Rabbi Ari Kahn
It seems as if the dearth of leadership is, and always has been, a perpetual problem. We have a tendency to search for people who can inspire and lead us; unfortunately, the role models we choose are rarely vetted in any systematic or rigorous way, and we tend to choose charisma over substance. Since the very dawn of human history, as far back as the Garden of Eden, we have been seduced by charismatic hucksters who offer slick sound-bytes that obfuscate truth and lead us astray.
Spiritual leaders are even harder to evaluate. By definition, the spiritual leader has knowledge, skills, and a particular type of power that his or her followers lack. The gap that divides the leader and the neophyte often makes the leader appear inscrutable, beyond our limited ability to judge or evaluate.
In Parashat Re’eh, as Moshe’s reign as leader winds down, attention is turned to establishing the next generation of leadership. Various positions must be filled, leadership roles must be defined and appointments made. In subsequent chapters, the Torah will outline the respective mandates of kings, judges and other public servants, but first and foremost, Moshe lays out the parameters for a very peculiar sort of religious leader: the prophet, and not just any prophet, but a man or woman who produces “signs and wonders.” This person is capable of bending the laws of nature, of suspending the physical rules of the universe, and foretelling the future with stunning accuracy. What, we may ask, could possibly be better than having a bona fide prophet as a spiritual leader?
Remarkably, the Torah warns us to reserve judgment. Miraculous abilities are not necessarily a sign of authenticity; knowledge of the future is not an indication that this person should be followed blindly. Unlike so much of modern communication, the medium is not necessarily the message; the question should always be one of substance over form. What is this person advising, commanding or instructing us to do? Are the “prophet’s” words consonant with the words of Moshe, or does this person simply possess strange, unexplained talents and charisma?
If, for example, the prophet - after performing wondrous acts - advocates worship of an alien deity, we are commanded to reject their leadership. Despite his or her unique, unexplainable abilities, this “prophet” is regarded as the most dangerous of all leaders. If the message is corrupt, self-serving, exploitive, this person is not one God or Moshe would encourage us to follow.
Throughout history, we have failed in this area time and time again. Sincere people have been, and continue to be deceived by charlatans. We have had our share of impressive false prophets and messiahs, yet we do not seem to learn. Despite our sophistication and worldliness, despite the bitter experience we have accrued, we lack the discernment that should prevent us from falling prey to snake oil salesmen and bogus prophets. We still want shortcuts to spirituality, and would rather stand in line to receive the blessings and bogus insights of false spiritual gurus than take the time and make the effort to seek out truth. Charismatic individuals will always be able to satisfy their base desires for adulation and obedience at the expense of those who choose form over substance in their quest for a quick spiritual fix.
Moshe’s warning is clear, and it is as relevant today as ever: It all comes down to substance. When a charismatic leader arises, if he (or she) does not unequivocally advocate adherence to the Torah, he must be regarded as a false prophet.
Apparently, the essential role of the prophet was to serve as the leader against idolatry, the spiritual counter to idolatry. Even true prophets, who stood strong against false and counterfeit spirituality, stood the risk of being sucked into the world of the occult, of becoming part of the problem rather than the solution. When the desire to worship idols was banished, prophecy, too, became a thing of the past; it was no longer needed, no longer possible. When there was no longer a rapacious hunger for idolatry, had prophecy been allowed to continue without its counter-balance, it would have upset the delicate balance and destroyed the spiritual ecosystem.
Today, we have neither the overpowering urge to worship other gods nor access to prophecy. And yet, even in today’s world, rife as it is with scandals involving religious and secular leaders, a system of spiritual checks and balances is just as important. Recent events are no different than they have ever been in this sphere, and it behooves us to take a moment to question our own judgment, to oversee our “leaders”, and to educate ourselves and those around us. We must not to be impressed by “signs and wonders,” by those with the gifts of charisma or clairvoyance. We must ask ourselves, “Is this leader the solution, or just another aspect of the problem?”
The genuine article, a real spiritual leader, brings us closer to God. That is ultimately the litmus test; anything else is fraudulent. If a prophet is “for profit,” he or she is no prophet. If a spiritual leader is exploitive - financially, emotionally or sexually - he or she is not the leader we are looking for. If, on the other hand, he or she educates, inspires, and brings us closer to God, we have found someone to learn from and be inspired by. We have found a true leader.
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