Rabbi Israel Chait


On the holiday of Shavuot, known as the feast of weeks, based on Exodus 34:22, we read the book of Ruth. The book opens with the story of Elimelech who left the land of Israel due to a famine and subsequently met his demise. The Rabbis tell us that Elimelech was a leader of his people and a wealthy man who abandoned his position in order to avoid the personal conflict that was brought on by the poor people being constantly at his door.


The Rabbis point out that there is an extra word in the very first verse of this book. The verse reads, "And it was in the days the judges judged...." It would have been sufficient to write, "And it was in the days of the judges," a clear reference to the early period of Israel's history after Joshua when Israel was led by a succession of judges. Interestingly enough, in Hebrew this verse as it is written can be translated, without deviating from the rules of Hebrew grammar, "And it was in the days of the judging of the judges," implying that the judges themselves were deserving of judgment. Thus the extra word is not extra at all but is a hint for the more penetrating reader to focus his attention on the shortcomings of Elimelech.


The Torah contains much information both overtly and covertly on the institution of leadership and the shortcomings of the leaders of Israel. God's book is ruthlessly honest and no one is spared. The greatness of leaders and their weaknesses are revealed side by side. The Torah is not a book of hero-worship but of learning. The only real "hero" is God. As Onkelos translates Exodus 15:1, "I will sing unto god for he has raised himself above the great and greatness is truly His."


The Torah demands of man that he give up one of his most cherished institutions, hero worship. Belief in messiahs is the more common form of this institution, while its most grotesque form is their complete deification. Torah monotheism and hero worship are mutually exclusive.


No wonder Torah leaders were always impressed with the famous statement of Aristotle, "Dear is Plato, but dearer still is the truth." Here Aristotle the Greek intuited an important Torah truth.


When describing the ascension to leadership of the greatest of all leaders, Moses (Exodus 3), the Torah tells of a strange story. It describes Moses' adamant refusal to accept the mission of leading the Israelites out of bondage and into the land of Israel. Even after God explains in detail the importance of Moses' mission, entreats him, and promises to be with him offering him signs and miracles, Moses continues to turn down God's request. Only after God's wrath is kindled does Moses relent and accept his role which has been reduced and transformed into a sharing with Ahron in order to satisfy Moses' demands


We are mystified at Moses' response to God's request. What leader today would not jump for joy if God would offer him the opportunity to be the greatest leader of all time, the world's most famous lawgiver, the one whose laws, handed down to him by God are still revered, meticulously studied, and kept by hundreds of thousands even now more than three thousand years after his passing? Is there indeed any greater opportunity for any human being? When Albert Einstein was asked whom he would like to meet after his death his reply was not Galileo, Archimedes, or Newton but Moses. In explaining his decision he said "I would like to ask him if he thought his laws would be kept so many years after his death." Yet the Torah depicts how Moses turns down God's request more than once. Why?


Rashi mentions an interesting statement of the Rabbis pertaining to Exodus 3 verse 18. The Rabbis state that God told Moses that the elders of Israel will listen to him if he uses the expression Pakod Pakodti, which means God will remember them, since this was given to them as a sign from Jacob and Joseph that with these words they will be redeemed. They will then know that Moses is their true redeemer appointed by God. At first sight this idea seems difficult. How could these words act as a proof that Moses is the true savior? If the elders knew this tradition could not Moses also have known of it? Would he not then be able to fool the people by using this phrase?


Upon closer examination we find the words of the Rabbis contain a deep idea. The Patriarch Jacob knew by way of prophecy that his children would be redeemed. He knew that being enslaved many false prophets would arise claiming to be their savior. He taught his children how to distinguish between the false savior and the true one. He gave them insight which would help them differentiate between the real and counterfeit. The false savior is driven by a desire to be a leader which stems from man's most abhorrent trait, his egomania. Jacob taught his children to scrutinize the personality of anyone who presents themselves as a savior for telltale signs of this trait. The true savior will never have traces of self-aggrandizement in his message. He will only proclaim God as the true redeemer. His message will be, "God will remember you." The false prophet, driven by a desire for personal recognition will inevitably somewhere in his message place himself in a role of glory. They will then know that he is a counterfeit. His message will not be exclusively of God but of himself as well. Jacob taught his children not to be influenced by fancy rhetoric but to search carefully , to scrutinize each person who presents himself as a savior for signs of egoistic motivation. The true savior will never lapse into the slightest expression of self-glorification. The message of the false savior will always betray his personal ambition. This message in its most crude form is always, "I am the way." This is the ultimate statement of the megalomaniac who seeks to present himself as a savior and conceal from others his sick delusional mind. In spite of all the rhetoric of such individuals, their true intent always comes through.


God told Moses that the elders of Israel were not fools. They had good teachers, the Patriarch Jacob and his son Joseph. They taught them how to scrutinize the personality of those who claim to be leaders. They would not be fooled by attractive speech. They could distinguish between the true and the counterfeit. They would find in Moses no traces of a desire for self-glorification. They would then be willing to listen to his words. They would recognize in Moses, who was not a man of words, the true leader.


How valid and important are the words of Torah! How real and intelligent! Leadership is a strange phenomenon. People need leaders to teach them how to make good decisions. But the most important decision of all, that is, who is a good leader, must be made by the people. It is a logical circle. Just as a good leader is the most valuable thing for mankind, a bad leader is the most horrible thing for mankind. We need not look far in history to confirm this. People are easily deceived by false leaders. Leaders are usually more intelligent and talented than their followers. That is why people look up to them. But this very intelligence and talent permit them to deceive their followers, to use them as a means of their own self-aggrandizement. Again and again people are duped by talented individuals who are adept at concealing their insatiable personal ambition and presenting themselves as selfless saviors of humanity. Only when it is too late is the truth revealed. The old and wise Patriarch Jacob knew this dilemma well. He knew that it required a wise people to choose a true leader. He taught them the one lesson they needed to know in order to make a correct decision. He taught them how to avert the greatest catastrophe that can befall a people, the wrong choice of a leader. He gave them insight into the human personality so that they would be able to detect the tell tale signs of the impostor. The "I am the way" type leader would never fool them. The elders of Israel were well equipped to proceed properly and cautiously in their most important decision. If only modern man had such knowledge, he could say farewell to most of his woes.


In our society today, where the image has replaced the reality, those who rise to the top are those who are most adept at projecting images. This means by definition that they are best capable of deceit and lying. Today's politician is characterized by his ability to look someone in the face and lie without batting an eyelash. He is believed because most people, not having such talents, cannot imagine someone doing such a thing. They therefore conclude that the person must be speaking the truth. Corrupt political figures eventually bring misfortune to their followers in the form of the destruction of their life and property. The tangible results of their insatiable greed and aggression eventually become realized.


The religious sphere is far more subtle. People are less able to discern the harm done to their souls than to their property and bodies. The harm can go on for centuries. The religion of the false leader disintegrates quickly into a system where belief in the person of the leader becomes its most distinctive mark. Objective systems are subordinated to fanatical belief in a certain leader or person. Salvation becomes not a matter of human growth and perfection but of belief in the mystical power of some individual to be a savior. Such a system is not necessarily put to rest with the demise of the false leader as in the political sphere. Innocent and ignorant followers can go on for centuries in the belief that they are benefiting their souls. Death in this case serves to further the deceit of the leader giving him a surreal existence and making him even less subject to scrutiny than he was during his lifetime. This creates the strange phenomenon the were that person here today he would be less successful than he is having died.


How does Torah characterize the true leader? It begins with the description of Moses' strong reluctance to accept leadership. The Torah gives us the strange formula that a great leader is he who wishes to lead least. A desire to lead ipso facto renders the person unqualified to be a leader. He who wishes to see his name in print and over the media is by definition a false leader. Such people may pose as altruistic leaders, they may say they are doing it all for the sake of God, but in reality they are using God to gain human recognition. They suffer from the greatest of human weaknesses, the need for approval by man. God's approval is not enough.


But can there not be one whose motives are pure, who is totally imbued with sincere religious fervor for the sake of God and Humanity and therefore desires leadership? The Torah's answer is decidedly no. Moses was the greatest leader and the Torah tells us he did not wish to lead. Those who desire to lead are always fraudulent.


The Torah's formula sounds strange. No doubt people have been fooled throughout the ages precisely because they believed in the ideal of the sincere religious leader who desires to lead for God's sake. When they see someone whom they think satisfies this image they become so overjoyed they fail to investigate further. But Torah states emphatically that no such leader exists. It is an illusion, a mirage of the human spirit based on ignorance. Here is why.


A great leader must be a great person according to Torah. Contrary to popular opinion, a person that can not get his own life in order cannot help others gain perfection. Only a perfected individual can. But what is a perfected individual? An individual who has partaken fully of the good God has given man. But what is that good? That good is Torah. Torah places one immediately in the divine presence. No wonder so many verses in Psalms depict the perfect man as he who is constantly involved in the study of Torah; he who is overjoyed by torah and is brought by it to states of sublime bliss. The ultimate good God gave man is a most overpowering experience. It Brings man to rapture thrilling his every fiber. It is the ultimate state of mind for which man was created. Those who have experienced it cannot tear themselves away from it. The prophets compare the state to the strongest experience of lovesickness. Is it any wonder that one who has experienced this ultimate existence would never wish to leave it and return to the mundane world of human affairs. Such perfected souls look with disdain at the joys of the ego and human recognition. Being in God's presence and experiencing the reality of His existence they frown upon man and his shallow values. They know full well what prompts human approval and look upon it with contempt. As described in Exodus 18:21, they are haters of what humans consider to be gain. For them human affairs offer no thrills, no excitements, and no benefit. It means being torn away from the most enjoyable and most perfect state of human existence. It means being thrown into the responsibilities of leadership and the constant involvement with the pettiness and nonsense of human emotions. It is no wonder that Moses complained so often to God about his plight as a leader. For the truly perfected person leadership is a nightmarish descent from the beatitude and blessedness of God's world to the bleak and ugly world of human affairs. Such a journey is indeed almost humanly impossible. Why does such a person do so? Only one thing can force him to do ss - he has no choice. There is no one else that can do it and God demands that it be done. Even to the very end Moses pleaded with God, "Send, I beg you by the hand of whom thou will send (Exodus 4:13)." Moses was hoping against hope that there was someone else who could do the job. When God's anger was kindled at this request he realized he had no way out. There was none other. With all the strength in his character he committed himself to the almost inhuman task of leaving the land of the blessed for a joyless and painful existence because God left him no choice.


All true Torah scholars since Moses have followed in his footsteps. As Maimonides states in the Laws of Sanhedrin, Ch. 3 L. 10, "Such was the manner of the wise men of old. They would run away from appointment [to the Sanhedrin]. They would struggle to their utmost to avoid being judges and only conceded when they knew that there was no one equal to the task and that judgment would be corrupted if they did not participate." The great scholars reacted just as Moses did when God requested of him that he be a leader.


According to Torah, how one views leadership is the very touchstone by which one's perfection may be measured. For the perfected person who constantly lives in the world of Torah and who is not moved by the approval of the masses it is a most distasteful enterprise. The more perfected the person the more distasteful and the more difficult it is for him to engage in leadership. On the other hand, for the distorted personality, the one who has never experienced the true good for man, the one who is riddled with inner turmoil, whose life is in disarray, who is plagued by vacillating emotions of greatness and worthlessness, leadership seems like a haven. He is attracted to it like a magnet. Being rooted in the value system of man he seeks to turn away from the source of his own imperfection and soothe himself with the thrills of ego satisfaction. Leadership appears as his salvation; his ultimate escape from his unhappy existence. Under the guise of saintliness and in the seeming service of God he can satisfy his base desires for human approval and assuage his guilt with the pretense of righteousness. Such a person would jump at the opportunity to lead and react in the exact opposite manner of the great Moses. Such a person does not know God nor even the good God has given to man. He is a willful deceiver of others and himself.


The Rabbis and true Torah leaders were never impressed by people who desired to save the world. They recognized immediately the true source of this desire, man's egomania. Being astute Torah scholars they knew well the lesson of Jacob and understood the greatness of the true leader, Moses. They were never impressed by rhetoric and claims of individuals who in their shallow world of ideas think they are helping God. Torah scholars have a deep understanding of perfection and human nature. They are not naive purists. They are deep thinkers, trenchant and calculated. The virtue of puristic naiveté is not a Torah concept but a man made religious notion.


The Torah scholar leads only when necessary and even then he never leaves the world of Torah. He is preoccupied with it in his every spare moment tearing himself away only momentarily to engage in the necessary task of leadership. He shuns honors and accolades and despises publicity and renown. He is not plagued by a desire to increase the number of his followers. He loves to be alone or with a few friends studying Torah. He is totally satisfied being in God's presence.


Such is the Torah tradition of leadership. It has produced a succession of true and great leaders the likes of which the world has never known. They were not perfect nor did they try to convey the image of being perfect. Man cannot be perfect. They were able to recognize their shortcomings, repent, and reinstate their relationship with God. Elimelech, on the other hand, was a weak leader. He could not overcome his shortcomings. In failure, he abandoned his position. However, he was not a corrupt leader. He never made use of his subjects for his own self interest. Thus the Torah distinguishes three types of leaders: the great leader, the good leader overcome by weakness, and the corrupt leader. May God send us true leaders and grant us the knowledge to recognize them.

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