Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” This has been on my mind lately as I have campaigned and been elected to the board of directors of our local “Minhal Kehilati,” an integral part of Jerusalem municipal governance on the neighborhood and community level. While these elections are small and local, they are often characterized by passionate campaigning and high-running emotions. Added to that were the season’s U.S. elections and the upcoming Israeli elections - it has been an interesting time indeed. Many have asked me why I am stepping out of the pristine yeshiva study hall that I built, and stepping into a political arena. “Are you sure?” they ask, “Politics corrupts.”
Indeed it seems at times that a moral and clean political ethic is destined to fail. After all, it is so hard to build in this world and so easy to tear down. Those with no moral scruples have a clear advantage.
Once this equation becomes clear, the simple conclusion can be drawn that survival requires ethical compromise.
Our forefather Jacob is the classical Jewish archetype of this ethical struggle. Jacob pulls one over on his father, receiving the blessings of the firstborn by disguising himself as his brother Eisav, and when Lavan tricks him into marrying the wrong daughter, he patiently bides his time and departs in the night with both daughters and most of Lavan’s fortune. The Rabbis evoke the words of King David when trying to understand Jacob: “With the pure be pure, but with the crooked be cunning” (Samuel 2 22:27). This would seem not only to be sound advice, but also to provide an ethical apologetic, for all you are doing is responding in kind.
But, despite this advice, King David himself seems to hold to a higher standard of conduct. It is overwhelmingly evident to the reader of David’s saga that he will do nothing to wrest the kingship from Saul and his supporters despite the treacherous and murderous treatment he receives from them. Any power David wields emerges over time, a clear product of grassroots leadership and popular support. When reading the poetry of this heroic Jewish leader we discover the foundation of this apparently foolhardy approach: “I will fear no evil for You are with me” (Psalm 23). If our belief in God truly stands with us as we navigate treacherous political waters, we would do well to consider that on a divine level it is our moral fortitude that may make us worthy of Gods support, and what more critical vote can there be?
I realize this is simplistic; God helps those who help themselves. It is also dangerous - one should never presume to be Gods candidate; humility and perspective are always in order. Nonetheless, as a paradigm, this ability to let go of fear and surrender to the idea that we are ultimately not in control of the world, could help politicians move from manipulative and dishonest conduct to a more open and truthful approach. I wish this were the face of politicians today who claim to be guided by the Torah.
We are celebrating Hanukkah, a holiday about shedding light on the dark. The Hassidic tradition speaks about lighting candles as low as allowed, showing that the light shines even in the lowest places, seemingly far from God. A single candle can illuminate a room, and the more candles the more darkness dispelled, the more light. The story of the Maccabees is a story about a time we stood up for our beliefs against all odds. It affirms the fact that miracles can occur, that the world can conspire to protect the faithful and vindicate their path. I do believe that when all is said and done the strongest voice is the voice of truth. Let us hope that the light of truth will shine bright in all our places, both high and low.