Last week I had the opportunity to meet with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. We spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing the Commonwealth and our country, about leadership and service, and about what it means to fight for the values we care about in ways that heal divides rather than deepen them. Our short time together was engaging; yet, what I’ve been thinking about most since our visit is the view from her office.
The Attorney General’s corner office is on the top floor of a tall building just next to the Massachusetts State House. The office overlooks the entire complex of state government buildings but I immediately was struck by the direct view of the beautiful gold dome of the State House down below.
While I have not researched the design history, it occurred to me that this symbolism must have been intentional. What could make it clearer that the law is higher than our elected officials? Of course, my mind went to the 17th chapter of Deuteronomy and the laws of appointing a king over the Israelites (which I happily shared with the Attorney General!).
In a few short lines, the Torah reveals its concerns about power and corruption, and its approach to addressing them. There are restrictions: a king should not acquire too many horses nor an abundance of silver and gold. And there is a remarkable, proactive positive commandment: “When the king is sitting on his throne, he shall write for himself a copy of the Torah scroll . . . And it shall be with him and he shall read from it every day of his life so that he will learn to fear God and to observe the words and laws of the Torah.” While it is not clear from the Hebrew who writes the king’s Torah scroll, our tradition emphasizes that it is the king himself who should do the writing, presumably so he will better internalize its message.
The Torah thus serves as a constant reminder to the leader that he is not the ultimate authority; it inspires in him reverence, even fear, of the ones before whom he stands. The teachers around him, the people he serves, and a Higher Power all are meant to keep his power and his ego in check.
Yesterday we read the Book of Esther, a literary tour-de-force that satires an upside-down world of power and corruption, materialism and frivolity, and assaults on human dignity. Sadly, this story hits too close to home. While there is so much goodness in the world that we often overlook, it also feels like not a day goes by without a new report about political leaders and other authority figures who use their power to harm rather than help.
The Torah clearly foresaw this, no doubt because the idea that power corrupts is timeless, and part of the human condition. Like American democracy, Jewish tradition too creates a system of legal checks and balances. Perhaps the symbolism of the king writing a Torah scroll is a call for a culture of continuous learning and reflection for leaders and everyone around them. Through the process of study, interpretation and debate – with as many diverse voices and perspectives as possible – our inherited stories, values, and wisdom can serve as guide-rails and blueprints for the future we aspire to create and the character of leadership it will take to get there.
How can those of us in leadership positions and all of us who are collectively responsible for holding them accountable fulfill Deuteronomy’s commandments in our 21st century world? How can we elevate a culture of greater reverence, humility, learning and reflection?
Both the Purim story and the view from the Attorney General’s office remind me that we need to keep asking ourselves these questions and searching for answers together.
Rabbi Marc Baker
About the Author
CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.