use it. Take the matter of appointing a sovereign, for example. Only in Deuteronomy 17 is there even mention of appointing a king. Deuteronomy gives Israel permission to do so, but does not recommend it.

It then sets certain conditions and limitations upon the powers of the sovereign. Deuteronomy grudgingly accepts the reality of the need for a monarchy, but wants to make certain its authority is limited.

The Torah never delineates the powers of the sovereign. Rather it spells out what he is not allowed to do. The sovereign is not allowed to have large numbers of horses or to send people back to Egypt to attain them.

He is not to have many wives. He is not to amass silver and gold for himself (Deut. 17:16-17).

History indicates that these are exactly the things that many kings actually did.

Furthermore, he was to write a copy of the Torah and keep it with him at all times to remind him that he is not above the law. On the contrary, he is to observe everything that God’s morality demands.

The limitations that Deuteronomy sought to place upon the sovereign may not have eliminated all the problems of a human monarchy, but they did have the effect of making the sovereign subordinate to God and God’s teaching – at least in theory if not always in practice. This also gave unprecedented rights to those who spoke in the name of God to criticize and chastise the sovereign for moral wrongs and for disobeying God’s command. That became the task of the prophets of Israel.

Any nation, Israel included, must have a government and must have officials who will make decisions that affect our lives, our destiny and the destiny of the nation. It is of supreme importance that these leaders be limited by laws and be bound by norms of ethical behavior. Our task as citizens is to see to it that we select leaders who understand the limits of their power and who are dedicated to seeking the good of the people and not to exploiting their position for their own benefit. Above all, let them be capable people who fear God, trustworthy people who spurn ill-gotten gain.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).


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