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Wednesday, 25 January 2017

March for Democracy

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 4

In the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi’s son asks whether there is a blessing for the czar.  The father ponders the question and then responds, “A blessing for the czar?  Of course. . . May G-d bless and keep the czar . . . far away from us!”

Life in czarist Russia was daily terror for our people.  Apart from the abject poverty in which most of the Jews lived, there were constant spiritual dangers as well.  Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, military conscription was standard.  Russian officers would show up unannounced and whisk away Jewish lads as young as twelve years old.  Not only would they train them for military service, but they would Christianize them, removing all trace and memory of their Jewish practice and knowledge.  These young men were known as cantonists, and thousands of our kinderlach were lost to our people and G-d through the horrendous program. 

Hence, the unforgettable, yet tragic sentiment of Tevye’s rabbi. . .

Herod was a servant of the Hasmonean house, and had set his eyes on a certain maiden of that house. One day he heard a Heavenly voice say, ‘Every servant that rebels now will succeed.’ So he rose and killed all the members of his master's household, but spared that maiden. When she saw that he wanted to marry her, she went up on to a roof and cried out, ‘Whoever comes and says, I am from the Hasmonean house, is a slave, since I alone am left of it, and I am throwing myself down from this roof.’ ‘Who are the ones,’ he said, ‘who teach, “From the midst of your brethren you shall set up a king over you?” The Rabbis!’ He therefore rose up and killed all the Rabbis, sparing, however, Bava ben Bhutto, that he might take counsel of him. He placed on his head a garland of hedgehog bristles and put out his eyes.

One day he came and sat before him and said, ‘See, sir, what this wicked slave is doing.’
‘What do you want me to do to him?’ replied Bava ben Bhutto.
He said, ‘I want you to curse him.’
He replied with the verse, ‘Even in your thoughts you should not curse a king.’
Said Herod to him, ‘But this is no king.’
He replied, ‘Even though he be only a rich man, it is written, “And in your bedchamber do not curse the rich,” and even if he be no more than a leader, it is written, “A leader among your people you shall not curse.”’

Herod was one of the worst tyrants our people has ever known, and yet Bava ben Bhutto would not utter an inappropriate word against him.  Whether because he was a king, or simply wealthy, or just lucky to have the leadership.  The truth is, he was really none of the above.  He slaughtered his way to the top and was more than worthy of the most terrible epithets.  But Bava ben Bhutto refused to cave. 
Contrast, for a moment, the times of Herod or the czars with our governmental structure today.  We are so fortunate to live in such unbelievable times!  For most of history, we haven’t had the merit of being able to choose our leaders.  And now we all get to vote for them.  What a blessing!

It’s true, democracy means that some people will get their leaders of preference and others won’t.  But no matter who the leader is, Bava ben Bhutto reminds us of the message found in Koheles (Ecclesiastes): even in the innermost chambers, do not speak inappropriately.  For better or for worse, they are our leaders, and we must show respect to the office.

Does that mean that we may not let our opinions be heard?  Of course not.  Just as long as we express our minds in a respectful, deferential manner.  That’s the important Jewish value that we bring to the table.  Otherwise, what makes us any different to anyone else with their political and social opinions?  Our Sages explain that the hallmarks of the Jewish people is that we are baishanim, rachmanim, gomlei chasadim – sweet, gentle, and kind.  If we want to be a light unto the nations, those qualities must be evident in our every interaction with society.

In a democracy, sometimes you get the leaders you voted for, sometimes you don’t.  But no matter what the outcome, we must never take the Heavenly blessings of the system of government in which we find ourselves today for granted.  May we constantly demonstrate to the world how Jews appreciate, respect, and revere that awesome blessing!