What the Talmud tells us about leadership (Daf Yomi Pesachim 113)

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A leader who lords over the community for no cause.”

What does the Talmud tell us about the qualities of an effective political leader?  Bear with me today, because I have been thinking a great deal of what makes a strong and effective leader and today’s text informs current events. I have had my heart broken over and over as I watched some of the leaders that appeared to be the most forthright of our public servants reveal that they are deeply flawed human beings. I realize that I sound incredibly naïve to have ever expected otherwise.

Today, I am applying the advice that is in the text of the Daf Yomi reading to what constitutes a good leader and a righteous human being (and unfortunately, they do not go hand-in-hand these days.) First, we are told that our mayor should not be a doctor or have any other profession on the side. They will not be able to pay enough attention to governing, which in the city where I live takes every breath of their being. The text also offers a general warning not to live near a city where dogs do not bark or horse neigh, as they provide security and protection. It is always wise, for a leader to have a dog, or even a cat, to provide not just security, but to demonstrate their humanity.

A leader needs to keep their word, because there is nothing more demoralizing to the citizenry than to elect someone with grand promises that yield no results. Rav offered this advice: It is better for one to turn over a carcass than to turn over his word, i.e., to break his promise.”   Rav also warned against becoming too arrogant: “Skin a carcass in the market and take payment, but do not say: I am a priest, or: I am a great man, and this matter disgusts me.”  A leader should do the hard work of governing without raising funds that can corrupt his mission, because “it is preferable for one to work, even in menial labor, than to be dependent on others.” A leader should be transparent about their source of funding and finances.

A leader needs to take care of their health, and “treat food respectfully even if it is inexpensive.” And a leader should not get into the “habit of drinking medications, lest you develop an addiction.” I wonder how many of those in government have made bad decisions while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. We are told that if one has a toothache, rather than pulling it out, to try to heal it if possible, just as so many of our cities and towns require healing in the wake of the global pandemic.

A leader needs to build a coalition from the grassroots on up, so that he has the support he needs from the community and is attuned to their needs. The Talmud tells us that one should not provoke “a small gentile, a small snake and a small Torah scholar” because they will grow up and assume power, and a leader will not have their support in order to push forward one’s agenda.

Rabbi Yohanan said that there were three kinds of “exceptional and noteworthy individuals” in the world. This includes the bachelor who lives in the city and “does not sin with woman,” a poor person who finds property that does not belong to him and returns it to the rightful owner, and a wealthy person who “tithes his produce in private, without publicizing his behavior.” Although a leader today is not expected to live a single life, he is expected to avoid temptation and treat the people who work for him with respect.

The Gemara cites these human qualities that can applied to a strong leader: “one who does not get angry, one who does not get drunk and one who is forgiving.”  We are also told that one is a hypocrite if “he says one statement with his mouth and means another in his heart.” This unfortunately, is indicative of so many of our politicians who do not keep campaign promises, or quite simply, obfuscate the truth.

There is another lesson in today’s reading that we should take to heart, involving how we judge our leaders during this time of intense press and social media coverage, where an educated citizen needs to be very astute about political bent and bias. We are told that one should not observe “licentious matter performed by another person” and testify “against him alone.” We are told that singular testimony is meaningless and results in giving someone a “bad reputation.”

Facts matter, and a careful case needs to be constructed before a person is accused of something untoward, although each person deserves to be heard. What inevitably happens after so many have been silent for so long is that when one person is brave enough to come forward, many others will as well.

I have been among those who portrayed Andrew Cuomo as a hero who stepped up during the pandemic and steered the state of New York through the most difficult of times, when there appeared to be a dearth of leadership elsewhere. And it was not just me – my friends in other states and countries have told me that they found so much hope in the daily briefings he held during the darkest days of the pandemic. Cuomo spoke of New York tough and finding love among us, and it was the combination of the two that made him so special.

We are making great progress in New York with disseminating the vaccine. My recent visit to the Javits Center in Manhattan for my shot was awe-inspiring in the scale of the operation that the state and city have undertaken. The Javits Center alone has already administered over 180,000 vaccines, and it has the capacity to do many more. But we are still in danger and need strong leadership to bring us to the other side of this pandemic.

I am not one of those who think the Governor should resign ahead of the results of an investigation, although I am deeply heart-broken by the behavior I have been reading about from multiple women and also men who said he used a heavy hand in wielding his power.

Today’s Daf Yomi reading has me thinking deeply about the qualities of a great political leader and why so many have Shakespearean-level character flaws. And why with all the talent that resides in our society, there always seems to be such a dearth of competent politicians who are willing to step up and steer us through the darkest of times.

https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me/pesachim/pesachim-113

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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