There are eight qualities of leadership we find in the Bible
The recent election of Kathleen Wynne as Premier of Ontario and the race for Mayor of Toronto have focused attention on the nature and quality of leadership.Decisions by Prime Minister Harper, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu draw attention to different dimensions of leadership in times of national stability, international crisis and wartime. As Beth Tzedec begins to consider the transition of rabbinic leadership, members of our community will also be reflecting on the qualities they want in a new rabbi.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, differentiates between Jews who serve in leadership roles and those whose leadership is based on Jewish values and knowledge. He points to eight qualities of leadership we find in the Bible:
- The failure of human agency in the early chapters of Genesis
(Adam blames Eve; she blames the serpent; Cain questions whether he is his
“brother’s keeper”) indicates that taking responsibility is a critical element
of leadership. Think of Avraham who goes forth to a new land, acts to protect
his nephew Lot and speaks up for Sodom. Consider Moshe who individually
intervenes to stop the beating or abuse of the defenceless. Sacks comments, “At the heart
of Judaism are three beliefs about leadership: We are free. We are responsible.
And together we can change the world.”
- Leadership may require some solitary moments, but good leaders
do not act alone. Yitro cautions his son-in-law Moshe to share the burdens of
judgment with others. Later, when Joshua is concerned about the diffusion of
prophecy, Moshe says “I wish that all the people would be prophets.” In fact,
good leadership is a function of varying roles: Moshe, Aaron and Miriam had
different responsibilities. In later Biblical times, there is a complex balance
among kings, prophets and priests. We cannot lead alone, and no one person can
fulfil all the needs and expectations of the Jewish people.
- Before Avraham can lead, he is called by God. Yaakov has a
prophetic dream that gives him confidence in the future. Moshe responds to an
encounter at the burning bush. The prophets are commissioned for their responsibilities.
Leadership is a response to a call, involves a vision for the future and
communicates challenges for the future. Avraham: “Your children will be
strangers in a strange land.” Yaakov: “Come let me tell you what will be in the
end of days.” Moshe: “When you enter the land…”; the prophets: “Behold days are
- In order for a group to understand its situation and what must
be done, leaders frame and define the reality of the challenge. Moshe states,
“Sh’ma Yisrael: You are about to enter the land” and these are the choices that
lie before you. Moses Hess (Rome and Jerusalem), Leon Pinsker
(Auto-Emancipation) and Theodore Herzl (The Jewish State) articulated the
defining factors of Jewish nationalism.
- The Torah stipulates that a king must write a personal copy of
the Torah which should “always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life”. Joshua
is commanded to “meditate on [the book of the Law] day and night”. The Rabbis
taught “Great is study for it leads to action.” Leaders learn. To gain depth
and perspective, they study and read more than others. Thomas Jefferson’s
library, which included a copy of the Mishnah and the Quran, became the basis
for the Library of Congress. Sacks: “Study makes the difference between the
statesman and the politician, between the transformative leader and the
- Leadership involves trust. Not only must the people trust their
leader, but a leader must have faith in the group s/he leads. Even when warning
the Children of Israel of future misbehaviour and punishment, Moshe and other prophets
also have confidence that the people will return to God: “when you will seek
[God] with all your heart and with all your soul”. While kings lead through the
exercise of power, the prophets and their rabbinic followers depended on moral
suasion and personal influence. Respect for human dignity leads the evolving
Torah tradition to be skeptical of efforts to dominate by power. Influencing others
by teaching, example and consultation becomes the primary path for the
development of future generations of leaders.
- Persistent patience is essential for any good leader. How fast
and when, pace and timing are essential issues for all leaders. “With all
deliberate speed” reminds us that going too fast results in resistance, but
moving too slowly serves self-satisfaction. Maimonides writes of the shift over
millennia from human sacrifice to animal offerings to prayer to contemplation,
because people do not so quickly change. Moshe asks God to appoint a successor
“to go out before [the people] and come in before them, who will lead them out
and bring them in”. The leader must “lead them out”, but also “bring
them in”, moving at a pace consonant with the gait of the group. A new leader
will have to bring the people into the land. In Avot, wisdom of the founding
rabbis, this sage advice is offered: “You do not have to complete the task, nor
are you free to desist from it.”
- A leader is part of a community. Rabbi Marc Angel tells of going to the market
with the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul who stopped at each shop to purchase one small
item for Shabbat. The rabbi explained that each person should feel that the
rabbi cares about him or her on a personal level. If “all politics are local”,
so all leadership is personal.
- Despite stress and frustration, leaders continue because they know there are important tasks to accomplish. The prophets doubt their abilities. Moshe complains to God: “Why do you tell me to carry them … the burden is too heavy for me.” And other prophets ask to die rather than continue. Communities resist transformative change and expect the hard work to be done for them; they often blame the leader. It is the fault of Moshe for the delay in the Wilderness, Eliyahu for disturbing the peace or Jeremiah for the threat of Babylonia. Leaders continue because there are people in need, problems to be solved and justice to be pursued. “Do not stand idly by”—the challenge of responsibility leads to a life of meaning.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg points out that a primary challenge of contemporary Jewish life is how to live as a Jew in an open society, a world without walls. We can deal with poverty and persecution. Can we live with power and plenty?
Even as we seek to preserve our boundaries, so we are called to build bridges. Irwin Cotler has noted that just as we must recognize our enemies, so we must find our friends. In this difficult time, despite the growth of anti-semitism (which increasingly takes the form of anti-Zionism), we must teach the ethical and spiritual wisdom of Judaism in the public square, engage in dialogue beyond our community and find projects for social justice and communal compassion that can be shared with others.
Doing all this requires patient, persistent and personal leadership that works in a collaborative, visionary and responsible manner. In this way we will find ways that will bring honour to our congregation and community and enable Jews to feel proud to be Jews.
This has been a summer of great challenge for Israel and the Jewish people. The daily rocket attacks against Israeli civilians initiated by Hamas combined with the tunnel warfare directed against communities near Gaza led to a strong military response by Israel. Despite efforts to maintain a proportionate response and to minimize civilian casualties, there has been unbalanced and unjustified criticism of the Israel Defence Forces for its actions. I accompanied Canadian parliamentarians to Israel to see for themselves the dangers that Israelis—particularly in southern communities—faced every day. We also have seen an increase in anti-Zionism (conflated with anti-semitism) in many Diaspora communities. Considered with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, as well as with the ongoing nuclear threat from Iran, the “Long War” that I wrote of in 2008 continues for Israel and Western democracy.
From Jerusalem, Josette and I join with our family to wish our community a shanah tovah u’metukah, a sweet year filled with good health, well-being and a bit of peace.