Shoftim: The heart of leadership

Shoftim: The heart of leadership

In today’s Torah reading, Moses continues his instructions to B’nei Yisrael on how to become a holy nation by focusing on the types of leaders they should “place for yourselves in your gates.” Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers had concentrated on the roles of the Kohanim and Leviim and on the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that traveled with the Israelites in the desert. In Shoftim, Moses clarifies the qualifications and responsibilities of other leadership positions: judges and local authorities, kings, and prophets.

To our sages, these three leadership roles, together with the Priests, help form the human MSHKN – as represented by the four Hebrew letters Mem for Melech, Shin for Shofet, Kaf for Kohen, and Nun for Navi – to invite and magnify the Divine Presence amidst the Jewish nation. When these four are working in harmony with each other and with God’s will, the Jewish people are strong and the Name of God is sanctified

Chassidic masters have translated Moses’ directives to apply not only to Jewish political sovereignty but to individual self mastery. Install the best models of leadership, they say, within your “gates”, your own brain and kishkes, your own ways of operating in the world. Don’t give yourself “bribes” or make excuses to diminish or distort your better judgment. Don’t ply yourself with too many horses or other entitlements that dull your sense of obligation.

Make yourself the guardian of justice, the prophet of truth, the Rav who is a moral exemplar and mentor. Police the borders of goodness and fairness in your own life. If you install justice, righteousness, and compassion in your personal life, you will select and then have confidence in your leaders who reflect and embody your best commitments. If you are lazy, corruptible, uncaring, if you tolerate shadiness and deceit in your life, those qualities will permeate your community, state, and nation. A proper perspective, I maintain, for the month of Elul and our preparation for Rosh Hashanah and the period of Divine Judgment.

Is there any one thing that activates and heads us to that desired state of affairs?

This Shabbat’s Torah portion directs us to an essential ingredient, a humble and caring heart. It is in the section dealing with the Melech, the king of Israel.(Deut. 17-20)

The king is required to express reverence for God by writing for himself a copy of the Torah “so that he not lift up his heart above his brothers nor deviate from the commandments.” The first and presumably more important pitfall to avoid is feeling aloof from or better than his fellow citizens. In second place is violating the other commandments. Wow! The king, the chief executive, like the Kohen, the ritual and spiritual head, is asked not to distance himself from, and indeed to embrace his fellow Jews. It’s the king’s heart that needs constant monitoring and re-educating. Rachamana Leeba Ba’ee-the Merciful One wants the king’s heart to be in good shape… and ours.

Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss of Staten Island retold a story he heard about Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, zt”l, who was very ill and hooked up to a heart monitor in a hospital. He had trouble seeing the siddur clearly, so he asked a family member to listen closely to his davening by heart and to correct him if he made a mistake. While praying the Shmoneh Esrei, Rav Soloveitchik inserted in the Refa’einu brachah prayers for the healing of sick individuals. That family member testified that the Rav called out seventy names – with their mothers’ names – all by heart. The relative watched the heart monitor in amazement as it would spring up when the Rav said each name.

Our parsha’s final section, in chapter 21, gives us a fascinating example of the kind of caring heart required of our leaders and of ourselves. It deals with a dead body found in the countryside, probably as a result of murder or manslaughter, but with no evidence pointing to anyone’s guilt. The elders of the town nearest to the site must break the neck of a heifer in a wilderness and declare that their hands did not shed the blood of the dead man “nor did our eyes see it done”. Then, the text says, the blood of the heifer atones for them.

What atonement do they need? ask the sages. Why should they be responsible for a murder that didn’t happen in their city? Rashi explains that the elders must clarify that they weren’t negligent in providing any and all security to prevent bloodshed. They must see to it that all necessary measures are instituted to prevent violence in the future.

I wish to add another take garnered from a personal experience.

Three summers ago, my wife and I traveled to Prague and toured the Old Jewish Section. I paid special attention to the Synagogue of the Maharal of Prague, the fascinating Rabbi Judah Leib Loew who had created the Golem to protect the Jews of Prague. I learned from a brochure distributed by our tour guide who added that the Maharal was able to create the Golem, the Frankenstein-like clay monster who fought off those who threatened Jewish lives, because of his extraordinary love for his fellow Jews and his long history of intervening on their behalf. Judah Leib had a lion’s kingly heart when it came to protecting his fellow Jews.

The Maharal taught that the verses in our parshah dealing with the corpse in the field imply that the elders of the city could have prevented the death if they had made sure that the victim was escorted home by someone from the city. Rabbi Loew emphasized that a host must take the trouble to escort his guest on his journey, demonstrating concern for the guest and solidarity with the entire Jewish people and thereby summoning Divine protection. That is why the Maharal could use God’s Holy Name to create the Golem.

Elul is the month to restir our hearts, to recharge feelings for and actions on behalf of our fellow Jews who are dealing with serious illness or the loss of a loved one or financial distress. In Elul, let us reprioritize our time and money expenditures to take better care of our own families and our larger Jewish family. Let us resolve to make ourselves and our communities more responsive to and responsible for each and every Jew. Let us build our Mishkan of full-hearted love and caring so that our lives are graced with a truly good and sweet New Year.

Shabbat Shalom U’M’vorach