Is there a lesson for us from this election season? If there is what would or should it be? For that matter how can a secular election be of value in our daily service to G-d and our fellow Jew?
An old chassid in Czarist Russia once asked his friend if he’s been keeping current on the parliamentary elections. The chassid looked at him in surprise and asked him, “Why? What difference does it make.” To which his friend responded, “What do you mean? It makes all the difference in the world and for us as Jews!”
Said the other chassid, “You know what happens when a horse defecates as he pulls a buggy? One of the wheels can split it down the middle as it rolls over it. Tell me; is there any difference between the feces on the left or the right…?! It’s really all “dreck”!
In one sense it can be applied and is equally prescient to today’s politics as well. Politicians have one thing in common; Self-perpetuation, promulgation and legacy. Most go into politics for the power it wields and the subsequent wealth it yields. Some actually leave a positive impact as politicians and go into it with all the altruistic intentions they can muster. Tragically it doesn’t last. All, however, have one thing in common; to build a lasting legacy. It’s the instinct all creatures have for self-preservation. To humans that includes postmortem as well.
As in almost everything else the best way to unearth latent talent and leadership skills is through personal gratification. Human beings are needy and want to be recognized and lauded for the good we do and accomplish. It’s the overarching force and common thread in all successful and powerful politicians and businessmen, egalitarian and repressive alike. It’s a basic human trait.
There are positives and negatives to this as there is about almost everything else. It is the source of thrill seekers and fame perpetuators. Even rabbis too feel the need to one extent or another. It forces people to debase themselves and their families in unimaginable ways and with mercenary self-obsession all for a few minutes of renown. It’s the human need for recognition.
As a matter of fact our Sages allude to this in the positive sense when they say, “Envy among Torah-scholars increases wisdom!” It is ambition and a desire for recognition –even if only for the sublime goal to recognize the principles one espouses– that fuels the drive to succeed. This is definitely so in the mundane world where fleeting success is so valued and the human craving for its “fruit” is so sought after.
Alternatively, Torah doesn’t leave us orphaned and deals with the type of leader –scholar, rabbi or politician– with all of his human foibles we should aspire to elect. He must first have been a public servant. This seeming oxymoron is highlighted in a little –perhaps overlooked– anecdote tucked away during Israel’s slavery.
Therein, we read about the Jewish foremen who were beaten regularly by their Egyptian taskmasters for not being able or willing to force the slaves to fulfill Pharaoh’s daily quota of bricks. Rashi on Chumash explains that the taskmasters would hold the Jewish foremen responsible and they selflessly accepted the punishment meted out, never blaming their brethren for not fulfilling their quota.
Typically today a politician never accepts responsibility. It’s always someone else’s fault. Someone else must be fired or punished. Even when they “take” responsibility it goes no further than the mike it’s broadcasted on sans any real consequences.
Because of this atypical leadership and devotion to their brethren it was they who were, subsequently, chosen as the “elders” and members of the first Sanhedrin to help Moses lead the Israelites for the next 40 years in the Desert. Authentic public service is the prerequisite for lasting, great and selfless leadership. If there’s any secular similitude for this it would have to be George Washington.
Today it is all too common for a politician to tout his desire to be a “public servant” and his acceptance of leadership with great “humility”. When a politician touts all he has done in the past and why we can trust him to build on that record in the future it is a sign of unreliability and deception. Almost all politicians today are guilty of this to one degree or another. They just can’t help themselves and they only end up proving their mendacity.
The next question is then who do we pick? If those ancient leaders simply do not exist today what are we to do? Should we not vote? Should we allow our politicians to jaundice our view of America and what it can become? Ironically the Torah takes this very conundrum into consideration and has a solution for us.
When Jethro advised Moses to look for judges and leaders to help him administer the law he tells him, “And you shall see (discern)…the men of accomplishment, G-d-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money…” From the four characteristics mentioned the latter three required Moses to “discern” it through the Holy Spirit G-d graced him with. And yet, ultimately, Moses, “chose men of accomplishment…” eschewing the other three traits.
Why? What caused him to ignore those central qualities which he uniquely could’ve fleshed out with the capabilities afforded him through G-d’s grace and Divine presence?
Torat-Moshe is a guiding light for all time. Moses is telling us that although he could’ve perhaps found some or all with those incredible character-traits and accomplishments, we cannot! As such, he is presenting us with the one overarching resume for leadership. What quality we should prize over all others.
Moses is telling us if you want a leader who will do what is necessary –justly, objectively and effectively – seek out those who are successful. Those who do not need to rely on others. They don’t grovel for the support of others. “Men of accomplishment” as Rashi defines it, is quite simple: “Men whose wealth enables them to resist the pressure of those who attempt to influence their judgment and decision-making”.
Torah doesn’t talk about promises, pledges or good intentions. Nor does it want to hear about past history and praise. That’s the opposite of the “foremen” who quietly and humbly took responsibility and suffered on behalf of others. In the end what matters beyond all else is who controls the politician. Is it the politician or is it others. We know what Moses would’ve wanted!