The Torah’s Definition of Leadership

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By Rabbi Naftoly Bier

Upon observing that his son-in-law, Moshe Rabeinu spent an entire day “judging” the Jewish people, each one waiting their turn, Yisro said, “What is this you do to the people; why do you sit alone with people standing by you from morning to evening?” Moshe Rabeinu answered, “1) When they have a matter one comes to me, 2) I judge between two parties, 3) and I make known the decrees of Hashem and His teachings.”

On a simple level, Yisro thought it incomprehensible that Moshe Rabeinu should 1) be the only person to “judge” for it will cause fatigue; 2) and it is unconscionable to cause Klal Yisroel grief.

Rashi explains that Moshe Rabeinu answered that he is 1) dedicated to answering all questions regarding understanding Torah, 2) to adjudicate quarrels between parties and lastly 3) to teach Torah. The ט”ז explains that though it initially seems that the first and third responsibilities are the same; on the contrary what transpired was, that when different parties thought that he had ruled differently for the same exact case, he would take the two to elucidate the minor differences.

Ramban explains the three in the following manner: “1) when one was ill or lost an object they would beseech me to pray for them to Hashem, 2) if there is a quarrel I adjudicate, and 3) lastly I teach them Torah.”

We may ask according to the Ramban, why did Moshe mention teaching of Torah as the last item; after all of the first two are not relevant to every member of Klal Yisroel, secondly the most important mission is for him to teach Torah? The Ramban is teaching a very profound fundamental; to be a true leader and educator necessitates to expend time and effort to try to understand the unique personality of every individual and then accordingly teach in a manner that every member is enlightened.

This was Moshe Rabeinu greatness. He patiently dedicated his day to avail himself the opportunity to comprehend the emotional and intellectual makeup of as many as he could, thereby legitimately preparing himself to be a selfless teacher to all. Even according to Rashi’s explanation, we are being taught in the time-consuming, selfless dedication to enable all to truly understand the teachings of Torah.

The Ralbag (1288-1344) teaches that Yisro’s main concern was that by spending enormous time with the people, he would be forfeiting the ability to develop true נביאות, prophecy, for a stipulation of prophecy is for one to isolate. Moshe Rabeinu answered him, though I am aware that I am relinquishing my special דביקות בה’כ, unique bonds, my primary responsibility is to dedicate my time and thought for others. All three explanations illustrate the same enormous, unmitigated, selfless devotion and steadfastness that Moshe Rabeinu teaches us that a leader, teacher, or parents must have. Despite his incalculable lofty greatness, his unique, singular connection to Hashem; his first responsibility was to enhance the living experience of another.

This same idea was embodied by Yisro. Though he had joined the Jewish people in the desert, he was experiencing the exceptional, spiritual environment, nevertheless he chose to return to his homeland in order to try to convince his people to reject idolatry and accept the monotheistic G-d. (An important read that one’s responsibility to others takes precedence to one’s individual growth is the חתם סופר, vפיתוחי חותם)

In the same vein that one must constantly deliberate how to enrich another’s living experience, one must without deviation adhere to the rules of etiquette, דרך ארץ. It is only natural and imminent that if one cares about another, they will with constancy interact with all, in the most gracious and courteous manner, it being a reflection of their integral nobility.

The Torah teaches us this lesson in a profound manner. In 19:8, after Klal Yisroel accepted the Torah, Moshe Rabeinu reported to Hashem this fact. Chazal point out, despite that Hashem is all-knowing, etiquette requires that since Moshe Rabeinu had been instructed by Hashem to inquire if Klal Yisroel would accept, it was incumbent on him to relate their answer directly to Hashem. One must always act with consistency; etiquette has to be a constant in one’s lifestyle.

This idea is taught in שמות מדרש רבה מז:ה. The Torah states that “משה רבינו was with Hashem for forty days and nights, bread he didn’t eat and water he didn’t drink.” How is it possible that he lived? Rav Meir answered, “If one enters a city, one has to conduct themselves according to their custom. In Heaven, where the angels don’t eat or drink, one has to act in the same manner. Conversely, when the angels visited our patriarch, Avraham, they ate and drank (בראשית יח:ח).” In both cases, Hashem changed the nature of Moshe Rabeinu and the angels because דרך ארץ, etiquette, demands that one isn’t conspicuous amongst others.

These lessons of leadership and etiquette are not only Torah instructions, but are the basic fundamentals that are required before studying Torah; דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה.

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