The topic of leadership is both fascinating and fundamental to human society. In Parshas Shoftim, the Torah discusses the three categories of Jewish leadership: The melech (king), the Sanhedrin (courts), and the kohanim (priests). What is the Jewish approach to leadership, and how does it compare to other perspectives on leadership?

Leadership to Serve Yourself

The most primitive form of leadership is selfish leadership, driven by the desire for power and self-gratification. In such a system, the leader represents only himself and his own selfish desires. He demands power, craving it for himself, and generally maintains leadership over his people through fear. In such a system, he demands the allegiance of his people and makes promises of food, shelter, and perhaps power and honor, in return for respect and obedience.

This was the system of old, where kings, tyrants, and oligarchies ruled large provinces. Wealth, birthright, or rebellion served as the right for leadership, and the purpose of leadership was focused solely on the leader; the goal was to give the leader increased power, respect, and control. This system is inherently corrupt, and resulted in endless bloodshed, as the king killed anyone who stood in his way. There were pointless wars, as the king would send the young men of his kingdom to die for no reason other than his own territorial expansion and glory. In essence, the king answered to no one other than himself.

Representing the People

In response to such corruption, there became an increased desire to shift the focus of power. As history unfolded, leadership moved towards democracy, towards a balance of power. In such a system, the power belongs to the people, not the leader. The leader is appointed to serve the people. If he fails to do so, he is removed and replaced with someone who better fills the people’s needs. This is a far better system than the previous one, as it stabilizes power and creates a society focused on the needs of the people, rather than an individual king or elite few.

Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental problem with democracy: A leader becomes nothing more than a puppet of the people. The flaw in this is apparent. Imagine if parents lost their parental license as soon as their child got upset with their decisions. As soon as the parents put their child to bed, they’d be out of a job. When a leader is fully subject to the will of the people, it is impossible to lead. Democratic leaders may appear to be leading, but in essence, they are following. (It is important to note that this chapter speaks only of ideals. In today’s day and age, the ideal political system is democracy. Additionally, not all democratic leaders share this pitfall. It is only a likely possibility, not a guaranteed outcome.)

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) states that Mashiach will come at a time when the face of the generation is like the face of a dog. Rav Elchanan Wasserman explains the depth behind this statement: When you see someone walking a dog on a leash, it appears as though the dog is leading. He is the one walking ahead of his owner; he appears to be calling the shots. However, this is an illusion. The dog is completely subject to the will of its owner. One small tug and he changes direction. The dog is the follower, in an illusory position of leadership.

Many democratic systems suffer from this flaw. Leaders are appointed by the people and are therefore completely subject to the will of the people. They walk ahead, pretending to lead, while in fact, they are merely puppets. Whatever the people want, they’ll do. They create their policies and campaigns around the people and polls, not based on their internal values. They would change their policy in an instant if it meant more votes.

A true leader stands for the truth, for their inner values, regardless of opposition. He or she walks ahead and doesn’t look back. Even if no one follows, they push onward. They never sacrifice their ideals for public approval. A true leader creates a direction for a greater future, a pathway to individual and collective greatness, and inspires the people to strive for that ideal. This is the nature of Jewish leadership. Let us briefly explore this topic.

True Leadership: Connecting to Something Higher

A Torah leader does not represent himself or the will of the people; he represents Hashem. A Torah leader is an emissary of Hashem in this world, and will lead the people towards the truth, towards their true destination. Of course, he will care for and empathize with each individual, and deeply so; but the foundational goal of leadership involves driving people towards a transcendent goal.

Traditional kings represented themselves and were therefore no greater than themselves. Democratic leaders are chosen by the will of the people and are therefore usually no better than the people themselves. A true leader is one who strives towards perfection and leads others on their own individual and collective journeys towards perfection, as well.

There are three categories of Jewish leadership mentioned in the Torah, and each works towards this goal. While they all serve both a practical and religious role, each category maintains its own unique purpose in enabling the Jewish people to fulfill their mission and connect to Hashem:

The melech serves as an embodiment and manifestation of Hashem in this world, negating his ego and serving to reveal Hashem in this world.

The Sanhedrin maintains the Jewish ideals in society, ensuring that the Jewish People live up to their purpose.

The kohanim are charged with guiding the Jewish People in their spiritual and religious journey, helping them build and perfect their relationship with Hashem. The kohanim serve to both help the Jewish People connect to Hashem and to help properly manifest Hashem into this world.

An Ideal Society

In an ideal society, everyone is devoted towards achieving his or her own unique greatness, while simultaneously devoting that individual greatness towards the larger collective greatness of the nation. A leader’s role is to enable each individual to embark on his or her own journey of self-discovery and achievement, while also helping them devote their lives to a greater whole, to that which transcends themselves, to Hashem, the Jewish People, and the world as a whole.

This explains a very strange halachah found in Parshas Shoftim. If a man is found dead outside a city, the elders of the city must break the neck of a calf and proclaim that they did not kill this person (Eglah Arufah). Why, though, would this even cross our minds? Of course the elders – the leaders of the city – did not murder an innocent Jew! What then is the deeper meaning of this strange halachah?

The Gemara elaborates on the procedure of the Eglah Arufah and explains that the elders of the city must promise that they did not turn the man away without food and an escort. But do the leaders really have to escort every single guest out of their city? On a practical level, this means that, as the elders of the city, they did not refuse this man adequate sustenance and protection. Rav Michael Rosensweig, however, suggests a deeper understanding, one that carries with it a profound lesson. The elders of the city are the leaders of the city. They influence the atmosphere and set the standards of the city; it is their job to inspire greatness in the people. If executed correctly, nobody in the city would ever murder an innocent man. The elders are therefore required to swear that it was not due to a lack in their leadership that this murder occurred; they assure us that they set up the proper standards of behavior to make something as abhorrent as murder unthinkable.

We Are All Leaders

Some leaders are the face of a nation, the ones who stand in front of large crowds and deliver extraordinary and inspiring speeches. But that is not the only type of leader. A leader is anyone who is on a mission, who empowers others, and who always looks for ways to contribute to the greater good. Leaders are great parents, great teachers, great friends. We are all potential leaders; we are all potential revolutionaries. We can all create change in the world. But to create any external change, we must first learn to develop ourselves and live with higher ideals. Let us all be inspired to become the greatest version of ourselves, with the hopes that our own journey of growth will inspire others to become the greatest version of themselves, as well.

Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: