“Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
In last week’s Torah portion, we read how Abraham entered into a treaty with Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in an attempt to avoid conflict over water rights. Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir of Troyes, c. 1085 – c. 1158) states that God was angry with Abraham for entering into the treaty. God had promised the land to Abraham and his descendants, and by entering into the treaty, Abraham embroiled his descendants in conflict with the Philistines which began again the very next generation. The Talmud (BT Sotah 10a) teaches the conflict arising from the treaty did not even begin to get resolved until the time of Samson, many centuries later.
God’s intended role for Abraham was not that of a politician: it was that of an educator, working to establish peace. This is obvious from earlier in the Torah portion, when God tells Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God prefaces God’s remarks by stating that God has singled Abraham out to instruct his children and his household to keep the way of God by pursuing charity and justice. Abraham’s willingness to seek a political solution to his water rights problem reinforced conflict which was a distraction, at best, from his descendants’ core mission.
While engaging in politics may be a short-term way of avoiding conflict, it tends to intensify conflict over longer periods of time because it addresses symptoms rather than the root causes of conflict. Arguably, in the United States, if the past decades are any indication, as our leaders have engaged in politics, the division in our society has grown deeper and the conflict has intensified.
It is said that “clothes make the man.” In truth, it is more accurate, and in consonance with Hillel (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5), to say that clothes are merely an invitation to strive to be a “man.” When I don my kippah every morning, I am mindful of the lesson taught to me by my Sabta Dina Lerner z”l. My kippah is nothing more and nothing less than an invitation, and whether I respond to that invitation is my decision and my decision alone. My kippah is symbolic. It is not what makes me religious. What makes me religious is my striving to live up to what the kippah represents.
Similarly, whether one is a Patriarch, a rabbi, or an elected official, it is not the label that makes the individual who they are. The labels are merely invitations. It is the willingness and effort of those who take on those labels to strive to live up to their symbolism that makes them who they are. One cannot be considered a true leader until one is willing to make that effort. Otherwise, leadership devolves into nothing more than an exercise in postponing and deepening conflict rather than working towards healing and peace.
When people are elected to office, no matter who they are, and no matter with what political party they affiliate, they have been given nothing more and nothing less than a simple invitation: an invitation to strive to live up to the symbolism of the office to which they have been elected. Whether they take up that invitation is their decision and their decision alone.
All that I wrote above also applies to the invitation one is given when affiliating with a Jewish community. My colleague Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler spoke this past Shabbat about the importance of recognizing that we are a community and inviting people to overlook the very deep divides that have developed in our community over this past election. By taking up that invitation and striving to live up to the symbolism of the label “community,” and being in a place where we recognize that what we have in common is greater than our differences, each of us has an opportunity to model leadership in our everyday interactions.
In so doing, may it be God’s will that our elected officials heed our example, and strive to live up to the symbolism of the offices to which they have been elected. As they do so, may God strengthen their hands and speedily help them to begin leading a process of national healing.