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Truth and the American Way
by Rabbi Daniel Freitag

Our country’s current election predicament leaves many people feeling quite uneasy. It is very unsettling to be caught in what feels like the election process of M.C. Escher. The seemingly endless twists and turns of what used to be a simple, painless procedure has caused more than its share of sleepless nights.

As I watch the scenario unfold, I am reminded of my days on the sandlot of my Yeshiva Cheder (Elementary) School in Monsey, NY. I vividly recall the disputes that arose during those childhood ballgames a rabble of young boys, shouting and gesticulating; a chorus of "Safe! He was safe!" mingling with "No way! He was out!" After some time on the second-grade sandlot, I realized that I was witnessing a unique sociological phenomenon (though I didn’t describe it as such at the time). Somehow, all of those who felt that the runner was safe happened to be on the runner’s team, while those who believed that he was out were invariably those on the opposing squad.

The situation in Palm Beach County, Florida seems very similar. Apparently, a confusing ballot was used, which has led to claims of voter misrepresentation. While Bush supporters ridicule this assertion, and Gore backers demand a recount of the "obviously" flawed ballot, I am reminded of age-old sandlot politics.

What if we polled these two groups with the following question Do you believe that the ballot in Palm Beach County was flawed to a degree that it warrants a re-vote? Is it more than likely that the respondents’ answers would divide along party lines? A recent national survey of just that question received responses in exact proportion to votes received for each party. Apparently, visual acuity is cultivated differently depending on one's political affiliation.

The American political system recently offered us a similar sample of this sociological peculiarity at play. When President Clinton was investigated for perjury and obstruction of justice about a year ago, the House of Representatives voted on the issue of impeachment, and the Senate soon after voted on his possible removal from office.

While some representatives crossed party lines, the majority of Democrats felt that the president’s actions "Did not rise to the level of impeachment," while their Republican colleagues believed just the opposite.

Partisan politics really find their roots in biblical sources. The Torah tells us that "Bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and turns aside the words of the righteous." Bribery affects not only those of questionable character, but the most pious amongst us as well. And it is not confined to monetary enticement, but involves any action that promotes self-interest. Every person will defend some behavior or position ­- whether culturally, personally or otherwise acquired -- at the expense of rational, objective analysis. Truth is available only to those who seek it wholeheartedly.

A midrash tells a story of a man who, while plowing his newly-purchased field, uncovered a box filled with treasures. The jewels’ ownership was fiercely contested. A great king witnessed the case as it unfolded. The land's original owner asserted that, since he had sold the land without knowledge of the jewels, and had wholeheartedly relinquished the property, the jewels rightfully belonged to the purchaser. The purchaser, however, countered that, since he had had no knowledge of the jewels at the time of purchase, he certainly had not considered them as part of the sale, and they therefore should awarded to the original owner. The judge resolved the dispute by arranging a marriage between the children of the two parties.

Noticing that the king was crying, the judge approached him. The king explained, "In my country we would kill the two parties and keep the jewels for ourselves." But his reaction must have been inspired by more than the judge's insight; it was the incredible impartiality of the parties involved which gave way to the king's existential crisis.

Every individual senses that truth is a necessary virtue; no one intends to be duplicitous or subjective. We must realize, however, the prevalence of bribery around us, and that the strength to resist its powerful grasp comes only with hard work and a willingness to overcome our natural drive of self-promotion and preservation.

Rabbi Daniel Freitag is the director of the Owings Mills Torah Center.


 
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