When Should Leaders Take from Us?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Emily Hanau

Imagine for a moment that Congress approves of a new law that requires that we each give 5% of our earnings to a government official. Would the Torah approve of such a law? What if the law demanded, instead, that we agree to sell up to 5% of our possessions to the official, were he to ask for it? These scenarios get at a larger question: to what degree, if any, does a leader have a right to take things from his constituents? The Torah hints at an answer to this question in a small section of Parashat Korach.

After the conflict between Moshe and Korach is set up, Moshe turns to Hashem to request that He not accept Korach’s gift and instead maintain Moshe’s status as leader. To make his case to Hashem, Moshe argues “לא חמור אחד מהם נשאתי ולא הרעתי את אחד מהם” (Bamidbar 16:15) – “I did not take a donkey from (even) one of them and I did not do evil to (even) one of them.” The fact that this is the entirety of Moshe’s tefilah suggests that, in Moshe’s eyes, the fact that he has not taken any donkeys or hurt anyone makes him worthy of Hashem maintaining his leadership in the face of the challenge of Korach.  But what kind of taking is he referring to, and what makes this argument so central to Moshe’s justification of himself as leader?

Both the Gemara and the medieval Bible commentaries look to a parallel situation in Tanach to answer the above questions. In Sefer Shmuel, when the Jewish people request and are granted the right to have a king, Shmuel attempts to warn them about the negative responsibilities that will come with this new form of government. In Shmuel 8:16, he warns, “ואת עבדיכם ואת שפחותיכם ואת בחוריכם הטובים ואת חמוריכם יקח ועשה למלאכתו” – “And your slaves and your maidservants and your good lads and your donkeys he will take, and he will use for his work.” Shmuel warns the Jews that a king has a right to take the people’s things to use for his own purposes. (Whether these purposes are personal or are for the sake of his position is unclear is left ambiguous.)

Ramban ties the two stories together in his comments on our verse in Bamidbar. He explains Moshe’s argument as follows: “מעולם לא לקחתי מהם אפילו חמור אחד לעשות צרכי כדרך המלכים או שרים כי זה משפט המלוכה” – “I have not taken even one donkey for my own needs, as is the way of kings or officers according to the rules of the king.” In other words, Moshe argued that had he wanted to take a donkey from the people for his own needs, he would have been permitted to do so. But the fact that he went above and beyond his requirements made him worthy of his position. So it seems that, although the letter of the law permits a leader to take things from his constituents, it is honorable not to do so.

The parallel between Moshe’s defense and Shmuel’s critique really comes out in Shmuel 12:3, when Shmuel gives his final public speech to the Jewish people. Immediately after criticizing them for their decision to appoint a king, he asks “את שור מי לקחתי וחמור מי לקחתי”- “Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken?”

Amid a discussion about the necessary traits of our leaders in Masechet Nedarim (38a), Rava compares Moshe and Shmuel outright.

אמר רבא: גדול מה שנאמר בשמואל, יותר משנאמר במשה. דאילו במשה רבינו כתיב: “לא חמור אחד מהם נשאתי,” דאפילו בשכר; ואילו גבי שמואל, אפילו ברצון לא שכרו, דכתיב (שמואל א יב, ד): “ויאמרו לא עשקתנו ולא רצותנו” וגו

Rava said: what is said about Shmuel is greater than what is said about Moshe. About Moshe Rabbeinu it is written, ” I did not take a donkey from (even) one of them” – even to rent. As for Shmuel, even willingly he did not borrow from them, as it says, “They [Bnei Yisrael] answered: ‘You did not rob us and you did not oppress us.'”

(Rashi “‘I did not take a donkey from one of them’ – against his will, for rent. But with the agreement of the owners, he did rent from them.”)

According to Rava, Moshe was willing to borrow donkeys from his people, as long as they agreed to it. He didn’t want to take things from his people permanently, as that could be an abuse of his position, but he felt comfortable borrowing from them with their permission. Shmuel, on the other hand, didn’t borrow any donkeys from the people, even when they agreed to it. Shmuel was sensitive to the fact that people would feel pressured to lend him a donkey even if they didn’t want to, since he was in charge.

Rava, then, has set up a hierarchy of approaches to our question. The lowest acceptable approach is the one set out by Shmuel in Chapter 8, that a leader is allowed to permanently take things from his people for his own needs, even against their will. Neither Moshe nor Shmuel engage in this behavior, a trait that surely set them apart from their contemporary leaders. The next level is Moshe’s approach, that a leader is allowed to temporarily take things from his people, as long as they agree to it. And on the highest level is Shmuel’s approach, that a leader may never take things from his people, even when it is only temporary, and even with their permission.

This tertiary structure can teach us not only about the ideal leader of the past, but also the ideal leader of the future. Rav Amnon Bazaq, in his article on Shmuel 12, explains the parallel between Moshe and Shmuel. “As Moshe had done in his day, Shmuel too emphasizes that whatever he had done, he did for the sake of heaven, he himself reaping no personal gain from leading the people.” Said differently, in the words of Rav Ovadia Sforno on our verse in Bamidbar, “היתה שררתי עליהם כולה לתועלתם ולתקן עניניהם לא לתועלתי ולהנאתי כלל” – “My leadership upon them was completely for their benefit and to perfect their interests, not for my benefit and enjoyment at all.”

While the nature of Moshe’s and Shmuel’s sensitivities about taking things from their people may have been different, their fundamental approaches were the same. They both curbed their personal interests for the sake of concern for the collective. A leader who puts himself first will willingly take what he ‘deserves,’ while a selfless leader will ignore the ‘perks’ of his job and instead focus on his responsibilities to his people. In a world in which our leaders often take all of what they deserve, and much more, it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on the keen sensitivities that Moshe and Shmuel brought to their positions of power.

Emily Hanau (SBM 2011) has been teaching Judaic Studies at Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. Next year she will pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology.

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