Ten Swearing Angels by gabyion


									                   Ten Swearing Angels
                        YK 2008

     OK…I’m gonna go out on a limb here. With all

that’s at stake in the coming election, I’m going to share

with you my view on who would make the best leader of

the free world. Rather than just blurt it out, let’s make it

a bit more interesting. I’ll describe the traits, qualities

and capabilities I believe are required, and you guess

who I’m describing.

     Our next President should have depth of

experience, but not so much that it constrains his ability

to embrace new horizons. We need someone with a

lofty vision for change, but a vision rooted in timeless

principles from which change grows naturally, not

change for its own sake. I want someone who

possesses distinct skills and abilities, but is not so

different from the rest of us that he leaves us behind.

Someone old enough to have gleaned wisdom, but vital

enough to inspire the next generation. Someone who is

tested but not stale, warm but not saccharine,

commanding but not tyrannical.

     Any guesses? This description reminds me of the

laundry list congregation’s often employ in searching

for a rabbi: someone with 60 years of experience but

the freshness of a newly-ordained rabbi straight from

the seminary—a modest mash-up of Moses, Jesus and

Buddha, with a bit of FDR, Churchill and Bill Gates

thrown in for good measure.

     I usually speak on contemporary issues on Rosh

Hashanah, and focus on timeless religious themes on

Yom Kippur. But the current state of our nation is so

critical, a vision for the future so essential, and thus this

election so crucial, that to not offer a Jewish response

on this holiest of days would be tantamount to rabbinic


    Our homes, communities, nation and world are at a

crossroads. Domestic crises and global insecurities

plead for direction, strength and authority to lead us

through the troubled waters of uncertainty. Much has

been made about the vetting and skill-set of the current

candidates for the highest office in the land. But at this

seminal moment of urgent need, the question is less

who will lead us through this trying time than what will

lead us. What are the qualities, talents, ideas and

aspirations that are best for our nation at this fraught

and frightening fork in the road?

    There are myriad issues to discuss and debate as a

society—issues which are at the core of this

campaign—issues with which we should be familiar and

conversant as a prerequisite to voting. But alas, like so

much that should be but isn’t, we must await the coming

of Messiah—the first coming, to be precise—for an

issue-based campaign and well-versed electorate. Until

that great and awesome day, the current criteria for

President must suffice: perceptions of the candidates’

character and values.

    Not that character and values are unimportant. It’s

just that, taken out of context and divorced from the

issues as they often are, looking solely at character and

values seems more apiece with an eHarmony

application than as a basis to decide the next


    And so…we must deal with the world we have, and

leave the world that can be to the kinder. Our choice for

leader will, indeed, come down to character and values.

Determining the nature of character and values usually

emerges from a moral sense rooted in religious

traditions. The 85% of self-identified Christians in this

nation have their sources and approaches to

establishing the character traits and values they’d like to

see in a leader, and we Jews have ours. And so, we’ve

got to ask ourselves: which candidate possesses the

leadership qualities—which best reflects my values as a

modern Jew seeking to balance faith with my role as a

citizen of this nation and an ever-shrinking world.

    Our tradition offers much to inform our decision-

making—timeless principles to inspire us as we

embrace the sacred privilege of our democratic

franchise. Laws and stories from our texts provide both

models for righteous leadership and teach core values

that are essential to whom we are as Jews, as human

beings, and as children of God.

    So what is the palette of character traits Jews

should seek in a leader? A few come to mind. But all

stem from the realization that there are no Jewish

saints! Our best leaders, those closest to God, those

empowered to speak and act for God, all had feet of clay

and wings to fly. All are realistic and accessible models

for us in that they were as vulnerable to our faults as we

are capable of rising to their heights. Their lives are

both positive and negative object lessons.

    Let’s look at a few of the key character traits of

Jewish leaders. Perhaps foremost, our leaders have

never shied from speaking truth to power. That oft-used

but nonetheless powerful cliché actually emerged from

our prophetic tradition. But the prophets had models to

fall back upon. There was Abraham’s chutzpah in

questioning God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Moses confronted the god-king of Egypt to redeem an

enslaved people from the shackles of bondage to the

dignity of freedom. And the early prophet Nathan

denounced King David for his adultery with Bathesheba

and the contract killing of her husband. Jewish leaders

put principle above popularity and the pressures of the

powerful. Like Jeremiah, the mark of a truly successful

truth-teller is that your message gets you thrown in a

pit. But it certainly helps to have a colleague who can

pull you out after the crowd has thinned.

    Another key quality of character for the Jewish

leader: Humility. The archetype for this is Moses, said

to be the most humble man in the world. Even in the

face of underhanded rumor-mongering and attempted

coups by those closest to him, Moses refused to

descend into the mud of personal attacks as a defense

or to celebrate his accomplishments from the stump.

    Now, it doesn’t hurt to have God backing you up

when the walls close in, but Moses didn’t necessarily

know when or how God would have his back. Moses

had to assume he was on his own, and humility was his

go to quality. But even Moses crossed the line. He gave

in to anger and hit the rock to bring forth water rather

than speaking to it. Thus, he failed to affirm God’s

power. Moses is called on the carpet for this

momentary and understandable breach, and is severely


     This Jewish humility is not a zen-like passivity like

David Carradine’s Cain in the 70’s favorite Kung Fu. To

lead effectively, authority must be exercised and power

wielded. But the attitude and perspective of the leader

is critical. The leader must separate personal agenda

from broader mission, serving as a chosen vessel for a

higher purpose. A leader must resist the inevitable

temptation to claim divine right or don the mantle of

noble ideal for private gain, worldly profit, or the

garnering of power for its own sake.

     A final quality of character for the Jewish leader: a

willingness to learn from mistakes. This is a reflection

of the larger ideal of heshbon nefesh—an accounting of

the soul—and teshuvah—a sincere turning back to the

right path—both of which are staples of our spiritual

lives as Jews. And if anything, our leaders are flesh and

blood just like us—at times limited, failed and faulted,

but also capable of the greatness embodied by lessons

learned. It’s what all of us are doing here today!

    But the demands, privilege and responsibilities of

leadership require teshuvah continuously, not merely

once or twice a year. David repented his sinful actions

with Bathesheba and her husband. Jacob reassessed

his youthful deceit and arrogance on the shores of the

river Jabbok as he wrestled with who he was and who

he aspired to be. And Moses continued to praise and

preach God’s word though he knew he would ascend

the mountaintop without entering the Promised Land.

These leaders transformed failure into knowledge,

haughtiness into wisdom. Our leaders could only truly

become leaders after emerging from the gauntlet of

conscience—facing their lesser selves, envisioning

better selves, and making real their best selves.

    After character, the other common criterion for

choosing our President is values. Does the candidate

reflect, espouse and create policy based on values that

are important to me? This notion of “values voting”

rose to prominence after the 2004 election, when a

celebrated exit poll revealed that 22% of voters cast

their ballots based on the ambiguous and overly broad

designation of “values”.

    Claims abounded of a cultural tsunami, a turning

point for the American heartland, an affirmation of social

conservatism as an ascendant power. The poll was

much scrutinized, and much debunked. But the

definition of these all-important values resounds to this

election. These “values” are the Holy Trinity of the

Christian Right: the 3Gs of God, Gays and Guns, with a

pinch of stem-cell research and abortion thrown in to

add some spice.

    This definition is both too narrow and insulting.

Are the only values that matter those of self-identified

evangelical Christians? Aren’t all people of good will

and good intention “values voters”? Don’t we all vote

our values? And don’t these values extend well beyond

the 3Gs? If we see candidates through the prism of our

values, how do we determine these values? And if they

are rooted in faith, what are the core values of Judaism

that speak to our choices and our votes?

    There are two key values that reflect not only the

essence of Judaism—they emerge from the essence of

God. And if God models and reveals them to us as

sacred truth, then surely they should inform and inspire

our leaders and our votes.

     The first value is r’difat tzedek—the pursuit of

justice. Justice is a foundational concept in Judaism.

For Jews, the faith and love that are the cornerstones of

Christianity are vital and important. But there can be no

true faith, no genuine love in the world unless they are

founded upon justice.

     Again going back to the very Beginning, God

created the world with midat din—a measure of justice.

And just as God brought order out of chaos in creating

the physical laws of the universe, so too do we bring

social order out of chaos by creating a legal system

founded upon justice. Justice permeates much of our

texts and our tradition, from the establishment of

impartial courts to securing the economic parity and

wellbeing of all.

     In fact, our word for righteous giving to others,

tzedakah, is rooted in tzedek—justice. This is not just a

linguistic coincidence. We Jews don’t give mere

charity—rooted in the Christian concept of karitas, or

love. Charity is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Tzedakah is more than noblesse oblige, the whim of the

haves to give to the have nots when spirit or conscience

moves them. Tzedakah is an unqualified obligation, a

spiritual tax we owe to God, an offering God does not

essentially need, but one that God directs to the

suffering and the lacking of the world.

     The most famous reference to justice comes from

the book of Deuteronomy, in which God commands:

Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof—justice, justice you shall pursue.

It’s a value so nice God commanded it twice. But the

critical word is the verb: pursue. Justice is never fully

achieved, and we must not rest contented or

complacent imagining that the task is done or the need

satisfied. The pursuit of justice conveys the full impact

of this critical Jewish value, a value that has always

exuded from the heart and soul of Jewish leaders.

     The other Jewish value I’d like to share emerges

from 3 little words—words that are as simple as they are

powerful—words which our sages teach comprise the

sum total of Torah: V’ahatva l’re’echa kamocha—Love

your neighbor as yourself. In addition to justice, we

learn that God also created the world with midat

rachamim—a measure of compassion. And what’s good

enough for God in forging time, space and reality

certainly is good enough for us in our sojourn through

life and the world.

     This is more than empathy, more than a mere

projection of the self into the life of another. It’s a

realization that we can only be who we are meant to be

when we seek to make another whole. And we can only

know the needs and dreams of another when we are

honest with ourselves, and when we use that sometimes

painful self-awareness to grow and change.

     But the love that forges one person to another

extends beyond this world. We are taught that this

mutuality of love and care makes us holy—infusing this

world with holiness. And what’s more, when we strive

to be holy, we can be like God. Not an arrogant

aspiration to power and prestige, but the cultivation of a

special part of ourselves that is most like God—a

special part of ourselves that, when used, brings God

into the world. It is a task, a need, a blessing that is

only made real through us. Is it too lofty, too idealistic,

too unreal to want our leaders to embody this quality,

this value of mutual love that binds person to person,

and the world to God?

    As far as this campaign, the electoral process and

the fate of democracy in general goes, I haven’t given up

on the need to take up issues. We Jews have always

been about the issues—studying and defining them—

debating and implementing them. We are a people less

swayed by the rule of heart and feeling, and more reliant

upon ideas well researched, deliberately considered and

judiciously applied.

    But we are only human, moved by appeals to

emotion and the power of rhetoric. And so, if much of

our choice for who will lead us into the next generation

comes down to an assessment of character and

discussion of values, than let us look to the character of

those who have enabled us to reach this moment: their

courage in speaking truth to power, their humility and

their willingness to learn from mistakes. And let us look

to the values that have sustained us through our trying,

redemptive history: the tireless pursuit of justice, and

the unqualified call to compassion.

     The demands upon our leaders, and the price paid

by our leaders can be costly and grave. Many are

called, but few are chosen or even capable of the task.

Abraham Lincoln poignantly expressed the careful

balance that wise leaders must strike between personal

agenda and broader vision, between the perils of

politics, the call of morality and the longings of the

spirit. These words were inscribed on a plaque in my

father’s rabbinic study. They should be engraved on the

wall of the Oval Office:

"If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks
made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any
other business. I do the very best I know how - the very
best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If
the end brings me out all right, what's said against me
won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out
wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no

     In many ways, the Presidency is an untenable,

impossible job. But there are those who are willing to

rise to the occasion, for the need is great, the time is

short and the task seemingly endless. May we, as

citizens, choose well and thoughtfully in the coming

weeks. We share a sacred process envisioned by the

great, embraced by the good, and ordained by the



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