Torah scribe 521.
(photo credit: 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
The first advice we find there, strangely enough, comes not from
God or Moses but from Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in
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
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
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.
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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
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.
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.
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.
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
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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