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JTS Torah Commentary

Parashat D'varim 5766
Shabbat Hazon
Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
July 29, 2006     4 Menachem Av, 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

Leadership is the cornerstone of who we are as Jewish people. Numerous demonstrations in support of Israel, across North America and the world, have been witness to such leadership. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his stirring address to the Israeli Parliament, demonstrated his resolve as he declared that Israel is at a historical, liminal moment: "In the life of a nation there are moments of transcendence, of purification, when political and sectarian disputes which separate us are replaced by a sense of mutual responsibility. I highly value and appreciate the way the opposition has been conducting itself in the Knesset these days. The human competition and personal rivalries are dissolved and instead our feeling of mutual responsibility arises, our sense of partnership, and primarily, our eternal love for our people and our land." From these words and throughout the present crisis, Olmert has proven repeatedly how "wise, discerning, and experienced" he is as a leader.

These qualities are mentioned in this week's Torah reading, Parashat D'varim. Moses both demonstrates the mark of a talented leader, and he addresses himself explicitly to the qualities that shape such an individual in the community. Moses freely and candidly admits the overwhelming burden on his shoulders, "How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!" (Deuteronomy 1:12). Far from projecting an image of infallibility, Moses states that the task before him is too great to bear. His cry is an expression of humility — recognizing fully that one person cannot manage the affairs of a nation that has increased "a thousand fold." And so Moses declares to the children of Israel, "Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads" (Deuteronomy 1:13). Does this verse provide the whole picture of the ideal leader? Are there other qualities that come to shape leadership — especially in times of crisis?

An earlier biblical episode, as well as later commentaries, shed light on our queries. In Exodus chapter 18, Moses embraces the advice offered to him by his father–in–law, Jethro. Keenly aware of the excessive burden Moses has placed upon himself, Jethro suggests that Moses appoint magistrates to assist him in the decision–making process. Exodus chapter 18 verse 21 relates, "You will seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill–gotten gain." Rabbi Joel Roth, Professor of Talmud at The Jewish Theological Seminary and leading halakhic decisor of the Conservative Movement explains further, "The sages combined the statements (Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 1:13), proposed their own definitions of the terms used in the Bible, and concluded that there are seven characteristics that the ideal judge should possess" (Roth, The Halakhic Process, 144). Rabbi Roth then points to Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:7 which states, "Each of them must possess seven characteristics, as follows: wisdom, humility, fear of God, hatred of unjust gain, love of truth, respected, and of upstanding reputation." Recognizing this list of attributes to be expansive and exceedingly ambitious, Rabbi Roth quotes the opinion of Rabbi Berakhiah who explains why it is that these seven qualities are derived from two verses as opposed to one verse: "Rabbi Berakhiah said in the name of Rabbi Haninah, "Judges must possess seven characteristics... and why were they not written in one verse? To indicate that if one cannot find all seven in one person, a judge possessing only four may be appointed. And if judges possessing four cannot be found, a judge possessing only three may be appointed. And if judges possessing three cannot be found, a judge possessing one may be appointed" (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10). Clearly, there is an understanding amongst the rabbis that judges, as leaders of the community, must aspire to the highest moral and ethical standards — and so too all leaders in the Jewish community and Israel.

Over the past few, very difficult weeks, we have seen the best of leadership in the Jewish community. Chancellor–elect Arnold Eisen writes in a message of solidarity, "As a people determined to serve God and seek holiness in this world, we have no choice but to roll up our sleeves and get involved. Politics has always been a serious business for Jews, never more so than today. We have interests to protect — survival first of all — as well as principles to pursue. Even as we work to ensure survival we feel responsible to live up to the demands of the covenant ... The Promised Land beckons, as always, but the way to get there, through a wilderness, is not always clear." Israel continues to target the evil of Hezbollah with great might. Yet, even in these dark days, as we journey through the wilderness to which Professor Eisen alludes, we are reminded that we are truly a people of the covenant. To witness Israel dropping leaflets on civilian populations in Lebanon, warning them of imminent sorties; to hear the words of Prime Minister Olmert uniting all citizens of Israel — Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike — together as one in this battle against terror; and to hear Israelis continually speak of the pain and suffering of the Lebanese people in the same breath, as they speak of their own suffering; all of these vignettes remind us that we are a "nation of priests and a holy people." In this moment of darkness, may we and our leaders aspire to the seven qualities of leadership: wisdom, humility, fear of God, hatred of unjust gain, love of truth, respected, and of upstanding reputation. And may we never lose sight of the justice of our cause.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.