My interest in the topic of leadership goes back to when I first started work and was told to watch how different managers and directors operated, how their leadership styles differed, how they got the best out of their employees. And so leadership became a great fascination and also the way in which I earned my salary, as I was fortunate in achieving a leadership role quite quickly. When I retired and came to Leo Baeck College to study for the rabbinate, I enhanced my bursary by training all sorts of organizations in leadership. I chose to write my rabbinic thesis on the leadership of the Judge, Gideon, and for many years I’ve taught final year rabbinic students leadership and management skills. So this week’s sidrah of Shof’tim has always resonated with me.
We know from earlier in the Torah, that God had chosen Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and to lead them for forty years through the wilderness. Yet when it was time for them to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land, God appointed Joshua as the new leader. What was required at that stage was a warrior, a military leader, to fight against the inhabitants of Canaan, rather than the paternal leadership of Moses. God, it would appear, believed that there were horses for courses. And, no doubt in consequence of that, God split up the leadership tasks.
This week’s sidrah refers to four major categories of leader within ancient Israel. It begins with Judges and Officers, who were to be appointed in tandem, presumably the judges to decide in the case and the officers to implement the decision. We are commanded to use proper criteria in selecting judges. Judges are commanded not to be afraid to render a verdict. They are warned against taking bribes, showing favoritism, perverting justice. There are precise rules of testimony to maximize the chances that justice is properly served. The Torah text then, seemingly inexplicably, goes on to command that a tree must not be planted near the Altar. However, the Talmud states that “appointing inappropriate judges is tantamount to planting a tree near the Altar”. Planting a tree in an attempt to beautify the Temple, is a completely misguided act. The beauty of the Temple flows from itself and its spiritual nature. To think that external decoration can contribute to the beauty is to lack understanding of what the Temple is. So too, to appoint a judge because of personal appearance, wealth, stature, etc. and not because of scholarship and worthiness to judge is equally missing the point.
Next the text refers to the potential selection of a king. A king is needed to focus and direct the state, particularly during wartime. But there was a recognition that the reason why the people might insist on a king was to be like all the other nations around them. These kings were supreme rulers, all-powerful. That could not be the case for Israel. Only God had such a role for the Israelites and so the king’s powers had to be limited by the scroll of the teaching. He is commanded to make a copy of the Torah scroll for himself and keep it with him always. The teaching serves as a general constitutional framework, but there are three explicit rules that apply specifically to the king. He must not have many wives (actually he was limited to 18), many horses, or much gold and silver. The political, military and economic power of the king is thus limited functionally and symbolically.
The third class of leaders is the priests and levites. Their position is hereditary and their task is to manage the Temple, conduct its sacrifices, instruct the people in the details of worship and ritual purity, provide musical accompaniment, and organize the festivals. They are the preservers of sacred memory, but their power too is limited. They are not to receive a portion when the land is divided between the tribes. They are to eat of contributions, tithes and special offerings of the people. Their special role means that they cannot be burdened with the toil of making a living from the land. But they are also deprived of the access to power that the land entails.
Finally, our sidrah talks about the Prophets. Of all the leaders, the prophets are solely appointed by God. They are Moses’ spiritual descendants and they speak God’s word. They may come from any background; some were high officials in the royal court, others shepherds. The prophet was not like the soothsayers or fortune tellers of the other nations, rather a teacher and religious guide. Often the prophets became society’s conscience, reminding the people of their obligations to the vulnerable in the community. The prophet was God’s messenger and spokesman, the only true channel of communication between God and His people.
Judges and Officers, Kings, Priests and Levites, Prophets; the outstanding significance of Moses is only enhanced when we consider that at one time he was responsible for each of these different aspects of leadership within the Israelite people. The break up of the roles as he is approaching his death is essential to their future well-being. The tasks and the functions, the authority and the limitations, the character and the nature; these are all set out by God, so as to ensure that at the end of the day there is no change in the basic relationship between the people and their God.
In our time, we have a greater need than ever for those with expertise in these specific areas to engage with their synagogues, and movements, focusing on their own strengths and working with others to create a harmonious combination of all their abilities for the benefit and strengthening of both.
Rabbi Maurice Michaels
Van der Zyl Head of Vocational Studies – Leo Baeck College
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1996
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.