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Shoftim 5783     September 3, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     Parshat Shoftim begins with a declaration that we should always pursue Justice. Almost every commentator focuses on the calls for judges to act justly; to have no favor for either the rich or the poor, to be beyond reproach in their personal lives, to never take bribes and to treat all who appear in their courts as guilty when they arrive and as innocent when they leave. This does not mean that a person in a Jewish court is “guilty until proven innocent.” In fact, a Jewish court sees a person as innocent until proven guilty when it comes to judgement. However, a judge must realize that the reason the two parties are in court is because both sides cannot come to an agreement over the issues between them. A judge must consider that both parties know what parts of their arguments are true and where they are stretching the truth. In all of this a judge has to determine which arguments are relevant and how to settle the conflict. When it is over, both sides have to be seen as only trying to protect their interests and not guilty of deliberate fraud.

     Yet there is another reality to Parshat Shoftim that we often miss when we focus on our pursuit of Justice. Our parsha addresses all manner of leaders of the Jewish people. The rules of this parsha address not only judges, but also priests, Levites, kings, and prophets. The entire leadership structure of our people are given their duties and their limitations. Priests must live off their sacred duties and not own land. Levites rely on taxes for their support. Kings must be born Jews and must not amass wives or horses. Priests and kings are decided by heredity. Judges are appointed by the people based on their wisdom. Prophets are to be chosen by God and must always speak in God’s name.

     One of my teachers, Dr. Amy Kamanofsky at JTS, sees the difference between these multiple leadership categories in a way I had not considered before. It begins with the way she defines belief and faith. In our world of conspiracy theories and alternative facts, I think she is on to something. Here is how she recently defined belief and faith:

      “Whereas belief implies a degree of certainty that I am uncomfortable with, faith embraces doubt. To my ear, the statement that I believe something to be true communicates that you know something is true. The statement that I have faith that something is true suggests that you desire or suspect something is true. Belief seems restrictive to me—confined by only what is known or can be known—and is at risk of dogmatism.

     As a person of faith, I develop a religious language and perspective that extends beyond certainties. One that is not circumscribed by only that which I can know, see, and prove. And, most importantly, a language that encompasses aspirational qualities of the religious imagination and the human heart and soul.”

     This is the way of leadership. We want to believe that our leaders are acting in the best interest of the people or the country. We follow them because we believe that they have our best interests in their heart. To be sure, there are leaders who violate that trust and that is how rebellions come to be. But most of the time we believe that they know what they are doing, and we follow along trusting their direction.

     The problem arises with the Prophets. These are not the usual leadership that we look to in a nation. They are the mouthpiece of God. They say what God commands that they speak. They speak God’s truth to power and can have the power to almost nullify the power of other leaders if they feel that these leaders have strayed from God’s path. The problem here is that we do not know how to react to Prophets. We want to believe what they have to say and not just have faith that they are speaking for God.

     Our Parsha tries to give us some direction here as we confront the word of God. When asked how we can believe in the words of the Prophets, we are given two tests to determine which Prophet is a true Prophet and speaks in the name of God, and which Prophet is a false Prophet and should not be followed. If the Prophet speaks in the name of some foreign god or some pagan god, then that Prophet is a false prophet and should never be followed. That is the first test; is the Prophet speaking in the name of God? The second test is to wait and see if what the Prophet says will come true. There is no way to fake this test. If the words of the Prophet come true, you can believe what that Prophet has to say. It is easy to see why the people need to see the truth of the Prophet’s words in order to believe him. But where does that leave us when it comes to having faith in our leadership?

     Dr. Kamanofsky questions this description when it comes to leadership of the Jewish community. She does not want to believe in our leadership, she wants to have faith in them. This is how she describes her position: “I, too, desire certainty in a world that appears to grow more and more unstable and want to appoint leaders that I know will guide me through it. Yet, unlike my ancient forebearers, I do not expect nor want to believe in my leaders. I want to have faith in them, particularly in my religious leaders. And I want my religious leaders to express themselves with the language of faith, not belief.

     I look for religious leaders who strive to hear God, but who don’t know they speak for God. I seek religious leaders who are sensitive to the mysteries of our existence and who are poets that can express those mysteries. I seek religious leaders who have faith that we are more than the sum of our parts and who offer some vision for what that means. Faith may lack certainty, but it incorporates hope. Expressions of faith offer a hopeful vision of what can be and not what is. I look for religious leaders who can express that vision and that can inspire me to claim my place within that vision.”

      I see this as a fundamental problem with leadership today. We argue over facts. We have leaders who stretch the facts sometimes unbelievably. We see followers of leaders who will believe every conspiracy that their leaders tell them to believe. How can we blame them. In a world that so often is confusing and so uncertain; why would we not want leaders we can believe in.

     Dr. Kalmanofsky is on to something, certainly with religious leadership, but with our political leadership as well. I read stories by Arthur Conan Doyle about the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. The literary detective used all the same facts as the police did, but he also added his imagination. To the detective the same facts can point in a different direction if we can imagine a different scenario.  The same holds true for Prophets and other religious leaders. It is not about facts; it is about faith. It is about faith in what we want to world to be like, not about what the world is like now. Spiritual leaders with faith are indeed poets. They help us see what our eyes cannot see. They help us feel when anger makes our hearts hard. They help us understand our world by giving us their vision of the way the world COULD be if only we had the faith and imagination to work to make it all happen.

     When I think of leaders, I do not think about who I believe is right and who I believe is wrong. I look at where that leader wants us to go. Are we talking about Korach who wanted to lead the people back to Egypt or are we talking about Moses who spoke of God’s vision of a Promised Land, a Land of Milk and Honey, a prosperous land that would be the envy of all our neighbors. I also believe in leaders who insist that the only way to live our vision is for everyone to work together to make it happen. I may have faith, but miracles are a whole different sermon. An anonymous immigrant once wrote when he arrived in this country that he was promised that in America, the streets were paved with gold. When he got here, he discovered three things; one, the streets were not paved with gold. Two, that the streets were not paved at all. And three, he was expected to do the paving.

     Leaders are just that, leaders. They cannot do all our work for us. No matter what we may believe about leadership, it is the duty of every leader to have a vision of the future, the ability to inspire everyone to work toward that goal and to give us the faith we need to see the task through to the end. What we believe about our leaders is beside the point. All leaders are human and have their good sides and their faults. It is not about what we believe about them; it is about their faith in where we as a community and a society should be going. Leadership is about hope, not destiny. It is about being together not creating suspicions. It is about what is in it for US, not “what is in it for me.”

     Hebrew Prophets were about a vision of what the Jewish People could be if they all could have faith that this is how God saw their future unfolding. They could see beyond the sins of the Israelites and give them hope for something better. We too need to have faith in our leaders that they know our problems and still can inspire us to a better future. I learned this week that the real meaning of Teshuva should not be “to return” which may be the literal meaning, it implies that we can and should be better. That is the call that leaders should make to the people, not to return to past times, but to look forward to making our future better.

     May we have leaders who see God’s vision for our religion, for the Jewish state and for all the world and may they lead us to that vision with faith and with hope as we say …

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783