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04/06/2015 07:11:00 AM


Leviticus 9 - 11
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Americans have an infatuation with leadership. Like the English philosopher Thomas Carlyle, we believe that history is propelled by "the great man" (Carlyle's phrase) whose values and energy animate the institutions in which we live. The success or failure of a business is ascribed to the strength of its CEO. The problems of state are described as a "crisis of leadership". Even in sports, it's the quarterback's leadership even more than his arm that brings a team to victory. They are our heroes, our idols. It's Iacocca's Chrysler, Newt's Congress, and Lasorda's Dodgers. And should they fail, we take special relish in destroying them -- tossing them out to look for new saviors.

Jews traditionally have a much more complex relationship with leaders. We love our leaders. And in the same breath we suspect them. We may follow them, but we never surrender to them. Even in the ideal: A Talmudic tradition teaches that if you're planting a tree and you hear that the Messiah has arrived...finish planting the tree, and only then go see if it's true. We elevate leaders and then we argue with them. Perhaps "Jewish Leadership" is an oxymoron.

Consider the Biblical model: Priest, Prophet, King. The Priest, as described in this week's Torah portion, is responsible for the sacred precincts. Only his hands touch the consecrated objects, the holy symbols of God's presence. But for all his sacred responsibility and privilege, though he himself becomes a symbol of God's holy presence, the priest holds no temporal power. He makes no policy. Though he wraps himself in the flag of the sacred, as it were, he is ultimately powerless.

The King, on the other hand, has all the power. But he is separated from the symbols of the sacred. There is no inherent sanctity to his kingship -- his crown is not a religious symbol. His authority is purely functional, and therefore every use of his power must be justified. Even King David, the greatest of Israel's kings, the progenitor of the Messiah, is brutally castigated by the prophet Nathan for killing his neighbor and stealing his wife. Separating king and priest, power from holiness, means that being king does not put one above God's law. Even the king is accountable.

And it is the prophet who carries this message. The prophet is the nation's conscience. He incessantly and adamantly demands moral purity. But there's a tension: No government, no leadership can be morally pure. All leadership is ultimately a matter of negotiating compromises. Diplomacy, policy, planning, budgeting, any leadership decision, is a matter of trading away some of your principles to preserve others. Were a prophet to find himself invested with power, he would soon despair. It's no wonder that Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land -- into the real world of limitations and accommodations. Plato was wrong. Philosophers, like prophets, who deal in the realm of the pure, the theoretical, and the ideal, make very poor kings. But kings need prophets. The tension between them is essential. Those in power need to be reminded of the ideal and the pure. They need to hear the truth. And even while they make moral compromises, let them know what they're compromising, and the costs of compromise. Let them remember that, while necessary, it's not ideal, and while pragmatic, it's not perfect.

Is this any way to lead a people? It is a model of leadership filled with conflict, tension, and stress. It isn't orderly or clean or decisive. But it befits a people who began by running away from Pharaoh, and bears the scars of every subsequent ruler who thought himself a god. It befits a people who share God's lofty vision of justice, but who know this world all too well.

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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780