Rabbi Yehuda Storch


How does the Torah define leadership qualities? Who is the perfect leader? Is it the proud owner of a straight-A middos record or the energetic non-stop worker for the klal? What are the most essential leadership qualities and how can an imperfect person give birth to picture-perfect leadership?

Jewish Leadership – Who Qualifies?

Every elected leader in the western world is put under the public microscope – his entire life is dissected and judged, with the purpose of condemning and evicting any leader with a less-than-perfect life. The universally accepted worldview sees the leader as trendsetter, a person whose life sets the example for the world and must express heightened morality, wisdom and righteousness. How does the Torah describe the ideal leader? Is a perfect resume really necessary? Can a person who made mistakes and corrected them be worthy of leading others? Or perhaps, as we see today in our less-than-ideal political arena – those with shadowy pasts make the best leaders?

The passuk in our parashah says, “But you shall appoint [hafked] the Levites” (Bamidbar 1:50). The Ba’al Haturim comments a seemingly strange comment: “Hafked – appears twice in the mesorah [the Tanach]: here, and in Tehilim 109:6 – ‘Set a wicked man over him’. As it is said[1], ‘one does become an officer below if he was not a wicked man above’. Thus, ‘hafked the Levites’ – they assumed an official position; set a wicked man over him.”

The appearance of the same word indicates that both quotes share a common idea. The word hafked in both psukim illustrate two facets of the same concept – leadership equals wickedness.

How can that be?

  1. Could the criteria for a leader be his wickedness? The Jewish nation has seen numerous leaders over the generations, many of which were holy, righteous and pious. Were they not model leaders?
  2. And on the contrary — the Tribe of Levi was chosen to serve Hashem in the Mishkan because of their extreme piety and heighted spirituality, as clearly depicted in numerous places. How can the Ba’al Haturim seem to indicate that they were chosen for their wickedness?
  3. Sifri (Beha’aloscha, 34) writes the exact opposite:

“That they are the elders of the people”: We are hereby taught that one is not elected to sit in council until people tend to speak in praise of him, viz.: “That man is upright and pious and wise and fit to sit in council.” “And its officers”: those of whom it is written (Shemot 5:19) “And the officers of the children of Yisroel saw them in their plight.” Since they saw themselves as involved in their plight, let them come and share in their welfare.

This midrash explicitly imparts that one should not be paced in office unless he is righteous and honest, both publicly and in private. How does this coincide with the above mentioned Ba’al Haturim?


In the following article, we will examine the attribute of ‘wickedness’ necessary of the public servant and how it came to be that the Tribe of Levi, the ones who answered the call “Mi LaHashem Eli – if You are For Hashem, Join Me” actually fit the bill.

A Can of Worms

The gemara in Maseches Yoma (22b) describes the ideal leader:

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: “Why did the kingship of the house of Saul not continue on to succeeding generations? It is because there was no flaw in his ancestry; he was of impeccable lineage. As Rabbi Yocḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: “One appoints a leader over the community only if he has a box full of creeping animals hanging behind him, (i.e., he has something inappropriate in his ancestry that preceded him).” Why is that? It is so that if he exhibits a haughty attitude toward the community, one can say to him: ‘Turn and look behind you and be reminded of your humble roots.’

We are instructed here not to appoint a leader with a perfect past – it will cause him to become haughty. This is the reason that King Saul’s dynasty did not last, while King David’s – whose descended from a convert, Ruth the Moabite, remains forever. How can this be explained? A leader of questionable lineage takes precedence over a picture-perfect persona?

The Meiri explains this gemara as meaning that the leader must be one who is known for his extreme patience and humility – so much so that Chazal figuratively describe him as having a can of worms hanging behind him. According to the Meiri this is not a compulsory prerequisite, and a humble and patient leader is acceptable even without the dubious past.

Nevertheless, the Magen Avraham (156:2) mentions this halacha among the other practical halachos that the Shulchan Aruch failed to mention. The practical implications of this halacha appear in the words of the Ya’avetz (Mor U’ketzia, Orech Chaim 53): a shliach tzibbur with no outstanding lineage takes precedence over a shliach tzibbur of prominent ancestry as a shliach tzibbur is a public position and he therefore requires a ‘can of worms’.

Halachically, the above-mentioned sources seem to bring us to the conclusion that the perfect candidate for public office is one who has blemishes in his past, not one with and renowned history. Obviously, a leader should not be a deceitful, perverse individual. He must be patient, humble and have every positive characteristic in his personality. Nevertheless, he still requires a can of worms.

What the ‘can of worms’ is, still requires explanation.

The Ultimate Leadership Quality – Imperfection

Dovid melech Yisroel chai vekayom. Every month anew, we re-pledge our allegiance to the ultimate leader of Yisroel, past and future — King David. And indeed, he is mentioned in the gemara as the example of the perfect leader, one who has ‘a can of worms’ hanging behind him, that ultimate quality that completes the makeup of a leader. Why is imperfection so necessary?

Ba’al Ha’akeida (Shemos, Parashas Beshalach, 42) explains that a humble person whose middos are naturally perfect will find it very difficult to lead the nation in accordance with G-d because he is constantly distracted by misplaced pity, natural tendencies towards leniency and ways of asceticism. This is the reason that Saul was tempted to show pity to the Amalekites and Achav — to Ben Hadad, king of Aram. Both instances caused those kings to lose their thrones. Conversely, one who must work on these traits to serve G-d, to whom humility, pity and modesty don’t come naturally but as a result of toil and sweat, develops into a disciplined soldier of G-d. He invests untold, unending effort to “walk in G-d’s ways — just as He is merciful and compassionate, so too, humans should be merciful and compassionate”. Then, he can – when G-d so commands him – show cruelty to Yisroel’s enemies. His basic human instincts are disciplined so he can both ruthlessly kill foes while showing gentle mercy and compassion to the Jewish Nation.

A leader who is used to acting upon his inborn perfect personal characteristics will find it excruciatingly difficult to act against his grain when the situation calls for it. Abarbanel explains the psukim in Shmuel I, 15: “And Saul and the people had pity on Agag” – because Saul was perfect without ‘a can of worms’ he showed mercy to Agag his enemy, while showing no compassion for the priestly residents of Nov, whom he killed for no reason. Comparatively, King David, because he had that ‘can of worms’ –his Moabite roots — he could “sawed with a saw [his enemies] and with harrows of iron and with saws” (Divrei Hayomim I 20:3) while at the same time show mercy to his own people.

King David’s Personality

The commentaries tell us that the ‘can of worms’ consists of not only a defective ancestry, but of a defective genome – King David carried Moabite character traits. The gemara (Maseches Shabbos 105:a) quotes Shimi ban Gera, Head of the Sanhedrin when he gave his character testimony to Saul: “He is an adulterer, he is a Moabite, he is a murderer, he is an oppressor, he is an abomination.”

And indeed, when Shmuel came to anoint the young David, he describes him as “he was ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome appearance. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” (Shmuel I 16:12). The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel I 247 124) explains: “When Shmuel saw David and he was of ruddy appearance, he was frightened and said: ‘He will be a murderer like Eisav!’ to this Hakadosh Baruch Hu answered, ‘He with beautiful eyes’ – Eisav killed at will, and this one – according to the will of the Sanhedrin. Arise and anoint him.”

Shmuel saw David and recognized those same characteristics that Shimi ben Gera saw. They were indeed part of King David’s genetic makeup, and Shmuel was taken aback. But Hashem, Who knows the secrets of the heart, alleviated Shmuel’s concerns: King David is a true king. Not only ruler of people, but also of his inborn characteristics. He has the personality makeup of a murderer, but he employs it only in accordance with the Sanhedrin. Therefore, he is worthy of being anointed as king.

This is also how the Or Hachayim explains the gemara (ibid): “Saul failed with one single sin and it was counted against him, costing him the throne. David, however, failed with two sins and they were not counted against him, as he retained his position.” The Or Hachayim explains that this is because Saul’s character was clam while David’s personality was hot-tempered as we are told in Shmuel I “He was ruddy”. And Hashem judges a person according to his personality makeup, for a person with a stronger fire-element will serve Hashem with fiery passion and swiftness, but will not escape from mistakes…”

Toldos Yaakov Yosef (Parashas Naso) adds that the necessary ‘can of worms’ – the negative parts of a person – should be located behind him. A leader is one who overcame his negative parts, the tumah in him, puts it behind him and chooses from here on all that is good, holy and pure to grow closer to Hashem.

Every Country Has the Government It Deserves

Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ha’anava chapter 7) adds another dimension to this idea. A leader does not act in his own name, nor are his victories or failures his own personal issues. A leader’s actions are born of his nation’s power. He is his nation, and just as they are imperfect – he too is imperfect. Saul, on the other hand was described as “no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people.” As an individual, he was perfect – he had no common denominator with his people.

Levi – the Midda of Strength

In light of the above, we can now return to the case at hand – the appointing of Shevet Levi.

The medieval commentator Rekanati explains the first passuk mentioned here, “But you shall appoint [hafked] the Levites” along a mystical vein – the appointing of Levi was rooted in the attribute of strength, gevura. Therefore, they were stationed around the Mishkan as the passuk says (Shir Hashirim 3:7) “Sixty mighty men [giborim] are around it, of the mighty men of Yisroel.”

Before his death, Yaakov avinu rebukes Levi for his might. “Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh” (Bereshis 49:7). On the other hand, Levi is instructed not to carry his father’s coffin, for he is the chosen tribe, destined to carry the Holy Ark (Bereshis 50:13, Rashi).

In Shechem, at the sale of Yosef, Levi is rebuked for misplaced use of his inborn strength. But later, when Levi utilized his strength properly during the sin of the Golden Calf he is praised (Devarim 33:9): “Who said of his father and his mother, ‘I do not see him’; neither did he recognize his brothers, nor did he know his children, for they observed Your word and kept Your covenant.” Rashi describes the scene: ” Moshe says: When they [Yisroel] sinned with the calf, and I said, “Whoever is for Hashem, come to me!” all the sons of Levi assembled to me, and I ordered them to kill [those guilty of worshipping the golden calf, even] one’s mother’s father, if he was an [ordinary] Israelite [and not a Levi], or his brother from his mother [if his brother’s father was not a Levi], or the son of his daughter [whose husband was not a Levi], and they did so.”

In the desert, when Yisroel sinned with the Golden Calf, the Tribe of Levi reached the ultimate expression of their inborn strength and might – they harnessed their power for the honor of G-d, while quashing the most basic natural instincts – human love for relatives.

This, explains the Rekanati, is the reason Levi was appointed for the job. Levi possess the trait of Gevura – power, might and strength, and he knows how to utilize them in the appropriate manner.

A Wicked Man – The Tribe of Levi

The Ba’al Haturim uses the two instances of the word hafked in the Tanach to draw a connection between the two – the Tribe of Levi possess a wickedness of sorts – a strength that if let loose, if allowed to function of its own accord, will herald destruction and catastrophe. But once harnessed to service of G-d, that wickedness itself is the ultimate leadership quality. Harnessing one’s negative traits to G-d’s Will is the power of gevura, the ability to lead and it earns its owners with the position of Levites – servers of G-d.

The leader must have the ability to rule over his own characteristics and express them in the appropriate manner to every person, says the Meiri (Yoma 22b). He needs to have full control over himself. Indeed, a leader controls, first of all, himself.



Without doubt, leaders of the Jewish Nation must be pious, righteous people. But it is the leader who has a ‘can of worms’ – who is born with difficult character traits and reigns them in, perfecting himself until he reaches full control over himself like Dovid Hamelech and Shevet Levi that gives birth to the ultimate leader. A righteous, pious leader is not one who was born perfect but one who worked on himself to fulfill ratzon Hashem, combatted his instincts and prevailed thereby enabling him to express his natural characteristics in full accordance with ratzon Hashem.

The public office demands various characteristics, many contradicting qualities. It demands strength and might, compassion and pity. This is a position that requires different attributes in every situation, and one who was born with naturally good middos will not know how to play a different tune when the situation requires it.  He who overcame his inborn traits and put his can of worms behind him – clinging only to Hashem and His Will – he is worthy of leading G-d’s nation.



[1] The exact source for this saying is unknown, but the concept appears also in the Rambam, in his Pirush on the Mishnayos (Pirkei Avos, 1:10): “Once one is appointed below becomes wicked above”. Masores Hashas mentions this Ba’al Haturim and adds, “And the place it is said is unknown, whether it is mentioned in the Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi or the Midrash.”

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