Leviticus and lessons in leadership

Leviticus and lessons in leadership
Mar 2023

Leviticus and lessons in leadership

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster explores the Jewish approach to leadership and lessons from Leviticus.

The Jewish calendar has now reached the month of Nisan, regarded as the first of the months. This is the month in which Pesach takes place at the time of full moon and when we start reading the book of Vayikra (known as Leviticus).

The first chapter of Vayikra deals with sin offerings to be brought for inadvertent wrongdoing (Leviticus 4: 1-35). There are four categories of sin offerings, dependent on who made the mistake.

First is the High Priest. Then the whole community, represented by the Sanhedrin or Supreme Court. The third is the Nasi (leader) and fourth is the ordinary person.

Interestingly, with three of these cases the word 'if' is used. However, in the case of Nasi (leader) the word used is 'whenever'.

It is conceivable that a High Priest, Supreme Court or ordinary person may or may not err. It is however taken for granted that a Nasi will inevitably get things wrong. Leadership entails mistakes - getting things wrong. It goes with the job. Nasi is the generic word for a leader. Often, the Nasi wielded political power, such as the biblical kings, judges and elders. Later they represented the Jewish community to the government of the day.

Why is this type of leadership prone to error? The book of Vayikra implies that power over others can dull any moral sense. Rulers, whether kings, princes, presidents, prime ministers or church hierarchies, become overconfident. As Lord Acton wrote: 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

The original High Priest and Sanhedrin were in constant touch with the sphere of the holy. The king, or political leader (and these two spheres are blurred in contemporary church hierarchies) are involved with matters of war and peace, daily government and international relations. His duties tended to be pragmatic rather than rigorous per se, and therefore mistakes were bound to be made.

In the past, neither priests nor judges were led astray by populism. Gradually however even some of them have been swayed by populism. But doing what the majority wants is not always what G-d wants. King David holds a census (II Samuel 24) and King Zedekiah ignores the advice of the prophet Jeremiah to rebel against the King of Babylon (II Chronicles 36).

By its very nature, politics deals with the realm of conflict. Politics seeks to maximize benefits to one's own group. The only conflict-free societies are tyrannical or totalitarian. If Judaism is anything, it is dissent and protest against this sort of tyranny. The word 'Hebrew' means 'from the other side'; it is not for favoring the status quo.

Politics balances conflicting and competing claims. And inevitably mistakes will be made. King Solomon's son, Rehoboam, asked his counsellors for advice and then did not heed what they had to say. He ruled with an iron fist and the kingdom split, leaving only the southern tribes, known as Judah, loyal to the King. The northern tribes were eventually conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE and disappeared as an entity. To this day we are named Jews after 'Judah'.

And all because of too much power used in the wrong way at the wrong time in the wrong hands. That is why it is inevitable that most of the time those with political power will fail.

There is no textbook for leadership. Priests and judges to a large extent followed laws that were set down. Instead of laws, rules and regulations, what politicians need is skill in reading a situation. They need to think in particulars, rather than in generalities. Political skill is a gift. The Hebrew Bible contains no political theories, although monarchs were expected to read and thoroughly imbibe its lessons.

Inflexibility in rulers is also no good for society. It leads to Communism. What worked in our youth may no longer be relevant.

In our immediate world, how to cope with Covid when scientists, doctors and researchers were both unprepared and in disagreement with each other? Politicians around the world had to deal with this novel and catastrophic phenomenon.

The State of Israel for instance treated the virus as an invading army and put the country on a war footing. Young people doing compulsory army service in any case were mobilized to help out. They also had their digitalized society and general love of research and development on their side in what they regarded as the war against Covid.

Would this stark and uncompromising approach have suited much of the USA or UK? Possibly not. In a hierarchical society, such as the UK, with its centuries-old class system, combined with worship of the false god, the NHS, sluggishness led in many instances to preventable deaths.

In the USA, an overwhelming belief in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness often led to benign neglect and the false optimism that 'it couldn't happen to us'. Again, more unnecessary deaths.

High Priests and the Supreme Court didn't have to deal with these types of issues on a daily basis. But politicians did. And it was an almost impossible feat, given the fact that scientists are also human and don't work in a vacuum. Choices have to be made in order to obtain grant money for instance.

A private individual is responsible only for his or her own sins. A leader, as in the case of Covid, is responsible for more than just his or her own individual sins. With power comes responsibility. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. How many of our own leaders did likewise in their own way. Parties, dalliances, burying their heads in the sand?

The Jewish approach to leadership is an unusual combination of realism and idealism. Idealism subordinates politics to ethics; power to responsibility; pragmatism to conscience. We know from Vayikra (Leviticus) that leaders will inevitably get things wrong. Error goes with the territory. That is why it is tremendously important that they are always exposed to prophetic critique and constantly study Torah, as laid down in the Hebrew Bible as part of their duties as monarch.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had to deal constantly with enemies wanting to destroy his tiny country, the remnant of biblical Judah. He also had to mastermind the war against Covid. in addition, he had to deal with a disparate political party constantly about to fracture. And yet the Prime Minister found time on a regular basis to take advice from one of Israel's greatest modern prophetic voices, who was summoned at the drop of a hat and left what he was doing to be available at any time of night or day to the leader of the only Jewish state.

What a contrast with Solomon's son, Rehoboam, who heeded his chums rather than his wise counsellors.

Before the former Israeli Prime Minister, all Israel's modern leaders had constant recourse to philosophers and religious thinkers whose advice they often heeded. These thinkers wouldn't give practical advice as to the numbers of tanks or divisions necessary. However in their own sphere ...!

Finally, let's look at the word for 'whenever' as in 'Whenever a leader sins'. The word 'asher' relates to 'ashrei', meaning 'happy'. As it states in the Talmud: 'Happy is the generation whose leader is willing to bring a sin offering for his mistakes.'

Leadership demands the courage both to take a risk and the humility to admit when a risk fails, as it inevitably will. And that is why the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is so essential for the wellbeing of society.