I was looking for the ball game on the radio, turning the dial and trying to find the right station. All of a sudden I came across Rush Limbaugh. I was ready to keep moving until I heard the word “Torah.” I was very surprised – so I kept listening. Imagine my shock when I heard him talking about the weekly Torah portion, and what Rashi had to say, about how Ramban disagreed but Ibn Ezra - as usual - came up with his own unique interpretation. I couldn’t believe my ears: Rush Limbaugh going on and on as if he were a Rabbi teaching a class in Yeshiva!
But my amazement soon turned to anger – as I realized his understanding of the text was all wrong! I quickly called the station, and to my surprise they put me on the air. “Rush” I said “I’m an ordained rabbi, and I’ve got to tell you: You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about! I’d appreciate it if you would leave Torah to the Rabbis…”
Rush replied: “I’ll make a deal with you – if you don’t talk about politics in shul, then I won’t talk about Torah on the radio!”
I’ve got to tell you that I’m torn. Religion is not just about: “How many days do you sit shiva,” or “Should I take my blood-pressure medicine on Yom Kippur?” If it doesn’t guide us in how to vote in a critical election, then what do I need it for?
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a Jew talking politics, you can read Tom Friedman, or Charles Krauthammer – you don’t need me.
And in today’s polarized world, it’s unlikely that my sermon is going to sway anyone’s opinion. Almost everyone’s mind is already made up, and a political sermon is only likely to make half the people upset. Frankly, synagogues today don’t have the luxury of driving members away. Especially when, on most issues, there’s not one Jewish opinion. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Boro Park will take a very strict approach to abortion – allowing it only if the mother’s life is in danger. Liberal Jews on the upper West Side will say a pregnancy can be terminated if giving birth would cause the mother psychological distress. And both sides could point to texts that back up their position.
Then again, there’s IRS regulations. If a church or its pastor endorse a particular candidate, that church can lose its tax-exempt status.
So what’s a rabbi to do? How dare I speak out on the elections? But how can I not?
All I can do is what Rush suggested. I’ll teach Torah, it’s up to you to decide how to apply it.
Lesson 1: And Samuel said to the people: “The Day will come when you will cry out because of the King that you yourselves have chosen.”
Two hundred years after Moses, the twelve tribes were living in the land of Israel. But there was no unity. Loyalty to tribe and clan was more important than loyalty to nation. Leaders, or judges, arose only in times of crisis. Samuel the prophet was looked to for the word of God. The Philistines were a constant nemesis, and after numerous defeats, the Israelites realized what the enemy had that they didn’t – a King. The people demanded a leader who would unite them, and defeat the Philistines. Samuel was furious. Partly because he saw this a personal rejection, partly because he said – “We already have a King – God!” And partly because he knew: absolute power corrupts. The people continued to whine and demand, and finally God, and Samuel, gave in.
A tall, young, handsome man was chosen – Saul son of Kish. He was anointed with oil, and soon rallied the people and led them to victory.
But things began to go sour. When the people hailed David as their new hero for killing Goliath, Saul became jealous. When David married Saul’s daughter, and befriended Saul’s son, his jealousy turned to insanity. In a battle against the Amalekites, Saul disregarded Samuel’s instructions and followed his own whims. For this, Samuel and God rejected Saul as King, and soon after Saul was killed in battle in a disastrous defeat for the Israelites.
What had begun with such hope, ended in failure and tragedy. This was the first case in Jewish history of the dangers of Messianism. It was, sadly, not to be the last.
Many people approach a national election as if it is a way to bring a Messianic figure who will solve all our problems. The story of Saul cautions us that things rarely turn out as we hope they will.
Sometime in 1929, Jack Yellen, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who became a songwriter on Tin Pan Alley wrote a song that swept the nation. It encapsulated what people were hoping for in the roaring twenties:
The Skies above are clear again
Let us sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again!
Your cares and trouble are gone -
There’ll be no more from now on!
Just as the song was being recorded, the stock market crashed, and America entered the Great Depression.
Three years later FDR adopted “Happy Days” as his campaign song. People sang it as Prohibition ended, and they believed it as the New Deal put America back to work again. But six years later Germany dragged the world into the bloodiest war in human history.
Jews have always been optimistic about the future, but we have learned from Jesus of Nazareth, from Shimon bar Kochba, from Shabbtai Tzvi – and may others – that putting your hopes on the coming of a Messiah always leads to disappointment. JFK didn’t bring a New Frontier. Ronald Reagan didn’t remake America into “A shining city on the Hill.’ And the election of Barack Obama didn’t end our racial problems.
Yes, we’re waiting for the Messiah. But the Messiah is not running for President. Anyone who thinks they are is going to be deeply disappointed.
Lesson 2: And Joseph’s brother said: “We shall see what comes of his dreams.”
Joseph was a dreamer. Eleven stars in the sky that circle a twelfth. A vine with three branches with grapes whose juice is squeezed into a cup. Three baskets of food which are eaten by birds. Seven skinny cows who devour seven fat cows. A man of vision and creativity – capable of seeing things that other people can’t.
But Joseph was also a do-er. Whatever he touched seemed to turn to gold. He was put in charge of Potiphar’s estate, which became hugely successful. Falsely sent to prison, he became a trustee with responsibility and privilege.
It’s one thing to anticipate that years of famine are looming in the future. It’s quite another to devise a plan to deal with the coming crisis. Joseph was such a man. He interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, and he suggested a way to mobilize all of Egypt’s resources so that when the famine came, there would be enough food in reserve to save Egypt and the surrounding countries. It’s no wonder that he was put in charge; the Hebrew teenager in the dungeon went on to become second only to Pharaoh himself.
There are plenty of dreamers out there. And there are many competent do-ers as well. It is rare to find a dreamer who can make his visions come to life. It is unusual to find a do-er who doesn’t simply follow someone else’s instructions, but comes up with a plan of what needs to be done. That combination is what makes a great leader.
Think about the multitude of challenges that we face today. Growing the economy. Keeping America safe from terrorism. Gun violence out of control. Global warming. Race relations. Becoming energy independent. A deteriorating infrastructure. Regulating immigration, and dealing with millions of illegals. Providing a decent education for our children. Dealing with crime in our cities. Drug abuse. Making college affordable. Finding a way of dealing with abortion. Protecting those in the LGBTQ community. Improving our healthcare system. Dealing with our burgeoning prison population. Protecting our natural resources. And then there’s America’s role in the world – should we step back from our involvement, or try to do more. How do we engage with Russia and China. How do we prevent North Korea and Iran from using nuclear weapons. How do we get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and encourage the Arab world to move towards democracy. Can you imagine waking up every morning and having to deal with all of that – and much, much more? H.L. Menckin famously said: For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple – and wrong. I can’t even imagine why someone would want to take on such a job. Or why anyone would put themselves through all the abuse that comes with running for such a job. Does the eagerness of our candidates to be elected tell us of their devotion to public service, or is it a warning to us that there is something seriously wrong with this person? For each Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt, there are a dozen Hardings and Pierces, Buchanans and Fillmores.
It’s rare to find a Joseph – the dreamer and the do-er. Do the candidates today fit the bill? Lacking such a person, the best we can hope for is a president who has dreamers, and do-ers sitting just a few steps away in the West Wing. Which candidate is more likely to find those people?
Lesson #3: And Natan said: “You are that man!”
King David was the most powerful man of his day. He had everything: Position. Wealth. Charisma. Talent. Looks. Brains. Luck. Beautiful wives. Money. Children.
One day, from his balcony, he spied Bat Sheva, undressing on hers. One thing led to another, and they had an affair. She became pregnant. Since Bat Sheva’s husband was off at war, everyone would know someone else must be the father. David ordered the husband – Uriya home on leave. Uriya would no doubt spend time at home, and then no one would question the baby’s paternity. But Uriya refused to sleep in his own bed while his fellow soldiers remained out in the field.
David became desperate. He wrote a message to his general, ordering that Uriya be sent on a suicide mission in the next battle. David asked Uriya to carry that sealed message to his commanding officer. In a short time, word came back to the King of the heroic death of Uriya. David quickly married the widow, and soon word spread that David’s new wife was expecting a child.
David has always been our most popular King: Slayer of Goliath, author of the Psalms, conqueror of Jerusalem, uniter of the twelve tribes. But in this case, David was guilty of adultery, and of murder.
Among the jobs of the King was to judge cases brought before him. One of the court officials, Natan, stepped forward with a case: “Your majesty – there were two men, one rich, one poor. The rich man has a thousand sheep; the poor man but one, which he kept as a pet. One day, the rich man had guests, and needed to prepare a feast. But instead of going to his own flock, the rich man took, and killed the poor man’s sheep. Your highness – what should be done to that rich man?”
David was outraged at the greed and insensitivity of the rich man. The King pronounced sentence: “That man should die!”
Natan stepped forward – in front of everyone at the court – pointed his finger at the King and said: “You are that man!” David immediately understood. Despite an entire harem, he had stolen the one wife of his poor neighbor.
To me, these are the two most powerful Hebrew words in the Bible: Atah Ha-Ish! And Natan is one of the most courageous of our heroes. You don’t call the King to account like that and walk away with your life. But David – to his credit – knew he was wrong, admitted his guilt and begged God for forgiveness.
It’s one of the great stories in all of literature. And it’s a critical lesson for us to remember:
When our leaders do wrong, we are called upon to speak truth to power.
In May, 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, President Ronald Reagan was looking to travel to Germany to solidify the relations of the two countries that had been bitter enemies. Chancellor Helmut Kohl suggested that Reagan visit a German cemetery and lay a wreath as a sign of reconciliation. But then it was discovered that in the cemetery chosen were not just the graves of 18 year old German boys, but those of SS men who were involved in the extermination of the Jews.
Elie Wiesel, the greatest Jewish hero of the last 50 years, who died this past year, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, stood up on national Television in front of the President, and said:
“The issue here is not politics, but good and evil. I have seen the SS at work. And I have seen their victims. They were my friends. They were my parents…
“I am convinced, as you have told us, that you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn’t know. But now we are all aware.
May I, Mr. President, if it’s possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Reagan didn’t change his plans, but Wiesel taught us a most important lesson. When there is something wrong, you must speak out. Even if it’s against the King himself – or the President of the United States.
In the coming years, no matter who is elected, we will need to learn that lesson as well. Whether it’s the candidate we despise, or the one we reluctantly support – they will do things that are wrong. And it will be our job, to follow in the footsteps of Natan, and Wiesel, and speak truth to power, to call our leaders to account, to demand that they find another way, and do the right thing. The great prophets of the Bible ceased to appear 2500 years. Since then, and today, we have to take their place. It used to be hard to be a good citizen: Take a train to Washington, march in a rally, send a letter that the President never saw. Today, it’s a lot easier. Every phone call or email to the White House is tallied, and its political impact is weighed.-
In 27 days, we will go to the polls to choose our next President, and perhaps to decide the fate of this country – and of the world. It makes sense that on such a day as this, and in such a place as this one, with so much on the line, we say a prayer.
But what do we pray for? The traditional Jewish prayer for the country is called HA NOTEN TESHUA – “May God who brings salvation”. It first appeared in 1658 in Amsterdam, probably written by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were expelled from their own country. It asked that God inspire the King of whatever land to deal kindly with the Jews. Without any power, or rights, Jews were always at the mercy of the local sovereign.
In 20th century America, an updated version of the prayer for the government was written by the Talmudic scholar Professor Louis Ginsberg that reflected the new reality of Jews living in the United States. It read:
“We invoke Thy blessing on our country, and on all who exercise just and rightful authority, that they may administer all affairs of state in justice and equity, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity may forever abide among us.”
A lovely prayer. But here’s my problem with it: It places all the work, and the responsibility on God, to influence our leaders to do the right thing.
I don’t believe that that’s the way prayer works. We talk to God not to tell Him what we want Him to do; we pray to hear what God wants us to do.
If the candidate you vote for wins, that doesn’t mean that God has answered your prayers. No matter who is elected, that’s the day our responsibility begins, that’s the day we have to do the work of being good citizens.
So here’s the prayer I leave you with today, a prayer that all of us need to begin saying – and acting on – in the next four years:
RIBON OLAM – Master of the World. May we appreciate the gift of being citizens of the greatest country in the history of humankind. And may we also acknowledge its flaws. May we dedicate ourselves to working for a more perfect union.
We are a nation of laws, where no one is above the law. We all have obligations we must follow, and we all have rights that we have been endowed with. May we demand of ourselves that we follow those obligations, and may we demand on behalf of others the rights that legally belong to us all – so that we may establish justice.
May we be reminded that E PLURIBUS UNUM – we come from many places, but we have become one nation. May we respect the differences of our fellow citizens, and may those differences never divide us – so that we insure domestic tranquility.
When our security is threatened, may we find the courage to rise as one and protect our nation, and the values this country stands for. May we care for those who so serve us, as we do all to provide for the common defense.
May we understand that a country worth saving is one in which its citizens think not only of themselves, but for each other. May we work to create a society where all have food and shelter, a job, an education and decent health care, as we can promote a general welfare.
May we demand of our leaders that they always remember that this is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, and that it is our responsibility to see to it that they secure the blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
May God help us make the United States of America truly a blessing.