Shabbat Vayikra: Ethical Leadership

March 10, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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The Book of Exodus that we have just completed, provided us with two examples of leadership.

On the one hand, there was Pharaoh, an omnipotent autocrat, rooted in a static and immovable mindset, who was unable to comprehend the inhumanity of his policies or an alternative narrative. On the other hand, Moses, a revolutionary, was animated by ideals and spiritual inspiration. Both sought order, one through oppression, the other through inspiration.

Pharaoh was concerned only with the preservation of power through force and oppression expecting others to carry out his orders. Pharoah expected his inner circle of oligarchs, priests, magicians, and advisors to support and reinforce his policies. Moses was brought up in different societies and therefore was able to evaluate and differentiate systems and policies. Moses challenged authority and fixed ways of thinking. As a result, he was forced to flee to Midian where he encountered a third culture.

He was open to different ways of life and yet remained loyal to the people of his birth. And his openness to new ideas enabled him to experience the Divine presence which led him on his mission to free the enslaved Hebrews and establish a new kind of religious community.

It is a feature of the Biblical narrative that its main figures all experience changes and new experiences which I believe is one of the main reasons Jews have survived so much adversity over such a long time and in so many different societies. Not just because we have always been on the move and been adaptable but also because we had a strong sense of our identity. This has enabled us to adjust and be on the lookout for different ways of dealing with challenges while remaining rooted in a religious culture that valued education, knowledge, ambition, and stressed behaviour rather than theology. Discipline without conformity. Sadly, too many of us fell by the wayside either because of oppression or assimilation.

Looking around us today we see all too clearly how those leaders who base their rule on dismissing different ways of dealing with things, end up failing their countries and people. And those who believe in force, censorship, and corruption are destined to do more harm than good. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This also applies to religious communities that try to suppress or exclude different ideas.

I have in mind the revolting Putin who is so blinded by his ambition that he brooks no opposition and like Hitler and Stalin (and of course Pharaoh) he cannot see how counter-productive force is in the long run. He is reinforced by his yes men and facilitators.  He has sown the seeds of his own failure and will be remembered not as the man who rebuilt Russia but as the bully who so violently attacked civilians and tried to crush the spirit of Ukraine.

Contrast this with Moses who always listened to the complaints and needs of his flock, who was a reluctant and modest leader uninterested in power, but one animated by humane and spiritual ideals. His legacy has inspired humanity and is far greater than all the violent destructive tyrants.

We now start the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. Its sacrificial system is predicated on the idea of forgiveness, purity, and ethical behaviour, even if the ceremonials come from a different era.  These are legacies to be proud of.

Leviticus 1-5:26

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