Our Wrong and Rightful Role in the Presidential Election
The noise, news, deception and demagoguery that emanate from political conventions tend to intoxicate some Americans to break out their own flags and flyers and root loudly for their guy (and against the other guy). Parts of the Jewish community are no different, and excitedly join the fray. Inherent worriers that many of us are (and subject as we are to the Tochacha’s prediction that even the rustling of a leaf will sometimes terrify us), we may feel we’ve spied danger around this or that candidate’s corner.
That is our prerogative, of course, each of us according to his own degree of paranoia (and, as a member of the tribe once famously said, even paranoids have real enemies).
One thing we must take care to avoid, though, is hopping on any of the various bandwagons whose loudspeakers blare that this or that candidate is the enemy of mankind, Satan incarnate, a closet Communist, or a Nazi well-disguised. Our mesorah guides us to treat the leaders (and, presumably, would-be-leaders, for leaders they may yet be) of the countries where we dwell, with deference and honor. We can disagree with policies, of course, and even be critical. But we are charged with maintaining respect and civility throughout.
Some assert that harshness toward political leaders has its proper place. One ostensible piece of evidence proffered for that claim is the famous Iggeres Teiman, a lengthy letter that the Rambam sent a community of Jews in Yemen around 1172. In that document, however, there is no criticism whatsoever of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, where the Rambam lived at the time. In fact, the Jewish sage was the court physician to the Sultan and his family. The only harsh language employed by the Rambam in his letter was aimed at the founders of other religions, and people who had persecuted Jews in those religions’ names. He had strong words for some Muslims, even for Islam’s founder, but not for the temporal Muslim leader in whose country he chose to reside.
That has been the norm, to my knowledge without exception, for Jews over the millennia in galus.
Even when a leader acts in an evil manner and persecutes his Jewish subjects —something none of us can claim has relevance to contemporary America—respect is in order. When Moshe and Aharon were sent by Hashem to confront Par’oh, they were told, according to the Midrash (quoted by Rashi, Shmos 6:13) “lachlok lo kovod”—to treat him with honor.
In the 14th century, the Avudraham included in his siddur the “Prayer for the welfare of the government,” which has been part of siddurim ever since. It is based on the mishna in Avos (3:2), in turn based on a posuk in Yirmiyahu (29:7). (Although the posuk refers to the “place” where one lives, the Avudraham’s tefilla references the leader in particular.)
I can attest from many years at Agudath Israel that, over administrations both good and less good “for the Jews” (i.e. for Israel; we American Jews are fortunate to never have been mistreated by our government) both the Gedolim at the Agudah’s helm and the askanim charged with interaction with government authorities, including presidents, have taken great pains to show them great deference (and when it was necessary to disagree, to do so agreeably).
In the end, all of us who might feel tempted to join the American pastime of cheering and booing candidates do well to remember a posuk in Mishlei: “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem” (21:1).
That is not, of course, necessarily to say that by virtue of their exalted positions such people are mere automatons, or that they are never responsible for choices they make. “Merits are brought through the meritorious,” says the Gemara, “and iniquity through the iniquitous.”
What it does say, though, is that Divine intercession is at play in a far-reaching royal – or presidential – decision.
And Divine intercession is merited by our actions as Jews. As we approach Rosh Hashana, that is a most timely thought. What matter more, we must remember, than our choices in the voting booth are the ones we make in our homes and our lives.