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Post-election musings on the mitzvah of public service

The Centre Block of the Canadian parliament buildings on Parliament Hill. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
The Centre Block of the Canadian parliament buildings on Parliament Hill. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

When the Jewish People were first exiled from their land in the year 586 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah exhorted them to follow the laws of the land in which they found themselves. While we yearned to return to the Land of Israel, we were to see ourselves as loyal citizens of our countries of residence. Jewish law demands that we say a prayer for the welfare of the government, including those who were very far from democratic. How much more so must we who live in the wonderful country of Canada.

I pen these thoughts the day after the Canadian people elected a new, and likely a very different, government.

How blessed we are that leaders change without bloodshed and people can vote for change if they are so inclined. We must as loyal citizens and loyal Jews pray that the government be blessed with much success in its mandate to serve the country as best it can.

There is no greater calling in the Jewish tradition than public service. Serving in government is potentially one of the highest forms of public service. The ability to help so many, without fanfare or fame is almost unparalleled. While politics is often rough and brings out the negative all too often, many, and likely most, of these same politicians aim to, and are often very successful at, helping many people away from the limelight.

Political life can be gruelling – the divorce rate among politicians is much too high. Almost all of our elected officials could be earning much more in the private sector, and despite the often public outcry over their high salaries and generous pensions, it’s the rare politician who enters public life to get ahead financially.

Most do it because they sincerely want to help people and strongly believe the best way to do so is through public office. There is little doubt that the political system often doesn’t allow these high aspirations to be met, and we all suffer for that.

Our tradition teaches that the most important trait needed by those who want to serve the public is to be “motivated for the sake of heaven,” to help others as best they can. While it’s always good to be properly motivated, we generally place little importance on why we do what we do. Judaism primarily focuses on what we do, not why we do it.

Those who give lots of charity in order to get lots of honour are deserving of exactly that. Doing right is what matters, not why we do what’s right – proper motivation is an added bonus when it occurs.

However, by definition, public service is different. Public service means balancing competing needs, each in its own right worthy of support, but in the aggregate, it’s impossible to provide for all who need. One can debate whether it’s wise to incur deficit spending (something that, if promises are kept, is on its way), but even those who support such spending are left billions of dollars short of doing all they want to do.

Decisions have to be made, and those decisions will inevitably benefit some and hurt others. If we increase spending on health care, we must cut somewhere else, such as education. Every dollar spent in one area is a dollar that could have been spent somewhere else. These decisions must be made with only one goal in mind – what is in the public interest.

Vigorous debate about what’s best is healthy, but choices must be made. To “hurt” some because you’re helping others is the price we must be willing to pay to enter public service. Doing such is a great mitzvah. But to promote policy or vote in a particular way because of some personal calculation – such as getting re-elected – means you’ll be held personally responsible for the pain caused to others. Public service really isn’t for everyone. 

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