Posted on March 23, 2011
by Cody Dydek
The Torah offers us many insights into the meaning of true leadership. It holds up characters such as Noach, Yosef, Moshe and Aharon as role models. It teaches us that, to be a good leader, we should be like these wonderful dugmaot. However, the Torah also goes into specifics about what a good leader really is. In Parshat Yitro, the Torah enumerates four important qualities that a leader must possess. We read of these qualities in Sh’mot 18:21. Yitro says to Moshe, “You shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, God-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money….” These characteristics are a paradigm for the traits of the judges which Moshe was to appoint. Let’s take a look at each of these traits.
“Men of accomplishment (anshei hayil).” According to Yitro, the most important trait of a leader is experience. The judges who were to lead the people in the desert needed to be experienced leaders in order to deal with the disputes the people would bring before them. Experience is so important because it encompasses almost all other important character traits. Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, remarks that experienced leaders possess good judgment, knowledge of the law, and the ability to recognize the truth in a conflict — all incredibly important characteristics.
“God-fearing people (yir’ei elokim).” This is also a very necessary characteristic in a leader. The judges were not appointed only to try cases, but to lead the people in a religious sense. For this reason, it was necessary that they lead lives devoted to God in order to inspire the people. In addition, the leaders, by fearing God, would be therefore not be afraid of people and would be able to rule justly. “Men of truth (anshei emet).” Honesty is also needed in a leader. Judges must be able to treat everyone equally and not be swayed to the right or to the left. By being truthful, people emerge as truly admirable leaders.
“People who despise money (son’ei vatza).” This can be interpreted in several ways. Basically, it means that leaders shouldn’t be attracted by the lure of money or prestige; that they should be in a leadership position to truly help the people and not for other reasons. The judges had to make their decision without being affected by bribery or any other improper uses of money.
These traits have implications for modern day leaders as well: the best leaders are experienced, religiously devoted, honest and not swayed by the influence of power. We, in USY, are the future leaders of the Conservative movement. As we emerge as leaders, we should pay careful attention to what the Torah teaches us about leadership. The lessons the Torah gives us will help us get the most out of our leadership positions.