— fostering leadership
Of all the 613 commandments in the Bible, which is the least obeyed? There are a number of likely contenders, but a strong bet for first place, perhaps especially in Israel, must be the commandment in this week’s Torah portion not to put down and disparage one’s leaders. (“Do not ridicule your judges and do not curse the leaders of your people” Exodus XXII:27 )
Complaining about our leaders is almost a national hobby. Why does the Bible view it so seriously?
As the commentators make clear, this commandment does not require that we accept our leaders without question. Indeed the Bible is full of role models – especially the prophets – who challenge and criticise the rulers of Israel. But at the same time it recognizes that there is a crucial difference between constructive criticism and simply trying to bring our leaders down.
In particular the commentators focus on three different ways in which cursing our leaders can have negative effects:
- Maimonides focuses on the personal dimension and sees “cursing” leaders as a form of anger. Anger, in Maimonides’ thought, is the one of the only two emotions (the other is pride) which is wholly negative and cannot be channeled to positive directions. Venting our anger against our leaders and putting them down without any constructive action, is damaging to our own personal development.
- The 14th century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati (quoted in The
Mitzvot by Abraham Chill) focuses on the effect that such criticism can have on the quality of leadership itself. Hostile criticism, he
notes, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage talented people from taking positions of public service.
- Finally, the 19th century commentator Emek Hadavar (Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), writing in Belarus, suggests that disparaging leaders can have damaging effects on an even wider level. “People have the tendency to try to bring down any leader who fails to satisfy their own interests” he writes, “hence this law. While one is prohibited from deriding any Jew, the leader was singled out because people are more prone to this practice and because this kind of criticism breaks down the essence of society at large”.Leadership – in Israel or among the Jewish People – is no easy task. A famous anecdote recalls a conversation between US President Dwight Eisenhower and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. “It is very hard”, said the American President, “to be the President of 170 million people”. Ben Gurion’s response: “Yes, but it’s harder to be the Prime Minister of 170 million prime ministers!”
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we too have a role to play in contributing to the success of our leaders. And as our commentators suggest, keeping our criticism constructive and supporting those in positions of responsibility will only bring benefits: to ourselves, to our leaders, and to society as a whole.
In others’ words
“I remember that once I took the most distinguished Israeli author that got the Nobel Prize, Agnon, to visit Ben-Gurion on his 75th birthday. And on the way, Agnon was philosophizing and says, you know, I think that while the Jews are afraid of the gentiles, apparently Ben-Gurion is not afraid. That was quite a banal remark. But then he continued and says, you know, maybe Ben-Gurion is even not afraid of the Jews. And that’s a great Jewish leader.”
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Remarks to National Jewish Community Advisory Council, Washington, February 1993
On a lighter note
A man decided to visit his brother, who was the President of the Jewish community in a distant town. When he arrived in the town he asked the first person he met if he knew where he might find Goldberg, President of the Jewish community.
“Goldberg, that scoundrel!”, shouted the man. “I wouldn’t have anything to do with him”
The man tried asking someone else if he knew were Goldberg was. “That fraud”, burst out the second. “He’s been a disaster for the Jewish community”.
“Goldberg, he should rot in hell”, added the third person. Finally, late at night, the man tracked down his brother who was working hard in the offices of the Jewish community.
“Tell me”, he asked his brother. “Why do you put so much effort in to such a thankless leadership task?”
“Why”, responded the brother beaming. “For the honour, of course!”