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Op-Ed: Election Day: Following the Leader?

On the eve of Israel’s elections, the writer ponders the influence of leaders on the public- and vice versa.
Published: Monday, January 21, 2013 12:22 AM



This Tuesday is Election Day in Israel. Schools and workplaces are closed. Some have called it ‘a holiday for democracy’. The overwhelming feeling is the call to all Israel’s citizens to ‘go out and vote’, no matter which political party they may support.

I was thinking about the Hebrew word for ‘elections’, ‘bechirot’, which comes from the root word ‘li’vchor’, ‘to choose’. Interestingly enough, the word appears at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach. “The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” (Exodus 17:9).

In Hebrew, Moses commands Joshua, ‘B’char lanu’ (choose for us). “B’char” in Hebrew is the command form of the word we use for elections, ‘bechirot’.

But the similarity between Moses’ command to Joshua to ‘choose for us men’ and our modern day elections are quite different. Moses orders Joshua to ‘choose for us men’ to go fight Amalek. He charges Joshua with drafting soldiers for an army. This Tuesday’s election in Israel, although the issue of who should be drafted (or not drafted) into the Israeli army is one of the core issues of some of the parties, is a democratic election where citizens will choose men - and women (well, according to parties, anyway) to represent them in government. Our elections are not a military draft at all, although, in Israel, military issues play a huge role in political parties’ ideologies.

Rashi explains the expression, "choose for us men” as referring to people with various kinds of attributes – strength, God fearing, those who could repel magic (because the Amalekites were well versed in sorcery), etc. Those might be good attributes for the representatives we Israelis vote for on Tuesday: strong, God fearing – and not into ‘magic’ either.

But if one reads on in the biblical narrative of the war with Amalek, the story gets quite interesting. “So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. When Moses' hands grew heavy, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat down on it. Then Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other so that his hands remained steady until the sun went down. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:10-13)

The text seems to say that when Moses’ hands were raised (in prayer) the Israelites were victorious against Amalek and that when his hands were down thy suffered a loss. If one turns to Rashi for an explanation, he refers us to the Mishnah in Tractrate Rosh Hashana. The Mishna asks "Is it possible that the hands of Moses could make or break war? Rather”, the Mishna states, “when the Jewish People raised their eyes toward heaven they won and when they didn't then they lost."
 

The Sfat Emet (as cited in Maayna Shel Torah) says that it sounds like there's a connection between Moses’ hands being up in prayer and the people looking to God. If that was the case (that Moses raised hands caused them to win the war) why then would he ever lower his hands? It occurred to me that this is the same Moses who would subsequently stay up on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights without food or drink, certainly he could keep his hands held up in prayer for the duration of this one battle without getting tired.

But the Sfat Emet reads the Mishnah diffently, to mean that when they, the Israelites, looked to Heaven, Moses’ hands got strength, and when they didn't, then Moses’ hands weakened. It wasn’t the people who were strengthened by their spiritual leader, it was Moses’ hands that were empowered by the people’s positive thoughts.)

The Sfat Emet's approach is strikingly powerful. He's saying that the leader needs to get strength from the people and then he feeds that strength back to the people. But if the leader's not getting support from the people then it becomes harder, perhaps impossible, to keep his strength up, to keep giving. Thus Moses could only lift up his hands to strengthen them if they were looking to God and inspiring him. It seems to me that this fits with why Moses’ hands were lifted by other leaders (Aaron and Hur). He needed someone that was "into it" to help give him support.

To illustrate this I’d like to share a story I once heard. There was once a community whose rabbi took an inordinate amount of time to say the silent amidah prayer. The entire congregation had long since finished their silent prayers but they’d be forced to wait for the rabbi to finish his long prayer before they could continue with the service.

A couple of worshippers hit upon a great idea. Since they could not chat with each other inside the synagogue (that would be disrespectful), as soon as they’d finished their silent prayers they’d quietly step outside the sanctuary and ‘schmooze’ a little. They safely figured that they’d have several long minutes to chat outside until the rabbi finally finished his prayer and they’d have to return for the remainder of the service.

The first day it worked like a charm. A couple of worshippers went outside the sanctuary and chatted freely for several minutes until the rabbi completed his prayers and it was time to return. The next day more congregants saw what was happening and they too silently sneaked out to talk. By the third day, all the congregants were outside chatting happily, confident that the rabbi would be engaged in his customarily long silent prayer inside.

Only minutes after they had gone outside, the rabbi appeared and called them all to return. Surprised and embarrassed, the congregation returned to the sanctuary for the continuation of the prayers.

After the services, one of the congregants approached the rabbi. “Rabbi, I am sorry we all walked out to talk, but we figured that you usually take quite a long time to say the silent prayer. What happened today that you finished so quickly?”

“It’s like this,” explained the rabbi. “When I say the silent prayer, I first pray for my family and myself. This takes but a few minutes. Next I pray for the entire congregation and to do that right, it takes a while. Each day, I pray hard and long for my congregation because I feel their presence with me and it gives me the strength to pray for each of them and their families. Today, something was amiss; I simply couldn’t get the words out. I turned around and saw that I was all alone, nobody was here with me. So, I simply said my short prayer and that was that.”

Needless to say the congregation never left the sanctuary during the rabbi’s silent prayer again.

In Israel we are going to the polls for elections. Instead of complaining that our leaders (local, political, religious, communal, etc.) are not doing enough for us, perhaps we should ask ourselves what we are doing to inspire them. Without the public backing the leader, the leader is helpless.

On Israel’s election day, instead of complaining, maybe we should think about what the late US President John F. Kennedy might have said: “Ask not what your leaders can do for you – ask what you can do for your leaders."