By Ezra N. Rich
Today is the start of a new season. Yes, summer is beginning to wind down as children return from sleepaway camp and pack up for college. It is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the last month of the Jewish calendar, meaning that Rosh Hashanah 5784 is just a month away!
In this week’s parshah (Torah portion) of Shoftim, we have many Mitzvot (commandments) regarding the rule of law in society. Alas, it is a contentious topic these days both here in America and in Israel. We learn in Pirkei Avot (4:13) that there are “three crowns” in the world: Torah, priesthood, and kingship.
In his work “Lessons in Leadership”, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, ZT”L, compares these three categories to the separation of powers in Western democracies. As the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, he notes that the crown of kingship gets a lot of attention. However, the Torah views royalty differently than we may imagine it.
A King of Torah
Rabbi Sacks notes that the commandment for a king is the only one in the Torah with the explanation being that this is what other people do: “When you enter the land the L-rd your G-d is giving you and you have taken possession and settled it, and you say ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us… ’” (Deut. 17:16-17). The traditional commentators see this departure from the general obligations of the Israelites to separate themselves from the other nations as a sign of ambivalence about a monarchy. Furthermore, the verse continues with a negative tone as it highlights what a king can’t have, such as not accumulating too many horses, wives, or gold. These are among the temptations of power that we certainly see throughout history, including in our times.
That said, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes that a fundamental Jewish idea is that leadership is service rather than dominion, power, or superiority. The king must constantly read the Torah, which he must always have with him, “So that he may learn to revere the L-rd his G-d… and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites” (Deut. 17:19-20).
Rabbi Sacks writes that “leaders learn.” He notes that some of the greatest ones were well-read. In our Jewish heritage, our tradition attributes King David as the author of Psalms and his son King Solomon, with the Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Many of the greatest statesmen of our Western civilization, from the Founding Fathers to Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion, among many others, had robust libraries and authored many works.
Lastly, Rabbi Sacks clarifies that the Jewish concept of chochma (wisdom) is slightly different than Torah, in that its insights are of a human and universal realm rather than a special Jewish tradition. Broadly speaking, we can see chochma today as the sciences and humanities.
“Though few of us are destined to be kings, presidents or prime ministers, leaders learn. They read. They study. They take time to familiarize themselves with the world of ideas… To be a Jewish leader means spending time studying both Torah and chochmah: chochma to understand the world as it is, and Torah to understand the world as it ought to be,” is Rabbi Sacks’ closing point.
This perspective resonates with me, in part, thanks to the influence of my late grandmother, Miriam S. Rich (1931-2008), Z”L, whose 15th yahrzeit will be marked next week on 6 Elul. A lifelong learner from a proud Zionist family, she was our beloved matriarch who strongly valued Torah education and broader knowledge, and she nourished a deep love for Israel that she instilled in her descendants. Just this week, my cousin Avichai—her youngest grandchild—enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces!
Shabbat Shalom, and as we can traditionally say beginning in the month of Elul, Ktiva V’Chatima Tova, may you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life!
Ezra N. Rich (marketing communications manager at Uniland Development Company) is a member of the Buffalo Jewish Federation Board of Governors and co-chair of its Israel & Overseas Committee as well as the co-chair of the Temple Beth Tzedek Youth Education Committee and the husband of its new spiritual leader, Rabbi Sara Rich. Their daughters, Miriam, Sivan, and Naomi have been creating summer memories at Camp Ramah in Canada, Camp Centerland, and the JCC outdoor pool!