Part of maintaining any sense of ordered society is a fair and continuous enforcement of laws and regulations. Some of our fellow citizens (local and global) will do as they wish unless and until there are consequences for their actions or inaction. Some others will do as they please anyway at eventual cost to themselves and likely immediate cost to those around them and society in general.
That goes for violent acts but equally for white collar crime, tax evasion and the like.
What is quite critical to societal foundations is the expectation that everyone is equal before the law and that the courts and judges are neither swayed nor influenced by the status, wealth or position held by someone suspected of failing in their responsibilities to themselves, to their families and to the communities.
As we are reminded: You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly (Leviticus 19:15).
Equally in Ethics of the Fathers: When sitting in judgement, do not act as a lawyer (1:8)
The two Torah portions we read across the Jewish world this weekend appear to touch exactly on these points. This week outside Israel and last Shabbat in Israel, the story of Korach and his group of rebels face the unusual punishment (death by earth swallowing) following a most public, aggressive and cynical rebellion against brothers Aharon and Moses, spiritual and national-political leaders of Israel at the time.
Despite having important Jewish community leadership roles themselves, the 250 men wanted more, they wanted the priesthood and allowed jealousy to overcome their better judgement at the potential cost of chaos and a split in the nation. This all coming shortly after the calamitous saga with the spies sent into the Promised Land, most of whom too returned raucously, knocking the nation off its regularly shaky perch and sparking a new round of kvetching and panic.
Comes Parashat Chukat this Shabbat in Israel and we see another quite striking message for today as much as then. Leaders are not immune to criticism, review, evaluation and consequences. In fact, God shows us very clearly that they are held to an even higher level of scrutiny than “regular” citizens.
When Moses and Aharon’s sister Miriam dies and the water wells dry up with her passing, the children of Israel launch into a tirade of complaints – not only thirsty (fair enough!) but waxing eloquent about what could have been and should have been.
Moses and Aharon are left distraught from yet another round of complaints from the people and seek help. God gives them instructions: Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters (Numbers 20:7)
Somehow Moses and Aharon fall at this hurdle, Moses hitting the rock twice rather than speaking to it and the brothers making reference to their bringing the water rather than using the opportunity to sanctify God’s name and presence.
Perhaps even more crucially, they approach the people abruptly, says Maimondies in his commentary, Moses sinned by becoming angry, even using patronizing, accusatory language – “Listen now, O rebels” and the people could well have assumed (albeit wrongly) that Moses as he always did was representing God’s will and thus God was also angry.
So a myriad of mistakes – yes, leaders make mistakes too – and the very significant castigation and consequence immediate in this case.
A major turn of events in Jewish history – “… You (Moses and Aharon) will not bring the congregation to the Land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12)
The Bible expected great things of great people and held them to account. Those we appoint or elect should be held too to such levels of accountability – in so many ways they hold the collective future and individual futures in their hands.
Word, deed, action and inaction, temperament and disposition count. Leaders of all kinds have the potential to grow and strengthen, or to damage and tear down. The confidence and safety of family, team, community and country is impacted by you.
It is a heavy yoke. As leaders we must not throw it off. As citizens we must insist upon greatness and clean hands from our leaders even if they too are only human.
We should insist upon watertight morality, civility and proper conduct from our own and ourselves no less.