The Torah's Choice For President© Parashat Mishpatim/President's Day 5776/2016

The Torah's Choice For President©
Parashat Mishpatim/President's Day 5776/2016
Rabbi David Baum

What are the top character traits you are looking for in your next president?   

One survey I read suggested this answer:  The top ideal quality picks are a candidate’s honesty and willingness to talk about the challenges affecting the nation.

This week’s parashah, Mishpatim, contains 53 separate commandments.  Perhaps the most difficult one to follow might be contained within these commandments:

“You shall not revile God, nor curse a leader (Nassi) among your people. ” (Exodus 22:27)

The word for leader used here is Nassi, which we translate today as President.  Can you imagine if this law was enforced here in America?  Chances are we’d all be in jail! 

Of course, there were no presidents back then, but there were kings.  Ibn Ezra says that the Nassi, the leader that the Torah is referring to is none other than the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. 

It seems as if the 2016 presidential election has been going on since 2012, but we are finally at the first primaries of the season.  Yes, it’s time for us to choose our next ‘king’ or ‘queen’.  Often times, we focus on issues – will the candidate support the side of the issue that I care about most?  But perhaps the question should be, what are the qualities should we be looking for in that person?  Who was the Nassi that we are not allowed to curse?  And why can’t we curse them? 

To find the answer, we have to fast forward to Deuteronomy 17:14-20:

We see here certain requirements:  the king has to be one of your own, he cannot keep many horses or get more horses from Egypt, he should not have many wives or amass silver and gold to excess, on this throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written on a scroll by the Levitical priests, and he will hold on to that scroll and read it all the days of his life.

Maimonides explains this mitzvah in his Mishneh Torah:  Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to revere him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart...Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness...He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently...He should always conduct himself with great humility.

This week, there was a town hall debate with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire which will hold it’s primary on Tuesday.  A rabbi from the Conservative movement (capital C) asked the following question to Hillary Clinton:

“Another rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Bunem taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes. And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”

She answered by talking about her struggle with ambition and humility. 

And this is ultimately what the struggle of the two pieces of paper are, aren’t they?  Leaders must have a belief in themselves, that they can do things better than someone else, that they have something within them that might be greater than others; and yet, at the same time, if they only hold that piece of paper, their egos will become so great that there will be no room for others, or worse.  On the other hand, if they have no ambition, and are completely humble, then they will be ineffective – they can’t be leaders. 

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once said, “When humility brings about depression, it is defective; when it is genuine, it inspires joy, courage, and inner dignity; leadership is about finding the right kind of humility, and also recognizing that the inner essence of you, the thing that you have that maybe no one else has, was given to you by God.  A famous Hassidic rabbi, Issacher Baer of Zlotshov, wrote that one must look at yourself as if you are a channel for the divine attributes.  You are a part of God, God is a part of you. 

Now that we know the qualities of a Nassi, we can see why we shouldn’t curse them, and in fact, how we should try to embody that quality, the balancing act of ambition and humility. 

Valid criticism of leaders is not only allowed, but vital to our future.  We even see it in the Torah, in last week’s parashah, when Yitro challenges Moses to delegate and become a different type of leader.  The prophets were famous for criticizing the kings of Israel, but only for the purpose of making them better.  But cursing a leader is a different issue – in fact, Maimonides teaches us that “cursing” is a form of anger, a destructive emotion. 

A 14th-century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati, points out that cursing the leadership, even if it has no physical effect, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage people from taking positions of public service. 

In this one mitzvah, the Torah teaches us valuable lessons.  It teaches us how to be the best leaders that we can be, to embody the right type of humility.  It teaches us how to be the best followers we can be, to criticize our leaders for the sake of making them better, but also giving us the warning not to curse our leaders, because cursing our leaders doesn’t just affect them, it affects us; it fuels our anger and it convinces others, including our children, that leadership isn’t worth it. 

And so, it’s up to us, not just our leaders, but each one of us, on how we handle ourselves during this season, not just how we talk to each other, but how we talk about our leaders. 

You might wonder what Hillary’s answer to the rabbi was.  Her answer I think is an answer that we can all gain great insight from: 

“Regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions. But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude.”

May we all seek to find that balance, between ambition and humility, and may we constructively criticize more, and curse less, and may we all practice gratitude that God is a part of us, and we are a part of God.   


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