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Who Is a Leader?

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

What makes a great Jewish leader?

The issue of national leadership is grabbing headlines around the world. What better time for learning the Torah's view of leadership than this week's Parsha – which tells of Pharaoh and Moses leading their respective nations.

Let's first look at Pharaoh. God sends one plague after another against the Egyptian people, trying to convince them to "Let My people go." The water supply is ruined (blood), the animals die (pestilence) and the crops are destroyed (hail). The people themselves are subjected to lice, boils, darkness – you name it. And as the months of plagues wear on, the Egyptian people become more and more convinced that it is in their best interest to let the Jews go!

Everyone is convinced except Pharaoh. Why? Because for Pharaoh, this is not merely a pragmatic issue of saving the country. This has become a personal battle between himself and God. Pharaoh had spent years building up his image as an immortal god; he wasn't about to be upstaged by the God of "those lowly Jewish slaves."

Pharaoh in Pajamas

The issue comes to a head in this week's Parsha, when Moses informs the Egyptians of the upcoming "plague of the firstborn" (Exodus 11:4-8). The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni reports that all the first-borns of Egypt pleaded with Pharaoh to grant the Jews freedom. Pharaoh's response: "No way!"

Pharaoh's ego has taken over and he is now beyond the point of rationality. He is willing to completely destroy his country and himself rather than admit defeat. So as the ship sinks, Pharaoh calls on his people to make a "national sacrifice."

In the meantime, Pharaoh – also a first-born – is negotiating to save his own skin. He begs Moses to pray to God: "Bless me that I should not die along with the other firstborns!" (12:32, Rashi)

Pharaoh is in a panic, backed into a corner and trying to figure a way out. In a desperate attempt to save face, he shifts the blame. The Midrash says that following the plague of the firstborn, he blamed his servants and advisors for the debacle and had them all killed. Pharaoh was over the edge. With nothing left to lose, he'll try anything.

At this point, Pharaoh realizes he has to free the Jewish people. The Torah (Exodus 12:31-32) describes Pharaoh going out in the dead of night, looking for Moshe and Aaron to tell them the news. But in a classic display of Jewish satirical humor, the Jews intentionally give Pharaoh the wrong directions and he gets lost! Imagine the scene of Pharaoh running around frantically in his pajamas in the middle of the night begging the Jews to leave.

In the end, the great leader – the Egyptian god – is completely humiliated. The Talmud (Moed Katan 18a) metaphorically describes Pharaoh as a midget, just two feet tall.

The King's Torah

One of the 613 mitzvot is for each Jew to write his own Torah scroll (or at least to own a printed copy of the Five Books of Moses). But the Torah specifies an unusual mitzvah that applies only to a Jewish king:

"It shall be that when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself TWO copies of the Torah ... It shall remain with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to have awe for the Almighty, and to observe all the mitzvot the Torah – so that his heart does not become haughty over his fellow countrymen ..." (Deut. 17:18-20)

It all comes down to ego. Every action of a Jewish leader must be for the good of the people alone. The Torah tells a Jewish leader: Don't fall into the trap. Keep your perspective. Don't forget you are a servant of the people, not the other way around.

This defines the precise difference between Pharaoh and Moses. A person's ability to ignore reality (and even destroy the world) is tested most when his ego is at stake. And the more power, the more likely the danger. Imagine the internal struggle when a world leader has to admit: "I'm wrong; there's a force greater than me that I can't control." Pharaoh cannot acknowledge the supremacy of God. Whereas a true Jewish leader is by definition subjugated to the will of God.

King David writes in Psalms the secret of humility: "Zivchei Elokim ruach nishbara" – the sacrifice the Almighty wants is a humble spirit. King David is telling us that the battle of life is to acknowledge God and appreciate all He does for us. Ultimately it's not in your hands. We make the effort, but God signs the checks.

Arrogrance Or Humility?

In the material world, the biggest personalities – movie stars, politicians, business tycoons – are usually the most arrogant. Somehow arrogance is regarded as a virtue, a sign of having risen above the others.

In contrast, the higher a person becomes spiritually, the more humble he becomes. As we get closer to God, we become more realistic about our own limitations, vulnerability and mortality. We internalize the reality that every human's position is tenuous and only God is eternal. Moses was called "the most humble" because when he stood before God he knew his place. Anything else precludes room for God to fit in. That's why the Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship; both push away the presence of God.

Just look at the great rabbis of the last generation and you will see. The house of the Chofetz Chaim was furnished with just one table and a bench. Another great rabbi, when firewood was delivered in the winter to heat his house, personally redistributed the wood to the poor families in town. Jewish leaders are servants of the people. They bear the burdens of the nation.

Leadership Qualifications

How does one become a leader? In the secular world, a person voluntarily runs for office, usually out of a desire for power.

Contrast this to Torah leadership, where there is no term of office and no contracts. The Talmud even suggests that a leader shouldn't accept money from the community he serves – so they don't "own" him. His integrity must not be tainted by salary negotiations or a board of directors.

One becomes a leader only because the people respect his character and trust his judgement. He doesn't go in search of the honor. They approach him and they ask him to become their leader.

In fact, a Torah leader will resist the honor. When first approached by God at the Burning Bush, Moses protested: "Who am I that I should take the Jews out of Egypt?!" (Exodus 3:11)

A modern-day example is Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. In the introduction to "Iggress Moshe," his monumental compendium of responsa, Rabbi Feinstein writes: "I would not have volunteered for the job of leading the Jewish people. But since this is the role that God has selected for me, I have no choice but to accept it."

Maimonides lists the qualifications for Jewish leadership: "A Jewish leader must be a scholar in both Torah and secular wisdom, God-fearing, non-materialistic (as a guard against bribes), a seeker of truth, mitzvah observant (i.e. practices what he preaches), and modest." (see Laws of the Sanhedrin 2:7, derived from Yisro's description in Exodus 18:21)

Wouldn't the world be different today if all leaders were accountable to such standards?

The truth is that people get the leader they deserve. If there is to be a revolution against selfish and corrupt, the change must come from below.

Maybe it's time to demand integrity of our government leaders. Because if we let it slide, we all slide down with it.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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