Leaders, Teachers, and Kings by Lauren Shaps
(Intro by Lori)
Dear JWRP Chevra,
I write to you from South Africa where I am on safari with my family. Yes, I am also speaking in Cape Town and Johannesburg, but one of the highlights was three incredible days "in the bush."
Each day we would get up at sunrise and head out in the Jeep by 6:30 a.m. We saw zebras, hippos, giraffe, wildebeest, elephants, wild dogs, a black rhino (rare), and more.
My kids know I hate zoos. I find it depressing to see animals locked up for our entertainment. Don't even get me started on circuses, where humiliated bears are made to dance and wear tutus.
In Africa, the animals are in their natural habitats, roaming free, as G-d created them to be.
As the sun set behind the African hills, we could see a herd of giraffe silhouetted against the sky. Adam and Eve must surely be around the very next bend….
Good Shabbos, Shabbat Shalom,
Hey to the Chevra,
For those of us living in North America, summer is ending and election season has begun. In the United States and Canada, leaders and wanna-be leaders are on the road selling their visions. I wish them well and pray that “we the people” have the wisdom to choose beyond good looks, charisma and entertainment value. In our highly complicated world the stakes are high. The consequences of today’s decisions impact generations to come.
This is also the season of back to school; growing up means leaving home, whether it is for a few hours or for days, weeks or months at a time. Little ones transition to day care or pre-school; big kids head off to university. In addition to amassing information and building skills, they learn to navigate the world of peers and authority, rules and expectations, responsibility. It’s not easy to let our children go. We console ourselves with the hope that there will be good teachers to catch them. Teachers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are caring and compassionate and some are tough and demanding. Having a great teacher makes all the difference. Teachers introduce us to worlds we didn’t know existed. They empower us to see beyond our perceived limits. The best teachers inspire a life-long love affair with learning.
That love of learning is a primary Jewish value. It’s built into our DNA. Over and over the Torah reminds us of the importance of study. That’s why Jews are known to be the “people of the book.” When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met recently with 15 Nobel Prize and Wolf Prize laureates from both Israel and abroad, he remarked on how “the Jewish penchant for inquiry, for inquisitive minds, has been its key to survival, and is also its key to the future” (Source: The Jerusalem Post).
In many ways, whether they are the president or the prime minister, mayor or councilwoman, great leaders are also great teachers. They know how to guide, inspire and motivate others. This week’s parsha, Parshat Shoftim, discusses some of the leadership roles incumbent on the Jewish nation upon entering and settling in the land of Israel. The parsha begins with judges and officers and moves to the appointment of a king.
“When you come to the Land that HaShem your G-d, gives you, and possess it, and settle in it, and you will say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.” You shall surely set over yourself a king who Hashem, your G-d, shall choose…” (Devarim 17: 14-15, translation “Call of the Torah,” pages 183-185).
The commentaries point out that language the Torah uses is ambiguous. It’s not clear whether appointing a king is a good move or a bad one. Our great sages had vastly different views. Some counted establishing a monarchy as one of the 613 Torah commandments, while others such as the Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abarbanel, 1437-1508, rabbi, teacher, scholar and treasurer to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain) did not see appointing a king as an obligation but rather as a concession, something less than ideal but nonetheless permitted.
The Abarbanel explains that the Torah “specifies the procedure to be followed if the regrettable happens, if Israel is no longer satisfied with the kingdom of Heaven, but wants a tangible leadership, a leader who will visibly march before them to battlefield. Should this sorry state arise, our passage provides the precepts that then become needed” (“Call of the Torah,” page 184).
We recently turned the calendar to the Hebrew month of Elul which leads into Rosh Hashanah. Our sages taught that this is the time when “the King is in the field,” meaning that this time of year is particularly suited for coming close to
G-d. During the month of Elul we reflect on the year that is coming to an end. We evaluate our accomplishments and work to acknowledge and address our failings. The image of G-d as the Almighty King may leave us feeling small and distant and unable to measure up. But we are reminded that “the King is in the field.” G-d leaves the palace, so to speak, to be accessible to all, desirous of a relationship with each and every one of us.
Why might wanting a king be less than ideal? We might think that any society needs leaders, judges, officers, perhaps even kings whose role is to rule and to ensure justice. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot reinforces that idea when it tells us that we should “pray for the welfare of the government, because if people had no fear of it, they would swallow each other alive” (Chapter 3: Mishna 2).
Perhaps what the Torah is teaching us is that in an ideal world, people would behave properly not because they fear the ruler, but because they’ve internalized important values like integrity, generosity, and self-discipline. In an ideal world we would not look to human leadership to impose rules and consequences, but would seek leaders who guide and inspire us to grow from within. That is why our greatest Jewish leaders have been teachers. They connect us to our Jewish values and inspire us to be the best that we can be. They motivate us to ask good questions, to search for answers, to learn and to grow. They spur us to create a relationship with our true King, the Almighty.
It is G-d’s Kingship that we focus on as we get closer to the High Holidays when we aspire to live the types of lives where we ourselves are so ennobled that there is no need for kings.