In this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Shoftim, we learn that the Israelites are to appoint judges, monarchs, priests, and prophets to lead them. These leaders are, according to the Torah, to show impartiality toward all cases and petitioners and be scrupulous in their behavior. Their guiding principle, we are told, is found in the words, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
In other words, being elected to office was just the first step. Their true fitness to lead was only seen after they had stepped into their new roles. If they were ethical and showed concern for all people they were, as a rabbinic teaching puts it, “kosher.” Only through their actions was their fitness to lead truly apparent.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson elaborates on this when he writes:
When any Jew sins, somebody suffers. When anyone commits a crime or an ethical lapse, some victim is traumatized. That holds true for sinning rabbis too. But beyond the suffering that each rabbi’s victim endures –which is the consequence of any human failing — the rabbi’s act bears an additional consequence solely because of his or her position within the community. Sinning rabbis discredit the Torah and give other Jews an excuse for not taking Judaism seriously. Their sin severs the connection between many congregants and the Holy One of Israel, and it weakens the bonds needed to maintain Jewish community.
Reading this earlier this week I was struck by the fact that, by replacing just a few words, this teaching is as relevant today as it was when it was first penned. The following is an intentional misreading of this quote:
When an elected official sins, somebody suffers. When anyone commits a crime or an ethical lapse, some victim is traumatized. That holds true for sinning leaders too. But beyond the suffering that each leaders’s victim endures — which is the consequence of any human failing — the leader’s act bears an additional consequence solely because of his or her position within the community. Unethical leaders discredit the Constitution and give others an excuse for not taking the law seriously. Their sin weakens the bonds needed to maintain a sense of cohesive community.
Two thousand years ago the rabbis understood that anyone who steps into a leadership role takes on additional responsibilities. They no longer simply represent themselves. Instead, they represent the community they were called or elected to lead and the values and principles that guide that community. They embody the system they represent and, as a result, when that leader abuses their role, he or she puts the entire system in question.
The Talmud observes that the highest praise one can offer a rabbi (or any Jew) is that “one’s insides match one’s outside,” or that “one’s actions should match one’s words.”
That is as true today as it was millennia ago. And it is past time that we hold our leaders to a similar standard. The ethical lapses, corruption, and callousness we see throughout our political system today threaten the entirety of our nation. And the first step toward righting our ship is accountability.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen