One way to discern a society’s values is to analyze its leaders. A leader who is chosen by the populace of a democratic society can be viewed as the embodiment of the values and ideals that his or her group holds dear. In a few months Americans will have our chance to speak and vote for our leaders, including the President of the United States.
As a naturalized U.S. citizen, I take voting very seriously. I am honored and privileged to assume my responsibility to have a voice in selecting the leaders of my community, state and country. My personal decision-making leads me to reflect on the enduring texts of our Jewish tradition. Over the course of our four-thousand year history, Jewish civilization has had an abundance of leaders and heroes. These timeless tomes continue to touch us and teach us today. This is especially true of the Bible, which is filled with stories that parallel our own lives.
There is no more important Biblical character than Moses, who helped change the course of human history. As the first leader of the Jewish people and as transmitter of the Torah, Moses exerted a unique force in shaping the Israelite nation. We learn that one of Moses’ salient characteristics is that his life is not his own, but rather is bound up with the lives of the Israelites and with the mission of the emergent nation. We read about the difficult and painful choices that he must make, and how he is always supportive of his people, even when they fail. Despite the people’s constant challenges to his leadership and the rejection of his authority, Moses never totally loses hope. In recognition of his wise leadership and personal role model, the Jewish sages titled him Moshe Rabbenu—Moses our rabbi and teacher.
Much has been written in Western civilization throughout the centuries and in the contemporary press about the mechanics of leadership. Much less is written about the values and lifestyles that should characterize our leaders. So I turned to rabbinic sources to guide my thinking about the requisite qualities of leaders – and invite you to also consider these attributes as you determine your choice for new leadership:
Ben Zoma taught:” Who is a leader? One who conquers one’s passion and emotions, as it is written ‘One who is slow to anger is better than a leader, and one who rules over his spirit is better than one who conquers a city’ [Proverbs 16:32] (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).
The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if the leader is unjust, the nation too is unjust. (Zohar ii, 47a)
Rabbi Judah Nesiah said: “According to the leader, so goes the generation.”(Talmud Arachin 17a)
There are four kinds of people whom people dislike: One is a leader who is arrogant toward his constituents for no good reason. (Talmud Pesachim 113b)
A leader who guides with humility shall lead them also in the World-to-Come. (Talmud Sanhedrin 32)
Who is the leader of all leaders? Some say one who can transform an enemy into a friend. (Avot deRabbi Natan, chapter 23)
Pondering this ancient advice will guide my decision-making in the voting booth. I hope that it will also illuminate your choices about who will lead and represent our great nation.