Shoftim – 5780 – The Truth about Leadership – Serving and Learning

By: Elisa Miller

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Hebrew for “judges”), contains a series of laws directing the nascent Israelite community on how to establish a just society. The issues it covers include many that we still struggle with in our society today: setting up a fair and impartial legal system, making distinctions between murder and manslaughter, establishing the level of testimony necessary to convict someone in a capital crime, laying forth the principles for conducting a just war. Through laws pertaining to each one of these systems, the Torah shapes a unique rulership that had not been heard of before or since. This uniqueness is not merely symbolic. It is practical. The laws are meant to create a different consciousness for both the private individual and the public.

Moses continues his last speech to the Israelites before he dies saying: “Judges shall be appointed to judge the people with justice. When you come to the land that God is giving you, and dwell in it, you will want a king. You shall then set a king over yourself whom God will choose. This king shall not be a foreigner but one of your brethren.” Several of the commentaries note the ambivalence about having a king.  For more information on this ambivalence, check out the commentary from Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at his website: https://rabbisacks.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/CC-5778-To-Lead-is-to-Serve-Shoftim-1.pdf

These varied concepts, from appointing judges, selecting kings and prophets to the system of justice, are all tied together through one guiding principle found at the beginning of the portion:

Deuteronomy 16:18-20

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eye of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice, shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

This parasha is  the classic source of the three types of leadership in Judaism, called by the sages the “three crowns” of priesthood, kingship and Torah. This is the first statement in history of the principle, described later in the eighteenth century by Montesquieu in L’Esprit des Lois, and later made fundamental to the American constitution, of “the separation of powers.”

Here is a striking contrast in the parasha between two central ruling systems: kings and judges. The command regarding the appointment of judges is resolute and unequivocal: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities… and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

In contrast, the command to appoint a king is conditioned on the demands of the nation, a demand seen as an imitation of what was customary among neighboring nations: “When you come to the land… and you say, ‘I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me,’ you shall set a king over you” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

What is interesting, according to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. is that in the Torah,  the Israelites are commanded to be different. The fact that this command is an exception was enough to signal to commentators throughout the ages that there is a certain ambivalence about the idea of monarchy altogether.

Second, the passage is strikingly negative It tells what a king must NOT do, rather than what he should do. He should not acquire great numbers of horses or take many wives,  or accumulate large amount osf silver and gold—all temptations of power.

Third, consistent with the fundamental Judaic idea that leadership is service, not dominion or power or status or superiority, the king is commanded, according to Rabbi Sacks, to be humble: he must constantly read the Torah so that he may learn to revere the Lord his G-d.

Actually, knowing that in biblical times most kings were seen as gods, quasi-gods, or as sons of gods, we understand that the Torah is presenting a revolutionary approach that views the king as no more than the person responsible for administering Jewish society. The king is not a god and has no special rights.

Some of you may remember a D’var I did on the notion of Moses as the first Servant Leader. Here he is at the end of his life, telling the Israelites that they should set a king before them—where that king has the secular or governmental power.  From Numbers 12:3 we read that if a king, whom all are bound to honor–”not feel superior to his brethren”–how much more so than the rest of us. Moses, the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had was ‘very humble, more so than anyone of the face of the earth.”

According to Rabbi Sacks, great leaders have many qualities, “but humility is not usually one of them. With rare exceptions they tend to be ambitious with a high measure of self-regard. They expect to be obeyed, honoured, respected, even feared.”

BUT, ‘the best leaders are humble leaders‘ according to the results of a survey reported  an article in the Harvard Business Review (in 2014 ). They learn from criticism. They are confident enough to empower others and praise their contributions. They take personal risks for the sake of the greater good. They inspire loyalty and strong team spirit.  Humility is the essence of royalty, because to lead is to serve. These servant leaders  seek, not their own success, but the success of those they lead.

And, says Rabbi Sacks, leaders learn. “Yes they have advisors, elders, counselors, an inner court of sages and literati… and the biblical kinks had prophets. But those on whom the destiny of the nations may not delegate away the task of thinking, reading, studying and remembering. “

Within the parasha, there is one positive and important dimension of royalty. The king is commanded to study constantly:

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll, a copy of this law taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his G-d and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better that his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left (Deut 17:18-20)