Humility in leadership

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Civil discourse has disappeared from United States’ culture. Whether the comments are made jokingly or as serious commentary, the trend is disturbing and disappointing. I don’t want to go into specific instances here because it’s irrelevant. For every terrible comment made about the current president, there were equally horrible ones said about his predecessor. Both sides are wrong. However, what’s problematic about the current administration and those connected to it is that they don’t seem to realize that when you voluntarily become a public figure, you expose yourself and your family to greater scrutiny. You also open yourself to criticism – fair or unfair – because that’s how democracy and freedom of speech work. So, yes, government officials and reporters will explore your business activities or the grants given by your foundation with a fine-tooth comb. Comedians and columnists will find ways to make fun of and/or criticize you. It comes with the job. Leaders are held to a high standard because they are supposed to set an example for the rest of us.
If you study writings about the nature of Jewish leadership, one characteristic stands out: humility. This characteristic is based on Moses, who is considered the greatest Jewish leader and prophet. Moses was considered a humble man and, in fact, tried to refuse the leadership position given to him by God. At times, Moses despaired of his position: leading hungry and thirsty Israelites was not an easy task. He also recognized that there were times when he needed help, for example, when he listened to the advice of his father-in-law Jethro, who suggested that Moses not be the sole judge for the Israelites, but rather, allow others to handle the easier problems and only approach him with the more difficult ones.
The Bible also makes it clear that a leader is not above the law: according to Deuteronomy, a king is required to write his own book of Torah and keep it with him to review so he knows the correct way to behave. The text clearly states he is required to follow every commandment. No exceptions are made due to his royal status. In fact, the king is specifically told that he is no greater than his brethren, even though he is king. This also means that he has to take responsibility for his actions – even when he is provoked. When Moses struck a rock, rather than spoke to it as God commanded, God denied him the opportunity to cross into the Promised Land. That’s because God expected more of him – and that is from is a leader who didn’t ask for or want the position. How much more, then, should be expected of those who willingly seek leadership? They need to set an example, to grow a thicker skin and care more about their country than their ego.