This week’s Torah portion (Yitro) offers a key lesson for today’s politics. It comes just before the fateful Ten Commandments scene at Sinai. Moses father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), teaches his son-in-law how to delegate power and – even more importantly – who is worthy to lead.
I first experienced this teaching, without fully realizing it, while a student at Harvard Law School. Often I walked by Austin Hall, a Romanesque academic building, whose roofline was engraved with Yitro’s fateful words to Moses in stilted Old English translation:
“And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do” (Exodus 18:20).
Looking up at that building, I wondered, “Who’s they?” Did “they” mean all hatchling legal eaglets, a next generation of lawyers and other so-called societal elites groomed to take their places among the powerful?
To Yitro, however, “they” were not a class of person but qualities of character and conduct that potentially everyone can achieve. It was these qualities that Yitro told Moses to seek and entrust with power.
Yitro saw Moses as a rookie prophet, overwhelmed deciding every dispute, so he told Moses to delegate lest he burn out. Yitro then made clear his qualifications for leadership: “they” were people whose spirituality honors authority beyond themselves, who are independent and trustworthy, and who spur ill-gotten gain (Exodus 18:21).
Torah would go further, making clear that a secular leader (then “king”) must not be too impassioned so as to lead hearts astray. A leader mustn’t amass “wealth to excess” (Deuteronomy 17:17). A leader mustn’t act “haughtily,” or be inclined in character or circumstance to arrogance (Deuteronomy 17:20).
Here’s where the rubber of spirituality meets the road of politics.
Needful realities and realpolitik of governing a complex democracy don’t pretend away the self-interest of those who hold power. Wise governing systems and their framers – including drafters of the U.S. Constitution – were pragmatists who understood the humanity of those who hold and seek power. They knew that power often attracts people having internal need to lead. Power can lull leaders into falsely believing that they serve inherently rather than as short-term stewards. Fearing loss of power, leaders tend to seek rather than share authority. That’s why leaders might seek in others loyalty and obedience over excellence and independence.
While we always should hope that leaders will rise to the better angels of their nature and dazzle a cynical public with profiles in courage, political structures don’t assume leadership heroics. Rather, as James Madison’s Federalist 51 put it, healthy democratic structures harness self-interest to balance powers and interests against each other, thus providing external brakes on excess.
It’s when the system seems to break down that moral authority becomes especially important. That’s when Yitro’s words, translated into modern terms, offer their most persuasive power to get attention and inspire accountability and change.
Whatever our spirituality or faith, whatever our religious tradition, we can call publicly for leaders to act as Yitro said – with independence and trust, with humility to honor others, and without corrupting excess. We can call out leaders who defy these bedrock principles that are inscribed on buildings and emblazoned in our Constitution (both the spiritual one and secular one). We must keep calling it out, with a moral authority so potent that, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, ultimately it will command assent.
When we do this, when we drive politics toward morality, we fulfill the promise of democracy and the highest calling of spiritual leadership. In short, we ourselves become worthy to lead.