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From Parsha to Halakha Va’eira: If you lead, should I follow?

Shevat 5784 | January 2024


“They did not listen to Moshe”

At the beginning of the parsha Moshe relays the prophecy containing the “arba leshonot geula” (four languages of redemption) to the Children of Israel. The message is one of covenant and comfort; the people won’t hear it, “they did not listen to Moshe due to impatience and harsh servitude.”[1]

Moshe turns to God with questions, and we begin this parsha with God’s message to stay the course, seemingly without the people’s support. But while the process can begin without the people’s faith, their salvation is ultimately dependent on their acceptance of the mitzvot of the first Pesach in Egypt and their willingness to follow God and Moshe into the sea and the wilderness beyond.

As the plagues progress there are hints that the Israelites slowly accept Moshe and his prophecy. But after ten plagues even Pharaoh believes Moshe. Nowadays, without such clear Divine intervention, how are we meant to know who to follow?[2]

The making of a leader

The Torah describes multiple forms of leadership, but there are few binding halakhic rules that dictate procedure of who is chosen and how far their authority extends. Some positions are determined by birth or by God. We tend to think God intervened with leadership decisions pretty often, because we’re used to reading about messages through prophets or Urim v’Tumim in the Bible.[3] Yet if we place these messages within their historical context it becomes clear that they are infrequent exceptions.[4]

Most leaders are chosen by popular appointment. This makes sense, as a  leader has little to no power unless people choose to heed them. There are no clear procedures and few qualifications necessary for leaders such as king or judge.[5] There seem to be more mitzvot incumbent on kings and judges than there are on the people to appoint and heed them.[6] Indeed, halakhic authorities debate if there even is a formal obligation to appoint people to such positions.

If we take a king, for example, the Torah tells us, “When you come to the land that the Eternal, your God gives to you, and you possess it and you settle in it and you say, ‘I will place a king upon myself like all the peoples around me, you shall place a king that the Eternal, your God, will choose upon you, you shall place upon you a king from your kin in your midst…”[7]

The subject of a king is generally controversial – in the Bible, Talmud, and later generations. Rabbi Yehuda taught there’s an obligation to appoint a king, but Rabbi Nehorai understood that the mitzvah is optional – if the people demand a king then this is the type of king they must appoint. The subtext, as Shmuel makes clear, is that God’s rule should be enough and the people should not need a human leader.[8]

The debate is continued in biblical commentaries and a few halakhic works. Rambam rules there is an obligation to appoint a king and a prohibition against appointing a Gentile.[9] Ramban adds that part of the mitzvah is that the people have to request the king from the current leadership – the Kohanim, Levi’im, and judges.[10]

Others, such as Abarbanel, disagree and explain that the Torah mitzvah to appoint a king is optional, but if the people ask for a king then this is the type of king who is to be chosen.[11] Netziv notes a third option, explaining that the mitzvah of a king is worded as voluntary because the ideal form of government changes as society changes.[12] Accordingly, when the people look to appoint an organized government, God does not dictate what that government should look like, the people must make an informed decision based on the Gentile societies around them and choose what is best.

Limited power

As noted, there is one, possibly optional, mitzvah to appoint a king, but the king himself is subject to several limitations. A king may not have too much money or too many horses or wives.[13] In general, all these prohibitions are understood as checks on the king’s power that are meant to avoid excesses – excess taxation, spending, self-indulgence, war-mongering, foreign influence…[14]

A king is also obligated to write the Torah, carry it with him, and read from it “all the days of his life, so he will learn to have awe of the Eternal, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah…” The Torah concludes that all this is to ensure, “That his heart is not raised above his kin and he does not stray from the mitzvah to the right or left.”[15] The king is not there to serve himself, his power, or his monarchy; he is an agent of the people, a facilitator of their purpose to serve God.


It’s similarly unclear whether there is a formal mitzvah to appoint judges or if it’s a prerequisite for a just society.[16] Rambam lists the traits desirable for a judge, and says the courts would look for such people and appoint them to sit on their local courts. The courts would then promote from within, as Rambam understood there was a series of higher courts, or courts of appeals, up to the Sanhedrin.[17]

When Rambam discusses the mitzvot of judges he mentions few that are incumbent on the public: a positive mitzvah to appoint judges and a prohibition against appointing judges that do not know the law.[18] In addition, cursing a judge is prohibited.

The judges, on the other hand, have over twenty different mitzvot. There are about a dozen laws concerning capital punishment – such as prohibitions against arguing both sides or executing without a majority of at least two or someone who appears innocent even though the testimony is against them. There are several prohibiting miscarriage of justice – whether that means discriminating against the underprivileged (poor, widows, orphans, foreigners), favoring the rich or powerful, favoring the poor,  or punishing an evildoer for a crime they didn’t commit. Judges can’t take bribes and they may not be swayed by intimidation. Ultimately, they are commanded to rule “b’tzedek” – with justice and righteousness.

Both judges and the king appear to be a self-selecting group. But looking closer it’s clear that without the people’s support the whole thing crumbles. A king’s power is not based on military might or excessive taxation, it’s based on the people’s willingness to follow where he leads. It is the same with the judges, who have no one to judge if the people do not come to them with their claims.

Both types of leaders are commanded to be far more beholden to God and the people than the people are to their leadership. This gives an overall impression that their authority should mainly be based on their acceptance by the people they govern and their adherence to the mitzvot that ensure they use the position to serve God and the people and not their own interests.

Words and actions

We’ve seen that there are few halakhot and mitzvot to guide us on which leaders to trust, there are many more that govern how the leaders should act. It seems that this, then, is the litmus test. A leader whose “heart is above his kin” uses their power to serve themselves and their people. A leader who is “from your kin, from your midst” understands they are beholden to greater things; they use their power to galvanize the people to serve God, the Torah, and the greater good.

Rechavam was King Shlomo’s son, the true king of Israel.[19] But when the people came to him with legitimate grievances he refused to listen to them and instead chose to further exert his power. This causes a break in the people and he loses most of his kingdom. To his credit he listens to the prophet,  accepts that this is God’s will, and refrains from escalating to a full on civil war. He puts God’s will and the interests of the people above his own ego.

Moshe, the epitome of a prophet and leader, does the same. He spends his life as a servant of God and an agent of the People of Israel. He accepts no gifts – not even a donkey to ride on.[20] When Israel sins with the Golden Calf, God is ready to wipe them out and restart with Moshe as the father of the nation. Moshe puts the people first and himself on the line, “If You will bear their sin, and if not erase me from Your book that You have written.”[21]

It seems that when we look for leaders we should not look at the person, but at who they represent. We should follow those who stand for the interests of God and the entire People of Israel – not just the good ones.

May we be blessed and worthy of being led by people worthy of leading.


[1] Shemot 6:1-9

[2] From Parsha to Halakha on Beshalach will discuss prophecy.

[3] The Urim v’Tumim, associated with the High Priest’s breastplate, were a divinely sanctioned form of divination that were consulted on a limited basis, for things like apportioning the land of Israel and deciding to go out to war.

[4] Even when God chooses, it is often done in private and the leader still has to gain the people’s support – such as Gideon, King David, King Shlomo, Yehu, and more.

[5] There’s some guidance about how to choose judges – the Torah provides a list of traits and Chazal prioritize their relative importance. The Torah states the king must be Israelite and based on biblical blessings and prophecies Chazal teach that once David was chosen, future kings had to be from Yehudah and from the Davidic line.

[6] Devarim 17:16-20

[7] Devarim 17:14-15, until the end of the chapter.

[8] TB Sanhedrin 20b

[9] Hilkhot Melakhim u’Milkhamuteihem 1:1

[10] Commentary on Devarim 17:14

[11] Abarbanel Devarim 17

[12] Ha’Emek Davar Devarim 17:14

[13] Devarim 17:16-17

[14] Horses were war machines, bred in Egypt. It’s unclear if only Egyptian horses are an issue – is this prohibition purely to prevent returning “the people to Egypt to attain more horses,” or is it a general warning to avoid overinvestment in weapons of war instead of relying on God’s salvation. See Ibn Ezra verses Rashi and Ramban.

[15] ibid 20

[16] Semak and Yereim do not mention a mitzvah to appoint judges, possibly because the mitzvah is to have a just society and appointment of judges is merely a preparation, like many rule there’s no mitzvah to build a sukkah, only to dwell in one. Ramban on Devarim 16:18 and Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvot Aseh 176 and Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Sanhedrin 1:1 rule there is a mitzvah.
As for the king, see the commentaries on Devarim 17:15.

[17]  Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Sanhedrin v’Onshin HamEsurin Lahem 2:7-8.

[18] See contents of Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Sanhedrin v’Onshin HamEsurin Lahem.

[19] Melakhim I 11-12

[20] Bamidbar 16:15

[21] Shemot 32:32

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.