Photo Credit: Jewish Press

William H. Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. On Election Day in 1860 he was convinced that he would be elected president. However, he lost to Lincoln. Although Seward had been Lincoln’s opponent, Lincoln valued his knowledge and experience and appointed him to his cabinet. Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals explains that part of Lincoln’s greatness was his ability to assemble an expert team of his former opponents to help him lead the country. Lincoln did not dwell on past attacks. Rather, he realized what talent was necessary to run the country and employed that talent – previous animosities notwithstanding.

With Seward’s appointment, many people, including Seward himself, thought that Lincoln would serve as the figurehead and Seward as the de facto president. Since, in early 1861, Seward felt little more than contempt for Lincoln, he immediately began to design and implement his own policy with respect to the brewing crises in various parts of the south. To this end, he sidestepped the Navy Secretary and began issuing orders to Navy personnel on his own by essentially misguiding Lincoln into signing executive orders. When Navy Secretary Welles found out, he visited Lincoln and angrily demanded the situation be redressed. Realizing what had happened. Lincoln revoked his original orders and issued new ones in line with Secretary Welles’ strategy.


The most interesting part of this episode has nothing to do with the actual events. Rather, it has to with Lincoln’s reaction to Seward. William Lee Miller in his book, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, suggests the following explanation for Lincoln’s actions. “Another leader would have found Seward’s conduct in this affair hard to forgive. It was the culmination, indeed, of a number of episodes that had occurred since Seward’s bitter defeat by Lincoln in Chicago. But Lincoln, generous and clearheaded, realized that he needed Seward… Before many more weeks were out, Seward would be writing to his wife, Frances, about Lincoln’s executive skill. And by the time his four years were over, Seward would have become Lincoln’s closest friend on the cabinet, and a great admirer” (p.90).

Great leaders like Lincoln have the strength of character to overlook wrongs and see the broader picture. People make mistakes and do bad things. A leader needs to know when to give members of his team another chance and when to relieve them of their posts. Certainly, errors that reflect lapses in ethical conduct must be treated with the utmost seriousness and often will require immediate termination of the team member’s employment. However, other errors allow the leader greater latitude. An insight on a verse in this week’s parsha quoted in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter offers leaders guidance as to how to make such determinations.

For an animal to be kosher the Torah states that it must have split hooves (in addition to chewing its cud). In it’s cataloguing of various non-kosher animals the Torah states (11:4-6) that we may not eat the camel, hyrax and hare because their hooves are not split. However, there is a slight difference in the wording the Torah uses for each one of these animals. With respect to the camel, the lack of hooves is conjugated in the present tense, whereas, with respect to the hyrax, it is conjugated in the future tense and, with respect to the hare, in the present tense.

Rav Salanter explains metaphorically that before we can declare something impure we have to look at the past and future of the object. If there were something of value in the past, the present problem may just be an aberration and the object may once again become pure in the future. Rav Salanter operated from a mussar perspective. Thus, he emphasized that we must be very careful before we pass judgment on something, and especially before we pass judgment on somebody.

Leaders can learn important guidelines from Rav Salanter’s explanation. When a team member errs a leader should carefully examine the person’s overall record. If, in fact, the person has been valuable in the past, giving the person some slack for his error will not only be in the person’s best interest, but will likely be in the organization’s best interest as well. In appreciation for a second chance, the team member will often work even harder for the organization in the future.

Seward hurt the inexperienced Lincoln in April 1861. However, Lincoln understood Seward’s strengths and weaknesses and the context Seward was operating in. He gave Seward another chance and Seward went on to serve him and the country well. Lincoln did not limit his perspective to the present. He looked into the past and saw into the future. It was for traits like this that at Lincoln’s death Secretary of War Stanton, another Lincoln critic turned admirer, commented that Lincoln now “belongs to the ages.”


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Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College. Comments can be emailed to him at [email protected].