Parashat Mishpatim

Critiquing Our Leadership

While it's easy to complain about poor leadership, Parashat Mishpatim challenges us to critique from a committed, engaged perspective.

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In fact, the historical and prophetic books of the Bible are just full of instances of leaders acting badly and then being denounced for it--so why does the Torah tell us not to curse a "leader among the people?"

Perhaps there is a subtle but crucial difference between criticism and cursing. While some criticism is just useless griping, the kind of critique that the prophets offered was always in the hope that people could change and improve their behavior. Natan confronted David not to bring down his kingship, but so that he would confess and repent.

Contrast this with the passive anger towards the political system felt by so many people today. Voter turnouts are among the lowest ever in recent Canadian, American, and Israeli elections--people love to curse the leaders, but that's not the same as getting involved for positive change. Maimonides notes that "cursing" is a form of anger, which he regards as a destructive emotion, at least when it's not connected to constructive action.

Another interesting observation is made by the 14th century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati, who points out that cursing the leadership, even if it has no physical effect, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage people from taking positions of public service.* Exactly the same point has been made in countless Canadian and American newspaper editorials during the various public scandals of the past few years, especially when journalists and opposition parties engage in what some call the "politics of personal destruction."

I believe that the Torah encourages--even demands--holding leadership accountable to the highest moral and legal standards. Nobody, not even King David, is above the law. Too often, however, we are content to curse the system without any involvement in it, which serves no one, and changes nothing. This whole section of the Torah conveys a very different message: a good society depends on the participation and moral responsibility of each individual. It's easy to curse the leadership, but it's better to work together for a better community.

*These two commentaries are quoted in The Mitzvot by Abraham Chill.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.