Where are the righteous leaders? (Daf Yomi Shabbos 139)

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“If you see a generation that many troubles are befalling it, go and examine the judges of Israel.”

In the middle of the discussions on what is allowable activity on Shabbat, with today’s focus on straining, selecting and sifting, is the insertion of a rather somber discussion on leadership. The words of Rabbi Yosei ben Elisha are invoked: “If you see a generation that many troubles are befalling it, go and examine the judges of Israel.”  We are certainly living through a time of many troubles. Can these words be translated for our times to say: “If you are the country with the worse record for dealing with a global pandemic, go and examine your leadership.”

It is difficult to read the passage on leaders who take bribes and prophets who are for hire without considering current events. The thesis in this special editorial section of the Talmud is that the calamities of the world can be attributed to corrupt judges “who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity.” We are told that the Lord is monitoring these judges and will purge them from the system as one would “purge away your dross with lye.” And when trustworthy judges are restored to positions of power, they will bring their values and civic mindedness to a “city of righteousness.”

Rav Pappa enters this discussion of righteous leaders and says that if the arrogant and the deceitful judges are purged, the Persian fire priest will cease to exist as well. Rabbi Mallai said in the name of Rabbi Elazar that there are “attendants” who are allowed to abuse people through the protection of corrupt judges. This includes privileged Torah scholars who provide cover for corrupt relatives through the veneer of superficial learning. We are told that “they teach ignorant judges just enough Torah and modes of conduct to prevent the people from realizing how ignorant they are, enabling them to maintain their positions.

Today we have leaders who believe they are above the rule of law and have the arrogance to actually say as much. We have leaders who don’t respect the legal system and insert cronies as their “attendants” to allow their corruption to go unchecked.  We have leaders who promote their relatives to positions of power in order to have loyal henchmen to carry out their misguided agendas. We have leaders who are arrogant and lack empathy for the pain and suffering of their people who elected them into office, and they act as if the office is to serve them. These leaders should not be named because they act as if their name alone has afforded them the power to put entire nations at risk.

There are leaders who display empathy, compassion, respect the judicial system and make the tough decisions no matter what the blow-back will be on their own careers. There are a few leaders among us who embody the spirit of the righteous. Like Moses, they are human beings and not always perfect, but they understand what it means to govern.  Among these few are Governor Andrew Cuomo and his father, the great departed Governor Mario Cuomo. These two men, father and son, have displayed the values of public service: to govern fairly and justly and to improve the lives of their citizenry.  And Andrew is adroitly steering New York State through the worse public health crisis of our generation.

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
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