Kol Nidre – 2016
Leadership and the Presidential Election
This past February CNN hosted a town hall meeting in Nashua, NH with the democratic candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Audience members were called on to ask questions about jobs, immigration, foreign policy, etc., until the end when Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett of the Conservative synagogue in Nashua - Temple Beth Abraham - was given the microphone. Rabbi Spira-Savett quoted the 18th & 19th century Hassidic Rabbi Simhah Bunam: “Every person should have certain words written on scraps of paper in each of two pockets, so that [he/she] can reach into one or the other to take what is needed at the time. In one pocket should be the words, ‘For my sake was the world created.’ In the other pocket should be the words: ‘I am dust and ashes.’” Then the rabbi asked only Hillary Clinton the following, “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, … 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?”
Though I didn’t watch that town hall meeting live I read about it on Facebook and CNN the next day. I was impressed that a rabbi was called on to ask a question, and I was also impressed that it was such a thoughtful and Jewish question too. Before I share Hillary Clinton’s response, we have to “unpack” this very serious and remarkable question. Some of us may recall that quote from Rabbi Sinchah Bunam from our former High Holiday machzor. That prayer book, edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow, had many sections titled “reflections” that were interspersed after each silent amidah. I would often share this reading out loud after the mincha/afternoon service on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Simhah Bunam’s teaching is perfect for Yom Kippur as we honestly confront our behavior and sincerely commit to live our lives according to Jewish values. Though we would be tempted to reach into only one pocket and focus on our arrogant belief that the world was created for me, we need to understand today that we must reach more often into the other pocket and recognize that we are but dust and ashes.
I wouldn’t have thought to use Rabbi Bunam’s quote in a candidates’ forum because I’m so used to it being read on the High Holidays. I’ve understood it as a personal statement like a quote to use for individual spiritual direction. Rabbi Spira-Savett was wise to use the quote as a basis for his question about Clinton’s leadership style. It’s a question for all people seeking higher office, namely what is the motivation to run for office. Is the desire to run driven by ego or is the desire to run prompted by truly altruistic reasons?
Though the rabbi’s question evoked quips on twitter like this one from Politico White House reporter Edward Isaac Devore that “the Kiddush after the CNN town hall will be served in the multipurpose room”, Hillary Clinton took the question quite seriously. I’d like to focus on her response, not because I support her and think you should vote for her. (In fact US tax law regarding the shul’s non-profit tax exempt status forbids me from supporting or disparaging any one political candidate.) However, I want to focus on her response because it leads me to think about what kind of leader we should be voting for in this election and every election. What are the qualities we think an elected official should embody? Should our bar be set low because we don’t expect much from them or should we be setting the bar high because those elected to the highest office should embody the best values of our society? Also what does our tradition teach us about the values we expect our leaders to uphold?
Hillary Clinton in response to Rabbi Spira-Savett’s question said: “I feel very fortunate that I am a person of faith, that I was raised in my church and that I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification—all of the human questions that all of us deal with. But when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it’s incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible. This is hard for me.”
She continued for the next 5 minutes to discuss her thoughts about ambition vs. humility and concluded her response with the following: “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…. That has helped me enormously.”
Though we should always take what politicians say with a grain of salt, I was impressed with her answer. She didn’t have to take that amount of time but the fact that she did relates how important this question is. In this acrimonious and horrible campaign in which neither candidate is highly regarded, it is imperative that we – the voters – rise above the fray. The campaign has played out like a reality TV show and aspects of it have intentionally been directed at Facebook and Twitter. Many Americans have been caught up in the social media frenzy and have lost any sense about what’s really at stake. Come Tuesday November 8 we will be electing one of these candidates the next president of the United States.
As we go to the polling station it is imperative that we focus on what we want the president to be. What characteristics do we want the president to exhibit? Obviously we vote for a candidate based on policy issues we value, but we also vote for a candidate that seems presidential. We want to be proud of our president – a man or woman who best represents our interests on the global stage and who best embodies our vision of what a leader should be.
In the prayer that we recite three times a day every day of the year – the Amidah – we find a list of 13 petitions. In this list in which we ask God, among other things, to restore the Temple, heal the sick and to sustain us we also find this prayer: “Restore our leaders as in days of old and our advisors as in former times and remove from us sorrow and anguish and reign over us, You alone, with compassion and mercy and judge us justly. Praised are You, O God, who loves righteousness and justice.”
Though this prayer was written 1800 years ago it seems as if it could apply to us today. We ask God to remove the sorrow and anguish of our times and to restore us to a time when righteousness and justice reigned. In every generation there is sorrow and anguish – from the time of the rabbis who lived under barbaric Roman oppression, to the Crusades, to the Holocaust, to our day in which we live through the horrors of terrorism and the mass migration of refugees. We long for the day when everyone on earth will experience justice and peace.
But the prayer also expresses the wish that we have leaders who can bring about change and work toward righteousness and justice. When the prayer says “restore our leaders as in days of old” it most likely wants us to remember the quintessential leader in our history – Moses. For the rabbis, he is the one they would have associated with leaders from of old. Therefore, it seems appropriate to highlight Moses’ traits thereby learning what our tradition teaches us about leadership.
When we meet Moses at the burning bush we immediately notice his reluctance to accept the mantel of leadership. God wants Moses to be the one to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egyptian bondage. Moses responds to this command from God by saying: “Please O Lord, I have never been a man of words...I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10) The greatest leader in our tradition says he can’t talk? What could Moses possibly mean? In the rest of the Torah we find Moses teaching laws to the people and pleading and praying to God to forgive the people for their transgressions. He has no problem talking to Pharaoh and being the lawgiver that he truly is. So what could Moses mean by saying that speech doesn’t come naturally to him?
Perhaps Moses knows that action is more important than speech. Moses, by the time he encounters God at the burning bush, has already killed an Egyptian taskmaster and has fled to the Sinai desert to escape capture. Moses will be the tool, by raising his staff, by which God brings the ten plagues on the Egyptians and Moses will also be the tool, by stretching out his arm, by which God parts the sea. Conventional wisdom may teach that speech is an important part of being a leader but Moses teaches us that what really is significant and more valuable is how we act. One aspect of true leadership then is acting righteously and justly.
We also learn (Numbers 12:3) that: “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” Another aspect that we don’t expect in modern leadership is this trait of humility. Modern leaders exude self-confidence if not arrogance. Receiving the votes of millions of people and becoming the lead topic on the nightly news or being the number one trending person on twitter can cause a leader to have a swelled head. Perhaps this is what Rabbi Spira-Savett was thinking when he asked Clinton that question about humility vs. arrogance. Yet Moses is just the opposite. After the exodus from Egypt and the events at Mt. Sinai we are told that Moses descends the mountain with an aura or glow about him. That glow could have caused Moses to think that he is the greatest and most privileged person in the world. He has just spoken with God one to one and he could have become arrogant and self-righteous. Yet we are told that Moses is the most humble of all.
There is a fascinating incident in the Torah (Numbers 27:1-13) that highlights a third aspect of Moses’ leadership. As Moses describes how the land of Israel is to be apportioned to the tribes he also teaches how the land can be passed down as an inheritance from father to son. As he concludes this teaching and the people anticipate entering the land of Israel and settling there, the five daughters of Zelophehad approach. The women explain that their father died in the desert leaving five daughters and no son. Would it be fair, they boldly ask, for them not to enter the land and inherit their father’s rightful portion? Moses could have told these women that they must leave; the law is the law. Moses could have taught the law strictly and narrowly. But Moses senses that is not the case. He prefers the law to be open, to be compassionate, to allow for cases to be decided on an individual basis. Moses asks God what should be done and God allows the daughters to inherit and modifies the inheritance laws accordingly.
From Moses we learn that action, humility and compassion are basic characteristics that our leaders should exhibit. When we recite that prayer in the weekday amidah about restoring our leaders as in days of old these characteristics are what the rabbis thought we should be focusing on. Yet there is a 4th characteristic that we can learn from the passing of Shimon Peres two weeks ago. As we know he was a past president, prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister of the State of Israel. At age 93 he was the last of Israel’s founding generation. His funeral was remarkable for the huge representation of foreign dignitaries including Prince Charles and President Obama. Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister of Israel said this about Shimon Peres in an op-ed in the NY Times: “Israelis today feel that the extremists and terrorists in our region have them backed up against a wall. Their despondency at this situation dampens their hopes for a peaceful future. Some politicians exploit their fears, whether out of ideological conviction or for political purposes, describing peace as a threat, not an aspiration. They have succeeded in sullying the very word, making it synonymous with what is illegitimate and foolhardy.
“Mr. Peres (Livni continues) proved that while politicians think about tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, real leaders think about the history books. We need more like him, more who are willing to leave the noise at the door, sit down and — for the sake of our people, for the sake of our future — make the right decisions.”
When we recite this prayer “restore our leaders as in days of old”, we are meant to be thinking of Moses and other such biblical leaders. We are supposed to be reminded of their character traits that include action over words; humility; and compassion. But we also have to think of this characteristic as described by Tzipi Livni – that leaders need to think and act in the long term. Leaders can’t pander to the electorate and express only positions that will be popular today. Truly effective leaders, leaders that have long lasting impact, are those that act with history in mind and make decisions based on their convictions.
It may seem that the prayer about restoring our leaders as in days of old reflects a vision for the future. Perhaps when we pray we express a hope for better things to come. We pray for the sick to be healed and the Temple to be rebuilt both expressing wishes for a better future. Prayers also express the hope that we can someday be better people. If only our leaders could be people of conviction, be action oriented, be humble and compassionate.
But prayer is also a call to action. When we pray we don’t just express hopes for the future. Prayer isn’t about reciting words that make us feel better. Prayer isn’t just about wishing that we were living in days of old. Prayer is supposed to motivate us to change our behavior and to go out in the world and make it a better place. When we dreamily remember our leaders of the past we are supposed to be inspired to advocate for such moral and ethical leadership today. It is our religious obligation to advocate for a just and compassionate society. We do that by getting involved in social justice issues. We do that by being better people ourselves, striving for good in our lives. And we can do that by voting for candidates from the local to the national level that represent the ideals and values we hold dear.
“Restore our leaders as in days of old and our advisors as in former times and remove from us sorrow and anguish and reign over us, You alone, with compassion and mercy and judge us justly. Praised are You, O God, who loves righteousness and justice.”
May we have such leadership this year. Amen.