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August 28, 2015 / 13 Elul, 5775
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The Sins of a Leader

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

There are further reasons. One is that politics is an arena of conflict. It deals in matters – specifically wealth and power – that are, in the short term, zero-sum games. The more I have, the less you have. Seeking to maximize the benefits to myself or my group, I come into conflict with others who seek to maximize benefits to themselves or their group. The politics of free societies is always conflict-ridden. The only societies where there is no conflict are tyrannical or totalitarian ones in which dissenting voices are suppressed – and Judaism is a standing protest against tyranny. So in a free society, whatever course a politician takes, it will please some and anger others. From this, there is no escape.

Politics involves difficult judgments. A leader must balance competing claims, and will sometimes get it wrong. One example – one of the most fateful in Jewish history – occurred after the death of King Solomon (I Kings 12:1-15). People came to his son and successor, Rehoboam, complaining that Solomon had imposed unsustainable burdens on the population, particularly during the building of the Temple. Led by Jeroboam, they asked the new king to reduce the burden. Rehoboam asked his father’s counselors for advice. They told him to concede to the people’s demand. Serve them, they said, and they will serve you. Rehoboam however turned to his own friends, who told him the opposite. Reject the request. Show the people you are a strong leader who cannot be intimidated.

It was disastrous advice, and the result was tragic. The kingdom split in two, the ten northern tribes following Jeroboam, leaving only the southern tribes, generically known as “Judah,” loyal to the king. For Israel as a people in its own land, it was the beginning of the end. Always a small people surrounded by large and powerful empires, it needed unity, high morale and a strong sense of destiny to survive. Divided, it was only a matter of time before both nations – Israel in the north, Judah in the south – fell to other powers.

The reason leaders – as opposed to judges and priests – cannot avoid making mistakes is that there is no textbook that infallibly teaches you how to lead. Priests and judges follow laws. For leadership there are no laws because every situation is unique. Isaiah Berlin wrote in his essay, Political Judgement, that in the realm of political action, there are few laws and what is needed instead is skill in reading a situation. Successful statesmen “do not think in general terms.” Instead “they grasp the unique combination of characteristics that constitute this particular situation – this and no other.” Berlin compares this to the gift possessed by great novelists like Tolstoy and Proust. Applying inflexible rules to a constantly shifting political landscape destroys societies. Communism was like that. In free societies, people change, culture changes, the world beyond a nation’s borders does not stand still. So a politician will find that what worked a decade or a century ago does not work now. In politics it is easy to get it wrong, hard to get it right.

There is one more reason why leadership is so challenging. It is alluded to by the Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Nehemiah, commenting on the verse, “My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, if you have struck your hand in pledge for another” (Proverbs 6:1):

So long as a man is an associate [i.e. concerned only with personal piety], he need not be concerned with the community and is not punished on account of it. But once a man has been placed at the head and has donned the cloak of office, he may not say: I have to look after my welfare; I am not concerned with the community. Instead, the whole burden of communal affairs rests on him. If he sees a man doing violence to his fellow, or committing a transgression, and does not seek to prevent him, he is punished on account of him, and the holy spirit cries out: “My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor” – meaning, you are responsible for him … “you have entered the gladiatorial arena, and he who enters the arena is either conquered or conquers” (Exodus Rabbah, 27:9).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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