To Lead is to Serve

This week's Dvar Torah was written by Yuliya Mazur-Shlomi, one of the newest members of our Melton & More Faculty. Yuliya will be offering a course this fall: “Are We Our Mother’s Daughters? From Antiquity to Today." This course will explore the role of women in Jewish history from heroines of the Bible to modern Jewish women born in Russian and Soviet empires.

To lead is to serve.
The greater your success, the harder you have to work to remember that you are there to serve others; they are not there to serve you.

~Rabbi Lord J. Sacks

This Torah portion – Shoftim – שופטים – Judges speaks about figures of authority – judges, and later, kings. In other words, it speaks about leadership. It speaks about people we should trust and obey.

More than at any time of the post-World War II history, it seems very timely and relevant to each of us during this strange time in which we are all currently living. Maybe this is why I approach it with tribulation.

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃

You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your Gd is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your Gd is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

Most of the English language translations of the Bible have ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ Others offer variants, such as: ‘Righteousness, Righteousness you shall pursue’ and evenPursue perfect honesty.’

The great medieval French commentator Rashi interprets the phrase as follows: “Appoint expert, righteous judges who will judge righteously.”

What exactly does that mean?

It seems that legal representatives of any society, big or small, need to be not only people who are well versed in every aspect of halacha/the law – known as talmidei chachamim-- but also should be beyond reproach in every area of their own behavior, i.e., to ‘set a personal example of the proper conduct.’ Moreover, ‘judges must be righteous to the degree that they are capable of influencing and inspiring others.’ (Dorash Dovid)

We learn from Sifte Cohen (Rabbi Shabbetai Kohen, 17th century sage):The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth.’

Each of us, and certainly anyone with authority, is encouraged to look at our ‘gates’ (שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ)’ and how we use them with a critical eye.

Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions.’

Each one of us should be watching our ‘gates’ before rendering judgements upon our fellow humans. If only we could withhold our mouths from issuing angry words at a person with whom we do not agree and be able to at least listen to three witnesses before publicly exposing a person to pain and humiliation!

If only our leaders, whoever they are – religious, civil, national, etc. -- could read these words and take them to heart:

רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽיהוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃

Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”

וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃

And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.

וְהָיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו לְמַ֣עַן יִלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָֽם׃

Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his Gd, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.

לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו וּלְבִלְתִּ֛י ס֥וּר מִן־הַמִּצְוָ֖ה יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַעַן֩ יַאֲרִ֨יךְ יָמִ֧ים עַל־מַמְלַכְתּ֛וֹ ה֥וּא וּבָנָ֖יו בְּקֶ֥רֶב יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Thus, he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:16-20)


If only each one of us, even if we have achieved a bit more than others in this life, would commit to “not acting haughtily toward his fellows” and remember that we are all created in the image of Gd.

Today, when leaders of all kinds are so far from these words and the masses of people are ready to tear each other to pieces in the name of liberty, tolerance, compassion, and love, is it not time for all of us to stop and re-read these texts over and over and over again?

Let us pray that our leaders and judges will indeed “not act haughtily toward [their] fellows,” and we will trust them and try to watch our own ‘gates’ (what comes in and out of our mouths, ears and eyes) in pursuit of righteousness.

Shabbat Shalom


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