Thoughts for an Election Year

Posted on October 3, 2012 at 3:40 PM

By Gary Konecky

As we are in the home stretch of another election year, now seems to be a good time to reflect on the qualities that one should expect in their elected officials.  Now also seems a good time to discuss what the role of government should be.  The Torah, the Talmud, and the rabbinic commentaries address these very issues. 


An important quality in elected officials would be an understanding of how the people they govern live.  The Talmud (Berachoth 27b-28a) tells us of this in an incident involving the President of the Sanhedrin, RabbanGamaliel.  Rabban Gamaliel owed his position in large part to family connections (as he had ancestors who also held this position) and family wealth.  He was known to be authoritarian and to go out of his way to embarrass those who disagreed with him.  Ultimately, he did this to R. Joshua one time too many, and he was removed from his position a head of the Sanhedrin.  The Talmud then tells us: 


Rabban Gamaliel thereupon said: This being the case, I will go and apologize to R.Joshua. When he reached his house he saw that the walls were black. He said to him: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a charcoal-burner. He replied: Alas for the generation of which you are the leader, seeing that you know nothing of the troubles of the scholars, their struggles to support and sustain themselves!


How many of our elected officials have spent their entire lives in politics and know nothing of the struggle to pay for food, clothing and shelter?  How many of our elected officials, having spent their lives in office, have no understanding of the impact of the fees and taxes they impose on their constituents? 


Having mentioned our politicians, now seems a good time to mention their political appointees and those they give government contracts to.  The Talmud discusses the building of the Tabernacle (which is described in Exodus).  What is interesting is G-d seeks the approval of his subordinate (Moses) about who to appoint to oversee this very important project.  Moses then seeks the approval of the Israelites.  Even afterall this, Moses tests the appointee to make sure he is the right man for the job. 


The Talmud (Berachoth 55a) tells us: 


R. Johanan said: There are three things which the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself proclaims, namely, famine, plenty, and a good leader…‘A good leader’, as it iswritten: And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, See I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri.(19)


R. Isaac said: We must not appoint a leader over a Community without first consulting it, as it says: See, the Lord hath called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri.(20) The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? He replied: Sovereign of the Universe, if Thou thinkest him suitable, surely I must also! Said [God] to him: All the same, go and consult them. He went and asked Israel: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? They replied: If the Holy One, blessed be He, and you consider him suitable, surely we must!


R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Johanan:  Bezalel was so called on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses; Go and tell Bezalel to make me a tabernacle, an ark and vessels,(21) Moses went and reversed the order, saying, Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Bezalel said to him: Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, Make mean ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels? Moses replied: Perhaps you were in the shadow of God(22) and knew!


(19) Ex. XXXI, 1.

(20) Ibid. XXXV, 30.

(21) This is the order in Ex. XXXI, 7.

(22) Heb. bezel el.


Can any of us envision such a thing happening today?  Can any of usrecall a politician consulting with the people about a government contract orcontractor?  Can any of imagine a political appointee who is beholden to the people? What of our political appointees who think nothing of charging exorbitant tolls to cross a bridge, a bridge that has been bought and paid for in tolls over and over and over again? What of our elected officials who feel that their political appointees should not have to explain where all that toll money goes?  How many of us have heard about government officials abusing their authority?  What of the government contractors who “pay to play,” meaning bribing government officials (excuse me, making campaign contributions) to get government contracts?  What of the no bid contracts that are given out to contractors who “pay to play?”  


The next qualities that I would like to discuss are the qualities of mercy and justice.  Furthermore, not only does this apply to elected officials, but it applies to us as well, for all of us are commanded (Deuteronomy 22:6-7): 


If a bird's nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings orupon the eggs, you shall not take the mother upon the young.  You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you,and you should lengthen your days.


While this commandment seems simple enough, the reason for it is unclear and the reason is the subject ofrabbinic commentary. 


The great Jewish sage, The Ramban explains:


…when the Gemara says that the reason behind the Mitzvah of sending away the mother bird is not in order to have mercy, it means that it is not Hash-m's intent to have mercy on the bird. Rather, it is a "Gezeirah" (a decree upon us ,for our benefit) in order to inculcate the trait of mercy in us. One who accustoms himself to acting with cruelty to beasts becomes cruel intrinsically, and even to people. (Note 1)


The CHASAMSOFER (Chulin 139b) explains that according to the Rambam (Hilchos Shechitah 3:7) the reason for this Mitzvah is to ensure that a level of moral justice is maintained in the world. When a mother bird stays behind to protecther young from a hunter, it is not morally condonable that she suffers harm as a result. Therefore, the hunter is not allowed to take advantage of the mother's love for her young and capture the mother, but rather he must send her away.  (Note 1)


Taking this last point about a level of moral justice a step further, the Torah (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) tells us:


You shall setup judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes ofthe wise and perverts just words. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.


Having mentioned justice, we now turn to the judges and the courts. Isaiah (chapter five) in one of his prophecies tells us: 


And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I beg you, between me and my vineyard…


For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plant of His joy; and He hoped for justice, and, behold, there was injustice; for righteousness, and behold, an outcry.


This brings us to the subject of injustice, as well as corrupt courts and judges.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) discusses the corrupt judges in Sodom (also transliterated as Sedom), who according to the Talmud are named Shakra'i, Shakrura'i, Zayafei, and Matzlei Dina. Why does the Talmud give the names of the judges and do the names have meaning?  The great rabbis have answered this question for us:

The MAHARSHA explains that these four judges represent the four examples of "Sedom justice" that the Gemara describes immediately afterwards. The name of the first judge,Shakra'i (which comes from the word "Sheker," or "lie") refers to a perversion of justice and represents the judgment in the case ofthe person who hit his neighbor's pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. When the judges accept the perpetrator's claim that he should not have to pay for the loss of the fetus since he can replace what he damaged by impregnating the woman that is an injustice.

The Maharsha asserts that the name of the second judge, Shakrura'i, should actually read "Sheker Vadai" -- meaning absolute injustice. This represents the judgment in the case of a person who hit his neighbor's donkey, causing it to lose an ear. The judges tell the victim to keep the ear until it grows back. This is absolutely unjust, because the ear of an animal cannot grow back.

The name of the third judge,Zayafei, represents the way the judges of Sedom would rule in a case in which a person hit another person, wounding him and causing him to bleed. The judges would rule that the victim must pay the perpetrator for causing him to bleed, because the perpetrator performed the service of bloodletting for him! This is falsified logic ("Ziyuf," or "forgery"); because the victim did not need bloodletting at the time he was wounded.

The name of the fourth judge, Matzlei Dina, corresponds to the judgment in the fourth case the Gemara mentions. The judges of Sedom instituted a higher fee for one who crosses the river by foot than for one who crosses the river by bridge. This was a corruption of justice done for personal benefit ("Matzlei Dina," or a"bending of the law" for one's own benefit) done simply to raise revenue fraudulently for the city.    (Note2)

How many of us heard of a case being fixed in a court, or a judge making a blatantly political ruling, or a cour truling in favor of the politically connected or the powerful?  How many of us felt railroaded, or plead guilty (to something we did not do) and paid a fine in traffic court (as the prosecutor offered us a deal that would avoid insurance surcharges and points on our license)?  How many of us decided it was not worth the time and effort and just paid a ticket, even if we were innocent?  How many of us have heard rumors of police corruption, or heard that a local government official takes bribes?  Lastly, what of our government officials, both elected and appointed, who knowingly turn a blind eye to fraud and other criminal acts?

Moving on from injustice, let us look at tzeddakah or righteous giving.  As part of the political process, the presidential candidates have disclosed some of their income tax returns.  On those tax returns is information about their charitable giving.  This brings up the question; how much was given and whom was it given to? 

I now come to the laws of charitable giving, as explained by the great Jewish sage Maimonides in his monumental work the Mishneh Torah.  Maimonides explains the different levels of charitable giving as follows: 

1.  The highest level is helping someone by finding him employment, or entering into a business partnership with him, or giving him a loan so that he can set up a business.  The goal being to strengthen the person so that they will no longer be dependent on charity.

2.  The next highest level is giving charity to someone without knowing to whom he gave charity and the recipient not knowing who gave the charity.

3.  Next we come to knowing whom one is giving charity to, but the recipient does not know who gave him charity.

4.  Next is not knowing to whom one is giving charity, but the poor person knows who is giving the charity.

5.  Next is giving to the poor person directly, meaning both the recipient and the donator know who is giving and who is receiving, but the charity is given before the poor person asks for it.

6.  Next we come to the donor and recipient knowing each other, and the recipient asks for charity

7.  Next is when one gives charity gladly with a smile, but the amount is not adequate for the poor person’s needs.

8.  The lowest level of charity is when one gives unwillingly. 

If one looks carefully at the different levels of charity, one is struck about how the levels are ranked in terms of the dignity of the poor.  This is no surprise, for the Talmud (Berachoth 19b, Menachoth 37b, and Shabbath 81b) tells us:  “Great is human dignity, since it overrides a negative precept of the Torah.” 


The Talmud (Berachoth 58b) gives us an example of how to give charity, by telling us how R. Hana b. Hanilai ran his house:


…the house in which there used to be sixty (6) cooks by day and sixty cooks by night, who cooked for every one who was in need. Nor did he [R. Hana] ever take his hand away from his purse, thinking that perhaps a respectable poor man might come,and while he was getting his purse he would be put to shame. Moreover it had four doors, opening on different sides, and whoever went in hungry went out full. They used also to throw wheat and barley outside in years of scarcity, so that anyone who was ashamed to take by day used to come and take by night…

(6) I.e.,a great many.


It is striking how concerned R. Hana b. Hanilai was, not only with the poor; not merely with the poor, but also with their dignity, that they should not have to wait and be ashamed, or that they should not have to been seen receiving wheat and barley. Have any of us heard of a government official that concerned with the poor?  How many candidates run for public office, not by appealing to our better natures, but by appealing for our votes by demonizing people?   


Continuing our discussion about tzeddakah, the Torah (Deuteronomy 15:11) tells us: 


For there will never cease to be needy within the land. Therefore, I command you, saying,you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land. 


At first glance, this verse would seem to be a commandment to give charity to the poor, and so it is.  But is that all it is?  We are blessed to have people who give generously of their time and money. They fulfill this commandment by funding hospitals, and food pantries, visiting the sick and shut ins, helping the unemployed look for jobs, etc.  But no matter how generous they are, we still have people who cannot pay their medical bills (because they do not have medical insurance or because their medical insurance refuses to pay all the costs of their medical treatment).  We have unemployed people who are loosing their homes.  We have children who go to bed hungry.  Therefore, it is important to ask:  What is the role of government, the government that we fund with our tax dollars?  How many of our tax dollars should be used for unemployment benefits?  How many of our tax dollars should be used for helping someone get another job?  How many of our tax dollars should be used to pay for medical care for those who need it?  One of the roles of our elected officials is to answer these questions, “For there will never cease to be needy within the land” and no matter how generous we are, we cannot help all the needy throughour charity alone.  


In conclusion, as we evaluate ourcandidates for elective office, let us remember the ways to evaluate ourpoliticians; kindness, charity, righteousness, justice, and respect for human dignity. 


Let us also remember the words of King David (psalms 118:8-9) who told us: “It is better to take shelter in the Lord than to trust in man.  It is better to take shelter in the Lordthan to trust in princes.”


Let us also remember that when the Jewish people demanded a king, it was the prophet Samuel who warned the Jewish people against the dangers of such a government.  His prophecy was proved to be true by the fact that the Jewish people were fortunate to have some great kings lead them; but the kingdom was split and ultimately destroyed because all too many kings were evil.  Perhaps this is something to remember as you walk into the voting booth this November. 











Note 2: 




Sources (not listed above):


The Complete Tanach with Rashi, copyright 1999 by Davka Corporation and Judaica Press


The Soncino Talmud, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8,Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation


Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity:


Categories: Current Events (and people in the news), Sermon

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