What Do You Want in a Leader?

A presidential campaign always focuses our attention on the qualities we seek in our leaders. While we tend to idealize our leaders, scrutinize their behavior and exaggerate their faults and virtues, the race for president can also trigger thoughtful dialogue about what personal traits and skills we seek in the people who lead us.

Insights into what we might seek in our leaders can also be gleaned from the Torah, including this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. Spanning Chapters 16-18 of the Book of Leviticus, the parasha includes a detailed description of how Yom Kippur was observed centuries ago in Biblical days. In that context, we read this verse:

“Aaron is to offer his own bull of purification offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household.” (Leviticus 16:6)

 As with most Torah verses, this one also invites commentary and explanation. For example, if Aaron is the religious leader of the people and is charged with officiating at a ceremony that appeals to God for forgiveness for the nation, why must he first “make expiation for himself and his household?” Why not simply enact the required sacrificial rituals and recite the appropriate prayers? Why must the first round of sacrifices be focused specifically on Aaron personally and on his household?

A compelling answer could be that being an effective leader requires a great deal of introspection. Before Aaron can ask for forgiveness on behalf of his people, he must first examine his own behavior and come to terms with his own faults. Consider this commentary:

“Before we can think about fixing the world, we need to fix ourselves and our immediate surroundings. A single positive action can have the effect of improving ourselves, our families, and the nation. Finding ways to improve ourselves has a cumulative effect far greater than the improvements themselves.” (Rabbi Shlomo Ressler, modern American Rabbi)

Ressler suggests that when leaders are mindful of their own behavior and take responsibility for their faults and shortcomings, they grow in their impact on others, including the communities they lead.

A commentary in the Etz Hayim Humash, quoting a midrash, suggests that the phrase “for himself and his household” should be interpreted to mean that the Kohen Gadol must be married. Why? Because the Kohen couldn’t possibly bear the hopes and dreams of his community unless he has personal experience caring for the hopes and dreams of another person. We must acknowledge that in this case, the midrash is out of touch with the social sensibilities of our own day. One need not be married, or even in an intimate relationship with another person, to have experience in caring for others. We all know plenty of people who are caring and compassionate without being married or in a relationship (and Catholics would certainly disagree that their priests must be married in order to be capable of guiding their flock). But the idea that one must be empathetic and understanding of the needs of others on a personal level before representing a community in seeking forgiveness is a compelling one.

 As we contemplate what we want from our leaders, perhaps we should make compassion, empathy and the inclination to care about others a high priority. That is apparently what was required from Aaron as a pre-requisite for addressing the needs of his nation.


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