Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            When I was nine or ten I used to watch a television show which ended with a toast to the president with a glass of milk from H. P. Hood and Company.  The president at the time was Dwight Eisenhower.  Shame on anyone who thought that I'd say Howard Taft, because there wasn't any TV then.  I remember balking at the action because I knew very well that my parents were Democrats (Frankly, every adult I knew was a Democrat.  Growing up I knew neither Republicans nor Yankee fans.), and had voted for Adlai Stevenson, whom I admired.  My mother OB"M sagely admonished me saying that we toast the office, and that I should drink up.  We need more of that attitude these days.  Nowadays, it seems perfectly fine to delegitimize the president of the United States.  The Democrats claimed that George Bush stole the election in Florida, and until recently many Republicans claimed that Obama wasn't born in the US.  I know that this phenomenon isn't new.  There were Republicans who refused to say the name Roosevelt and just said 'that man.' Democrats ridiculed Lincoln mercilessly.  But it seems that the rhetoric just gets hotter all the time.  This situation worries me greatly, and this week is the right time to discuss it, because it is the central topic of this week's Torah reading.

            The major issue in this week's parsha is the rebellion of Korach against the leadership of Moshe.  It's fine and appropriate to disagree and criticize leadership, but destroying the system is not an acceptable approach.  Historically, we should admire those with a legitimize grievance who displayed patriotic restraint for the good of the country.  Included in that category are James Tilden in 1876, when the Republicans stole the election for Rutherford B. Hayes, and Richard Nixon in 1960, when mayor James Daly of Chicago may have stolen the election for John F. Kennedy.  What good is winning if the whole enterprise is undermined? 

            In case reading the parsha didn't make the point of respecting duly constituted leadership strongly enough, the Haftorah weighs in very strongly.  The story is from the book of Samuel I, chapter twelve.  The people have demanded a king, and the prophet Shmuel takes it personally.  He sadly must remind the people of his loyal and honest service to he nation.  He says, in part:  Here I am; bear witness against me before the Lord and before His anointed; whose ox did I take, or whose donkey did I take, or whom did I rob; or whom did I oppress, or from whose hand did I take a ransom, that I hide my eyes therewith, and I shall restore to you (verse 3).  It's tragic to see a devoted servant of the people have to remind them of his integrity.  Shmuel then reviews the accomplishments of the leaders during the period of the Judges, Gidon, Yiftach, and Shimshon, who held the nation together in spite of the sins of the people.  Even the people recognize their error by announcing, "For we have added to all our sins evil, to ask for ourselves a king. (verse 19)."  But why was it a sin to ask for a king?  Isn't it a mitzvah to appoint a king over Israel (Deuteronomy 17:15)?

            A great answer to this famous question is given by the Shem Mishmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Bornshtein of Sokachov, 1856-1926), in his explanation to verse twelve.  The prophet Shmuel explains to the nation that there are two stages in the growth of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.  The first period is the Torah mandated mitzvah to conquer the area specified by God through Moshe for all of the tribes.  This conquest and consolidation of the designated Holy Land (from Dan to Be'er Sheva) is to be carried out by the charismatic leaders we call Shoftim or Judges.  After the portions of the twelve tribes have been conquered and settled, then we enter the second phase of Jewish nation building, namely the monarchy.  The kings will take over the management of the nation for the purpose of fighting wars designed to provide wealth and expand the boundaries (from the Euphrates River to the River of Egypt).  It was wrong to demand a king at that time, because the role of the Judges hadn't yet been completed.

            There is support for this explanation in the warning given by Shmuel:  Is it not wheat harvest today? I shall call to the Lord, and He will send thunder and rain, and you shall know and see, that your evil is great, which you have done in the eyes of the Lord, to ask for yourselves a king (verse 17).  Get the analogy?  Rain is a great thing, especially in a parched country like Israel, but not at the wrong time.  When rains come during the harvest causing the newly gathered produce to mildew, it is a curse, not a blessing.  Shmuel is teaching us that everything is in the timing.  It wasn't yet time for the monarchy, so, please, support the Judges.

            I want to expand that idea.  We must have respect for the process.  In this week's parsha, we view Korach as a great villain not because he criticizes Moshe, but because he wants to destroy the fragile system that Moshe was establishing.  Our Sages fear anarchy more than any other evil.  We are told in Pikei Avot: Pray for the well being of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive (3:1).  Undermining legitimate authority is an unmitigated vice.  What ever happened to the concept of the loyal opposition?

            I just came back from Washington, D. C. with my Bi-Cultural seventh graders, who were great.  The trip renewed my faith in a system of government based upon compromise and reasoned debate, after all America's Constitution was based upon the Great Compromise.  Ultimately politics and government must be about issues, not personalities.  Let's lose the shrill denunciations filling the airwaves, and move toward respectful debate, please.                            

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