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Yitro's Timely Advice

02/16/2017 01:47:23 AM


Good leaders matter.  The Israelites were about to receive the Torah, but not were ready for it.  Moses was overwhelmed as a leader and could not possibly have handled all of the questions involved in living up to God’s word.    Fortunately, his father in law, Yitro who had significant experience as the high priest of Midian and suggested a strategy for creating a cadre of leaders and officers who could help him judge the people fairly.  He suggested a profile for these leaders, which I have analyzed and  several times over the course of the years, and I believe is just as important for us today.
“You shall seek out from among all the people capable men of valor who fear God, men of truth who spurn ill-gotten gain.” (Exodus 18:21)
Our sages analyzed this passage to create a profile for the nation’s leaders:
“From among all the people:”  The leaders could not be chosen from only the great and respected tribes or families. There had to be representatives from the smaller and less prestigious ones as well, so that all would feel that they were represented, and all leaders would have respect for diversity among the people.
“Men of valor:”  A plain sense of this verse is people who are brave in military matters, but Rashi, the classic commentator, explains that these were people of financial means.  There is nothing wrong with a leader being wealthy, and it can be a plus if they do not have to rely on the community for support, they are  immune to bribery, or even would have the resources to put their money where their mouth was.
“Who fear God:”  Faith is an important attribute for a leader.  It is worth noting that in the Bible, the term “Fearer of God” is used to describe both Jews and non-Jews who are guided by their respective faiths to follow a just and righteous path. 
“Men of Truth:”  Leaders must be people of their word.  Alas, we live in a time where we take it for granted that those seeking office make promises that they may ultimately not keep. However, leaders who lie about their own behavior, or the world around them, are not worthy to lead.
“Haters of Ill-Gotten Gain:”  Leaders  must remove themselves from conflicts of interest.  They should not even appear to benefit from their positions, and must not try to conceal relationships or entanglements that might sway them from the right choices.  Our sages noted that even the most righteous judge must take strong steps to avoid being led astray by their own financial interests or that of their families.
Yitro warns Moses that a nation that does not have such leaders will face an unfortunate fate. He says, “Navol Tivol”- that nation will be worn down, confused, even disgraced.   Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that any one individual leader will be a perfect carrier of all of these traits, but our tradition tells us that we have the right, and even the responsibility, to do whatever is in our power to ensure that our leaders come as close as possible to this ideal.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784