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What is the Jewish Approach to Leadership? (Parshas Shoftim)

parsha sefer devarim Aug 10, 2021



After years of research and preparation, James had finally secured a slot to speak at the prestigious international physics conference. He would be presenting his studies in the field of quantum mechanics and was looking forward to the largest scale event of his life. He had never before presented at an official conference, let alone one of such prestige. It had taken every ounce of courage within him to even submit work to such an event, and he knew that a successful lecture could change the trajectory of his career.


When the day of the presentation arrived, James woke up feeling nervous but excited. He was about to present his life's work before a crowd of the foremost researchers in his field. After preparing his lecture notes carefully, he strode into the conference room. The room was completely empty. "Strange," he thought. "Maybe the previous sessions went overtime...". He briefly reviewed his notes and then looked down at his watch again. It was now five minutes past the start time, and not a single person had shown up. A bead of sweat rolled down his neck as he weighed his options. "Maybe this was all for nothing!" he thought angrily. "Maybe I should just pack up and leave!" 

"No, just give it another minute or so," a calmer voice in the back of his head insisted. 

Just then, an elegant looking gentleman, probably in his mid-sixties, walked into the room. He slowly strolled to the front row and took a seat, focusing his piercing blue eyes on James. 

Slightly taken aback, James forced a smile and began his lecture, surprised by how engaged his single audience member is. Upon concluding his speech, the man came over and generously thanked James for sharing such an enlightening presentation. "Wow! I've been to countless conferences, but this was the greatest presentation I have ever been privileged to hear. You have a bright future ahead of you, son. I wish you all the success in the world and can't wait to see all the incredible things you accomplish with your life."

James floated out of the conference, inspired and confident to begin his next big project. While unpacking from his trip, he found a crumpled-up copy of the conference brochure. He proudly looked at it again, when he suddenly noticed something, someone, staring back at him from the cover of the glossy pamphlet. It was his blue-eyed friend. As he looked closer, he remembered feeling that the blue-eyed audience member looked familiar. "Of course he looked familiar!" he gasped, as he realized that this man was the keynote speaker, the featured scientist who had been flown in from London to lead the conference. This was one of the most respected and revered figures in the scientific world, and he had come to James' speech!

James spent the next several hours tracking down this man's phone number.When he finally got him on the phone, James couldn't contain himself: "I don't understand! You are the greatest quantum physicist in the world. You knew everything I said and infinitely more. Why did you even bother coming to my presentation?"

There was a small pause, and then a gentle reply: "I will tell you the truth. Thirty years ago, I was a young, ambitious thinker and wanted to make a big impact on the world. I got an opportunity to present at a conference very similar to the one we just came from. This was the most exciting opportunity I had ever been given, and I prepared night and day for months in advance. When I showed up to deliver my presentation, not a single person showed up. I was crushed, defeated, and dejected. I seriously doubted my self-worth and almost gave up on my aspirations altogether. It took me years to overcome the emotional hurt. Yesterday, when I finished my keynote address, I was on my way back to the airport to present at another conference. However, when I passed by your room, I saw you standing there in an empty room, and it was like looking at a mirror. A reflection of my past emerged, and I saw myself standing in front of an empty lecture hall. I knew that the best way to encourage you, to teach you, and to ensure that you would continue striving forward, was to sit in on your presentation and show you respect, make you feel heard. The greatest form of leadership is empowering others to be leaders.

James never forgot that conversation.

The topic of leadership is both fascinating and fundamental to human society. In Parshas Shoftim, the Torah discusses the three categories of Jewish leadership: The Melech (king), the Sanhedrin (courts), and the Kohanim (priests). What is the Jewish approach to leadership, and how does it compare to other perspectives on leadership?


Leadership to Serve Yourself


The most primitive form of leadership is selfish leadership, driven by the desire for power and self-gratification. In such a system, the leader represents only himself and his own selfish desires. He demands power, craving it for himself, and generally maintains leadership over his people through fear. In such a system, he demands the allegiance of his people and makes promises of food, shelter, and perhaps power and honor, in return for respect and obedience.


This was the system of old, where kings, tyrants, and oligarchies ruled large provinces. Wealth, birthright, or rebellion served as the right to leadership, and the purpose of leadership was focused solely on the leader- the goal was to give the leader increased power, respect, and control. This system is inherently corrupt, and resulted in endless bloodshed, as the king killed anyone that stood in his way. There were pointless wars, as the king would send the young men of his kingdom to die for no reason other than his own territorial expansion and glory. In essence, the king answered to no one other than himself.


Representing the People


In response to such corruption, there became an increased desire to shift the focus of power. As history unfolded, leadership moved towards democracy, towards a balance of power. In such a system, the power belongs to the people, not the leader. The leader is appointed to serve the people. If he fails to do so, he is removed and replaced with someone who better fills the people’s needs. This is a far better system than the previous one, as it stabilizes power and creates a society focused on the needs of the people, rather than an individual king or elite few.


Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental problem with democracy: a leader becomes nothing more than a puppet of the people. The flaw in this is apparent. Imagine if parents lost their parental license as soon as their child got upset with their decisions. As soon as the parents put their child to bed, they’d be out of a job. When a leader is fully subject to the will of the people, it is impossible to lead. Democratic leaders may appear to be leading, but in essence, they are following.[1]


The Gemara [2] states that Mashiach will come at a time when the face of the generation is like the face of a dog. Rav Elchanan Wasserman explains the depth behind this statement: When you see someone walking a dog on a leash, it appears as though the dog is leading. He is the one walking ahead of his owner, he appears to be calling the shots. However, this is an illusion. The dog is completely subject to the will of its owner. One small tug and he changes direction. The dog is the follower, in an illusory position of leadership.


Many democratic systems suffer from this flaw. Leaders are appointed by the people and are therefore completely subject to the will of the people. They walk ahead, pretending to lead, while in fact, they are merely puppets. Whatever the people want, they'll do. They create their policies and campaigns around the people and polls, not based on their internal values. They would change their policy in an instant if it meant more votes.


A true leader stands for the truth, for their inner values, regardless of opposition. He or she walks ahead and doesn't look back. Even if no one follows, they push onward. They never sacrifice their ideals for public approval. A true leader creates a direction for a greater future, a pathway to individual and collective greatness, and inspires the people to strive for that ideal. This is the nature of Jewish leadership. Let us briefly explore this topic.


True Leadership: Connecting to Something Higher


A Torah leader does not represent himself, nor the will of the people; he represents Hashem. A Torah leader is an emissary of Hashem in this world, and will lead the people towards the truth, towards their true destination. Of course, he cares for and empathizes with each individual, and deeply so, but the foundational goal of leadership involves driving people towards a transcendent goal.


Traditional kings represented themselves, and were therefore no greater than themselves. Democratic leaders are chosen by the will of the people, and are therefore usually no better than the people themselves. A true leader is one who strives towards perfection, and leads others on their own individual and collective journeys towards perfection as well.


There are three categories of Jewish leadership mentioned in the Torah, and each works towards this goal. While they all serve both a practical and religious role, each category maintains its own unique purpose in enabling the Jewish people to fulfill their mission and connect to Hashem:

  • The Melech serves as an embodiment and manifestation of Hashem in this world, negating his ego and serving to reveal Hashem in this world.
  • The Sanhedrin maintain the Jewish ideals in society, ensuring that the Jewish people live up to their purpose.
  • The Kohanim are charged with guiding the Jewish People in their spiritual and religious journey, helping them build and perfect their relationship with Hashem. The Kohanim serve to both help the Jewish people connect to Hashem and help properly manifest Hashem into this world.[3]


An Ideal Society


In an ideal society, everyone is devoted towards achieving their own unique greatness, while simultaneously devoting that individual greatness towards the larger collective greatness of the nation. A leader's role is to enable each individual to embark on their own journey of self-discovery and achievement, while also helping them devote their lives to a greater whole, to that which transcends themselves, to Hashem, the Jewish people, and the world as a whole.


This explains a very strange halacha found in Parshas Shoftim. If a man is found dead outside a city, the elders of the city must break the neck of a calf and proclaim that they did not kill this person (eglah arufah). Why, though, would this even cross our minds? Of course, the elders- the leaders of the city- did not murder an innocent Jew! What then is the deeper meaning of this strange Halacha?


The Gemara elaborates on the procedure of the eglah arufah and explains that the elders of the city must promise that they did not turn the man away without food and an escort. But do the leaders really have to escort every single guest out of their city? On a practical level, this means that, as the elders of the city, they did not refuse this man adequate sustenance and protection. Rav Michael Rosenzweig, however, suggests a deeper understanding, one that carries with it a profound lesson. The elders of the city are the leaders of the city. They influence the atmosphere and set the standards of the city; it is their job to inspire greatness in the people. If executed correctly, nobody in the city would ever murder an innocent man. The elders are therefore required to swear that it was not due to a lack in their leadership that this murder occurred; they assure us that they set up the proper standards of behavior to make something as abhorrent as murder unthinkable. 

With this foundation, we will now study the key characteristics of a great leader.


Qualities of Leadership


Everyone is a leader in some capacity. Some will lead their families, others will lead the world. The scale is irrelevant; the principles remain the same. A leader must begin by leading their own life, devoting themselves towards their own personal greatness. In addition to self-development, a leader must have a strong moral conviction, a genuine love of others, and a sensitivity to their needs. Most important of all is the desire to lead lishmah (for a higher purpose), without any selfish or ulteriormotives. Let us develop this topic in greater depth.


Self-Development as the Prerequisite


The crucial prerequisite of effective leadership is first developing oneself. Before you can lead anyone else, you must lead yourself towards a greater state of existence. This requires a relentless desire to better yourself, to improve every aspect of your life, to become more self-aware, and to maximize your full potential. Developing a deep awareness and connection with Hashem is fundamental to this process. It is therefore no surprise that many Jewish leaders in the Torah were shepherds. Hevel, the Avos, Rivka, the Shevatim, and Moshe were all shepherds, and therefore had the time and environment to contemplate the nature of existence and connect with Hashem on the deepest of levels. They walked around in nature, admiring the awe-inspiring world Hashem created, a lifestyle conducive to a spiritually rich existence. They had the peace of mind to gain deeper levels of self-awareness and weren't caught up in the unimportant and tedious elements of life. In addition to developing empathy and leading a flock, a shepherd's life is one that enables a spiritually flourishing existence.


The Lone Path


A leader must also be willing to commit to the right path, even if he is the only one doing so. Avraham was the Ish Ivri, because all the masses walked on one side of the river, and he walked on the other. He walked alone, choosing to live a life of truth rather than a life of social acceptance. Sometimes one can see clearest when they have the time to distance themselves from their current surroundings, rethink, redirect, and then return with newfound purpose and meaning. Avraham completely removed himself from his culture. Moshe spent many decades alone in the desert and on the run from Pharaoh, building his clarity and understanding of life before returning to lead the Jewish people. Dovid grew up as an outcast before being appointed as king by Shmuel. This is not always necessary, but often, a step back leads to a giant step forward. This is why teenagers who leave their homes in Chutz La'Aretz and spend time learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael often find it so transformative for their spiritual development.


Expanding Outwards


After one has properly developed his or her own inner self and connection with Hashem, a true leader must then learn to properly expand outwards, devoting his life to that which transcends himself, his people. This requires one to become a giver, a lover of others, someone who focuses on the well-being of his nation. Avraham was an ish chesed- a man of kindness. Moshe's first sign of leadership was his empathy, feeling the pain of those outside of himself: he intervened when a Mitzri was beating a Jew, when Dasan and Avirum were fighting, and when Yisro's daughters were being harassed.[4]


A leader’s empathy must go so far that he that he is willing to sacrifice and endure pain for his people, putting the needs of his people before himself. The seventy zekeinim (elders) in the midbar were the taskmasters in Mitzrayim. They were beaten mercilessly by the Mitzrim because they refused to hurt their brethren when the Jews failed to meet their quotas. Their leadership was rewarded for the pain and sacrifice they were willing to endure for their people. But in a deeper sense, they weren’t awarded positions of leadership because of their sacrifice; their sacrifice itself is what transformed them into leaders.[5]


Truly empathetic leaders care as much about the individual as the masses. While inspiring the masses is critical, if a leader cannot lower himself to help an individual, there is something essential missing from his leadership abilities. He must see every single individual person as having infinite value. When a single sheep ran away from his flock, Moshe ran after it to retrieve it. It was at this exact moment that Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe at the burning bush, appointing him as leader of the Jewish People.


Perhaps most important of all, a true leader never desires power for himself. His goal is solely to fulfil his unique purpose and to help others do the same. He leads by directing his people towards something far greater than himself: he leads them towards Hashem, towards their purpose, towards their destiny.


We Are All Leaders


Some leaders are the face of a nation, the ones who stand in front of large crowds and deliver extraordinary and inspiring speeches. But that is not the only type of leader. A leader is anyone who is on a mission, who empowers others, and who always looks for ways to contribute to the greater good. Leaders are great parents, great teachers, great friends. We are all potential leaders, we are all potential revolutionaries. We can all create change in the world. But to create any external change, we must first learn to develop ourselves and live with higher ideals. Let us all be inspired to become the greatest version of ourselves, with the hopes that our own journey of growth will inspire others to become the greatest version of themselves as well.



[1] It is important to note that this chapter speaks only of ideals. In today’s day and age, the ideal political system isdemocracy. Additionally, not all democratic leaders share this pitfall. It is only a likely possibility, not a guaranteed outcome.

[2] Sanhedrin 97a.

[3] For more on the role of Kohanim, see chapter on Parshas Emor.

[4] It's fascinating to note the unique progression of Moshe's empathy. First, he stops a non-Jew from hurting a Jew. Then he stops a Jew from hurting a Jew. Finally, he prevents a non-Jew from hurting a non-Jew. This reflects an ideal whereby we care about all of humanity, not only people who we are related to, feel close to, or relate to ideologically.

[5] True leaders do not sacrifice their people for their own well-being. Israeli officers are known to lead their soldiers into battle, not remain behind in the safety of their army's protection.


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