Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Leadership
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

The Makings of a Leader

The Command, Stark Contrast, Back to our Story, A Universal Expectation.


Rabbi Chaim Katz

יא אדר ה'תשנ"ד
1. The Command
2. Stark Contrast
3. Back to our Story
4. A Universal Expectation

In the Book of Shmuel I - Chapter 15 - we learn of the war between Sha'ul and Amalek, in the wake of which God rejects Sha'ul as King. The chapter opens with a commandment by the prophet to Sha'ul: "Go and smite Amalek and kill man, woman, and child, etc. But Sha'ul had compassion on "Agag [the King of Amalek] and on the sheep and cattle"...

In response to Sha'ul's improper actions, God says: "I regret that I crowned Sha'ul as King." Shmuel arrives to reprove Sha'ul, but before the former is able to get out his words, Sha'ul interjects, saying: "Blessed are you to God, I have fulfilled the word of Hashem."

This comment by Sha'ul is rather perplexing; he was no was no "small fry"; in fact he was a person of great stature. Our sages cite the verse, "Sha'ul was one year old when he began to rule" - and explain that it really means is that when he began to rule, he was like a one year-old, in that he had not yet tasted sin. Yet, despite this, Sha'ul claims that he has "fulfilled the word of God" by waging war with Amalek, while simultaneously permitting the King and animals to live. Even when Shmuel asks him, "[Then] what is the sound of sheep that I hear?" - Sha'ul answers: "I have brought them from Amalek, the nation had mercy on them..." Shmuel then reiterates: :"God sent you and told you that you must eradicate them..." It is then, and only then, that Sha'ul finally admits "I have sinned by transgressing the word of God." The Talmud in Tractate Yomah asserts: "Sha'ul made one mistake and it cost him his position as king. What was this error? The matter of Agag."

The Tosefta in Tractate Berachot cites four reasons why the tribe of Yehuda merited to have kings descend from it:

1. Yehuda saved his brother Yosef from death, as evidenced by Yehuda's question: "What is to be gained from killing our brother?"
2. He admitted having had relations with his daughter-in-law, Tamar.
3. His humility; he volunteered taking the place of Binyamin, whom Yosef, prior to revealing himself to his brothers, "had taken prisoner."
4. His tribe sanctified God's name when the tribes stood along side the Red Sea. Each tribe avoided setting his foot in the water, until members of the tribe of Yehuda dove in first.

Though these are four different points, they are linked by a common thread.
1. Yehuda saved his brother. Ya'akov's sons had ruled that Yosef was deserving of death, but they agreed that they would tell their father only that "a wild animal ate [Yosef]." Yehuda rejected this approach, noting: "If you think that he is deserving of death, we cannot possibly avoid responsibility for our ruling. You want to kill him? No problem, but this is what we must say to father. To sentence him to death and then to say 'A wild animal ate him' - is simply unacceptable."

This is the hallmark of a king - his acceptance of responsibility for his actions. Someone who cannot take responsibility for his actions or his words, cannot be a king. Yehuda headed the opposition to a death sentence for Yosef, but said to the other brothers that if they did not have the strength to be honest with their father Ya'akov, "let's go and sell him to the Ishmaelites."

Another reason cited by our rabbis as to why Yehuda was to become the head of the Jewish royal family is that he admitted that he had been intimate with Tamar. Our sages teach us in the Talmud (Bava Metziah 59a): "One should throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than to publicly embarrass his fellow Jew. " Tamar is the ultimate example of someone who lived by this principle. She provided Yehuda with the chance of avoiding responsibility for his role in the matter. A prominent person such as Yehuda, by admitting improper behavior, risked losing his status - his whole "share" in this world. Nevertheless, he chose to courageously admit his error. "She is right - she became pregnant from me," he confessed.

The third reason given by our rabbis was Yehuda's having volunteered himself to take the place of Binyamin when the latter was jailed by the still-incognito Yosef. Yehuda explains to Yosef why he, and not the others, must replace the youngest brother,"'because your servant committed himself to be a guarantor for the lad.' I pledged to take responsibility for him, and that is why I am prepared to remain a servant in Egypt."

The fourth reason: When all of the tribes were waiting at the Red Sea, each tribe's population was trying to convince members of the other tribes to be the first to take the plunge. Who acted first? It was Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Yehuda, who was determined to sanctify the name of Heaven, by showing confidence that the sea would indeed split.

Let us now return to the story of Sha'ul. Shmuel asks him, "What is the sound of the sheep that I hear?" Sha'ul responds: "The nation had mercy on them." Shmuel then says: "Do have such a lowly image of yourself? You are the head of the tribes of Israel!" Paraphrased: "Of what relevance is what the nation wanted? Who are you, and who are they? You think you're being humble? Sure, it is important to be humble, but you are the King, not just the average man. Your misplaced modesty is the reason you did not listen to God. Humility is valuable, but you must learn how and when to implement it. A King, too, can be humble, but he must also remember that he is King. There are situations in which a King is required, humility aside, to take upon himself the responsibility for the actions of the nation as a whole."

In another verse, Sha'ul repeats the theme that the nation is responsible for what happened: "The nation took of the spoils," he says. Sha'ul can simply not take responsibility; he is very much influenced by the broader population. A king must know how to direct the nation and not have the nation lead him. Sha'ul should not have attributed the problems to the nation. If they are not "in order' - then, neither is he. In response to his decision, his failure to lead, he is informed: "God has rejected you as the King of Israel." Sha'ul is not fit to be king.

Responsible action is not to simply expected from a king, but from the average person, as well. One must accept responsibility for an improper deed, and not blame the mistake on someone else. By his very nature, man does not see his own faults; in fact, it's easier to see those of somebody else. Accepting responsibility, plainly stated, means that a person understands that he erred. Our sages, in reference to Cain's rhetorical question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" - say (paraphrased): "'You guard all of your creatures and you want me to locate him?' This is comparable to a thief who steals vessels at night and is not apprehended. In the morning, the guard catches him and asks him why he stole the items. The thief responds: I am a thief, and have not abandoned my profession. But you, a guard, why did you abandon yours?"

Cain knows that God knows that he killed his brother Abel, but asks, "Am I really the one who killed him? You gave man his evil inclination. So who's to blame, me? What do you want from me?" Cain does not accept responsibility for his deeds. He makes a claim which undermines the foundation of freedom of choice.
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