This is a story about power

This is a story about power.

King David looked out from his palace and saw a beautiful woman. Now, King David was a man who lived in and for power, so, as was typical for him, what he wanted, he took. But this beautiful woman also happened to be a married woman, and her husband was thereby, in King David’s eyes, an inconvenience. So King David used his power once again, and put the woman’s decent but powerless husband on the front lines of a war, where he was killed.

Shortly thereafter, the prophet Nathan came to King David. Nathan was a prophet of G-d, so he had power of his own, just a different kind of power.  He came to King David, and told him a story. It’s a story, I should add, that we probably learned in Hebrew school, and then promptly forgot.

It is time for us to remember.

There were these two men, Nathan said, one rich and one poor. The rich man had big flocks and herds, the poor man only one little lamb that he loved and nurtured like his own child. A visitor came to the rich man, and the rich man, keeping up appearances, prepared a meal for him. Looked good. But instead of taking one of his own many sheep, he took instead the little lamb that belonged to the poor man.

King David raged—as he often did–raged against the rich man and said to Nathan, “I swear to G-d that man must die.”

And Nathan said to him: “You are that man! In spite of all you have been given, all your wealth and success and power, you chose to violate sacred boundaries. You are responsible for the death of that woman’s husband. It is as if you killed him with your own hands. And you will be punished.”

And King David, to his credit, finally recognized the danger of his ambition, the depth of his responsibility, the limits of his power, and declared, simply, “I have sinned before the Lord.”

That’s what real kings do.

That is the story about power; or, more accurately, speaking the truth to power. And if there is a more compelling such story anywhere in the literature of the world, I do not know of it. Simply put: the sword of the warrior king must be balanced by the moral voice of the prophet. I have often wondered about the prophet Nathan’s voice. Did he shout the words with anger? Did he growl them? Or did he simply state them, matter-of-factly, allowing them to speak for themselves? One way or another, the truth of the words conveys its own power.

That, at least, has been my recent experience. Last week, I wrote a sermon, Sacred Ground, that, to my great surprise, went viral. Because G-d obviously has a sense of humor, I, of all people, have been thrust into the role of prophet, challenging the power of the President of the United States. And before anyone gets the wrong idea, trust me, I do not delude myself into imagining that I am anything like the prophet Nathan. Then again, President Trump isn’t exactly King David, either. In fact, he isn’t a king at all. He is an employee. My employee—or, more accurately, our employee. He works for us.

Now although the response to last week’s sermon has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive—indeed, for many, cathartic—there have been those who were concerned that I am mixing politics and religion, and that church and state should be kept separate.

In general, I agree.

However…however…there are some ironic aspects to that assertion.

First, I find it odd that this critique is being directed at me. It was after all the President who violated sacred boundaries, walked onto church grounds and lifted up a Bible, after—let us not forget—after using violence to get there. He was the one that mixed church and state. I am merely responding to protect, in both a spiritual and physical sense, the integrity and inviolability of my house of worship.

Second, I wish I had a nickel for every time I saw the President surrounded by a cadre of evangelical ministers—nearly always old white men, I should mention—as he openly invited them to assert their voice politically as an expression of religious freedom. I do not recall any talk then among the President’s supporters about separating religion and politics. Are we to conclude that church and state must always be separate unless the church in question supports the President politically, in which case they, and they alone, are free to say whatever they please? To Americans, and to American Jews in particular, that idea should be repugnant.

Third, unlike King David, the President serves in a system of checks and balances, where Congress and the Courts, as well as the dynamics between parties and within parties, should serve to temper any abuses of power.

As should be painfully obvious, it ain’t workin’.

Instead, we have a level of sycophancy, of political bootlicking, of abject legislative groveling, unlike anything I have experienced in my lifetime—think Lindsey Graham, if you can stomach it—together with utterly contemptible profiles in cowardice, where members of the President’s own party only dare to criticize him after they have decided not to run for reelection.

Gutless wonders. And this is what passes for leadership.

It is into that moral vacuum that I stepped, proving thereby that fools do indeed rush in where angels fear to tread. Should I be involved in this? Of course not. For heaven’s sake, he’s the Leader of the Free World. I’m a rabbi from New Jersey. Of course I shouldn’t be involved in this.

I shouldn’t have to be. I am involved because sacred boundaries were violated, and the people that should have stopped those violations were instead aiding and abetting them. Rather than acting with the dignity and high responsibility their office demands, they have decided to watch out for their political careers. I, thank G-d., do not have a political career. So it was left to me to speak truth to power.

That, writ large, is the role that church is meant to play vis-à-vis the state. There has to be someone, somewhere, who is free, independent of political concerns, and prepared to point a finger at the person in power and declare, as Nathan did to King David, “You are that man.”

Last week, that someone was me.

Now, it has to be all of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Wolkoff serves Congregation Bnai Tikvah in North Brunswick. He has published hundred of articles and lectured internationally on Jewish topics, and has been active both in interfaith work and in the struggle against anti-Semitism, both in the United States and in Sweden, where he served for a decade. He is a JNF Rabbi for Israel.