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Dvar Torah by Joe Nalven: Shabbat Shuvah – Vayelech: Incomplete Leadership Models

Shabbat Shuvah October 5, 2019

Vayelech: Incomplete Leadership Models

Parashat Vayelech (“and he went”), Deuteronomy 31, tells about Moses’ last day of life. He says to all of Israel: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’’ Moses anoints Joshua as his successor. He tells everyone not to worry for God will destroy all the nations that are in their way.
Moses writes down the Torah and gives it to the priests. Every seven years, all are to gather to hear the words of Torah. God tells Moses that the people will turn away from their covenant with Him. In anger, God says he will forsake them and hide his face from them.

What Should be Done with a Disobedient People?
The problem for God is knowing that the Israelite nation will become corrupt, fat and fall away from their covenant with him. The following parashat (Deuteronomy 32 Ha’azinu) presents Moses’ song describing God’s wrath against this fallen people. The imagery is startling: God is imagined with a fire in his nostrils, devouring earth and showering the Israelites with misfortune. Moses’ blistering song is intended to be a reminder to the Israelites. Maybe that would bring them back to the path of Torah righteousness. One question that comes to mind is whether words alone are sufficient to keep the community on the intended path, or are there other considerations such as institutional boundaries and requirements.
We will consider Moses’ fearful words in next year’s Shabbat Shuva, but for the present let us focus on leadership.
Some three thousand years ago, the key question was ‘What kind of leader did the Israelites need at that moment in history?’
In Parashat Vayelech, we find two distinct leadership models. These are worth exploring to see if they were and are sufficient for governance and keeping a nation in good order – then and now.

Two Leadership Models in Parashat Vayelech
Two models are described in Vayelech – one is a consensus model of leadership, the other is an authoritarian or command one.
The consensus leadership model is described when Moses speaks to Joshua:
Deut. 31:7 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them . . . “
In telling Joshua that he will be ‘going with the people,’ Moses is alerting Joshua that he will be with the community, with the elders, and have others with which to consult.
In the authoritarian or command leadership model, God speaks to Joshua:
Deut. 31:23 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.”
Rashi , following Rabbi Yohanan , emphasizes the advice from the divine about leading a people: “Bring them even against their will. It all depends on you. If necessary, take a stick and beat them over the head. There is only one leader for a generation, not two.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 8a)
However, contemporary writers such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Shimon Felix , argue for a balanced or blended model of leadership – where consensus and command are complementary, and where either alone can end in disaster.
Rabbi Shimon Felix, a contemporary commentator, sees the first model , as the Moses model. Moses understands the human and social dimension of the community and places leadership within this context. Felix sees the second model as the divine model of leadership where the people must be struck over their heads, as it were, to do the right thing.
Felix warns that a consensus model, taken by itself, could result in no one taking responsibility, while the authoritarian model alone could result in dictatorship. The optimal model of leadership is a blended one: “It is only when both these models – the very human need to work within a consensus, within a community, as well as the divine demand for absolute personal responsibility for and obedience to the goal – are present, that Joshua, or any leader, can really lead.”

Leadership is more complex
We realize that these two models of leadership are inadequate once we pay attention to social context, either in the Torah itself, in ancient history or in contemporary affairs. The context in Vayelech is limited to advice to Joshua – from Moses and from God. The social context is obviously more complex: It is affected by the size of the community, the age of community members, sex, cultural expectations, the nature of the problems affecting them, and also the reflexive interplay between leader and followers ─ what one does often changes what the other will do.
Several incidents in the Torah come to mind and require us to explore such considerations. For example, the Golden Calf incident shows how a ‘consensus’ can be ill-informed; the consensus of the Israelites who were frustrated with the absence of Moses dissolved into mob rule. Aaron, the leader by default, appeased the mob and acceded to their demand to build an idol ─ the Golden Calf.

In another narrative, Korach and 250 community leaders confront Moses. Korach challenges Moses about why he sets himself above them. Instead of seeking a consensus, Moses forces a choice between himself and Korach: Who is God’s favorite? Korach is presumed to have been obliterated in this confrontation. This is not the consensus model that we read in Vayelech.
When Moses received a request from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh to allow them to keep their cattle on the east side of the Jordan instead of continuing on to conquer the Canaanites. Here, we see a negotiated compromise, allowing these tribes to build communities and keep their sheep in a fertile area but keeping the men in Moses’ armed forces to battle the Canaanites. This compromise illustrates both consensus and negotiation.
On yet another occasion, Moses is confronted by a complaining community about the scarcity of water after his sister Miriam dies. Moses is angered by this cranky group of Israelites. Moses’ anger likely leads him to ignore God’s request to speak to the rock to get water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock. While water flows, and thus satisfies the community’s demand, Moses’ act results in his being denied entry into the Promised Land. We might call this a come-uppance that results in negative fallout from an impulsive authoritarian leadership.
What we see in the Torah is how a leader can be pulled in any number of ways depending on the social and material context. Even a good leader can make bad decisions ─ whether leadership is consensus or authoritarian.
Taking these, and other fragments of leadership behavior into consideration, we are left to wonder whether there is a more comprehensive understanding of leadership ─ where particular individual leadership behavior is channeled by a broader social context into more effective governance. More effective governance may not be a divine concern, but it certainly situates a leader’s governing ability. A ‘how-to-govern’ book is needed; perhaps not for the longevity of a nation for that is subject to the vagaries of war, disease, famine and other external factors, but something which we value in modern times ─ namely, a wider participation in the power and wealth of the nation. That is a question worth discussing.
To be sure, elsewhere in the Torah, we find a positive approach to making leadership more effective. In Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law guides Moses into distributing judicial decision-making into an administrative bureaucracy of sorts: judges are appointed to hear conflicts at the first instance, freeing up Moses’ time to do other things. Parenthetically, one can also see a parallel to distributing administrative governance in the distribution of economic wealth: Wealth remains in the possession of the owner, but there are ways to distribute some of the wealth to widows and orphans. These are first steps in crafting more effective ways for distributing power and wealth within an ever larger community.
The history of ancient Israel is that of one person rule, partially diffused into tribal leaders and elders. There is the rule of judges from Othniel to Samuel ─ a period of about 350 years beginning about 1400 BCE; that was followed by the rule of kings from Saul to Hezekiah of Judah, ending about 686 BCE. Given the history of nations, Israel lasted for a considerable period of time under what was essentially one man rule (augmented with tribal and chiefdom leaders).

A historical transformation in the New World
Although our point of departure are the two pieces of advice given to Joshua in the Torah parashat Vayelech, one by Moses and one by God, and despite extending our discussion into other sections of Torah about the influence of social context, about the administration of (judicial) power, and the history of ancient Israel, we might well wonder if there is a larger point to be made about leadership.
As part of a comparative framework, you might ask about how other cultures have leadership and its role in governance. Why not examine China and its Middle Kingdom? Why not plow through the history of Polynesian chiefdoms? Why not investigate the English Monarchy or Czarist Russia’s form of governance?’ Yes, there are innumerable countries, and innumerable histories ─ but none connect to the Torah in the way America does.
No other country until the 20th century was inspired by the Torah. None were inspired by the Israelite Exodus. It was the United States of America that carried that divinely inflected sense of liberty.
We find the Israelite experience, as written in the Torah, part of the American vision. The Pilgrims came to America 400 years ago with a parallel vision of the ancient Israelites seeking liberation from a tyrant. In 2020, we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims coming to America.
Bruce Feiler captures the Pilgrim’s sense of liberation as they exited the Old World:
“When [the Pilgrims] embarked on the Mayflower in 1620, they described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. On the Atlantic, their leader, William Bradford, proclaimed their journey to be as vital as ‘Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.’ And when they arrived in Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea.”
To be sure, the Pilgrim’s exodus was not a one-to-one mapping of ancient Israel’s form of governance onto their unfolding experience in America. Nevertheless, these early Americans needed a resource for the social glue to keep their emergent communities orderly and for how understanding what was right and wrong.
Specific laws in early America were justified on the basis of Torah. For example, in 1641, the Capitall Lawes, Established within the Jurisdiction of Massachusetts, stated: “If any man rise up by false witnesse wittingly, and of purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death. Deut. 19. 16. 18, 19.” An amendment adopted in 1649 added: “If any Child, or Children, above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding, shall CURSE, or SMITE their natural FATHER or MOTHER, he or they shall be putt to death, unles it can be sufficiently testifyed, that the Parents have been very unChristianly negligent in the education of such children: or so provoked them by extream & cruel correction, that they have been forced thereunto, to preserve themselves from death or maiming: Exod. 21 17, Lev 20, 9, Exod 21 15.”

The Bible, both the Old and Testaments, served as a foundation for an orderly society. In New Haven, just as in Massachusetts, the legislators used biblical sources to anchor their laws: ”[T]he Supreame power of making Lawes, and of repealing them, belongs to God onely, and that by him this power is given to Jesus Christ as Mediator, Math. 28. 19. Joh. 5. 22. And that the Lawes for holinesse, and Righteousnesse, are already made, and given us in the Scriptures, which in matters morall, or of morall equity, may not be altered by humane power, or authority, Moses onely shewed Israel the Lawes, and Statutes of God, and the Sanedrim the highest Court, among the Jewes, must attend those Lawes. Yet Civill Rulers, and Courts, and this Generall Court in particular . . . are the Ministers of God, for the good of the people; And have power to declare, publish, and establish, for the plantations within their Jurisdictions, the Lawes he hath made, and to make, and repeale Orders for smaller matters, not particularly determined in Scripture, according to the more Generall Rules of Righteousnesse . . . .”
Up until the Declaration of Independence, the early colonies made notable use of religious sources, both the Old and New Testaments. Samuel Langdon, a delegate to ratifying the New Hampshire constitution, and president of Harvard College, gave a sermon in 1775 stating, “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic . . . The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model . . .; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.”

However, all of a sudden ─ or so it seems from our vantage point ─ the explicit religious sourcing of laws evaporates. None of the laws stated in the founding documents of the new federal government in America are religiously sourced. Though the early American colonists relied, in part, on biblical sources to anchor their laws, by the time the Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the specificity of biblical sources evaporated, giving way to a secularized framework of laws that only spoke of God in a general way as that upon which the secular framework relied.
This new perspective in 1776 on governance and leadership is worth examining ─ especially as a contrast to what we have seen in Vayelech and other parts of the Torah. What was missing in the Torah? Or, perhaps better stated, what was added that makes more sense for us today than merely relying on the Torah?
Before examining this ‘new’ perspective, we should note that the influence of the Torah was not forgotten or diminished. John Adams, the second President of the United States, wrote about the Hebrews as the vehicle for a better foundation for civilization: ”I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation . . . the Jews preserve[d] and propagate[d] to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”
Apparently, this inspired vision of the ancient Hebrews gave way to the requirements of the pragmatics of good governance, especially in distancing the new government from that of England and King George III.

Beyond Torah: A social organizational perspective
Early America experienced sectarian conflict: the colonies notoriously favored one religious affiliation over another ─ the character of Virginia was Anglican with occasional violence toward Baptists; Massachusetts was Puritan; Pennsylvania was Quaker; Maryland was Roman Catholic and so on. Catholics could hold office in Massachusetts only if they renounced papal authority, showing that they were true Christians; Delaware required an affirmation of belief in the Trinity.
Not until the U.S. Constitution eschewed religious affiliation as a source of legal foundations did States begin to change as well. Virginia passed the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. Jefferson explained the intent of the law “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
A quantitative counting of references by the Founding Fathers shows the Bible, particularly Deuteronomy, of major importance, followed by Enlightenment philosophers, especially Montesquieu. However, if we disentangle those statistics, we find that the anti-Federalists were those enamored by the Bible, while the Federalists ignored that source altogether.
At the end of the debate over the Constitution, there were no explicit religious justifications for the new federal framework Instead, the Founding Fathers turned to several Enlightenment philosophers, particularly John Locke and Montesquieu.
It is important to ask ourselves, why doesn’t our inquiry into Vayelech end here? After all, the formation of the United States abandoned support from religious texts. The Founding Fathers were looking for secular sources. Not a biblical enlightenment, but a contemporary European Enlightenment. Moreover, Deuteronomy was geared to a monarchy and a priesthood, not towards a search for new democratic roots.
There is a more elemental concern that both the Torah and the newly forming United States constitution confronted. Indeed, all governance must contend with an often unruly people, the potential for anarchy and the absence of a commitment to a cultural community. In the Torah, God is frequently moved to anger with humanity ─ not only with the frequency of sinfulness, but often with a complaining people with a lack of gratefulness. We will find that in discussion next year’s Shabbat Shuva in Ha’azinu. God is tempted to annihilate the Israelites. Moses warns the congregated community.
Is God’s acknowledgment of humanity’s foibles and unruliness unique? Not by any means. That is a perpetual dilemma. Indeed, all governance must contend with an often unruly people and the potential for anarchy. In the Torah, God is frequently moved to anger with humanity ─ not only with the frequency of sinfulness, but with complaining and lack of gratefulness. When the Founding Fathers abandon religious text to confront this type of issue in the constitution, they need a different set of pragmatics. It is instructive to see the overlap as well as the differences in the solutions to governance taken in ancient Israel compared to the new government in America.
What did the Founding Fathers look to for governance? Was it more than consensus versus command? Or something else? Perhaps a different configuration ─ perhaps one that would be found in a different chapter in the ‘how-to-govern’ book.
Here is a quick outline of Enlightenment thought that undergirds the U.S. Constitution.
Thomas Hobbes: Without government, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” The way out of self-interest was to have a social compact to prevent chaos and have social order. We find that sentiment in the U.S. Constitution: “We the People” have a government to “ensure domestic tranquility” and “promote the general welfare.”
Baron de Montesquieu : Reflecting on the self-interest of the governed, one must in effect create a governing system in which the sinners guard other sinners from sinning ─ that is, a separation of powers, a separation of the three essential lynchpins of governance: executive, legislative and judicial. Montesquieu coined the term “separation of powers” that recognized the three branches of government, that each must stay in its own lane of competence, and be a check on the other. Those three branches of government are stated in Articles 1, 2 and 3 of the U.S. Constitution. That is the checks and balances system we now enjoy. This distribution of power can also be recognized in the electoral system such that more populous states do not overwhelm those with far less population.

John Locke: Not only is a social contract in which the govern give consent to be governed, but there are natural rights of those governed inherent in the reciprocal agreement between both. We see this expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Locke, like Hobbes, believed in life, liberty and property as natural rights. Arguably, this can be seen in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Locke’s ideas were radical when he wrote them. His Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government was so radical when it was published in 1689 that it was published anonymously, revealing his authorship later in his will.
In broad outlines, we see the foundations of the U.S. Constitution drawing on ideas about governance being developed during the Enlightenment overlaying the pragmatics of the American rebellion, and about how to get buy in from all of the colonies.
What Rabbis Jonathan Sacks and Shimon Felix speak of as balancing or blending the two forms of leadership found in Vayelech (consensus and authoritarian) requires considerable discourse on how to make such a blending – what are the social and cultural elements, what is the magic of the organizational structure to make this blending work, and does tinkering with this magic risk when undoing parts of a precarious social contract? Would the good intentions of, for example, eliminating the Electoral College or to pack the Supreme Court put us back onto a pathway of the unruly mob?

Great leaders
Perhaps social organization is less important than I have argued to this point. Perhaps leadership stands above the social channeling of individual behavior. Here, we ought to consider the ‘great man (or great woman)’ theory of history. In 1840, Thomas Carlyle described history as one framed by heroes: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”
Rabbi Sacks’ discussion of leadership pulls us in this direction. Ultimately, a great leader is required: “[While] you have to strive for consensus,” Sacks argues, “ultimately, if there is none, you must take the risk of deciding. Had they waited for consensus Lincoln would never have ended slavery, Roosevelt and Churchill would never have led the free world to victory, and David ben Gurion would never have proclaimed the State of Israel.” And who are these individuals? Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, David ben Gurion. Aren’t these are the great men and heroes of recent history?
The further question is how such leaders rise to their positions of power, regardless of the type of society ─ whether viewed in terms of hunting and gathering societies, or the more recent histories of tribal, chieftain, kingdom and state societies.
We could benefit by examining how our primate relatives rule and grow their ‘moral’ compass out of the group’s sociality. Consider, the chimpanzee, the bonobo, the gorilla, the macaque, and the rhesus monkey. A monarchy or a democratic republic may simply be the sugar coating, the veneer, for more basic instincts about leadership, about what is right and wrong, and about who has the charisma to pull together the members of the community.
By viewing ‘human’ leadership in a broader socio-biological perspective in which humans behave in ways similar to other primates, we can understand how leadership transcends social organizational forms, and is instead rooted in primate group sociality.
Meredith F. Small, an anthropologist explains our connectedness to the wider primate world in terms of leadership: “[W]e primates usually form rank hierarchies, and we need someone to take the lead. Researchers first understood how important leaders were to our kind back in the 1970s when primatologists began to spend long hours watching monkeys and apes in far-flung places. . . . Once the data were in, it became clear that even lemurs and monkeys followed social rules that looked awfully familiar. . . . Good leader monkeys are also wise monkeys. They have been known to guide the troop to valuable resources such as food and water during hard times, and to teach young animals the ropes. . . . And for some human leaders, those monkey and ape advantages hold as well. Human leaders can gain great wealth, a comfortable life, and a bunch of wives and children if they choose. But for other human leaders, it’s not about the individual evolutionary advantages but about helping the whole troop.”
The selection of Joshua to succeed Moses is not inconsistent with this socio-biological understanding of primate leadership. Pinchas could have been chosen for his strength and independence; Moses’ own son Gershom could have chosen; or Caleb for his leadership while spying on the Canaanites. Instead, God recognized that charismatic quality we find in leaders: “So the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him.” That “spirit of leadership” is the essence of Israel’s new hero as well as the person best suited to “helping the whole troop.”

And so, in this perspective, leadership may be understood independent of the society in which leaders find themselves. In this view, leaders in ancient Israel are intimately connected to leaders in modern America. Thus, Vayelech’s two models of leadership are still appropriate for today. Both Moses’ and God’s advice Joshua speaks to Joshua being the new hero of the Torah. It less important to conclude which interpretation is the better one: whether Joshua’s accession to leadership of the Israelites should be understood from a great man theory of history, or one of divine recognition of his charismatic (or spiritual) quality, or even from a socio-evolutionary perspective that evidences that “Good leader monkeys are also wise monkeys.”
A Reflection on Drashing the Torah: Opportunities and Limitations
One approach to understanding the Torah is Jewish exegesis, known by the acronym pardes. The four levels of Jewish exegesis are: peshat (literal understanding of the text), remez (deeper meaning beyond the literal), derash (comparative meaning) and sod (esoteric or mystical meaning). These levels of analysis often overlap, and the extended meaning is not intended to contradict the primary text.

When the Torah is appropriated to serve other cultural systems, we move beyond standard Jewish exegesis. The Torah can serve as a foundation ─ albeit to serve other spiritual objectives ─ in Christian and Islamic texts. We’ve also seen how parts of the Torah have served as a legal foundation for many early American laws.
I have used an eclectic approach to zero in on leadership, especially as it has an impact on governing a people.
First, at the literal level of understanding, we followed the template of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Shimon Felix, who both relied on Rashi and Rabbi Yohanan in the Talmud. Felix looks for a way to integrate the best of both models of leadership: “In the Talmud, these two models seem to be presented as being mutually exclusive; Moses understands Joshua’s leadership one way and God disagrees with him. I would suggest that they can, and should, coexist. It is only when both these models – the very human need to work within a consensus, within a community, as well as the divine demand for absolute personal responsibility for and obedience to the goal – are present, that Joshua, or any leader, can really lead. The point, it seems to me, is to be able to work with the people whom one is leading, while, at the same time, understanding that, ultimately, one bears complete and total personal responsibility to the goals and aims which one hopes to achieve.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes the greater complexity and risk in being a leader: “In short, leadership is not simple. It is complex because it involves people and people are complex. You have to listen, and you have to lead. You have to strive for consensus but ultimately, if there is none, you must take the risk of deciding.”
Rabbi Sacks understands the psychology of being a leader ─ of its pitfalls, nuances, diversions, and of seizing the moment: “It is not the job of leaders to give people what they want. It is the job of leaders to teach people what they ought to want. But at the same time they must involve people in the decision-making process. Key figures and constituencies must feel that they were consulted. Collaborative, consultative, listening leadership is essential in a free society.”

Without disagreeing with either the Torah, or with Rabbi Felix’s explanation or the more complex approach outlined by Rabbi Sacks, we must acknowledge that something is missing. Felix calls for a coexistence of these two models of understanding. Sacks is more specific and addresses the nuances of consultation in a democratic society.
This is where illustrative examples are required to show how the social pragmatics of ancient Israel compared to modern America affect the ‘how’ of leadership. Divine leadership and the dynamic tensions between the tribes of Israel, on the one hand, contrast with a tripartite system of secular governance and a dynamic tension between the separate branches of power, on the other. Taken by itself, the Torah is insufficient to show how such coexistence works in modern America.
Still another frame of drashing leadership in Vayelech is to examine Joshua as the next great hero after Moses. Joshua has the spiritual quality to lead ─ call it charisma or see it as the common thread of humanity with our primate cousins. Whatever it is, it transcends the confines of our history ─ as inheritors of the wisdom of the ancient Israelites or that of Enlightenment philosophers. All leaders share the quality of hero and in this way, Vayelech is just as significant today as it was thousands of years ago.
This is where creative drashing can flourish. What needs to be avoided are the Scylla and Charybdis of appropriating the teachings of the Torah into contemporary life: Are we, on the one hand, overstating the teachings of the Torah by ignoring the vast differences between a tribal society – even one that has evolved to a kingdom – with an actual complex state with vast bureaucratic structures or, on the other hand, reducing history into an irrelevancy where hero worship is the only thing that matters.
Our American system does not pretend to divine craftsmanship, nor does it seek monarchic rule in either a king or a sectarian priesthood. Leadership is required in both ancient and modern systems of governance, even though the social pragmatics are very different. Is leadership the same? Do the same two models of consensus or command apply regardless of time and place? Or whether we speak of humans or our primate cousins?
The specifics of this analysis may well be challenged; however, they are offered as a cautionary note. We would do well to ask ourselves if we skip over such an analysis in appropriating the Torah to modern circumstances, is there a risk that the conclusions may, in fact, unintentionally contradict the peshat (the primary meaning of the text in the Torah) and/or lead us on a path with undesirable consequences.

[1] Parashat Vayelech might be better paired with Ha’azinu for a double Torah portion if we considered the questions of leadership, governance, an unruly people and a God who desired a particular path for righteous conduct. However, the Shulchan Arukh follows other considerations in pairing Nitzavim-Vayelech.  For a detailed examination of pairing parashiyot, see: Why Do We Sometimes Read a Double Torah Portion? And when do we double them up? Yehuda Shurpin,

[1] Quoted in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, On Leadership: Consensus or Command? Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31), Sep 22, 2014

[1]  Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, 1st CE.

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The answer, it seems to me, is this: Both God and Moses wanted Joshua to know that true leadership cannot be a one-sided affair, be it the pursuit of consensus or command-and-control. It must be a deft balance of both. They wanted Joshua to hear this in the most striking way, so each said what they were least expected to say.”

[1] Rabbi Shimon Felix, Models of Leadership,

[1] Rabbi Shimon Felix, Models of Leadership,

[1] Ibid.

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes a similar approach (following Rashi):  “The answer, it seems to me, is this: Both God and Moses wanted Joshua to know that true leadership cannot be a one-sided affair, be it the pursuit of consensus or command-and-control. It must be a deft balance of both. They wanted Joshua to hear this in the most striking way, so each said what they were least expected to say.”  But as argued here, that “balance” remains enigmatic even in the Torah.

[1] Ibid.

[1] We can see the effect of ‘mob rule’ today in ‘Twitter feed.’ Take the New York Times: two sets of critical feedback illustrates the difference between reasonable and intimidated editorial reactions. In one case, the international edition of the NY Times published a cartoon that was criticized as anti-semitic. The political cartoon by António Moreira Antunes showed a blind President Trump holding the leash of a dog with the face of President Netanyahu with a Jewish star. The New York Times apologized and ended having political cartoons in its global edition. ; That is a reasonable response unless one believes the action was simply a cover to a darker motivation. By contrast, the New York Times revised its front page headline from “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” to “Assailing Hate but Not Guns” after substantial criticism on Twitter, apparently succumbing to its liberal subscribers.   While one can debate what is a reasonable change to public feedback versus caving to a mob, it is important to note that the difference is real and affects how one exercises leadership. In the case of the Golden Calf, Aaron is arguably responding as if there was an overwhelming negative Twitter feed rather than a reasonable response to a public concern.

[1] Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35. The Golden Calf echoes the Egyptian (and pre-Egyptian cultic) deity Hathor who personified the female – of motherhood, joy and love.

[1] Numbers 16:1–18:32

[1]  Numbers 32:1-19.    Conquest of the East of Jordan,

[1] Numbers 20:1-13. See, Chukat: Moses’ Sin, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser,

[1] Ibid.

[1] To be sure, God addresses the Israelites interest in having a king, but God’s concern seems to be that a king is a distraction from following him and his laws. How having a king is more or less effective than other forms of governance seems irrelevant to these verses. See, for example, 1 Samuel 8:5: “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” See also, Deuteronomy 17:14–15 where the concern was to avoid having a foreigner for a king, presumably one unfamiliar with God’s centrality to Israel embedded in tribal kinship and community.

[1] See Exodus 18:24-26:  “Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.”  See also, Moses and Jethro Creating a Model of Leadership by Sharon L. Sobel,

[1] Deuteronomy 24:19 “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comment on judges in ancient Israel:  “The ‘judges’ referred to were not mere judges in the contemporary sense. They were military leaders who emerged from time to time when the Israelites – then a loose confederation of tribes rather than a nation – came under attack from enemy forces.”Shoftim (5767) – On The Limits of Power, August 16, 2007.

[1] The Chinese model of leadership is reexamined in a positive light by a Chinese political scientist in ‘Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers’ [by Yan Xuetong] Review: No More ‘Sage Kings,’ by Michael Auslin Aug. 11, 2019. However, the book reviewer points out that the enduring question for political scientists and policymakers is:  “Does a nation achieve global dominance by the strength of its economy, military and culture (state) or by the capabilities of its political rulers (leadership)? For Yan Xuetong, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, it all comes down to leadership.”

[1] One might ask whether the State of Israel fits into this discussion. For some interesting responses, see

[1]  Plans for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower have been announced, Christopher Gavin,

[1] Bruce Feiler, America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America, 2009.  See also, Michael Freund, How the exodus story created America, The Jerusalem Post, March 29, 2013,

[1]  John W. Welch, Biblical Law in America: Historical Perspectives and Potentials for Reform,  BYU Law Review, Volume 2002|Issue 3Article 19-1-2002


[1] Ibid.


[1] Ibid.

[1] Daniel L. Dreisbach, How the Bible influenced the Founding Fathers, November 23, 2016.


[1]  Anthony J. Minna, Religion, Why God is in the Declaration but not the Constitution, February 22, 2016   Note that there are three mentions of religion in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. These references are unlike the specific justifications of laws with biblical sources. These mentions are. Bill of Rights,  Amendment 1 (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”);  Article VI  (“no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office”)    Article VII signature line (“Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord . . .” )


[1] The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776: “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

[1] Discussed in Michael Novak, The Founders and the Torah, September 4, 2000, New York Times,   See, Letter to F. A. Van der Kemp, February 16, 1808.


[1] Also of note is the particular Jewish flavor in the connotations about the formative American character. Norman Berdichevsky, The Torah And The Constitution, July 2007, New English Review,


[1] There are a wide variety of government types.  We can compare types of governance that range from one person rule, to several, to all (or most members of the community). Even without resorting to contextual influences, we might note that each government type has its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms ─ an evaluation dependent on our ethical norms and cultural expectations: A king versus a tyrant; an aristocracy versus an oligarchy; a democracy versus anarchy (or mob rule either by a majority or a minority). Here, I offer my apologies to Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Kant and the many other philosophers and political scientists who’ve tread these waters before and more deeply ─ whether discussing the structure, source, ideology or other facets of social power in an individual leader or as manifested in the societal framework of governance.[1]

Correct Deviant
One Ruler Kingship Tyranny
Few Rulers Aristocracy Oligarchy
Many Rulers Democracy Mob rule


[1] See, Kenneth Davis,  America’s True History of Religious Tolerance, Smithsonian Magazine, ; Eric Wong, The History of Religious Conflict in the United States,


[1] Ibid. See also, Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, Document 45,


[1] Daniel L. Dreisbach, How the Bible influenced the Founding Fathers, 2016.

[1] Chris Rodda, No, Mr. Beck, Our Constitution Is Not Based on the Book of Deuteronomy, 2017,

[1] One can also point to Cesare Beccaria of the Italian Enlightenment who influenced the framing of criminal law. See,

[1] Whether there was a direct influence on the U.S. Constitution or were part of the general set of ideas upon which the Founding Fathers drew is not an issue upon which this discussion rests.

[1] Kevin Wandrei, Thomas Hobbes’ Importance in American Government, 2018. ­

[1] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws.

[1] Legal Information Institute, Separation of Powers.

[1] Marc Schulman, Why the Electoral College.

[1] Spencer Guier, John Locke’s Influence on the United States Constitution,

[1] Natural Rights and Legal Rights,

[1] Ibid.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government,

[1] Great Man Theory,

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, On Leadership: Consensus or Command? Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31), Sep 22, 2014.

[1] We could add to Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir to this list.

[1] Meredith F. Small, Human Nature, How Great Leaders Evolved, November 07, 2008. ; For a discussion of the evolution of morality, see Nicholas Wade, Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior, March 20, 2007.  On egalitarianism among hunting-gatherer societies, see Christopher Boehm, Political Primates, December 1, 2007,


[1] Numbers 25

[1] Exodus 4

[1] Numbers 13

[1] Numbers 27:18. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. How do we lead? Goldstein examines Jewish leadership in the context of “generations of Torah transmission.”  A special note of thanks to Yaakov Markovitz at for providing me with Rabbi Goldstein’s article.

[1] How do we see ourselves? Desmond Morris opined: “I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape.” The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal

[1] Pardes (Jewish exegesis),

[1] Jewish exegesis, Pardes.

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, On Leadership: Consensus or Command? Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31), Sep 22, 2014

[1] There are others who have explored this path of leadership. See, for example, Jonathan Sacks,  Leadership: Consensus or Command, and The Leader as Teacher,

[1] Op. cit. Rabbi Shimon Felix.

[1] Op. cit. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

[1] The twin sea hazards faced by Odysseus as he returned home from Troy ─ one a rock shoal, the other a whirlpool.

[1] An analysis of how interpretations of the ‘stranger’ are often strained or misguided in contemporary sermons, see Shabbat Shuvah ─ Vayelech ─ And he went by Joe Nalven, September 15, 2018.

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