Years ago, when Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court, my opinion was sought as to whether or not he would be an appropriate appointee. Allegations had been raised at the time because of his alleged personal behavior. Today there is a sea of candidates vying to become the next president, and the process of selection has become cumbersome. Citizens question how to choose a candidate. It seems that my answer provided regarding Justice Thomas applies to candidates of both parties, as well as to the final decision in November of whom to elect. This article is an expansion of that original response.
At synagogues around the globe, Jews will this week read about the visit of Yitro. This Torah reading is best known for the description of the revelation at Sinai in which the Ten Commandments were given to the world. Perhaps less known is the earlier portion of the sedra in which Yitro takes stock of his son in law, Moses, and tells him to find others to help with leadership duties. The job that Moses had taken upon himself was simply too much for one person to handle.
Moses is described in Jewish tradition as having served many roles. He was the people’s intermediary with God, their diplomat in chief. He was the commander in chief who led them in battle against several enemies. He was their chief justice, chief arbitrator and prosecutor who meted out God’s justice and helped the people achieve peace among themselves. Jewish tradition identifies him as teacher, lawgiver and the greatest of all prophets. Moses led a nation that was small compared to the United States. Torah does not provide a full census, but does count six hundred thousand men of military age. There is no count of how many elderly there were, how many wives or children. Judging by the size of families described in the Torah, if there were six hundred thousand men there may have been as many as three million in the throng that made its way from Egypt to Canaan. If one man cannot lead three million, does it make sense that one could run a country of three hundred million? The challenges that faced Moses also face the American president. To succeed a president cannot go it alone. Leading the United States takes the combined effort of many, and the skill to work with others in the leadership of a nation is perhaps one of the most basic requirements of success. The Founding Fathers recognized this as they fashioned the structure of American government. The American people would do well to remember this when they go to the polls.
Yitro also provided advice on the skill requirements for the shoftim that Moses needed. In today’s language, and to a measure even in the biblical epoch, a shofet is a judge. Indeed the second book in the Prophets is Judges. The thing is that a judge in biblical Hebrew was far more than what is meant by the term today. In biblical times a judge was a leader, not just a magistrate. This can be discerned by a superficial reading of Judges. In that book one can identify that as they were needed, people rose to the challenge of leading the Israelites from the end of Joshua’s service through the early years of the monarchy.
Yitro identifies several qualities necessary to be good judges. The president of the United States, both in the spirit of Yitro’s words and Judges’ is the ultimate shofet for this country. The qualities that apply to the many levels of leaders that Moses sought to appoint would form a minimal standard for our country’s leader. “You shall … seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain; and set these over them as chiefs…. ” (Exodus 18:21-22, new JPS translation)
Notice that there is no requirement that the leaders own past judicial or political experience. There is no mention of how popular the chosen chiefs should be, nor how educated or articulate. Those notions may not have occurred to Yitro. Yitro’s direction boiled down to three essentials . In Jewish tradition to be God fearing means more than to revere the Almighty. It is shorthand for personal integrity. Trustworthiness and spurning ill- gotten gain speak for themselves. Most can identify if a candidate is honest. Perhaps when voters examine the credentials of all the would be presidents they can root out those that do not meet the standard. Then perhaps America can better decide as to who is most qualified to be “capable” of leading her.