As a rabbi, I am careful to keep my political views to myself. I recognize that good people can differ on matters of public policy, and in any case, I subscribe to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's observation that culture, not politics, is far more important in determining the long-term success of a society.
In spite of the foregoing, I ask: does the Torah have anything to say about the current US presidential race?
I think it might. Come, let's learn a little Torah together.
First, let's set the stage:
Three weeks ago, in Parashat Mishpatim, we read how the Jews reached the highest of the high, communing with Gcd A-lmighty at Mount SInai, hearing the Ten Commandments from the mouth of Gcd, and declaring with one voice and one heart, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah, we will perform and listen to these commandments."
This week, we read how the Jews fell to the lowest of the low. Just a few weeks later, the Jews were worshiping and prancing around the golden calf like drunken Druids around a maypole.
[Um, sidebar: one of them thar Ten Commandments is a pretty clear prohibition against worshiping idols.]
So we blew it big time.
Moses, meanwhile, is oblivious to all this. He's up at the summit of Mount Sinai, enveloped as it was in fire and fog, faithfully transcribing the Torah from Gcd. The dictation suddenly stops, and Gcd says to Moses:
Go. Descend, because the people that you brought up from Egypt have ruined [our relationship]; they have quickly veered from the path that I commanded them, and fashioned for themselves a calf-idol, and are worshiping it and offering sacrifices to it, saying 'These are your gcds, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.' (32:7,8)Rashi, the greatest of biblical exegetes, reads the verse as follows:
Gcd says to Moses, 'descend from your position of greatness, for I only made you great because of them.' At the very moment that the Jews began worshiping the idol, Moses was cast out before the Heavenly Court.Rashi speaks across the centuries to tell us something fundamental about the nature of leadership: that leaders are, at best, a reflection of the people they lead.
I have read that most Americans find the current field of presidential candidates lackluster on both sides of the aisle. To be sure, there is no shortage of screaming and divisive rhetoric; boatloads of bombast, mudslinging, jingoism and sloganeering. And no doubt there is an obscene amount of money changing hands. But is there any great demonstration of leadership? of vision? of virtue?
Similarly in Israel: the consensus is that Netanyahu and Yaalon are not great leaders, but they're about the best we can hope for.
Maybe we're looking through the wrong end of the telescope: instead of expecting more of our leaders, we should be expecting more of ourselves, of our society, of our culture. Maybe we have no right to expect better of our leaders until we demand better of ourselves.
Perhaps if we hold ourselves to a higher standard of morality and ethics, we will have more ethical politicians. Perhaps if we hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal integrity, we will have more honest politicians. And perhaps if we hold ourselves to a higher standard of civility, we will have more civil political discourse.
The Torah is saying that virtuous cultures generate virtuous leaders, not the other way around. And for Moynihan's intellectual heirs, that is, any serious student of contemporary culture, that is a very sobering thought in this political season.