Jewish Leadership Qualities

September 20, 2011 | by

We are having elections coming up for our synagogue youth group, and I was asked to make a short presentation about “what makes a good Jewish leader.” This has me stumped, and I couldn’t find anything online. Please help.

The Aish Rabbi Replies

The Torah's view of leadership can be found in the story 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's ego took over and he went beyond the point of rationality. He was willing to completely destroy his country rather than admit defeat. As the ship sinks, Pharaoh calls on his people to make a "national sacrifice."

On the other hand, the Torah describes Moses as the most humble person who ever lived. Not humble in the sense of “meek,” but humble in the sense of keeping his ego in check. As we get closer to God, we become more realistic about our own limitations, vulnerability and mortality. 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, he personally redistributed the wood to the poor families in town. Jewish leaders are servants of the people. They bear the burdens of the nation.

This defines the precise difference between Pharaoh and Moses. Pharaoh cannot acknowledge the supremacy of God. Whereas a true Jewish leader is by definition subjugated to the will of God. It is well-known that one of the 613 mitzvahs 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: He must have a second Torah scroll that he keeps with him at al times (Deut. 17:18-20). This is to serve as a constant reminder that the king’s powers derive only from God.

It all comes down to ego. Every action of a Jewish leader is not for the sake of his own ego, but rather 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 that the king is a servant of the people, not the other way around.

Wherever we look – think Saddam Hussein – we see a person's ability to ignore reality (and even destroy the world) 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."

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 the battle to acknowledge God and appreciate all He does for us. Ultimately it's not in your hands. We make the effort, but it's God who writes the checks.


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