Saturday, March 21, 2020

Stop Criticizing the Government (Shabbos 11)

During my sixteen-year tenure as the rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue, the premier shul in Alberta, Canada, I enjoyed wonderful relationships with government leaders across the political spectrum.  Over those years, between the country and the province, the three major political parties held power at various points. 

Despite my personal political proclivities, I am proud of the friendships I forged with members of all parties.  In almost all cases, these were very decent, hardworking people, honestly seeking to serve the people of Canada to the very best of their ability.  We were blessed to host in our home, for Shabbat and Jewish festivals, leaders of the city of Edmonton, the province of Alberta, and the nation of Canada of all political stripes.

Of these amazing individuals that I encountered over the years, some are still politicians while others have since left the field.  But I am fortunate to have friends for life of the highest calibre from every walk of life.  I have deep and heartfelt respect for each and every of them, even if I might disagree with a good many of them ideologically!

וְאָמַר רָבָא בַּר מַחְסֵיָא אָמַר רַב חָמָא בַּר גּוּרְיָא אָמַר רַב: אִם יִהְיוּ כׇּל הַיָּמִים דְּיוֹ, וַאֲגַמִּים קוּלְמוֹסִים, וְשָׁמַיִם יְרִיעוֹת, וְכׇל בְּנֵי אָדָם לַבְלָרִין — אֵין מַסְפִּיקִים לִכְתּוֹב חֲלָלָהּ שֶׁל רְשׁוּת. מַאי קְרָאָה אָמַר רַב מְשַׁרְשְׁיָא: ״שָׁמַיִם לָרוּם וָאָרֶץ לָעוֹמֶק וְלֵב מְלָכִים אֵין חֵקֶר״

Rava bar Mecḥasia taught in the name of Rav Chama bar Guria quoting Rav: Even if all the seas would be ink, and the (reeds in) swamps would be quills, and the heavens would be parchment, and all the people would be scribes; all of these would be insufficient to explain the depths of governmental authority.  Rav Mesharshia said: What is the verse that alludes to this? “As the heavens above and to the depths of the Earth, are the hearts of kings unfathomable.”

The Maharal of Prague explains that this teaching is referring to the authority of the ultimate governing authority – the Almighty’s dominion over the world.  No amount of presentation could explain the ways of Hashem and the way He conducts this world.  

This message is of the utmost importance, particularly during times of global crisis, such as the Coronavirus that has now gripped the world with fear.  Recently a prominent rabbi in Israel suggested a completely random and inappropriate reason for the virus.  But Rav makes it clear that any attempt to explain God’s ways is not just arrogant.  It is absolutely wrong.  We hope and pray that Heaven end this unfathomable hester panim – hiding of God’s face, as it were – and restore the health of thousands of afflicted people across the globe. 

While the Maharal interprets the Gemara as referring to God’s ways, many of the commentators understand the Gemara literally.  Even mortal government workings are, to a certain extent, incomprehensible.  That’s also very important to bear in mind during times of crisis such as the current one.  Many people are quick to criticize the response of their respective governments to the pandemic or other national crises.  They offer myriad reasons and explanations why the government should be acting differently. 

Rav’s point is that you could theorize all day long and write down every alternative scenario you could think of, but you are not privy to the information that the government has.  The ruling power of a functioning nation-state, one hopes, is basing its decisions on guidance from top advisers in the medical, intelligence, economic, and environmental fields, to name but a few.  We don’t have such information.  And so offering our criticism and alternative solutions is, once again, a display of arrogance.  

One of the challenges of our generation is the inability to accept the outcomes of the democratic political process.  In most western countries, we have the ability to replace our governments every few years.  During the period of political campaigns, we have every right to express our views and question the performance record of the sitting government.  But if the government is being criticized from the moment of its induction, how is it meant to run the country effectively?  Instead of focusing on the needs of the nation, too many naysayers insist that they know better than the experts advising the sitting government.  Consequently, they end up occupying the government’s focus and resources with their incessant political attacks, leaving little time for the government to get on with doing the job it has been elected to carry out.

Of course, any democratic system requires a robust opposition party.  But the role of the opposition is to keep the sitting government ever-accountable.  Not to criticize their policies simply because they have a differing ideology.  And certainly not because they just don’t like them personally.  They will have their opportunity to take the country in a different direction, should the sitting government fail the people.  In the meantime, the opposition should aim to keep the government honest, while respecting the fact that they may possess greater information and insight than meets the eye.

I am proud of the friendships I made with leaders of varying political views over the years.  I am even prouder that I never allowed my own political perspectives colour my ability to respect and support those with differing ideologies.  Just as we must be tolerant of others’ views, we must be respectful of the democratic process that brought our elected officials to power.  Disrespecting our democratically-elected officials is an affront to democracy itself. 

Government leaders are faced with incredible pressure and demands on a daily basis.  They won’t always get it right.  But belief in the democratic system implies belief that the government is acting upon the best information available.  May you always display the humility that democracy requires and support the national interest as defined by whoever the democratically-elected government may be! 

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