Matter of character: We look to leaders to show us the right way

Rabbi Morris Zimbalist

By Rabbi Morris Zimbalist, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)

Like most rabbis, my days are filled with addressing questions.  Whether it is a matter of Jewish law, a challenging section within the Torah, or a Judaic response to a personal matter, questions fill most rabbis’ days.  However, I am regularly asked one question that I suspect no other rabbi is regularly asked: Am I related to Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.?  And while the answer is “yes,” the truth is that the relation is quite distant and our only tangible connection is the name Zimbalist itself.

Names, too, can be deceiving.  We refer to the Torah as “the five books of Moses,” but students of Torah quickly learn that our canonized text teaches the sacred lessons of many different characters.  Our patriarchs and matriarchs have become emblematic of faith, courage, contemplative thought, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. One can even find humor and sarcasm within the dialogue and highlighted narratives of our biblical leaders and prophets. 

Moses himself doesn’t even appear once in the Book of Genesis.  Perhaps this reminds us that a fundamental lesson within the Torah is that its lessons are greater than any one given individual.  The exodus from Egypt provides us with the poignant example of this.  In partnership with G-d, Moses creates a vision of how the Israelites would journey from slavery to freedom.  Aaron communicates that vision to the people. Miriam grows the enthusiasm among the people to actualize the journey.  And since all three of those prophets die before reaching the Promised Land, Joshua gets the job done and leads the Israelites into the land. No one can do it alone.  Not even Moses.

Moses learns this quickly from his father-in-law Yitro who, interestingly, is not an Israelite but rather a Midianite priest.  Yitro teaches Moses profound lessons of leadership and instructs him to set up a system of courts and judges so that an effective, productive, and fair community can be established.  Within that lessons lies this one: To best address the gamut of needs within a community, leadership must be open-minded, diverse, and tolerant of opinions different from their own.

And within today’s society, leadership within all faith-based communities – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and more – must remember that.  Humanity demands that we embrace the other, speak with each other respectfully, treasure our similarities, and celebrate our differences.  If leadership in any given community struggles with these concepts, how can we expect community members to learn, teach, and model these ideals for others?

Leaders can have a profound impact on the people who reside within their communities. And while many communities can elect their leadership, ultimately it will be G-d who holds those appointed leaders responsible for their successes and shortcomings.  In Parashat Shoftim we learn (16:18): “Judges and officers shall you appoint in your cities…They shall judge the people with righteous judgment.”  The complexity of this legal system rests upon truth and justice, but quality of character plays an intricate and important role. 

Much like our modern court systems, judges and officials cannot take bribes, pervert justice, or intentionally render unjust verdicts that are prejudiced by personal biases, race, or religious views.  However, the Torah goes a step further and states (16:20): “Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the Land that G-d gives to you.” 

In other words, societal health, vitality, and longevity require more than fair adjudication of the law.  True leadership needs to model strong morals and ethics so that communal norms are grounded in honesty and respect.  All judgments and legal decisions must come from that unwavering foundation.

In Pirkei Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers – the Sage Ben Zoma (4:1) suggests that meaningful relationships must be grounded in a few fundamental principles.  Those principles form the moral and ethical basis to ground all members of a community and simultaneously form the political fabric necessary for its leadership.  According to Ben Zoma, true wisdom is the ability to learn from each other.  Inner strength requires the personal discipline and fortitude to make the right decisions even if we are strongly pulled or tempted to go in the wrong direction.  Happiness is discovered when goodness is recognized and appreciated.  And respect is gained when respect is given.   

Leadership is complicated, and at times it can be messy. But every member of a society can rise to positions of leadership and must lead by example.  Goodness, fairness, and strong morals and ethics must form the core of any leadership structure.  But most of all, effective leadership demands a commitment to things much greater than oneself and the knowledge that ultimate judgment rests in the hands of the Almighty.   

Rabbi Morris Zimbalist is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Judea.

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