Elections and Selections by Rabbi Zell

Voting patterns aside – for decades, close to 80% of Jews in this country have typically voted for one political party over the other – election day ought to have a greater significance among our people than just about any other group in this nation. For those of us with a modicum of knowledge of the Tana’ch (all 24 books of the Bible), it ought to be quite clear, that originally elections played no role whatsoever among our people. Rather than election, Judaism, biblically speaking, is rooted in selection.
How ironic, that a mere three days prior to going to the polls, we read in the Torah about the very first “selection” results known to our biblical ancestors. There is absolutely a record in the Torah of Abraham mounting an election campaign or garnering votes to become the first Jew. Instead, the Torah tells us, that it was HaShem who selected Abraham as the perfect candidate to introduce to the world an entirely new way of relating to a Supreme Being. Unlike a presidential hopeful, who asks for a mandate to be sent to the nation’s capital, Abraham ended up being uprooted and directed to G-d’s country, a destination totally unknown to him. Granted, HaShem promised Abraham that he (Abraham) would be made into a great nation and that he (Abraham) would be blessed, but these assurances could hardly be connected to any election, in that Abraham was not in any way campaigning. Moreover, there was no constituency to which Abraham was responsible. Abraham was solely responsible to HaShem. Ultimately, it was Abraham who confronted HaShem. “Now that You have selected me, how do You intend to make good on Your word?’’ asks Abraham, who was unanimously chosen for the position.
In its early days, El Al, Israel’s national airline was the butt of a number of jokes. Among those jokes, was one where a passenger asks the flight attendant, who had arrived with the food cart at dinner time, “what are the choices?” The surly stewardess, snapped back: “Choices? Eat or go hungry!” According to our rabbinic sages, a similar dialogue ensued at Mount Sinai between HaShem and our ancestors, seven weeks after having been liberated from Egyptian bondage. The giving – and by extension, the receiving – of the Torah was not up for a vote. “If you are prepared to receive the Torah, wonderful! If, on the other hand, you are planning to reject the Torah, this will be your grave” (Talmud: Avodah Zara 2b) What took place at Sinai was “selection” on the part of HaShem and not “election” on the part of the Children of Israel. As much as the Torah conveys a blueprint for democratic principles, its very existence is not, nor was it was ever based on any democratic accord with HaShem. What makes the Torah so unique, is that it serves as a contract between the human and the divine, replete with mutual obligations and responsibilities.
Our rabbinic sages relate that just prior to creating man, HaShem took counsel with the heavenly angels. In a short period of time, a passionate debate broke out in heaven, with the angels arguing both for and against the creation of the human species. HaShem reacted in a most whimsical fashion. “You go ahead and argue. I am going to go ahead and create. Creation of humans is not up for a vote”. Neither was the unique relationship that HaShem cultivated with our people up for a vote. “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that HaShem set His eyes on you and chose you, but because you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). In the best of governments, leaders are ephemeral. So much so, that the average American would be hard-pressed to list the last five presidents of this country. After all, presidents are voted in and at times, voted out. That is what a democracy is all about. Not so, Judaism. Despite perceptions to the contrary, HaShem selects for keeps. In return, HaShem expects never-ending loyalty.
In a healthy society, elections are a sure guarantee of satisfaction and glee to some, as well as dissatisfaction and sorrow to others. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Concentration Camp Selektions aside, selections are a reminder that the choice that we make, is rarely, if ever, at the expense of another person’s sense of well-being. Imagine if you will, a day and age when our society, culture, and government will foster Selection Day to replace Election Day. Should that ever occur, the only losers would be acrimony, divisiveness, and rancor.

A LEG UP

Although it has been 20 years since the younger of my two children entered college as a freshman, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I read about Lori Loughlin (an actress that I had never heard of) being sentenced to two months in prison for her recent role in a College Admission Scandal. Ms. Loughlin, at the recommendation of William Singer, a college admissions consultant, knowingly falsified applications of her daughter, to give her a “leg up” in being accepted as a student, at the University of Southern California.
With the High Holy Days less than a month away, hopefully, many of us, if not all of us, ought to realize, that concepts such as “admissions” and “leg up” are very much in play, when it comes to being “admitted” into the Book of Life. Unlike students of today applying the colleges of their choice, all who seek entry into the age-old Book of Life are openly provided with a “leg up” in being accepted. This “leg up” is known as Teshuvah. Contrary to what we have been taught, Teshuvah has more than one meaning.

Outside the realm of religion, Teshuvah means an answer or a response. Just as first-graders in our culture are conditioned to hear: “who knows the answer to…”, so too first-graders in Israel are conditioned to hear the word Teshuvah. Yet, Teshuvah is anything but kid’s stuff. Teshuvah is part and parcel of being an adult in the eyes of our tradition. Children are exempt from answering for their behavior. Adults (provided they are of sound body and mind) are required to. Yet, how many of us live our lives, aware of the fact, that our religion holds us responsible for what we do, just as our religion holds us responsible for what we do not do? In either case, we will be required to provide a Teshuvah; in either case, we required to provide an answer. Unlike other religions, our day of reckoning is not an end of life experience, where we hope to gain entry into heaven at the conclusion of our lives; our day of reckoning is an annual phenomenon, where we hope to gain entry into the Book of Life.

Among the many songs that bring me to tears is The Circle Game. Composed and sung by Joni Mitchell, the artist concludes each of its four stanzas, by hauntingly reminding us: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came”. Nonsense! argues our tradition. The entire time period beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, is predicated upon our returning, retracing our steps, examining our missteps and trying to figure out how to properly step up to the plate, the next time. What disappoints HaShem, is not our mistakes; what disappoints HaShem is a failure – or even worse, our refusal to return and revisit where we went wrong so that we can learn from our mistakes and to profit from that experience. Throughout the year, three times each and every weekday, towards the beginning of what is known as the Shemoneh Esreh, we request of HaShem, to bring us back and to His Torah and His service. We conclude that request, with the words: Blessed are You HaShem who desires Teshuvah. Without exception, Teshuvah is translated in the siddur, as “repentance”. Yet, no mention whatsoever is made of our having sinned or transgressed (that’s the subject of the following prayer). Having begun with a request to bring us back, would it not seem more logical to conclude that request with words translated to mean: Blessed are You HaShem who desires that we return or come back?

When all is said and done, Teshuvah is most often translated to mean “repentance.” Although typically seen as a synonym for “contrition”, “repentance” is anything but.” Contrition indicates that the sinner’s soul is a collection of shattered pieces because of the misdeed. “Repentance”  indicates that the sinner has thought over the misdeed that he committed. But thinking over a misdeed does not in any way indicate remorse. What “repentance” ought to suggest at the very least, is that the sinner realized that he has fallen out of HaShem’s favor and hopefully is prepared to do whatever necessary to regain that favor.

Knowing that Judaism is based on personal responsibility and that we will have to have to answer for what we did (wrong) or neglected to do (right), realizing that Judaism insists that we can return and redo, and understanding the importance in rethinking how to gain HaShem’s favor are much more than three different examples of Teshuvah… Each one provides us with a “leg up” in preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, so that hopefully we are a “shoo in” when it comes to being admitted in the Book of Life.

LIP SERVICE

As the horn of a ram or similar animal is taken to human lips this Friday, it would do us well to momentarily mute the Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah that will be sounded throughout the month of Elul, and to focus on how a defense mechanism of a four legged creature ( horn) abuts a defense mechanism of a two legged human (mouth) and realize, that with but three exceptions (eating, voiding, and propagating) as  pointed out by the Talmud, the similarity ends there.

Unlike an animal, a human being is born with a conscience. Human beings are capable of being able to distinguish right from wrong. It may have taken eating from the Tree of Knowledge for Adam and Eve to develop a conscience, but that conscience was quite evident soon after their regrettable repast. As soon as the first couple heard the sound of HaShem manifesting itself in the garden, Adam and Eve went and hid among the trees. Adam and Eve were aware that they had done something wrong and they attempted (in vain) to evade the consequences. Their son Cain had a conscience as well. In response to HaShem’s question, “Where is Abel your brother”? Cain, out of a sense of guilt, went on the defensive and retorted “am I my brother’s keeper”? Animals, in contradistinction to humans, were not designed to have consciences. If they did, then canines would be nowhere as loyal to humans, even when those humans are undeserving, and humans would not make a “tsimmes”  when an animal shows care, concern and consideration for a human. How else would we explain humans resorting to the aphorism “bull in a china shop” in that the bovine creature is in no way aware of the havoc it creates. The very fact that we humans out of desperation (wrongly) refer to other humans lacking a conscience as “animals”, illustrates that we are very much aware that four legged creatures are devoid of a conscience.

It was the award winning Hebrew and Yiddish poet of Israel, Abba Kovner, who encouraged a new generation of Israelis to “remember the past, live the present and trust the future”.  Humans become aware of the future at a tender age. That’s why it is not uncommon for a three-year old in our culture to  express the following sentiment: “when I grow up…” Humans have the ability and are given the incentive to plan for the future. That’s why there are any number of investment firms touting their expertise in making your money grow, as they vie for your business; that’s why many jobs come with retirement plans where the employer matches the contribution or withholding on the part of the employee.  Preparing for the future among animals is purely instinct. Squirrels forage for nuts to sustain them through the winter, independent of reading the Farmer’s Almanac. While I know nothing about how squirrels communicate with one another, I find it totally incredulous that squirrels would discuss the challenge of collecting nuts in any given year and then compare what it was like to collect nuts the previous year.

Our Talmudic sages were quick to point out (that unlike an animal) that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Stated differently, they maintained that humans should always consider themselves forewarned or responsible when it comes to injuries of others, as well as to damages to their property and estate. How much more so then is an individual’s responsibility to oneself! To be sure, our culture has a track record of destroying animals that have incurred harm. But such animals were destroyed because they were deemed dangerous. The only time responsibility serves as a factor is when that animal is owned by a human, or when that animal has a master. In either case, responsibility falls squarely upon the human, but never upon the animal.

Let the Tekiahs ring along with the Shevarim and Teruah. As they pierce the highest heavens, so too let them pierce the innermost depths of out heart and souls. Let us marvel at tough animal cartilage pressing up against the sensitive human lip. Let us appreciate the contrast between four- legged animal and the two-legged human. With the human, HaShem has every right to expect a conscience that distinguish between right and wrong, an ability to anticipate  planning for the future and a keen sense of responsibility toward HaShem, one’s fellow man and oneself. Failure to do so will result in mere lip service.