Parshat Shoftim: Seeking Great Leaders

“Leaders do not do the work on behalf of the people. They teach people how to do the work themselves.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l

Parshat Shoftim is a call to just and moral leadership: Appoint judges; Don’t judge unfairly; Don’t take bribes nor be partial and famously, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Who exactly is being commanded to fulfill these crucial mitzvot?

At first, it seems these words are directed at judges. However, several commentaries suggest otherwise. These verses seem to be speaking not only to leaders, but also to individuals. The Sefer Hachinuch teaches that the biblical command to appoint judges (referring to a religious court – beit din) is “incumbent on every community, in every place.” The establishment of just and moral leadership comes about partly through the people who appoint them. This idea is further reinforced by the interpretation of “צדק צדק תרדוף” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The midrash Sifrei teaches that this means you (the individual) must “seek out the finest beit din.” We, the people, can take steps to ensure true justice.

This verse is appropriately also applied to Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi, compiler of the Mishna and a model of wise, compassionate and just leadership. The Talmud in Ketubot teaches “pursue justice” means: run to Rebbe’s beit din in Beit Shearim. This appears in the story of Rebbe’s last will and testament, where he practices outstanding leadership even on his deathbed. He ensures the continued honor of his widow (who was only stepmother to his children) and the honor of his household servants. He set up continuity of leadership through his sons and values fear of sin in a leader over great wisdom. He balances honor to a Torah scholar who has died (himself) alongside humility. May we be blessed with the ability to choose similar moral, just and compassionate leaders in our time. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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Pinchas: Learning Leadership from the Women

“Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic” – Stephen Covey

Parshat Pinchas profiles various types of leadership. Among them, the daughters of Zelophehad demonstrate how to lead positive change. They are a much needed model for today. 

After the Torah describes how the land of Israel will be divided, the five daughters of Zelophehad approach Moshe and request an inheritance in Israel, as they have no brothers to inherit land. The commentaries characterize them as having great “chibah” (love) for Israel. The Talmud goes even further, describing them as “darshaniyot” (interpreters), tzidkaniyot (righteous) and “chachmaniyot” (wise). How do we see these qualities in their behavior?

The daughters emphasize that their father “died by sin in the midbar,” but not as a part of Korah’s congregation. Rashi teaches that they emphasized that while their father sinned, he did not lead others to sin like Korah. Also, Korah spread unfounded criticism and refused to engage in dialogue with Moshe. 

The midrash also contrasts the daughters of Zelophehad with the story of the spies. The spies slandered the Land of Israel and spread negativity among the nation. After their words, the people said they wanted to return to Egypt, leading to catastrophe for that generation. The midrash views the daughters’ words to Moshe as the opposite of the language and behavior that previously led to disasters in Bamidbar. They are proactive. They embrace dialogue and use positive language by saying: “We want to be part of this too!” 

Hashem’s response is “The daughters speak justly.” The midrash sees this as deep affirmation. The Talmud pays them the ultimate compliment: it teaches that the laws of inheritance for daughters are attributed to, and written by, the daughters of Zelophehad. After the earlier stories of people who found ways to criticize and sow discord, these five women model proactivity, dialogue, positivity, and love of the Land of Israel. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson


Ki Tissa: Learning from Shattered Luchot

What can be learned about leadership from Moshe’s reaction to the golden calf? Is it ever acceptable for leaders to speak or act out of anger? The commentaries on parshat Ki Tissa provide some insight.

When Israel commits the sin of the golden calf, the Torah states that Hashem became angry, so to speak, and Moshe calmed God’s anger. God tells Moshe “leave Me be so that My anger may blaze forth against them.” Yet, after succeeding in turning back God’s anger, Moshe seems to lose control upon coming down the mountain and seeing for himself the people celebrating with the calf. The parallel between God and Moshe’s anger is reinforced by the Torah’s use of the same words: ויחר אף. Next, Moshe throws down the first set of luchot (tablets) and shatters them.

Was Moshe’s shattering of the luchot condoned by God? One view is that not only was Moshe right to break the luchot, but God even agreed with this act. God tells Moshe to make a second set of luchot, with the same words as on the first ones which he had shattered, אשר שברת. This is interpreted in Talmud Shabbat with a wordplay – strength to you (yashar kochecha) for shattering them. Here, God affirms Moshe’s action. A more critical view is found in Devarim Rabbah, where God reprimands Moshe for breaking the luchot. Since Moshe broke the luchot from a place of fury, God punishes Moshe by having him re-make the second set of tablets. Here, Moshe’s greatness is in accepting this.

The Talmud also teaches that the broken luchot were kept in the same ark as the new luchot, due to their sanctity. Perhaps it was also to serve as a warning. The image of carrying the broken luchot can be a reminder to modern leaders as well, who hopefully strive to be like Moshe, that they have a responsibility to not react from anger nor spread enmity, but rather to model good character and temperament toward each other and the world. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson