Rashbam: The Curse of Leadership (Mishpatim)

In Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24), mostly a laundry list of laws, there comes a point where the text tells us not to curse the judges and leaders who enforce said laws. Exodus 22:27 reads:

:אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א תְקַלֵּ֑ל וְנָשִׂ֥יא בְעַמְּךָ֖ לֹ֥א תָאֹֽר

“Judges you shall not revile; nor shall you curse a leader (nasi) among your people.”

On the surface, it appears that the Torah is teaching us to respect authority. Powerful people will not tolerate insubordination.

However, Rashbam considers this verse to be a general prohibition on cursing, regardless of who the unlucky recipient might be.

“The text describes the most likely occurrence. Since kings and judges are the ones who adjudicate monetary and capital cases, it is common for people to curse them. So it is written, “Do not revile a king, even in your thoughts” (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 10:20); and it is written, “a hanged man leads to reviling judges” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:23), i.e. when people see a person hanged, they generally curse the judges; that is why the verse says “you must not let his corpse hang.” (translation Martin Lockshin)

Setting aside the gruesome citation, what Rashbam suggests is that the verse uses the examples of judges and leaders (in his day and age, kings) to forbid cursing because they are the ones people are most likely to curse. Leadership – even at its wisest – may not stir people to gratitude. It’s easy to lay blame at the feet of those who must make hard decisions.

For those in leadership positions – how do you remain open enough to questions that may reveal better decisions, while protecting yourself from curse/complaints that don’t really help the situation?

For all of us – what does “cursing” look like in our lives? What are healthy ways of venting or productive ways of creating change? What habits of hatred can we work to minimize?