It was a perfectly good idea, informed by the best moral and religious intuitions. What better way to ensure that the Jewish people’s wars would not be tainted by the desire for personal gain than to declare that all booty would be dedicated exclusively to God? But there was one problem, implied in chapter 8, made explicit by the Talmud, which gets to the core what halachic leadership should be about.
When God commands Yehoshua to reengage the city of Ay in battle, he tells him that everything should be the same as the battle of Jericho, except for one detail. This time, take spoils of war. The Talmud explains this strange command: “You caused their downfall, because by consecrating all of Jericho’s spoils, you brought them to sin. From now on, never consecrate a city again” (Sanhedrin 44a). The soldiers who fell, and Achan, paid the price, but the root of the sin was Yehoshua’s fault, for innovating the prohibition in Jericho against taking spoils of war.
As glorious and correct a vision as a religious leader might have, it’s worthless if the people aren’t able to live up to it. Actually, it’s worse than worthless, it’s destructive. Unrealistic expectations lead first to unnecessary, unhelpful feelings of religious inadequacy, which lead a person to define themselves as ‘not so religious’, or to reject the religious lifestyle altogether as one which is irrelevant to their lives. Halachic leaders are obligated not to demand more from the people than they are able to handle. It’s a model of a leadership (which we’ve seen before) that cares for the welfare of the people, even the sinners among them, at least as much as it cares for the integrity of the Torah. It’s a model of leadership which does not only think about the laws that can be followed by the upper 10% or 1% of the faithful, one which understands that if a single person is unable to uphold their norm, they, the leaders, bear the burden of his “sin”.
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