Positions of power carry with them the potential for dishonesty and disreputable behavior. Even honest leaders must worry about their reputations. Moses and Samuel, who served their people as both prophets and political leaders, were indisputably honest. Still, simply being a leader meant, at times, having to defend their reputations.
Moses, when confronted by Korah and his cohort, was compelled to defend himself against charges of abuse of power: “Moses was aggrieved and said to the Lord: ‘Pay no attention to their offering. I have not taken the donkey of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’” (Numbers 16:15) Similarly, Samuel felt a need to defend himself when the people want to exchange his leadership for that of a king: “Here I am! Witness against me before the Lord and before His anointed. Whose ox have taken and whose donkey have taken, whom have wronged and whom have I abused, and from whose hand have I taken a bribe to avert my eyes from him? I shall return it to you!” (1 Samuel 12:3)
The following midrash was so impressed by the principles expressed in these declarations that in its retelling of these episodes it expanded their application: “[Moses said:] ‘Even things that it would have been appropriate for me to take, I did not take. It is normal for someone doing holy work, to take his or her fee from the sanctuary. I, on the other hand, when I was travelling from Midian to Egypt [to redeem the people], should have taken from them a donkey [to make the trip], since I went down for their sake. Still, I did not take one. And so, Samuel the righteous said: ‘Witness against me before the Lord and before His anointed. Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken? When I needed a bull to offer for your offering and to pray for mercy for you, or oil to anoint the new king, I used my own… and not from theirs.” (adapted from Tanhuma Korah 7)
The presumption of this midrash is that leaders must remain above reproach. In order to do so, they must live lives that are “lifnim mishurat hadin” – above the expectation of the law. The temptations of power are difficult to resist for many who attain position. The Jewish tradition sets up its ideal leaders as models to emulate. They try to keep themselves above suspicion and fastidiously protect their reputations, in part, because they represent God, but also because their missions as leaders require it. We can only pray that those who lead us might try to heed this counsel.