Shoftim: Elders, Prophets and Captains

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Greetings from the Hudson River Valley! I’ve arrived in Poughkeepsie
and begun the long process of avoiding the large piles of boxes in my
house and office. More importantly, I’ve been meeting great people who
for different reasons have been anticipating the arrival of the new
rabbi in town; some want the new rabbi to help with programming plans,
others are looking forward to sermons and learning Torah, some folks
have life-cycle events coming up, and there are those who simply want
a renewed sense of spiritual leadership within the community.

Well, as I’ve said before, one of the amazing things about being
Jewish (which I learned from my teacher R. Brad Artson) is that
whatever issue presents itself at any given moment, there’s always
something relevant to it in the Torah portion of the week. So this
week, as I move into the rabbi’s office on Grand Avenue and meet with
other professional and volunteer leaders of this community, it struck
me how many different models of leadership are named in this week’s
parsha, Shoftim, or “Judges.”

By my count, there are eight different kinds of community leaders
discussed in this week’s parsha, listed in order of appearance in the
text:

1) Shoftim (judges)- legal authorities.
2) Shotrim (“officials”), who seem to be community or civilian
authorities.
3) Kohanim (priests), who have both ritual and some legal duties.
4) Melech, the king, who must learn and fulfill the Torah.
5) Levi’im, or members of the tribe of Levi who have religious
responsibilities but who are not priests.
6) Navi (prophet), a person who speaks the word of God.
7) Ziknei ir (elders of the city).
8) Sharei Tze’vaot (army captains).

A detailed study of the portion, along with comparison to other texts
elsewhere in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), would yield insights into each
role, and how they support and balance each other. (Separation of
powers is a venerable idea.) For today, however, it’s enough to note
that our ancestors understood that different people possess different
gifts, and the community cannot thrive with only one source of
authority or wisdom.

What was true then is no less true today: our spiritual communities
are in need of the wisdom of our elders, the insights of those with
penetrating minds and good discernment, the moral courage of brave
visionaries, leaders of ritual and song and other connections to the
sacred, and the hard work of those generous spirits who provide for
the well-being and safety of communal institutions.

Done well, leadership is not a zero-sum game, with clearly defined
winners and losers; if it’s all about winners and losers, it’s not
leadership, it’s power struggles. Rather, I believe that a healthy
community encourages everyone- everyone!- to find their voice and
offer their unique contributions. There is so much to be done, and so
much to lose if we restrict our openness as to who may guide us to
just a few traditional types. Our ancestors knew that their community
could not thrive with only one kind of leader; neither can ours, and
we are blessed in proportion to our communal ability to bring forth
wisdom and inspiration from the souls all around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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