Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz: Public Service


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yated11.jpgIn Parshas Vayechi, we are offered some prime examples of men who were unafraid to take action to defend their cherished values.

Yaakov Avinu, in imparting a lasting message to each of his sons before his passing, first addressed Shimon and Levi together. He cursed their rage and the anger they displayed in their reaction to Shechem’s mistreatment of their sister Dinah. He foretold that they would be separated and dispersed throughout Israel.

Rav Yitzchok Karo, in his sefer Toldos Yitzchok published in 1558, offers an explanation as to why Yaakov Avinu spread these two shevotim throughout the rest of Klal Yisroel.

Shimon’s and Levi’s anger against Shechem was triggered by their brotherly care for Dinah. While they carried this loyalty to an extreme, the other brothers did not display enough of it. Therefore, Yaakov sent Shimon and Levi throughout the rest of Israel to dilute some of their own anger, but at the same time, to infuse the rest of the shevotim with the attribute of brotherly feeling and responsibility.

Too often, we see that people are apathetic towards problems confronting our community and the many difficulties our brothers are facing. It seems at times that we urgently need a member of the tribes of Shimon and Levi in our midst to awaken our desire to do good and to stand by one another.

Among the apathetic masses, you find the exceptions – people of conscience and action who are not daunted by the enormity of the issues confronting them. There are people in every community who are able to overcome the urge to do nothing. They really work hard to bring solutions to intractable problems. You find people who seek to calm the agitated, right the wrongs, care for the abused, and fight injustice when it rears its ugly head.

These people bear the positive qualities of kaas as described by Rav Yitzchok Karo. They hold aloft a banner of truth and justice that others can rally around. Though the world may be apathetic to pain and suffering, these dedicated people demonstrate that even in our cynical age, it is possible to fight for truth and honor.

Though sheker remains attractive and at times appears to triumph over the people of emes, a true ish emes does not get flustered when he appears to be on the decline. He perseveres; he remains loyal to the truth and never waivers from fighting the good fight.

In some instances, people involved in community service start off with good intentions but, unfortunately, grow infatuated with the power and glory of their position. They begin to lose sight of what brought them to public service in the first place and begin taking undue liberties with their position. Inevitably, the power-infatuated person ends up compromising truth and justice in an attempt to broaden his authority and influence.

People of this kind are lacking the most vital components of leadership. A leader is a person of sound character who knows right from wrong and possesses the moral courage to stand behind his convictions. A real leader doesn’t bend to the whims of the unschooled masses or compromise on cardinal principles. A real leader is an absolutist who remains loyal to his inner conscience; he is honest with himself and his fellow men. 

As Torah Jews, we should all strive for these credentials. Even though the rest of the world stumbles about in moral ambiguity, we have an airtight moral code that enables us to discern right from wrong, truth from falsehood. Our leaders should exemplify those qualities of character. 

Indeed, many of them do. Yet, there are all types of people in every community; there are some who are good, some who are bad, and some who straddle the fence. Then there are those wanna-be machers who think they are G-d’s gift to the universe. They stoop to promoting less than honorable causes in order to gain fame and fortune for themselves.

Sometimes, in conversation with such a person, you ask him how he could have acted against the ideals which he was appointed to espouse. “What should I do?” he’ll respond. “I’m a politician. I have to be all things to all people in order to accomplish the good that I do for the community.”

That rationale presupposes that a politician is, by definition, a spineless, gutless creature.

Take a look at the people running for president and think about which one you would vote for, irrespective of polls and what the media tells you. If you are reading this newspaper and are a frum Yid, you would no doubt vote for the person with the strongest position on matters that are important to you.

You are probably not inclined to support the person who talks out of both sides of his or her mouth and has no real moral compass. You detest the person who mouths platitudes and promises just to make you feel good, and whom you suspect will break every promise as soon as he’s in office. That type of person does not command our respect or our vote. He doesn’t qualify as a good politician in any sense.

A good politician espouses strong positive ideas around which a community can coalesce. He acts in the best interest of his constituents and with their long-term benefit in mind. He doesn’t check the polls each and every day to determine his position of the day.

Whether or not you agree with his policies, the current president of the United States is such a person. He seriously believes that he was placed in his position by G-d so that he can fight Islamic terror. He has a moral code by which he guides his life and though he is extremely unpopular today, he refuses to abandon his convictions.

The same positions he fought for when his popularity was at 90% still drive him today when it hovers in the thirty percentile. His ascendancy to the highest job in the land demonstrates that one need not be a two-faced politician to gain popularity and earn public support. Several of the people running for president in this election appear to be strong individuals who have exhibited real leadership. They haven’t pandered to the public whim by tailoring their campaign to what seems to be popular with the hoi polloi. Though it may cost them votes and support, they stick to their guns.

In order to advance to a position where they can be effective advocates for the common good and leaders for a generation, they require that the people of good support them. If those who value honesty, integrity and fidelity to noble causes don’t raise their voices in support, then the good people can never advance. They remain mired in obscurity with the also-rans.

Every generation has its unique tests of faith. Meeting those challenges demands that we have the courage of our convictions and not be deterred by opposition.

Since the beginning of time, unscrupulous people have shown they have no compunctions about trampling on other people. We, who would never want to be grouped with people of this ilk, should never conduct ourselves as they do.

The posuk in this week’s parsha (Shemos 2:11) relates that as Moshe grew to adulthood, he left the house of Paroh and observed firsthand his brothers’ suffering. The first day he ventured out, he saw a Mitzri beating a Jew. He looked around and, assuring himself that there were no witnesses, killed the Mitzri and hid him in the sand.

On the second day, Moshe saw two Jews, Doson and Avirom, fighting. Addressing the one with a raised fist as “Rasha,” he asked him why he was striking his friend. The man responded, “Who appointed you a ruler and judge over us? Are you going to kill me the way you killed the Mitzri?”

The Torah relates that Moshe became frightened and uttered the words, “Achein nodah hadovor – Indeed the matter is known.” The posuk’s intent seems to be that Moshe feared that it was known that he had killed the Mitzri. In fact, the next posuk relates that Paroh heard about “this matter” and Moshe was forced to flee for his life.

The Medrash offers a different explanation: “Achein nodah hadovor – Now I understand the matter that was troubling me.” Moshe was wondering why the Jewish people suffer more than the other nations of the earth, but now that he witnessed their cruel, vindictive behavior with one another, he understood.

Perhaps we can take that idea a step further. Moshe was brought up in the regal splendor of Paroh’s palace. At the age of twenty, after being appointed by Paroh to a position of authority, he left the palace to identify with the suffering of his people. He was overcome at the sight of their anguish.

When he came across a Mitzri beating a Jew, he struck him down. The sight of a Jew being abused, the sight of evil and injustice, enraged him. He couldn’t stand passively by; he had to do something.

As a member of Paroh’s royal household, he had never seen the Jewish people close up and was baffled by their enslavement and suffering. Why was their inhumane treatment allowed to continue? Why did they not rise up to defend themselves from their evil masters?

The incident with Doson and Avirom, who mocked him when he appealed to them to cease fighting, answered his questions.

He had killed the Mitzri with the Sheim Hameforash; how could they not have seen that? And yet, despite witnessing a supernatural act, they were unfazed. They saw that someone considered Jewish life sacred; they saw that someone actually cared about the way other people were being treated and risked his life to defend them. Yet, their only reaction was to mock him.

Instead of thanking him for his heroic act, they vilified him. Instead of raising their hands to G-d in gratitude that someone was fearless enough to defy the Mitzri authorities in order to come to their defense, they raised their hands to strike each other.

Achein nodah hadovor. Moshe now understood why no leader had emerged. The would-be leaders had their hands full contending with the Mitzriyim. They did not possess the power to intercede for their people when individuals like Doson and Avirom stood ready to sabotage, slander and mock them for their efforts.

If we desire effective leadership, we have to seek out ways to give chizuk to those who do so much for the klal, yet suffer the humiliation of public service.

If we want good people to rise to positions of responsibility, if we want talented people with high standards to exercise leadership, we have to be worthy of that leadership. If we want people to whom we can turn when we need direction, we have to make sure not to obstruct them when they rise to prominence.

If we want to hasten the redemption, we have to be supportive of young people who display communal responsibility and concern. We must encourage people to get involved in helping to build organizations and mosdos, and promote those who seek to resolve community-wide dilemmas that affect each and every one of us.

We have enough Dosons and Aviroms. We see them all over ready to pounce on anyone they don’t like. We recognize them by their petty vindictiveness, by their inability to get along with people, by their opposition to authority. They are conspicuous for their negativism and lack of ahavas Yisroel.

We should support those few individuals whose intentions to benefit the klal are pure and wholehearted. Let us get behind them so that they can realize their goals and ambitions for us all.

© 2007 Yated Neeman.


  1. A beautiful analysis, a gem. But if any reader wonders how it is that Yaakov did not address, even in a hint, the great descendants of Levi – Moshe and Aharon! – I have an answer in my volume on Bereishis [There Shall be Light] — find someone who has it (since it is sold out) and you will be amazed.