Vayakhel-P'kudei: Virtue and Leadership

Now that Purim has passed, we look ahead to the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot.  They mark our liberation from Egypt and, seven weeks thereafter (hence, the holiday’s name), our receipt of Torah.  These were the formative events in the birth of the Jewish nation.    

All nations, most especially young ones, need leaders who inspire public confidence.  George Washington has been called “the one indispensable man” of American history, and certainly not only because of (indeed, perhaps in spite of) his military aptitude.   Moses could hardly be less a seminal figure for the Jewish nation.  Yet, he was not its only key leader.  

Just after receiving the Torah, the Israelites began the important nation-building task of constructing the Tabernacle to divine specifications.  Who would head this project?  Moses said to the people:

רְאוּ קָרָא יְהוָֹה בְּשֵׁם בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן־ אוּרִי בֶן־ חוּר לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה: לא וַיְמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת וּבְכָל־ מְלָאכָה

 “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel,  son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.  He has filled him with the spirit of G-d in practical-wisdom, in discernment and in knowledge, and in all kinds of workmanship …”  Exodus 35:30

Our sages explained that the opening words of this verse, “See, the Lord has called, etc.” mean that the nomination of Bezalel for his important task should be ratified by the community, as no leader may be set over a congregation without its approval.[1]  

“Consent of the governed” – to use the stirring phrase from the Declaration of Independence – is therefore both the Jewish and the American way.  How fortunate we are that, in both nations, our leaders are elected and, with their parties, serve only so long as they retain the people’s confidence to lead.  

And yet, since their respective foundings, both nations have had the occasional misfortune of suffering under weak, corrupt, or incompetent leaders who have not been filled with the spirit of G-d in practical-wisdom, in discernment, and in knowledge.   Perhaps this is one of the failings of popular democracies, as they have evolved.  G-d chose both Moses and Bezalel and placed them before the people, who then decided to follow them.  More recent leaders have enjoyed no such divine imprimatur.     

At the beginning of the American nation, only men (and only men) considered by their peers to be amply endowed by Divinity with “public virtue” were nominated for high office and placed before the electorate for ratification.  Anyone “politician” who would need today’s style of unabashed self-promotion was deemed unworthy by definition.   As historian Gordon Wood explained in his classic Creation of the American Republic: “public virtue” was “This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community—such patriotism or love of country was the key constituent in eighteen century American leaders.”   

Regrettably, that seemed to change by the early nineteenth century.  Ever since, candidates have spoken mostly about positions on specific issues: glorifying their own and belittling those of their opponents. 

In our election seasons, the voters’ lament is “stick to the issues!”  Issues certainly are important.  Yet, they should not be the electorate’s focus.  Once elected, national leaders will almost certainly face unexpected challenges and even crises.  Managing military threats or wars, economic shocks, unprecedented natural disasters, and other actual or potential calamities are, unfortunately, a key part of the job.  When these events occur, our leaders’ ability to exercise “the spirit of G-d in practical-wisdom, in discernment and in knowledge” and to engender public confidence can often be instrumental to a successful outcome.  Indeed, our siddurim recognize this through prayers for just such blessings upon our national leadership. 

As this election season gains momentum and we are called upon to choose among the candidates, may our Torah remind us of what is most important.  Better that we elect leaders who inspire confidence in their ability to lead – come what may -- than ones with whom we share political philosophies or stands on particular issues.   Especially in our system, which permits relatively or even woefully inexperienced politicians to seize the reins of national leadership, character doesn’t just “count;” it may determine our entire future.     

[1] Cited by Dr. J.H. Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, in his Pentateuch and Haftorah commentary. 

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