The upcoming American presidential election is big news throughout the world. Hillary vs. Trump makes for great entertainment, but it’s kind of scary when you think of the incredibly high stakes involved. Most will agree that the world’s stability is strongly tied to the safety, security and sanity of the United States. Leaders we laugh at make for great comedy, but what we really want and need are leaders who command our confidence and respect.
The Torah is full of lessons on leadership. There are many examples of good leadership – wise, strong, humble, flock-focused leaders – and lousy leadership – vacillating, narcissistic, greedy and self-interested leaders. With good leaders, most people prosper most of the time. Under lousy leadership, there is economic downturn, suffering, famine and sometimes even war.
In the first of this week’s double parsha, Matot, the tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiate with Moshe to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan River rather than make their homes in the Promised Land.
Rav Zev Leff points out that Moshe’s response to their request is puzzling (Outlook and Insights, Mesorah Publications, 2000). Moshe appears to jump to the assumption that, just like the spies who we read about a few weeks ago, this group is also afraid to enter the land of Israel. His initial response to their request is silence. Moshe only responds after the two tribes offer to leave their wives, children and cattle in Transjordan to join in the conquest of the land of Israel. Their offer to participate in the conquest shows they are not a self-interested breakaway. Moshe tells them “You will be pure and guiltless in the eyes of G-d and in the eyes of the Jewish people” (Bamidbar, Numbers 32:22).
One might wonder why Moshe refers to both the eyes of G-d and the eyes of the Jewish people. If someone does what is right in the eyes of G-d, isn’t that enough? Do we also have to worry about the eyes of others? Rav Leff explains that this is where the concept of mar’it ayin comes from, meaning that a person shouldn’t behave in a way that would lead to suspicion or cause someone to jump to the wrong conclusions. Moshe is clarifying that it is not enough to be doing the right thing; perception counts too.
The reality is we are all leaders, certainly in our homes, at work and often in our communities. Our children and friends and community are impacted much more by what we do than by what we say.
In their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape our Lives (Little, Brown 2009), Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler examine the research and show substantive evidence that, not surprisingly, we have a profound influence on each other’s “tastes, health, wealth, happiness, beliefs, even weight.” Their statistical analysis of 5,124 subjects and their 53,228 ties to friends, family and work colleagues found that if a friend starts smoking it is 36 percent more likely that you will too, and the same applies to drinking, slenderness, obesity and many other behaviour patterns. A study of students at Dartmouth College found sharing a room with someone with good study habits improved their roommate’s achievement. “Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (1 degree), friends’ friends (2 degrees) and even our friends’, friends’, friends (3 degrees).” We become like the people that we are close to.
Our rabbis taught that each generation gets the leaders it deserves. Leaders are a reflection of the society they govern. What do we want from our leaders? We want to be able to trust them. We want them to act with integrity. We want them to do what they say and say what they do. We want to have confidence in their judgment. For that to happen it is not enough that they are or are not “pure in the eyes of G-d,” because WikiLeaks or not, only G-d will know the full story. They must be pure in the eyes of the people: the American people as well as the leadership and populace of every other nation in the world.
And if we indeed get the leaders we deserve, then we need to understand that change starts with us. To have leaders who are trustworthy, we must be trustworthy. To have leaders with dignity then we must behave with dignity. Moshe’s teaching of the concern for mar’it ayin, how our actions are perceived, applies to each and every one of us.
When every human being is able to bring their actions into sync with the values they possess, they will impact their family, their friends and their community. Through a process of social contagion, we can be the change we want to see in the world, and in that way we will one day be blessed with leaders who command the confidence and respect of all.