Moses, Shemaiah and Spider-Man

– Lessons in the Responsibilities of Power

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

The Torah, by way of the mitzvot and the example set by Moses, teaches us about the responsibilities of leadership. 

In parashat shoftim, the Torah stipulates the mitzvah of egla arufa (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). When a murdered person’s body was found outside a town and it was not known who caused their death, the judges from the Great Sanhedrin would measure the distance between the corpse and the surrounding towns. The elders of the nearest town to the corpse had to bring a heifer that had never been used for any work and break its neck in a riverbed that had not been tilled. The elders then washed their hands and made a statement absolving themselves of any guilt for the murder: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done” (Deuteronomy 21:7). 

The Mishnah (Sotah 9:6) questions the need for such a denial of guilt — surely the elders are not suspected of committing the crime? It then answers by stating that the elders need to scrutinise their own actions (or lack thereof) and declare that they did not cause the death of the unfortunate victim whether directly or indirectly. The Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishnah, explains this ritual and declaration as a demonstration of the all-embracing, comprehensive responsibility borne by leaders who must proclaim that they did not sin or transgress in the matter of the deceased, which would be tantamount to having caused their death. In other words the leaders had to declare publically that they did not create the conditions that made the murder possible.  

In another Torah passage (Exodus 38:21-31) Moses voluntarily disclosed an audit of the materials used for the construction of the Mishkan. Since the materials were gifts from all male Israelites over the age of twenty, Moses gave an account of the amount of the gold, silver and copper that was used for overlaying the sacred utensils and for the casting of sockets and clasps. While no one would question his honesty, Moses demonstrated his integrity by publically divulging the amount of precious metal and how it was used so that no suspicion could be levelled against him. 

The Mishnah (Avot 1:10) quotes Shemaiah who taught, “Love work. Hate authority. Don’t get friendly with the government.” Rambam explains this mishnah as follows: A person should love work because if a person is unemployed they will suffer financial hardship and may resort to crime to survive. “Hate authority” means: do not seek office because power can lead to wickedness. Getting too close to those in authority can also lead to moral corruption as people attempt to aggrandize themselves with those in power without thought to the consequences of any action taken to do so.

While Jewish tradition demands that we not shirk our social responsibilities and that we take up the cudgels of leadership, we are urged to take pains to take responsibility for our actions and not to be tempted into corruption.  South Africa is plagued by leadership that is corrupt, incompetent and unaccountable. (The parastatal Eskom is a prime example.) While we need to demonstrate our discontent with this scourge which has ravaged the upper echelons of government leadership by protest, we can take more direct action against undesirable leadership in business. Boycotting products manufactured by slave labour, pressurising the authorities to act against incompetent and corrupt leadership and reminding those in power of their responsibilities to society must be understood to be part of our divine task of tikkun olam, of repairing the world. To quote an adage penned by Stanley Lieber (better known by his pen name, Stan Lee), co-creator of Spider-Man, “with great power there must also come great responsibility”. It is perhaps no coincidence that the comic book writer and editor was born to Romanian-born Jewish immigrant parents who instilled in him the Torah values of integrity, transparency and a loathing of corruption.

Temple Israel

• Published in the July 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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