This article will appear soon after the United States holds its election. It’s over! T.S. Eliot, was wrong – this November, not April, has been the cruelest month.
Having no nevuah (prophesy skill), I can’t predict who will have won. I can say this, however: the campaign, or gong show, whichever you prefer, has told us things about Americans that we did not want to know.
Bubbling up from the places where prejudices lie, an ugly scum has appeared. The entire system of government in the U.S., fraught as it is with some difficulties and blockages, has seen a slow descent into near chaos. Now comes the whirlwind.
In the past eight years, we have seen how politicians in the U.S. can eat each other alive. This campaign has served up the worst meal of all: calls for the jailing of a candidate and implied incitement to an assassination. Blatant racism and isolationism. Almost treasonous contact with foreign governments and threats of a World War III.
In our siddurim we recite a prayer every Shabbat for the welfare and wisdom of the government. At times like these, it seems very appropriate that we ask for good counsel and for our governments to be guided by something besides raw power.
In past eras, the Jewish community had a difficult time praying for the peace of some of their governments. Recall the little yeshiva bocher in Fiddler on the Roof asking the rabbi in plaintive tones: “Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the czar?”
The rabbi sighs as he responds: “Yes, my son: may God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us!”
It’s not that bad here, but some days…
In Pirkei Avot, we find some advice about praying for the rulers. One from Avot, 1:10 is: “Do not make yourself known to the government.” Maybe Tevye’s rabbi was thinking of that one.
Or, “Be cautious of the government, for they befriend you only when it suits them. They seem like friends when it is to their advantage, but when you need them, they don’t stand by you.” (Avot, 2:3) So much for lobbying and fundraisers. Save $1,500.
In Avot, 3:2, Rabbi Chananiah taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, because were people not afraid of it, they would swallow each other alive.”
Maybe Chananiah was thinking of a situation such as we have right now, when politicians seem to have a zest for gobbling up the opposing candidates.
In my version of Pirkei Avot, edited by Chaim Stern, Chananiah’s saying is glossed with a line from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (a play about snarky politics). One of the Bard’s characters says: “You cry against the noble senate who… keep you in awe, which else would feed on one another.”
Well put, Mr. Bard. Was Shakespeare channelling Sayings of the Fathers?
Whether for king, queen, emperor, czar, or any other titled autocrat, the consensus seems to be – subjects beware!
Today, when we cast our ballots – a unique gift of democracy, one neither the rabbis nor Shakespeare ever contemplated – we have a heavy responsibility and a glorious opportunity. Maybe the rabbis and the Bard would have voted for the governments they had. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Queen Elizabeth was a far better bet than her increasingly erratic father, much more than the drooling James I. And the rabbis, or at least some of them, knew from the chaos and blood of failed revolts about worse choices that could have been made.
Now we think with all the sources of information available to us that we can make informed choices, then leave governing up to the persons we select. Given the nature of politics – as opposed to governance – a glance at the daily newspaper or TV broadcast should tell us how naïve that attitude is. Asking guidance for leaders and their advisors can never hurt. If you believe in the efficacy of prayer, it can only help.