by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
A tremor of anxiety has run through the Jewish community. The Bush Cabinet choices have been completed---and there is not a single Jew among them. Jewish organizational spokesmen have taken consolation in the appointment of a Jewish White House press secretary. And, beyond the executive branch, they point to the unprecedented number of Jewish congressmen---27 in the House and 10 in the Senate. Plus two Supreme Court Justices. We have hardly been wiped off the political map. Nevertheless, the euphoria which greeted Al Gore's selection of Senator Lieberman as his running mate just last summer, the feeling that "we have arrived," seems like it happened a very long time ago.
The underlying assumption is that our fate is determined by men and governments; and that the presence of Jews in high places is a guarantor of our future. But maybe there is another way to look at it...
The angels sent by Jacob to greet his brother Esau were the first formal emissaries from the Jewish people to the nations of the world. Since then, the representatives of Jacob's descendants in the corridors of power have not all been of angelic character. From the despised informers of Roman times, (whose instigation of Roman persecution prompted a special addition to the Amidah prayer), to the court Jews of medieval times to the various office-and-favor-seekers that have followed, the presence of Jews in high places has not been an unmixed blessing.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this in recent history occurred during World War Two. Franklin Roosevelt's Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, when confronted with the facts of the Holocaust, put his career on the line to do everything possible to assist the rescue effort. On the other hand, Rabbi Steven Wise, FDR's highest-profile Jewish advisor, was so enamored of his president that even Roosevelt's policy of ignoring the destruction of European Jewry could find little fault in his eyes. One could go down the list of Jewish public servants decade by decade and likewise find varying track records, albeit with less dire consequences. And in the last days of the Clinton Administration, the role of Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk in the shaping of a MidEast policy which demands the division of Jerusalem, has been of dubious benefit, to say the least.
If history fosters an attitude of ambivalence, then tradition advises extreme caution. As it says in Ethics of the Fathers, "Despise positions of power and do not become overly familiar with the government." The commentaries teach that governments show favor to people solely for their own purposes. An intimate relationship with them is necessarily precarious, since the moment the relationship no longer serves their interest, it will be summarily terminated. In addition, maintaining the relationship demands an over-whelming degree of subservience. One's moral and ethical principles tend to disintegrate as the drive to maintain the favor of the authorities becomes an overriding concern. As Maimonides once wrote to a student, "Most who follow our religion lose their fear of Heaven upon attaining government office." **
One might ask, "What about Joseph? Didn't the Torah itself testify that his position as viceroy of Egypt was a source of salvation to the whole world in a time of famine?" Yes, but the ascent to power was not his objective. Power was thrust upon him by a Divinely orchestrated series of events. Until Pharaoh summoned him to interpret his dreams, Joseph had been a foreign-born slave, languishing for 12 years in the wretched obscurity of an Egyptian prison. And before offering his interpretation, Joseph declared for all the world to hear that whatever wisdom he possessed did not come from him, but from G-d. Not exactly the kind of self-promotional blare that fills the media these days.
Moses was the greatest leader in Jewish history, or all history, for that matter. But his role as the deliverer of freedom was not a role for which he campaigned. Nor did it come about during his years as a member of the royal household. On the contrary, it was during a prolonged flight from an Egyptian death sentence that he had the vision of the burning bush. Furthermore, tradition tells us that for seven days he resisted the Divine summons to return to Egypt. "Who am I to speak with Pharaoh?" he asked, in characteristic humility. Moses pleaded with G-d to appoint his brother Aaron, instead. It may have been the first---and last---time in history that anybody actually asked to become vice-president. In the end, it was just this unparalleled humility that qualified Moses above all others for his high position. Office-holding may be a right and necessary thing to do; office-seeking is another matter.
"Beware of rulers," says the Mishnah, "for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; appearing friendly to him when it is in their interest, but not standing by him in his time of need." Even those Jews who have served in high position with the purest motives have often suffered because of it. The Talmud records that Joseph died before his older brothers because of his involvement in government. In more recent times, the episode of the great scholar Don Yitzchak Abarbanel stands out: after serving in a key role in the restoration of Christian rule to Moslem-occupied Spain, he was invited to remain there under royal protection, but chose to leave voluntarily, along with the masses of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492.
America has been an extraordinarily good haven for the Jewish people; but we would do well not to rely too heavily on it for our well-being. "The heart of the king is in the hand of God," and it is He that orchestrates events from above. Whether or not He arranges things in our favor ultimately depends on whether we are deserving of Divine protection. And that depends not on our allegiance to any government, but to the way of life that G-d has ordained for the Jewish people.
**Quoted with changes from the Artscroll Pirkei Avos Treasury.
*E-geress is a Hebrew word meaning letter or correspondence.
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