Parasha Shoftim: The Qualities of a Leader

At the Academy for Jewish Religion, all rabbinic students were required to take a course in Homiletics. For those of us who are not clergy and may not be familiar with this word, “Homiletics” is a fancy way of saying “sermonizing”. Our teacher for the course, Rabbi Richardson, had a long and successful career as a pulpit rabbi and had given thousands of sermons in his time.  His job was to help us to develop into rabbis who would give stimulating and inspirational sermons to our future congregations.  At the beginning of the course he gave us a piece of general advice. Looking quite seriously at all of the men and women in the room, he said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you want to succeed as a rabbi on the pulpit, there are two things that you should never talk about in your sermons. The first is politics. The second is religion!”

Well, according to Ecclesiastes, there is a time and a season for everything — so, why NOT a sermon about politics! We are of course in the very heart of the political season. When I last checked this afternoon we were 59 days, 8 hours, 44 minutes and 10 seconds from Election Day. But who’s counting? When it comes time for us to vote, what should we look for in a leader? The Torah reading for today offers some advice, although it will take a creative reading of the text to understand it.  The Torah states:

You shall appoint leaders for your tribes….. and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not plant a sacred tree or any kind of pole or wood beside the altar of the Lord Your G-d.

A rabbinic commentator asks, “Why are these two verses next to one another? Is there any connection between a leader, mentioned in the first verse, and an altar, mentioned in the second? He answers – A leader needs to be like an altar. Just as an altar is made of earth on the inside, and brass on the outside, so a good leader needs to be humble and soft on the inside, like the dust of the earth, and hard and dignified on the outside, like the brass of the altar’s exterior. A leader needs to be strong enough to stand against the powerful, the arrogant and the privileged members of society who seeks to exploit the poor and weak in order to keep them subjugated. In order to succeed that same leader needs to be humble and compassionate on the inside, so that he or she could identify with those who need protection and speak on their behalf.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th President, was such a man. I am thinking of him because this week I watched the film “All the Way” on HBO.  It is a great movie and I urge you to see it. It stars Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson in a role that has been recreated from a play that had a run on Broadway in 2014. It is the story about the passing of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Upon assuming office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, Johnson’s first order of business is to see to it that the Civil Rights Bill that President Kennedy had sent to Congress would be passed into law. In order to get this bill passed, Johnson has to overcome the resistance of Southern Democrats in the House and Senate who were usually his allies but who opposed this bill.  The Civil Rights Movement is also building in 1964. The film depicts the pressure on Johnson from the Black Community, in the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, to pass this bill. In addition, Johnson’s upcoming race against Barry Goldwater in November was much on his mind. Johnson’s is concerned that if he does not retaliate to an attack by the North Vietnamese against the United States Navy that might — or might not – have occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin, he could be perceived as weak by the American people in the upcoming election.

Johnson had to be tough as nails to stand up to these competing pressures and divergent interests. He was battle hardened by the 24 years he spent in the House and Senate. He was prepared to fight for what he believed in. Yet as hard as he was, Johnson had a soft spot for the poor and for African Americans who were struggling to gain civil rights and their share of the American Dream. His commitment to social justice and to racial equality were authentic and lifelong.

Johnson had tough decisions to make, and not everyone was pleased with them, to say the least.

It is not easy to be unbending and flexible, stubborn and compromising, unyielding and accommodating. The movie shows how President Johnson was a master at this in his political life. He was a proud and principled man who was nevertheless prepared to compromise if it meant further advancing his agenda for the poor and the disenfranchised. We can all learn a lesson from this. There are times we need to take a stand against injustice and resist the temptation to make concessions to it. And there are times, especially when we are wronged, that we want to strike back and hurt the other as we have been hurt. This is the time when we must be soft; we must resist the temptation to exact revenge, and be forgiving of the other.

Do you know what a “Sabra” is? You may know it as a brand of Hummus, but it is also a kind of fruit – a prickly pear. Native born Jewish Israelis are called “Sabras” because they are prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside. Israel herself needs to be hard on the outside. She has developed a formidable military presence in the Middle East. When your nation is but 65 years old and you have already fought five major wars; when you have had to be constantly alert to terrorist infiltration; when a major power in the region that is on the verge of nuclear capabilities repeats that they want to “wipe you off the face of the earth’ and when a major political faction within the ranks of those with whom you are called upon to make peace calls for your elimination, it is no wonder that you develop a prickly outer skin as a nation. You have to be hard like brass in order to survive. You have to be unyielding. Yet that hardness is tempered by the compassion and mercy built into the Jewish soul through study of Torah and years of suffering.  Shalom, peace, is the highest value taught by Judaism. I believe that Israel is willing to compromise for true peace – a peace that includes recognition by her neighbors of the right to have a Jewish State in the Middle East.  I think Israel would be able show real flexibility if only the attitudes of her neighbors toward her would change.

I hope I have given you something to think about in choosing leaders this election. I hope I have also taught you some words of Torah. I hope that each one of us finds the right balance in our lives between firmness and flexibility, between dignity and humility. I pray that each of you sitting here this evening, especially those of you eligible to vote for the first time, casts a vote this year.

There, I’ve done a sermon on politics and hardly anyone has walked out. Who knows, next week I may even talk about religion!

Shabbat Shalom