November 5, 2020


11.6.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

Red states.  Blue States.  Divided States.  United States.  Will we have a President-elect by the time this goes out?  Unclear.

What’s for certain is that elections are anxiety provoking.

According to a recent poll by the American Psychological Association, “more than two-thirds of adults are finding the 2020 election to be a significant source of stress.  This includes 76% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans.”

I wonder what the percentage would be if they polled rabbis?  My guess, even higher than two-thirds!  Remember, Joseph, breathe!

But transitions of power have always been stressful and uncertain.  How do I know this?  Well, our Bible teaches us so.

Let’s take a trip back to the Book of Judges.  The Israelites entered and conquered the Holy Land under Joshua’s rule, but the succession of power after his death was never clearly defined and caused strife among the people and the tribes.  The questions: Who wields power?  Who will unite the tribes?  Whom shall we rally around?  In whom can we trust to protect us from foreign invasion or attack? had no clear answer.

To make matters worse, the Book of Judges tells us again and again that the Israelites “did what is offensive to God” – partaking in idolatry – and therefore were subjugated by the neighboring peoples.

And the Israelites did what was offensive to the Lord.  They worshiped the Baalim and forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt.  They followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples around them, and bowed down to them; they provoked the Lord (Judges 2:11-12).

After a period of turmoil and upheaval, the people would once again remember God and pray for mercy and redemption.  It’s like the Israelites had to hit bottom every generation to learn their lesson.  Ultimately, a savior emerges to redeem the Israelites out of idol worship and reclaim their political and military dominance over their enemies.

When the Lord raised up chieftains for them, the Lord would be with the chieftain and would save them from their enemies during the chieftain’s lifetime; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their moanings because of those who oppressed and crushed them. But when the chieftain died, they would again act basely, even more than the preceding generation – following other gods, worshiping them, and bowing down to them; they omitted none of their practices and stubborn ways (Judges 2:18-19).

It did not matter whether it was Gideon, Barak, Sampson or any other Chieftain, they all lacked a clear succession plan, and there was no transition of power after these charismatic leaders died.  What followed were periods of upheaval, political oppression, and vulnerability to attack from enemies.  And of course, Israelite relapse into idolatry!

As Moshe Halbertal points out in his wonderful exposition on the Book of Samuel, The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel:

Such a divinely inspired “savior style” of crisis leadership precluded the creation of a reliable, politically organized continuity of power.  In such a context, no single stable ruler capable of asserting his supreme authority over tribes and clans that were often embroiled in blood feuds could emerge.  But the enduring existence of a supreme authority is the most elemental underpinning of any human political order.  This is because leaderless interregna will inevitably invite attacks by foreign enemies and spark violent succession struggles, civil wars, or even a shattering of the community.  Such tangible dangers associated with political power vacuums explain why all political entities aim first and foremost to organize a smooth transfer of power from one leader to the next, with no gaps and no violent factional contestation (p. 6).

Charismatic leadership needs succession plans.  Otherwise, the people are vulnerable to foreign attack, civil war, and a fracturing of community.  It is precisely during the periods of transition that a nation is most susceptible to fall into chaos and destruction.

Sound familiar?  Are we not reliving history over and over?  Is some of the uncertainty of our electoral process related to a fear that our country is potentially ditching thousands of years of world-wide political progress and retreating back into a time where “…there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased” (Judges 21:25)?

The prominent biblical scholar, James Kugel writes,

So dangerous is the chaos that might result from not having an established process of succession that, all over the world, people have been willing on principle to accept the king’s son or daughter as their new ruler even without proof that the new ruler will be any good at the job, indeed, without any guarantee that he or she will not be profligate or utterly decadent…or even a congenital idiot; almost anything is better than chaos (Kugel, How to Read the Bible, p. 388).

As Kugel points out – and what the Israelites beg for in the Book of Samuel – a dynasty is a means of ending this continual political soap opera and uncertainty.  It has succession built in to the process, with the king’s heir assuming power immediately after the king’s demise.

Maybe there is a part of me that would love the dynastic rule, if there was to guarantee a compassionate and wise leader.  But alas, democratic elections with a peaceful transition of power is the best we have.

Which brings me back to the poll.  Really, only two-thirds of us are significantly stressed about this election?  Anxiety and uncertainty about leadership is not new.  It’s almost primal, and goes back millennia; it’s even chronicled in our sacred texts.

So now what?  How do we cope with the unknowing?

First of all, don’t forget to take deep breaths!

Secondly, I don’t know about you, but I need to stop refreshing NPR or any other Electoral College map, waiting for an update like I’m playing a political slot machine!  Seeking my “fix” of new and updated results.  Instead, I must engage in whatever spiritual practice that helps me live a better life.  My favorite practice during the pandemic has been taking “wonder walks” around my neighborhood, imagining I’m a tourist in a foreign country, looking and finding the beauty in nature and the “mundane” that is always surrounding me.

Most importantly, I believe we need to remember what the Israelites keep forgetting.

You guessed it.  God.

When I’m awakened at 2am and can’t go back to sleep, I’m forgetting about my Higher Power.   My idolatry comes in the forms of lack of surrender, in thinking: “I know better!”, and in my lack of faith in the mantras so fundamental to this country that they are printed on our currency: “In God we Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, One).

My faith in my Higher Power needs to be rooted deeply and securely enough that no matter how bad it might seem right now – and it looks really dark and scary – that I trust that the future can be better.  My job is to take the sacred action that God endowed to Abraham in this week’s parashah:

“For I have singled him out, that he will teach his children and his family to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and righteous” (Genesis 18:19).

We are divided.  We need healing.  Nonetheless, may we stay true to this Jewish mission: Teaching our children and our family the ways of justice and righteousness!

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Joseph