Leadership and Scholarship

On a quiet street in Tel Aviv Yaffo, the area where the ancient city of Jaffa blends into the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv, you can find a quiet and unassuming house built in the early 30s.  It is easy to walk right by it without having any idea that it is today a museum, with no entry fee by the way, the first and second floors the place where David Ben Gurion and his family lived during the events of the founding of the State of Israel.  You may know that Ben Gurion later settled in the Negev, in Sde Boker, but the family kept the Tel Aviv home, and used it off and on for decades, even into the 70s.

There are two things that are striking about the home.  The first is how austere it is.  We are used to our presidents being surrounded by opulence, the White House is expensively decorated, our leaders wear expensive suits and ties, they look like men of wealth and largely live in the style of the rich and famous.  Ben Gurion’s uniform of choice was a short sleeve khaki shirt, and the home he lived in was sparsely furnished, just the basics, with worn furniture, a small kitchen, old pots and pans, almost as if to say material things are not important.

The only indulgence in the home can be found on the second floor, which is where Ben Gurion spent most of his time.  There are 5 rooms on the second floor.  One of them is a small bedroom, with an old bedside table with a lamp.  But the other four rooms are filled with shelves, and the shelves are filled with books.  There are volumes in various languages – Latin and Greek, English, French and German, even Turkish, and of course Hebrew.  All told there are some 20,000 volumes in those four rooms.  Ben Gurion spent any spare time that he had reading and writing, studying the contents of his library, thinking about the great minds and the great works of literature, from antiquity to the modern day.  He was a statesman, a leader, a politician – but he was also a scholar, and his world view was formed through study and the world of the mind.

Ben Gurion knew that Jewish tradition had long demanded scholarship from its leaders.  The two greatest biblical kings, David and his son Solomon, are both understood in the tradition as being authors.  King David wrote?  The Book of Psalms.  And how about King Solomon?  According to tradition, Solomon wrote three biblical books – as a young man, he wrote the Song of Songs, the Bible’s great love poem.  In his middle age Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs, filling it with witty sayings and wise observations about the world.  And then in his old age he wrote the book of Kohelet, called in English Ecclesiastes, with its world weary observations about the temporal quality of life.

This idea that the king should also be a scholar is found in the Torah itself, and comes from this week’s portion, called Shoftim.  There is an extended passage at the end of the 17th chapter of Deuteronomy that describes what was expected of the ancient Israelite kings.  The passage concludes with the following verses:  “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written for him by the Levitical Priests.  Let it remain with him and let him read it every day of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah and its laws.  In this way he will not act arrogantly against his fellows, nor deviate from this Teaching…”  (Deuteronomy 17: 18-20)

I see in the passage two ideas that are instructive in terms of how we hope our leaders will conduct themselves.  The first is the Torah clearly believes that a necessary quality for successful leadership is humility.  The text says it quite plainly – the king needs to study so that he will not act arrogantly against his fellows.  A leader who thinks he or she always knows best is not a leader.  True leaders understand that they might be wrong – they doubt, they question, they agonize over decisions.  But even more importantly, true leaders know on a fundamental level that they are no better than anyone else.  When they begin to think that they always know best, when they begin to believe that they have some kind of exalted status, that they are intrinsically deserving of their leadership role, they will lose the ability to properly fulfill that role.  So the Torah reminds us that leaders must maintain a sense of perspective, and that humility is a necessary ingredient for true leadership.

The second thing is that the Torah expects that the king will be a scholar.  A leader must also be a learner – a studier, a digester of information, a thinker, a cogitator, a reader.  The biblical kings had their prophets – Saul had his Samuel, David had his Nathan, Hezekiah had his Isaiah.  And modern heads of state must have their advisors, experts on the wide and varied subjects that cross the leaders desk.  But according to the Torah the leader is not permitted to abdicate the tasks of studying, reading, thinking, and even writing.  That is precisely why in this country we create presidential libraries to honor a president’s service.  You may remember that Winston Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1953.  And that is why David Ben Gurion’s home in Tel Aviv contains those 20,000 volumes.  He knew that true leaders have to learn, and read, and study, they have to familiarize themselves with the world of ideas, with the great thinkers of the ages.  They have to have a sense of the past, of where we’ve come from, they need to be students of history, and they also have to have a sense of where we are today, of the problems and challenges of our time.  And there is no shortcut  – the only way you do it is by taking the books off the shelf, and delving into the ideas with your own mind.

It is clear from the Torah’s text that ancient Israelite culture felt intensely ambiguous about the institution of the monarchy.  On the one hand the text acknowledges the need for centralized power, and understands that a strong king can unite the people and give them a sense of national identity.  On the other hand the Torah knows all too well that a king without the proper checks and balances can become dangerous and even deadly.  After all, our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, a king who had ultimate power.

Of course we know the end of the story.  The monarchy comes into existence, and kings sit on the throne of ancient Israel for generations.  The most successful of those kings – the ones who are remembered as beloved, both by God and the people, are those who follow the advice in this morning’s portion – והיתה עמו – the book will be always with him – וקרא בו כל ימיי חייו – and he will read from it all the days of his life – in order to learn to fear the Lord his God, observing all of the laws of this Torah.

We should hope and pray for the same sense of humility and depth of understanding in our own leaders.  May they realize the need for it so we see it soon –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Israel, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

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