Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz: Clean Hands


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lipschutz.jpgThe Democrats’ well-laid plans were bearing fruit last week. Repeating the liberal mantras night after night was doing the trick and poll numbers were moving up. The only president in history to be impeached, and his wife, both gave speeches to adoring fans, dazzling the convention attendees along with the estimated 18 million people who had hoped to elect the first woman president in U.S. history. 

Finally, it was the turn of the anointed one. A simple convention center wouldn’t suffice to contain his ego and message. He addressed the faithful in a packed stadium. He roused the delegates and common folk who stood in line all day so that some time in the future they could tell their children and grandchildren that they were present when Barack Hussein Obama, of mixed African and American heritage, accepted his party’s nomination for president.

It was played up and promoted as an historic occasion by the mainstream media, which hung onto his every word and flashed pictures of people of all ages with tears streaming down their faces. How moving to hear a master orator spell out how not only the United States but the entire world would be redeemed if he were elected president!

Democrats, liberals, media types and talking heads were ecstatic. Following that performance, they were convinced that their man would bounce up in the polls and retain that edge until November when he would take over the White House from the loathsome Republicans, and return Democrats to the throne of power.

They went to bed that night with mile-high smiles, confident that they had pulled it off.

And then Friday came.

At noon, John McCain announced his running mate. By the time the newly chosen vice presidential candidate finished introducing herself to the country, the air was sucked out of the Obama campaign. Mrs. Palin was so real, spontaneous and full of common sense. She was like the lady next door exhibiting the finest attributes of a mother, teacher and leader. People listened to her and knew that what she was saying wasn’t contrived. They felt she was a person they would want to trust.

And just like that, the entire dynamic changed. A Zogby poll begun Friday afternoon showed McCain in the lead over the man who had just been proclaimed heir to the Kennedy mystique. The leader of a new generation, the man who can solve all the world’s problems and usher in an era of uber-partisan unity, was shoved to the back burner.

On a certain level, McCain’s pick helped the American people see through the Democrat hype and theatrics. Those gimmicks paled against the realness of Mrs. Palin. They were able to quickly tell the difference between the genuine article and something manufactured by political hacks desperate to return to power. There was a sincerity to her words that made them far more credible than the issues and buzz-words the rival party had hyped up for a week in Denver. Those speeches eloquently crafted by well-paid wordsmiths and expertly read off the teleprompter were seen as artificial and not genuine.

For four days, the Democrats at their convention had heaped scorn on President Bush and, by extension, McCain. They thought they would get away with promoting the image of McCain being nothing but an extension of George W. Bush. They think that no one remembers that in 2000, Bush beat back McCain’s run against him in the primaries with a variety of dirty tricks McCain will never be able to forget. There is very little love lost between the two. There are thus no grounds to assume that McCain will be eager to perpetuate Bush’s legacy were he to be elected.

The attacks were disingenuous on other levels as well, for it is well known that McCain opposed Bush’s tax cuts. McCain co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which is anathema to Republicans and Bush. He fought Bush on the troop surge in Iraq until he capitulated and undertook the strategy which will lead to a clear and honorable victory.

McCain also joined with Senator Lieberman on an energy independence bill, spurned the party on a bill addressing illegal immigration, and has generally been a thorn on the side of politics-as-usual. He fought against pork barrel projects and never took a dime of earmarked money.

So if you look at the hard facts, McCain has a track record of fighting against party and Washington interests. While his opponent spent his years under the tutelage of rabid anti-white, anti-American, anti-Semites and party hacks, hewing to a liberal party orthodoxy, McCain was in the trenches fighting for what is right.

While Obama was publishing books to enrich and aggrandize himself, McCain was writing books to enrich the American spirit. Of course most of us never heard of them; the media was too busy hyping Obama’s.

But you can only fool people for so long. Eventually, they see through the pretense and the theatrics. They can detect who is a pretender to the throne and who really possesses the credentials for leadership. They can tell who has a padded résumé covering up a hollow, lackluster career, and who is the genuine personage who worked their way up through a succession of responsible positions. If really forced, people can focus on content as opposed to style, and eventually conclude that one candidate is ready to face serious global issues and an ailing economy, while the other can only speak in vague terms and platitudes.

People have an innate intuition which aids them in discerning a true leader from a pretender. Eventually, they reject the pretender and his message. No doubt some believe that if a person is blessed with a commanding presence and has educated himself in the art of communication, skillfully addressing and mesmerizing crowds, the person is qualified to lead. But those with a more discerning heart return home from the performance, realizing that it consisted of little more than emotional semantics. They can see through the showmanship. They sense what is artificial and what is real. 

We should learn from this drama playing itself out on the national stage. In our own world, things are far from picture-perfect. Too many positions of power and influence in our community are held by people who have muscled their way in by virtue of their wealth or hubris. Too many issues lay festering because people in leadership positions are ill equipped to deal with them. By promoting unqualified people, we impede our own growth, doing ourselves the greatest disservice of all. By holding gatherings where the same predictable boiler-plate banalities are offered, we will succeed neither in attracting nor energizing large numbers of our people.

If we seek to continue to grow and thrive, we have to be more real and allow people who are authentic to attain positions of power, where they can influence others to follow in Hashem’s path and dedicate their lives to goodness and righteousness.

If we want to make a dent in the massive problems confronting us today, we have to get past the knee-jerk impulse to remain loyal to what is politically correct and safe. Lack of information and an inability to think boldly cripples some people in positions of leadership. It prompts people to offer safe and simplistic solutions, relying on “conventional wisdom,” even when dealing with serious and multi-faceted conundrums, because they fear the new and unknown.

This week’s parsha admonishes us, “Shoftim veshotrim titein lecha.” In order to maintain a healthy society, we must appoint over ourselves a system of judges and people to enforce the rule of law. They must be learned, intelligent, honest, upstanding and incorruptible. They must be men whose life ambition is to pursue justice. It does not suffice to have one supreme Sanhedrin staffed with such leaders. The Torah commands that every town establish a court to ensure that its citizens have a place to turn to for direction and adjudication of their grievances.

The officers of the bais din must be beyond reproach. They must be men of uncompromising honor and power who do not cower in the face of opposition and intimidation. They must possess the skill and determination to enforce the edicts and rulings of the shoftim with strength and dignity. Anarchy and mediocrity have no place in our system of rule, lest they result in a breakdown of respect for authority and righteousness.

This week’s entire parsha is replete with laws pertaining to leadership and decency. In the days when child-sacrifice was an almost universal pagan practice, the Jewish people were given the Toras Emes which set forth the blueprint of an ethical, moral life for all of mankind.

The Torah prescribes that when the people choose a king, the candidate for royalty must be an individual who is not interested in enriching himself or indulging in senseless trappings of power. The posuk further commands that the king write for himself two Sifrei Torah from which he should read and learn throughout his life.

The posuk says, “Vehaya imo vekara bo kol yemei chayov, lemaan yilmad leyirah es Hashem…levilti rom levavo mei’echov ulevilti sur yomin usemol – The Torah shall be with him and he should read it his entire life, so that he learns to fear Hashem and doesn’t become haughty and doesn’t deviate from the word of Hashem.”

The language of the posuk can perhaps be understood homiletically to teach another lesson. The words “vekara bo kol yemei chayov” can be translated a bit differently to mean that he should read his entire life in the Torah.

The king should write a Sefer Torah for himself and keep it with him at all times so that before he acts, he should ponder how the Torah would write up his actions. If the king assessed everything he did with the perspective of how the Torah would view him, he would act responsibly and honorably. He would resist the demands of a raging ego driving him to become a corrupt, hypocritical figure.

The Torah’s priority is to encourage people to follow an honorable, humble and just path. The monarchy, the Sanhedrin and other institutions were created for the sole purpose of fostering correct behavior and ensuring that society is governed by Torah norms. Though today we unfortunately no longer have a Sanhedrin, kings or shoftim, we still must act as if our every deed is destined to be written up in the Torah, and conduct ourselves with that imaginary publication of our personal lives in mind. 

The parsha ends with the mitzvah of eglah arufa, the procedure to follow when a dead body of an unknown person is found at the outskirts of a town. The elders of the city must wash their hands over the eglah arufa and state that their hands did not kill the person and their eyes did not witness it: “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh ve’eineinu lo ra’uh.”

Obviously, no one would suspect the elders of murdering a person. The lesson of the eglah arufa is that they must declare that they set everything in place under their jurisdiction which would preclude the travesty of murder. They proclaim that they established a proper system of justice and compassionate treatment of strangers. They come to the outskirts of the city to state for all to hear that the murder victim did not die due to negligence on their part. With the kohanim at their sides, the zekeinim confess that they did all in their ability to ensure that no person suffers abuse of any kind, especially of the kind or degree that would lead to such a tragic demise.

In our day, as well, we must all be able to proclaim that we have done what we can to set up institutions of jurisprudence, kindness and charity, and proper schools for chinuch and the transmission of our mesorah. We have to be able to act courageously and without fear to ensure that we can all say with complete honesty, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” our hands did not spill the blood – both literally and figuratively – of the unfortunate victims in our community.

Elul is a good time to start.