What a useful, edifying sermon to be delivered on Yom Kippur amid this extremely wild—indeed likely the wildest ever—presidential election contest in the United States! Rabbi Daniel Geffen explored: “What qualities does Judaism teach us to look for in our leaders?”
He opened his sermon at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, New York by stressing that in the U.S. non-profit organizations are prohibited by the nation’s tax code from “participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office…Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
“Now,” he said, “I know that sermons have a reputation, in general, for being quite boring. And I am not sure I have done myself any favors by beginning this one by quoting IRS tax code. But this little paragraph has been the cause of much tzurus for me and my fellow clergy over the last few months. Because this text makes it clear that as a rabbi I cannot use this pulpit as a means to champion or refute a candidate in the upcoming election.”
“While I know for a fact that there are many pastors and rabbis who act in defiance of this law, I was always taught that just because someone else is doing it, doesn’t make it right. And so all of you can take a collective sigh of relief because I promise you that I will not mention any candidate’s names nor refer to any party or its platform or endorse anyone or anything at play in this or any future election. As much as I may want to, or even feel compelled to, I have too much respect for this country and for this congregation, to flout the law or to circumvent its noble intentions.”
“Having said that however, I do feel a need to say something. Not so much my own words, but the words of our tradition. Not so much my own opinion, but the opinion of our greatest sages, teachers and guides. Not so much my perspective, but the perspective of generations of Jewish leaders, thinkers and philosophers stretching back to our earliest days. In order to answer a simple but profoundly important question: “What qualities does Judaism teach us to look for in our leaders?”
“In our tradition the first essential quality in a leader is humility,” he said.
He said it’s first “precisely because it is often the characteristic that is hardest to find. And there is no greater exemplar of this quality, then our people’s greatest leader and teacher, Moshe Rabeinu.” He told of how the Torah “informs us that Moses was not just humble—he was ‘more humble than all the men that were upon the face of the earth.’”
That’s “an oddly hyperbolic statement for a description of humility,” said Rabbi Gefffen with a smile, “but that’s the Torah for you!”
He noted how when God told Moses to “go to the Pharoah and free the Israelites from Egypt,” Moses says “I have never been a man of words … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” and he “not only tries to convince God he is not the right man for the job, he actively tries to push it off on someone else, his brother Aaron! Can we think of the last time a leader, let alone one as great as Moses, actively tried to refuse a position of power? In today’s world, it is almost unfathomable.”
But “Moses goes on to become a great leader; according to tradition, the best we have ever had,” said the rabbi. “And I believe it is precisely because he began his role from a place of contrition and humility. Although Moses certainly had his flaws, both as a human being and as a leader, he never lost his ability for self-reflection or the courage to realize that even with all of his power and position, he was no greater than the people, or the God he served. Put another way, to borrow a line from the great author CS Lewis: “true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
The “second essential quality in a leader is wisdom,” the rabbi went on.
“In Hebrew,” he noted, “the word for wisdom is chochmah. It is one of our people’s most highly cherished qualities. While wisdom is certainly associated with the mind, it is distinct from knowledge. Wisdom speaks not just to the ability to analyze, understand and compute, but to one’s ability to discern when it is appropriate, and when it is not, to share one’s knowledge and expertise.”
Here he cited Pirkei Avot and its proclamation: “A sage does not speak before one who is wiser than they are; and they do not interrupt the words of their fellow; and they do not answer impetuously; and they ask relevant questions and give appropriate answers; and they deal with first things first, and last things last; and about something they have not heard they say: ‘I have not heard’; and they acknowledge the truth.”
“I’m not sure this particular text needs further explanation,” said Rabbi Geffen. “I do think, however, it should be read before every debate in this country — if nothing else, just to set basic levels of decency. If nothing else though this text describes in detail one of the key characteristics of wisdom, which is discernment. Namely when to speak and when to listen; when to demonstrate one’s knowledge and when to admit one’s deficiencies. Just because a person is learned, it does not make them wise. Knowing when to open one’s mouth, is just as important as what comes out of it.”
The “third core quality of a leader, is that of respect,” the rabbi continued.
“And this is perhaps the quality most missing from our current political discourse,” he said. Here he cited Eruvin in the Babylonian Talmud “which speaks to the eternal battle between the houses of Rabbi Hillel and his contemporary Rabbi Shammai.”
It says: “For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, [with] the former asserting: ‘The law is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The law is in agreement with our views’. Then a bat kol [a voice from heaven] came forth and said: ‘Both these and those are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beth Hillel’. If however, ‘both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled the school of Rabbi Hillel to have the law fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the school of Shammai before theirs.”
“In other words,” said the rabbi, “even though both Hillel and Shammai had reasonable arguments and understanding of the law, the house of Hillel won out because they were respectful of their adversaries, and because they actually took the time to study and consider the merits of the opposing view. Even though they vehemently disagreed with the opposition’s assertions, they still took the time to ensure that they understood them and where Shammai and his students were coming from. Both houses of study and their leaders worshiped the same God and served the same community; they just did it differently. “
Rabbi Geffen said “it is essential in Judaism to record the dissenting opinion precisely because even when a ruling does not win out, it is essential to understand and acknowledge that there will always be different ways to reach the same goal.”
And the “final essential quality in a leader, is that of knowledge.”
“Namely,” said the rabbi, “what are the sources that a leader looks to for guidance?” Here he cited parshat Shoftim in the weekly Torah readings. The Torah “teaches about the expectations for a future king to be chosen when the Israelites entered the land. In addition to certain restrictions God imposes on a King’s amassment of wealth and power, the text mentions one other important responsibility: the leader must be well-versed in, and surrounded by, words of Torah.”
Deuteronomy says, the rabbi continued, that when the king “sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them, so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left.”
In other words,” said Rabbi Geffen, “for a king to rule properly, that king must be well versed in the law of the land. And to acquire this knowledge, they are expected to literally write not just one but two copies of the law for their own personal use. And not only that, they are expected to physically surround themselves with that knowledge, so that if something should come along to draw their attention away, no matter what direction they turn they will always be confronted by their foundational principles.”
“So when we think about the leaders in our time, we must ask the question: what is the ‘torah’ that they turn to?” said Rabbi Geffen. “What is the source of their knowledge? What is it that they respect above all else? What are the basic, foundational principles that form the core of their understanding? And if we are not satisfied with the answer, how can we possibly think of electing that person to a position of leadership? “
He noted that “in just a few moments” on this Yom Kippur “we will read in our Torah a selection from parshat Nitzavim” in which “God calls upon the heaven and the earth to serve as witnesses to the choice that God would lay before our ancestors all those years ago: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.’”
“Never have these words called out to us more than they do right now.”
“At the end of the day, the decision of who to vote for is yours and yours alone,” said the rabbi. “It does not belong to your parents, or siblings; to your spouses or to your children; to your bosses or your subordinates; to your rabbi, or even to God. But in making that decision, we would do well to consider the wisdom of our tradition and our sages, and to pay heed to what they have to teach us. Politicians come and go. Political parties rise and fall and platforms shift. But the qualities of leadership are timeless and are not bound to any one person or ideology.”
“There has perhaps never been a more important choice to made in our country’s history then in this upcoming election,” said Rabbi Geffen. “So all I can ask is that you think hard and consider what is driving your decisions. You must ask yourselves, is this person, in whom I will trust my life and that of my family and country, truly humble? Do they have the wisdom to know when to speak and when to listen? Do they have respect for their adversaries, as well as for their friends? Do they immerse themselves in the task of acquiring knowledge and if so, whence does that knowledge come? “
He declared: “No leader is perfect. Not even Moses was without flaw. But that does not mean we should not have standards and expectations for those who wish to hold office. And just as we are all given the opportunity to choose blessing over curse, we must choose a leader who will lead us in one direction, or the other.”
He concluded: “Now, I know that talking about politics in temple, let alone on the High Holy Days is uncomfortable and perhaps even a little upsetting. For that I apologize. But please know that today is not a day to be comfortable. Today is a day to challenge ourselves to think deeply about that which matters most. The choice before us is clear. There is life and there is death. There is blessing and there is curse. I can only pray that we all make the right choice.”
The timely—and important sermon—was greeted with applause.