י״ט באייר ה׳תשע״ה (May 8, 2015)
Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many
for appointment by the corrupt few – George Bernard Shaw
“Daddy,” a little girl asked her father, “do all fairy tales begin with Once upon a time?”
“No, sweetheart,” he answered. “Some begin with If I am elected!”
The beauty of democracy is that despite all the polls, forecasts, trend-watchers and analysts’ reports, there is always the chance for a last minute upset, leading to joy for those who were forecast to lose, and shock for those who had their winning speeches already scripted.
These last few days have been of interest even to those who are jaded with politics. David Cameron had a surprising win in the UK, against all election predictions, meaning a guaranteed referendum on EU membership by 2017, and the potential fallout from that for Ireland. In Israel recent results were no less surprising, with Bibi Netanyahu winning a landslide victory after similar predictions of doom. Then came the bitter wrangling over coalition partners, leaving Bibi with only just enough seats to form a government, and just before the deadline. Interesting times.
Now, for those watching British politics, there will be hours and hours of in-depth discussion, and reams of newsprint dedicated to understanding why voters made the choices they did, although no-one really knows the truth. In fact, it is well documented that the candidate with the better hair usually wins the votes! In 1960, Richard Nixon lost narrowly to John F. Kennedy after holding the first ever debate which was broadcast simultaneously on television and radio. Interestingly, the radio listeners generally thought Nixon won the debate, but the television viewers generally thought he lost.
Why the difference? Because on television Nixon looked tired, sporting a five o’clock shadow, whereas Kennedy looked fresh and well-tanned! The radio viewers obviously had no idea what they looked like. It seems that in an election we often pay attention to the wrong things… instead of focusing on the priorities, on the issues that will make a difference, we care about how the candidate walks, talks, dresses and eats. We get to see them shaking hands with little old ladies, cuddling cherubic babies, petting dogs, and posing for photographs. All of this is irrelevant – what really matters is whether they can make a difference to the world we live in – can they make it a better place or not. Our priorities should be finding out if they can help the poor and the helpless, the unemployed and the elderly – those are the things that matter. Our priorities should be finding out if they care about struggling single parents and at risk children and teens; if they can revive a flagging economy and raise the spirits of the people.
In the parsha reading this week there is a large section about the festivals and holy days of Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What seems strange is that right in the middle of the section, there is one verse which has nothing to do with the festivals … the verse about leaving part of the harvest for the poor: “And when you will cut the harvest of your land do not cut the corners of the field, nor the gleanings of the harvest shall you cut; leave them for the poor and the Levite; I am the L-rd your G-d.”
Why is this verse inserted here, right in the middle of all the festival offerings, and seemingly so out of place?
Medieval commentator Rashi (1040-1105 CE) quotes an answer from Rabbi Avdimi. He says there is a meaningful message hinted at here in the Torah: When a farmer, who has toiled hard to grow crops from the bare earth, leaves a section of his own field to provide for the poor – G-d considers that as valuable as if he had built the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) and brought the festival offerings! This, says Rashi, is why this mitzva is inserted here, to equate it with the festival offerings.
It is easy to be fooled into thinking that spirituality lies only in the prayer books and houses of prayer, yet in reality the path to spirituality can take a most mundane route, including through a field of wheat.
This Thursday we celebrated Lag Be’Omer, a festive day when we remember the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (135 – 170 CE), and the great spiritual heights he achieved in his lifetime, including authoring the Book of the Zohar. Every year, on this day, up to quarter of a million people pour into Meron, in the north of Israel, to visit and pray at his gravesite.
During his life, Rabbi Shimon was under a Roman death sentence for sedition and went into hiding for twelve years. He hid for all these years, together with his son Elazar, in a cave with only a carob tree and spring water for nourishment. Tradition has it that this cave is in Peki’in, in the Galilee mountains, where it is still surrounded by carob trees today. The story about Rabbi Shimon is fascinating, especially when he finally re-enters society after twelve years in isolation, and has great difficulty readjusting. As he looks around at people absorbed with working the land, after over a decade of his own lofty spiritual study, he cannot grasp why they are frittering away their lives on such mundane activities as ploughing the land. This apparent waste of time is so painful to him that he cries out to his son: “Manichin chayei olam, ve’oskin be’chayei sha’ah! – Why are these people wasting time on trivialities, on ephemeral things, rather than delving into the infinite – the world of G-d and the study of his Torah!?”
His question was one of priorities. Why did everyone have their priorities upside down, focused only on the physical things in life?
It was only later, after (a Divinely ordained punishment of) one final year in the cave, that Rabbi Shimon and his son understood that the path to G-d is found not only in the holy books and wooden pews, but in the corners of the field we leave for the poor, in the care we give the widow and the orphan, in the love we show one another, and in the myriad daily activities we do in accordance with His commandments. Just as in politics, what matters in not the face we show in public, or the things we get recognition and praise for; what matters is how we treat the poor, the needy and underprivileged, each in our own daily lives. Are we happy to give charity from our hard-earned income or do we see it as unfair, or burdensome, or do we avoid giving entirely?
Let us be inspired from this Lag Be’Omer to ensure that we get our priorities right, so that not only are we meticulous in public mitzvah observance, but that we also excel in our private interactions and charities with the truly needy of society.
If we do that, we can be sure that G-d will reciprocate with abundant blessings for health and happiness.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
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