The votes are in, and while there are still close races being decided, the people have chosen their leaders.
Underscore the word “leaders.” In this case, it means men and women who put the people’s needs ahead of their own personal interests.
That is what we are supposed to get when we elect people to public office. Sadly, all too often it is not what we do get, and certainly not what we have been getting in this age of extreme partisanship. That political posturing is only likely to become even more extreme in the wake of the election, which politicians and pundits alike see as nothing more than a prelude to the battle for control of the White House in 2016.
It does not take a prophet to see what is ahead for America in the next two years. All that is needed is to look at what already is. This Congress is about to go down in history as the most unproductive national legislature in the last 20 years, and one of the most unproductive of all time. With all eyes on capturing the White House, Republicans will have no interest in making Democrats look good; Democrats will have no interest in doing the same for Republicans.
Interestingly, if Jewish law and tradition had anything to say about it, many (if not most) of the people who ran for office on Tuesday probably never would have been allowed on the ballot because they fail to live up to Judaism’s standards of leadership.
What makes a good leader in Judaism’s ideal world?
Abraham and Moses quickly come to mind as we look for paradigms.
When informed that his nephew and family had been taken captive by an invading army, Abraham took immediate and decisive action, leading his troops and those of his allies into battle, as we read in last week’s Torah portion. Following his victory, he refused to profit personally from it.
He also was very caring about the needs of strangers. Based on the opening verses of this week’s parashah, we deduce that he often would sit at the entrance to his tent, so that he would never miss a stranger in need of some sustenance. As we also see this week, he did not hesitate to challenge God on behalf of a most unworthy group of people, for the sake of the few among them who might be worthy. These were, after all, Abraham’s “people,” in the sense that it was his job to spread God’s message among them.
Moses, too, stood up for his people (in this case, Israel). There is a midrash in the Babylonian Talmud tractate B’rachot (32a) that expounds on Exodus 32:10. Says God to Moses following the sin of the Golden Calf, “Now, therefore, let Me alone, that My anger may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them, and I will make of you a great nation.”
Moses, as the text makes clear, was having none of it. The midrash in B’rachot 32a expands on that. “Said Rabbi Eleazar: Moses said directly to the Holy Oneâ€¦, Clearly, if when You are angry, not even a three-legged stool can stand before You, how much less so can a stool stand with only one leg?”
That is a flowery way of saying, “God, You promised that Israel would survive on the merit of its three ancestors-Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now You want to break that promise. Why, then, should I believe You when You say a nation that derives from me alone will survive Your anger? Why should anyone?”
Rabbi Eleazar did not stop there, however. He then quoted Moses as saying, “I am embarrassed before my ancestors, for if I accept Your offer, they will be able to say: ‘See what kind of leader He has set over them! He sought greatness for himself, but he did not seek mercy for them!'”
Moses told God he was not in it for the glory. His job, given to him by God, was to shepherd and protect Israel, period.
Both Abraham and Moses share another trait: humility. Thus, we are told in BT Chagigah 5b: “Our Rabbis taught: Over three things the Holy One, Blessed Be He, weeps every day…[including] over a leader who lords it over the community.”
The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 27:9) also notes the need for humility when it quotes God as saying to the would-be leader: “See that you know what to do; and since you have undertaken this responsibility in becoming a leader, Go, humble yourself at the dust of the feet of princes and those greater than you….”
The great chasidic master Rav Nachman of Bratislav added yet another quality shared by Abraham and Moses. “The true leader of a generation must be holy,” he said.
Yet another trait is respect: In this case, it is the leader who must respect those he leads, just as the priests “had their faces towards the people and their backs” to God when blessing them. (BT Sotah 40a)
All of this led the rabbis to codify these traits in setting the requirements for communal leadership. They added the requirement (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De-ah 256:3) that a person could not be qualified as a communal leader if his conduct in any way would have barred him from being a dayyan (a judge). The rule harks back to a discussion in the Talmud (BT Bava Batra 8b) about who may collect and distribute charity funds for the community.
From a halachic standpoint and from tradition, then, leaders should be above reproach; should put communal concerns ahead of their own; should exemplify and spread the traits required of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; and should not let their posts go to their heads.
It is a tall order, and one that is not filled easily.
It surely was not filled Tuesday night.