Words Matter: On the Attack Against the US Capitol – January 9, 2021

Before the election last November, I asked our members to refrain from making political comments in certain synagogue contexts in the interest of maintaining our community as one in which Jews of differing political persuasions could all find a home. I commend us for doing a pretty good job of that.

And so I have been struggling with how to respond to this week’s storming of the Capitol by a mob whose stated goal was to violently prevent our elected representatives from performing their sacred constitutional duty.

What I realized is that what happened on Wednesday was not politics. It was rebellion and anarchy: the rejection of politics. It was an assault on democracy and decency, a denial of everything America stands for.

Not since 1814 has something like this happened, and that was during a war against another sovereign nation. Ever since John Adams quietly conceded to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 after a humiliating electoral defeat, the United States has never failed to have a peaceful transfer of power from one President to his successor. For centuries, the American example has been a model for younger democratic nations, and an inspiration to individuals living under authoritarian regimes who dreamed of freedom and democracy.

What that mob did on Wednesday undermined all of that. It was the opposite of politics.

If you are like me, you have spent the last several days poring over analysis and commentary. I do not want to repeat what you can read elsewhere by those who are more knowledgeable and eloquent than I.

I always try to remember that I am a Rabbi. You have heard me say this many times before. My authority to speak from this pulpit (right now it is a metaphorical pulpit) is derived from our Jewish tradition.

So how might our tradition speak to the violence that was perpertrated this week?

First of all, there is a long-standing concept in Jewish law of dina d’malchuta dina – The law of the land is the law. Whenever we have been subjects of a government that is governed by laws, we follow those laws.  When our Israelite ancestors were sent into exile in Babylonia, the Prophet Jeremiah said: “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)  Ever since, Jews have included prayers for God to bless the government and its advisors. This was true in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Rome, in Czarist Russia, and most especially in the United States.

America’s republican system of representative democracy is the best protection of minority rights that the Jewish people have ever known. As Jews of all political persuasions, we should be deeply offended by scenes of rioters openly wearing Holocaust-denying clothing, flashing white power signs, erecting a noose outside the Capitol Building and parading the Confederate Flag through the halls of Congress.

I have also been thinking a lot about language and leadership. Ours is a tradition of words. Our method of study involves ultra fine parsing of our sacred texts. The ideal model for learning is the chavruta: two partners, friends, arguing with their own words over the meaning of someone else’s words.

We have categories of mitzvot that specifically focus on the words that we use, specifically on the how the words that come out of our mouths have the potential to harm.

The most well known of these categories is lashon hara – “the evil tongue.” This is the term that refers to gossip and tale-bearing. It is when a person spreads information about another person that, although true, causes harm. A related term is motzi shem ra – “to bring out an evil name.” This applies to defamation or slander: the spreading of harmful lies.

The midrash compares the tongue to an arrow. “Why? Because if a person draws a sword to kill his fellow man, the intended victim can beg mercy in the hopes that the attacker will change his mind and return the sword to its sheath. But an arrow, once it has been shot and begun its journey, even if the shooter wants to stop it, he cannot” (Midrash Tehillim 120, ed. Buber, p. 503).

Another midrash makes a further comparison.  “Lashon hara that is spoken in Rome can kill in Syria.”  (Genesis Rabbah 98:19)

When a person in authority uses their words to incite followers to violence, this figurative statement becomes literal.

Another category of Jewish law that focuses on words is geneivat daat – stealing the mind.  It applies to many different kinds of interpersonal interactions.  Genevat Da’at is using one’s words to deceive or manipulate another person.  Genevat Daat occurs whether or not the information is true, if its purpose is to create a false impression or exploit another person in some way. According to one midrash, stealing a person’s mind in this way, because it is “more personal and direct,” is an even more heinous offense than stealing something physical.

Judaism teaches that leaders have enormous responsibility. Their personal behavior as role models, the way that they comport themselves in public, and the words they use to their followers, have the power to create or destroy. The words that leaders utter matter even more than they do for the common person.

When a person in a position of power uses his words to incite a mob to violence, that person has betrayed the trust that has been placed in him.

Former President George Bush pointed it out clearly in his written statement on Wednesday. He wrote: 

I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement. The violent assault on the Capitol — and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.

Statement by President George W. Bush on Insurrection at the Capitol

While members of Congress huddled in secure safe rooms, President-Elect Joe Biden addressed the nation. One line stood out to me in which he articulated the particular responsibility bestowed upon the President of the United States. He said: 

The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.

Remarks to the Nation by President-Elect Joe Biden

All of the institutions of the Conservative movement came together to issue a joint statement this week. I would like to conclude by reading its ending. 

The basis for democracy stems from the Torah’s belief that every person is created equally in God’s image and is therefore entitled to equal representation in government and equal protection under the law. Each week we pray during our Shabbat worship to “uproot from our hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. Plant love and companionship, peace and friendship, among the many people and faiths who dwell in our nation.” This prayer is more than an expression of faith. It is a call to action, and we have much work to do to heal the deep wounds and divisions which afflict the United States and society.

May the new US leaders, who are coming to power this month at every level of government, rise to the responsibility the voters have entrusted to them to bring healing and exercise responsible governance.

Statement on the Attack on the United States Capitol by Organizations of the Conservative Movement of Judaism

Amen

Immigration, Terrorism, and History – Parashat Bo 5777

I am the child of a stateless refugee.

My grandfather, Israel, was from Lodz, Poland, and my grandmother, Feiga, was from Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine.  Each of them fled East from the Nazi advance – the only members of their families to escape and survive.

They both made their way to the Soviet Georgian town of Poti, on the Black Sea – which was beyond the Nazis’ advance into the Soviet Union.  In 1943, my grandmother’s landlady thought they would make a nice couple, so she introduced them.  They were married 6 weeks later.   After the war, they returned to Poland to search for surviving relatives, without success.  When pogroms broke out, they escaped to the West, and ended up in an American-run Displaced Persons camp in an Rosenheim, West Germany.  They applied for a visa to come to America.  My grandfather had an older sister, Bella, who had emigrated to the United States in 1930 and settled in Long Beach, California.  She sponsored their application.

My father, Carl, was born in the DP camp in 1948.  They did not receive the visa until he was three years old.  By that time, the DP camp had actually closed down.  Finally, in June 1951, my father and grandparents arrived at Ellis Island aboard the USS General M.B. Stewart.

I have grown up with this story.  I always kind of wondered why it took my grandparents so long to receive their visa – but never looked into it.  Over the last couple of weeks, as issues around immigration and refugees has exploded across our country, I have been thinking a lot about my own family’s journey.

I asked my father why it took so long to get the visa.  He explained that the United States had annual refugee quotas, and that there was no preference given to Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust.  So they simply had to wait their turn.

Searching online for information, I came across the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and discovered that more than 51 million passenger records have been scanned and recorded in a searchable database.  I ran a query for the name Berkenwald, and was surprised to discover records for 21 people.  All of them had originated from Lodz, Poland, so I am almost certain that they are all relatives.  It is remarkable because we thought we knew about all of our surviving family members.

The earliest immigrant on the list, 21 year old Schmul Leib Berkenwald, arrived in 1906.  Two Berkenwald’s arrived in 1921.  (Remember that year.)  One came in 1938, leaving from Belgium.  Five managed to arrive during World War Two, a pair leaving from Spain in 1941 and a mother and her two daughters coming from the United Kingdom.  Twelve Berkenwald’s came as refugees after the war, including my father, listed as Calel, and my grandparents, Feiga and Israel.

America is a nation of immigrants.  Each of us has stories about how we arrived.  Some people in this room are themselves immigrants, and even refugees.  But the truth is, as the Jewish people, we are all immigrants and refugees.

This morning’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the final moments before our Israelite ancestors leave Egypt.  The story takes a break from the narrative to record instructions for observing Passover.  It specifies symbolic rituals that are to be reenacted every year.  We are to slaughter and eat the paschal lamb on matza and maror, with loins girded, sandals on feet and staff in hand.  We are to remove hametz from our homes and eat only unleavened bread for seven days.  Our Passover seder today is directly based on these instructions given to Moses over three thousand years ago.

What does the seder recall and celebrate?  The Exodus, after four hundred years, of our people from the oppressive Egyptians.  Looked at from a different angle, it is a celebration of the moment when our ancestors became political refugees.  They wandered for forty years through the wilderness, homeless and stateless.  It was essentially a refugee camp, not too dissimilar from refugee camps in the Middle East today.

As the Torah progresses, it hammers home our memory of being strangers in a strange land.  We cannot forget what it was like to have been aliens living in Egypt.  Jewish tradition instructs us to recall our redemption from slavery every single day.

It is not only the ancient past.  We have experienced persecution, exile, and statelessness over and over throughout our history.

That memory must make us compassionate to strangers living among us.  The Torah repeatedly tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst.  Citizens and non-citizen alike must be treated with the same set of laws.

These are the ideals of our tradition.  In the real world, however, things get more complicated.  Nations cannot simply throw open their borders and allow anyone who wants to come in.  Governments’ primary responsibilities are to those who are already living in the country.  So it is absolutely legitimate to screen potential immigrants before their arrival.  The dilemma we face now is how many immigrants we ought to be accepting, and which ones.

I am certain that everyone in this room has an opinion about these questions.

Before we get too locked in our beliefs, I ask that we first consider a couple of things.  First, let’s each think about our own family history.  How did each of us end up in America?  Those of us who are not immigrants, at some point had ancestors who arrived on these shores from somewhere else.  What compelled them to make the journey?  What were they leaving behind – were they seeking opportunity, or fleeing persecution?  What kind of welcome did they find when they arrived?

It is important to recall our personal stories, because it reminds us that government policies have impacts on the lives of individuals and families.  Just imagine if, when your relatives wanted to immigrate, immigration policies had been more restrictive and they were turned away.

The second thing we ought to all consider is the history of immigration into the United States.  President Trump’s Executive Order titled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” did not appear out of a vacuum.  Our nation has a long history.  Before any of us takes a stand on this issue, we ought to know what has come before.

So please allow me to summarize the past 135 years of US immigration and refugee policy.

Since the founding of our nation, there have been many laws which regulate who can be admitted into the country as immigrants.  Some of those laws expanded immigration, while others limited it.

The first immigration law to restrict a particular ethnic group from coming to America was passed by Congress in 1882.  It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Initially, it was meant to last ten years, but it was so popular that Congress renewed it in 1892 and made it permanent in 1902.

Large numbers of mostly male Chinese workers had immigrated beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1848.  They continued as laborers for the construction of the transcontinental railroad.  As the economy declined in the 1870’s after the Civil War, fear of the “Yellow Peril” increased.  Chinese workers were blamed for driving down wages.  Chinese residents had already been banned from becoming US citizens.  The new law imposed a total ban on Chinese immigration.  Anyone who left the country needed to have special certification in order to reenter.  This meant that husbands could neither sponsor their wives to join them from China, or themselves go to visit their families.

The law was overturned in 1943 in deference to the US’s alliance with China during World War Two.  The new legislation allowed Chinese residents in the US to become naturalized citizens.  With regard to immigration, it expanded the national quota – to 105 Chinese immigrants per year.

Until the 1920’s, Chinese were the only immigrant group that was specifically targeted by law.

After World War One, huge numbers of Europeans were fleeing the devastation that had been wreaked on their homelands.  Immigration to the United States exploded.  At the same time, the US economy took a downturn as war-spending declined.  The result was predictable: anti-immigrant backlash.

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first to broadly restrict immigration.  It marked the beginning of nativism in the United States.  It established literacy requirements and created classes of inadmissible people.  It banned all immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone, a huge swath of territory defined by latitude and longitude which included the Arabian Peninsula, India, Afghanistan, Asiatic Russia, and more.  Nobody who lived there would be allowed in the country.

In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which introduced the National Origins Formula.  For the first time, the US imposed immigration quotas.  It worked like this: The 1910 US census included records of the numbers of foreign-born residents currently living in the United States, divided up by country of origin.  3% of the total number from each country would be permitted to immigrate each year.

The National Origins Formula was originally designed to be temporary, but it became permanent three years later when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924.  The new act changed the formula.  The percentage would decrease to 2%, with an annual ceiling that would severely reduce the total number of permitted immigrants.  Instead of the 1910 census, immigration would now be based on the 1890 census.

Furthermore, relative percentages from each country were now going to be based on the overall proportion of all naturalized citizens, including those whose families had been in the United States for generations.  This was designed to give a tremendous preference to new immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany, who were seen as racially superior.

It was also meant to reduce immigration by Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Africans.  It worked as intended.  86% of the 155,000 permitted immigrants in the first year came from Northern European countries.  The restrictions were so great that in 1924, there were more people from the undesirable countries that left the United States than who entered it.

The law was not controversial.  It passed the Senate by a vote of 69 to 9 to 18, with strong bipartisan support.  It was rooted in beliefs in eugenics that were popular at the time.  One of the architects of the law, Senator David Reed, complained that earlier legislation “disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard – that is, the people who were born here.”  He claimed that Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews arrived sick and starving and were less capable of contributing to the American economy and adapting to American culture.

In 1932, President Hoover shut down nearly all immigration.  1933 saw just 23,000 foreigners move to the United States.

Throughout the 1930’s on average, more people emigrated from the US than immigrated to it.    Under the Mexican Repatriation Movement from 1929 to 1936, as many as 2 million people were deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, many without any due process.  Significant numbers of the deportees were actually US citizens at the time.

Most Jewish would-be immigrants throughout the 1930’s were refused admission.

Things began to swing the other way in 1952.  The Immigration and Nationality Act changed the quotas, basing them on the 1920 census.  It also removed racial distinctions.

Finally, in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments abolished the National Origins Formula.  It put limits on immigration based on hemisphere.  For the first time, there was a limit for immigration from the Western Hemisphere – 120,000 per year.  The Eastern Hemisphere was given 170,000.  It also established a seven-category preference system, giving priority, for example, to potential immigrants with relatives who were US citizens, and to those with professional or specialized skills.

In subsequent years, further refinements have been made.  Many of these changes should be understood in light of the rise of globalization and the increasing ease of movement around the world.  The 1980 Refugee Act established policies for refugees, redefined refugees according to UN norms; and set a target for 50,000 refugees annually.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Reagan, established penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and provided amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants.

The 1990 Immigration Reform and Control Act increased immigration limits to 700,000 annually, and increased visas by 40%.  It also increased the amount of employment-related immigration.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed laws to expand the categories of criminal activities that could lead to deportation.  As of 2013, this legislation had resulted in the deportation of more than 2 million people.

Recent years have also seen resolutions by Congress and the California Legislature apologizing for discriminatory immigration policies of the past, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Mexican Repatriation movement.

It is a long and complicated history.  Ours is a nation of immigrants, and yet we have gone through periods of time when the ideals of freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution were not necessarily reflected in our immigration policies.  The overall trend since the end of World War Two has been to establish a fair and equitable system of immigration that provides a steady inflow of people from around the world who will assimilate into American culture and contribute to the flourishing of the country.  America has also been a haven for persecuted individuals who enter as refugees.  That is why I am standing here today.

In periods of restricting immigration to the United States, we have seen some of the same kinds of fears expressed as we are witnessing today: Immigrants take jobs from Americans.  They depress wages.  They will not be able to assimilate American values.  They will change the demographic mix of the country and disrupt American culture.

Are these valid concerns?

We each have our opinions.  But I would urge all of us to acknowledge that these same claims have been made in the past when other groups have been excluded, including Jews.

A fear that is widely expressed today is that by accepting Muslim refugees specifically, we open the doors to potential terrorists who would try to take advantage of weak vetting policies.

That is the stated reason for President Trump’s Executive Order.  By the way, if we are going to express an opinion about it, it behooves us to read it first.  Some elements might be a good idea.  The President instructs the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State, and the Directors of National Intelligence and the FBI to conduct reviews and submit reports of the status of various aspects of our current vetting procedures for visas and immigration and to create more rigorous screening procedures.

The sections that have generated so much controversy, and that should be viewed in light of our nation’s immigration history, is the outright banning of all travel by any person from those seven countries, the total halting of all refugee resettlement for 120 days, the indefinite halting of acceptance for all Syrian refugees, and the implied favoring of Christian refugees over Muslims.

Consider two questions:  1.  Are these steps consistent with our nation’s values?  2.  Do they address a problem that actually exists?

There is an underlying flaw with the whole thing.  Terrorism-generated fear is vastly overweighted and thus leads to really bad policy.  That is precisely why terrorists do what they do.  They want governments to overreact.

How many people have actually been killed in terrorist attacks in the United States by people born in foreign countries?

In September 2016, the CATO Institute, a libertarian thinktank, issued a report entitled “Terrorism and Immigration.”  The author, Alex Nowrasteh, catalogs all foreign-born terrorists between 1975 and the end of 2015.  He looks at how many people they killed, which countries they came from, and what kinds of visas they used to enter the United States.  In that time period, there have been 154 foreign-born terrorists who have murdered 3,024 people on US soil.  Keep in mind that 2,983, or 98.6% of them, were killed on 9/11.

114 of the 154 foreign-born terrorists did not actually manage to kill anyone.  They either failed in their attacks, or were caught by law enforcement before they could act.  40 terrorists are responsible for the murders of 3,024 people in that 30 year time frame.

During the same time period, 1.13 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally.  More than 28 million foreigners entered the country for each victim who was killed in an attack.  The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on US soil by a foreigner is one in 3.6 million per year.

Fear of refugees is unsupported by the facts.  Nobody has been murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States by a refugee since the 1970’s.

Of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11, eighteen had entered on tourist visas.  None of them came from the seven countries banned by the President’s order.  In fact, there has never been a single person killed in a terrorist act on US soil by someone from one of those seven countries.  Here are the countries of origin of radicalized Muslims who have carried out attacks in the United States since 9/11: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States.

The attack at the Pulse nightclub this past December in which 49 people were killed was committed by Omar Mateen, who was born in New York.  The San Bernardino killings were committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik.  He was born in Chicago.  She was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia.

In light of our recent history, it would seem that the threat of terrorism is not an especially significant problem with regard to our current immigration and refugee policies.  This is not to say that we should not take great care regarding who is permitted to entire our nation.  We should, but we must not allow ourselves to be driven by fear.

The deeper question we must consider is what our personal experience, our national experience and the experience of the Jewish people over the last three millennia teach us about dealing with those who leave their homelands to seek greater opportunities.  What are the values that we hope to embody?  And in an increasingly complicated and quickly-changing world, how do we translate those values into actions?

Limits on Kings and Presidents – Shoftim 5774

In Hebrew, the name of the United States is not a translation of “United States of America.”  If it were, it would be something like Medinot HaIchud shel Amerika.  Instead, our nation is described in Hebrew as Artzot HaBrit, “Lands of the Covenant.”

While not a direct translation, this name expresses an aspect of our nation that is particularly valued in our Jewish tradition.  What is the covenant of which Artzot HaBrit speaks?  It is the Constitution of the United States of America, the supreme law of the land.

This concept appeals to us because we are the first people in the history of the world to have a document that functions as the supreme law.  Of course, it is the Torah.

Having a written brit, or covenant, at center of national identity is not the only similarity between Judaism and the United States.  Both polities imagine some of the same qualities in the ideal leader.

The Declaration of Independence, after establishing the fundamental human rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with the rights of people to reject a government that fails to ensure those rights, lists a number of grievances against the King of Great Britain.

In establishing the Republic, the Founding Fathers wanted to draw clear distinctions between the monarchy that they had rebelled against and the democracy that they were establishing.  They understood the need to have a unitary executive, but they were fearful of the abuses that could ensue if power was left unchecked.

In creating the office of President, the Founding Fathers limited his powers and ensured that he would have to serve the Constitution, rather than the other way around.  That is why, when the President is sworn into office, he promises to “Preserve, Protect, and Defend the Constitution of the United States – so help me God!”

The Federalist Papers were published in the years 1787 – 1788 under the psuedonym Publius.  They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution by each of the States.

In Federalist Paper number 69, Alexander Hamilton enumerates some of the differences in power between the President of the United States and the King of England.  He notes that the President is limited to a four year term, while the King serves for life.  The President can be impeached and removed from office, while the King is personally sacred and inviolable.  The President has veto power, but he can be overruled, while the King’s veto is absolute.  Both are the supreme commanders of the military, but the President cannot independently declare war, sign treaties, or raise armies, while the King can do all three.  The President does not have unlimited power to appoint officials, and the King does.  And finally, the President has “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” while the King is the “supreme head and governor of the national church.”

At the time, these kinds of restrictions on the power of a national leader were unique in the world.  But the idea of subjecting the leader to a written covenant, limiting his warmaking powers, and otherwise preventing him from self-aggrandizement was not unheard of.  In fact, it bears striking similarities to the Torah’s vision of the ideal king, as presented in the Book of Deuteronomy.

I do not suggest that the Founding Fathers explicitly modeled the Presidency on Deuteronomy’s laws of kings. but there certainly seem to be similarities.  How did this come to be?

In the 18th century, a complete education included learning classical languages like Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as acquiring extensive knowledge and mastery of the Hebrew Bible.  Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth have Hebrew inscriptions on their university seals, and until 1817, Harvard graduation ceremonies included a Hebrew oration.

For Puritan colonialists, what for them was the Old Testament had great significance.  I think it is safe to say that the Founding Fathers’ critiques of the overreaching of King George and their imposition of limits on the power of the President were influenced, at least in spirit, by the Torah.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, teaches us much about leadership.  It commands that judges and officials administer the law justly and impartially.  It mandates the establishment of a higher court that will issue rulings on cases that are too baffling for local leaders.  (The Rabbis understand this as the basis for the Sanhedrin, the court of 71 rabbis, judges, and priests who function as the High Court of the land, with added legislative and executive powers.)

The Torah portion also deals with kings, albeit with ambivalence.  Unlike its treatment of judges, officials, and the High Court, the Torah does not command the appointment of a King.  It is optional.  “If,” Moses tells the Israelites,

after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, asima alai melekh –  “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself… (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

So what powers does a King have?  If we go exclusively by what is written in the Torah, absolutely none.  The King only has limitations.  Listen to these restrictions on the power of the monarchy.  Does this fit your image of a King?

• He is not allowed to accumulate too many horses, or send people down to Egypt to get more horses.

• He is not allowed to acquire too many wives.

• He is not allowed to amass too much gold and silver.

• He must have a copy of the Torah, written by the Priests, always at his side.  He must read it constantly so that he will learn to revere God and follow its laws.

• He may not act with haughtiness towards other people.

Nowhere in the Torah are the people actually commanded to follow the king and do what he says.  In the relationship between king and subjects, the responsibility is unidirectional – it is the king who serves the people.

When we think about royalty in pre-modern times, we usually think about the unlimited exercise of power.  The king’s word is law.  He rules by divine right.  The people owe him their total obedience and respect.  He can impose taxes and raise armies.  He gets to live a life of extravagance and pleasure.  As a famous monarch once said, “It’s good to be the king!”

Parashat Shoftim’s model is that of an anti-king.

Not only is he not allowed to build up the army, impose heavy taxation, and live the good life, he is also bound by a constitution – the Torah.  His job is to promote and enforce the commandments, and lead the people in observing the terms of the covenant not with a human king, but with God, the King of Kings.

It is a utopian vision of leadership not so dissimilar to other systems that place a wise, benevolent executive in charge of leading a society in accordance with principals of justice, “the good,” or philosophy.  Think Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and so on.

But is such a utopian vision realistic?  Apparently not.

After the Israelites conquer the Promised Land under the leadship of Joshua, they split up into tribes.  Various local and regional chiefs lead the people through one crisis after another.  Order gradually breaks down over the next two hundred years, and the Israelites have finally had enough.  They turn to the Prophet-Chief Samuel and ask him to appoint a King over them.  Tnah lanu melekh lshofteinu – “…appoint a king for us, to govern us…”  (I Samuel 8:6)

Samuel is disappointed, but God reassures him and tells him to ascede to the people’s request.  Samuel’s reaction is surprising, because the Torah already anticipated the Israelites’ future desire to be ruled by a human king.  Had not Samuel read Parashat Shoftim?

The nineteenth century Polish Rabbi, Yehoshua Trunk from Kutna (1821-1893), points to a subtle distinction between what Deuteronomy allows, and what the people request.  In Deuteronomy, when the people ask to set a king over them, they say asima alai melekh.  Whereas in Samuel, the people say t’nah lanu melekh, give us a king.  What is the difference between setting and giving?

Without going into the complexities, Rabbi Yehoshua from Kutna says that Deuteronomy’s vision of sima, setting a king, implies that he is going to be immersed in the people, and his job will be to guide them in the ways of God, influencing their thoughts and actions, and helping them to focus on the innermost realm of the heart.

When the Israelites in Samuel request n’tinah, to be given a king, they are asking to have a leader placed above them.  What they want are the pomp and circumstance, the external trappings of power that characterize the leaders of all the other nations of the world.

But God does not want Israel to be like the other nations of the world, and certainly does not want its king to fall to the hubris that afflicts so many human leaders.

In telling Samuel to go along with the people’s request, God knows that they are not motivated by the lofty ideals of the Torah, but as the saying goes, “people get the leaders they deserve.”

Samuel warns the people what the king is going to do them.  He will draft your sons into his army and your daughters as cooks and bakers.  He will seize farmlands, vineyards, and orchards.  He will tax you, and consign you to serfdom.  Eventually, you will regret this decision.

But the people insist that they want someone to go out in front of them and lead them to victory in battle.

Things start to unravel almost immediately.  The first king, Saul, turns out to be deeply flawed.  David brings the nation to greatness, capturing Jerusalem and expanding the borders, but not without his share of trouble.

His son Solomon builds the Temple, but violates every single  one of Deuteronomy’s laws about Kings, fulfilling Samuel’s warnings from just three generations ago.  He imposes heavy taxes and forced labor to build the Temple.  He buys horses and chariots from Egypt.  He accumulates vast riches.  Solomon marries seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, whom he allows to introduce their idolatrous foreign practices into the Holy Land.

When Solomon dies, the united monarchy ends as the northern kingdom of Israel breaks off from the southern kingdom of Judah.  The righteous king, as described in Shoftim, is an ideal that turns out to be exceedingly difficult to implement.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 has reignited issues about Jewish power that have not been practical considerations for nearly two thousand years.  Is Israel a nation like any other, or do Jewish history and values make it different?  What should the role of Torah and Jewish law be in a country that is committed to freedom of religion and equal rights?  Who is authorized to interpret Jewish law?  How does Israel maintain itself as a Jewish state and a democracy?  What does it even mean to be a Jewish state?

You might be surprised to know that Israel does not have a constitution.  According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948, there was supposed to have been Constitution in place by October 1 of that year.  But the above questions were so difficult to resolve, the question of an Israeli constitution was placed on the back burner.

Because of the international and domestic pressure cooker that Israel always finds itself in, these questions are being dealt with and tested on a daily basis.  Israelis wrestle with the dilemma of creating a society based on the lofty ideals and values expressed in Jewish law and tradition while facing the very real and practical challenges that often are a question of survival.

One of the reasons that Israel is so important to Jews everywhere is because it creates powerful opportunities to put Jewish values into practice on a national level.  That is a possibility that did not exist for nearly two thousand years.  As we see on a daily basis, it is not easy.

We refer to the modern State of Israel in our prayers as reishit tz’michat geulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.  The question of whether that is true or not depends on how Israel the country and Israel the people deal with these challenges.  I take it as a positive sign that Israelis, as well as Jews in the Diaspora, are actively engaged in wrestling with the question of how to exercise power in ways that embody the ethical principles of the Torah.