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Israel's Presidential Scandal

December 31, 2010 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Israel has not forgotten the biblical message that even the mighty are culpable for their crimes.

The shocking headlines seem to prove that Herzl was more correct than the prophet Isaiah.

The founder of political Zionism suggested that the Jewish people won't really be a nation among nations until it has its quota of thieves and prostitutes. To be “normal,” he implied, meant that we needed to be susceptible to all the foibles and failings of the rest of mankind.

The prophet Isaiah had a different vision for a national homeland. The mission of the Jews that warranted their miraculous survival throughout the ages was to be “a light unto the nations,” an example to the entire world of the blessings inherent in a commitment to the moral values of Sinai.

The conviction of the past president of the state of Israel vividly demonstrates how far we still are from fulfillment of the spiritual dream that inspired us to bring about an alternative to life in the Diaspora. What kept the hope of return from exile alive for almost two millennia was not simply a small parcel of land in the Middle East that we could call home. That could just as well have been accomplished by accepting Uganda as national homeland.

What we prayed for was not a homeland but a holy land.

But there's another aspect of this affair that perhaps lends Isaiah's vision far greater credence than Hertz’s prediction. Because what should be most noteworthy about this story is not what it exposes about the alleged sins of an Israeli politician but the way in which biblical morality and ethics still manage to determine a specifically Jewish response.

Surely we ought not to be shocked by the news that people sin. We know that human beings often fail to live up to their divine potential. Yom Kippur is the annual reminder of our common propensity to fall victim to temptation, as well as our need to seek forgiveness from God for our shortcomings.

The Torah acknowledges transgressions as part of the human condition. Only angels are exempt from sin - simply because they are preprogrammed to do only good and lack the gift of free will that would allow them to choose to do evil. That is why the Talmud tells us human beings are on a higher level than angels. Righteousness achieved after internal struggle is what deserves divine respect and reward and it is only mankind who must make that effort.

But the Torah also recognizes that the challenge to moral behavior is far greater for those in a position of power. Lord Acton was right when he noted that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That's why the Bible took such great pains to place special limitations on those who would be tempted to ignore moral precepts in light of their unique status.

It was the King and only the King who was commanded to carry with him a Torah scroll “all the days of his life.” For the average Jew it might be sufficient to listen to a public reading of the law three times a week. The King however had to be reminded every waking moment of the day that in spite of his might he too was still subservient to the King of Kings in the heavens above.

The three times daily Jewish prayer, the Silent Devotion, (the Shmone Esrei), demands that we bow as a sign of submission in four of the blessings of the 18. But here again the law differs; kings must bow 18 times, every single time they mention God's name. Not enough for them the tokens of modesty prescribed for the average Jew. Their power represents a severe temptation to view themselves as above God's law, not bound by the ethical norms imposed by a higher being on human behavior. What a powerful message incorporated into Jewish law: the King must regularly bow to God more often than the commoner because he so much more than anyone else requires this lesson of humility.

It was in this spirit that the Bible records the incredible confrontation between the Prophet Nathan and King David. Appalled by King David's role in bringing about the death of Uriah so that he could legally marry Bathsheba, Nathan forcefully told the King by way of a parable that David was no better than a murderer.

And this was the Bible's way of teaching us the power of morality over might, the spirit over the sword, the sacred over the profane. Even King David had to acknowledge that he sinned and that his position as ruler was insufficient to save him from divine punishment.

The idea that no one is above the law is perhaps one of the most profound insights of Judaism. If anything, those with greater status are meant to be judged even more stringently. The biblical commentators point out that the sin of Moses, identified in the Torah as not following God's exact directions to speak to the rock instead of striking it in order to make it flow with water, appears to be but a minor infraction. Indeed, they agree that might very well be so for an average person. But this was Moses - and noblesse oblige. Precisely because he was Moses he was judged by a higher standard. His role as leader, rather than granting him special immunity, is what really made him guilty.

And so we come back to modern-day Israel. How horrible, on the one hand, to witness the fall from grace on the part of someone so high in government.

But on the other hand what an amazing demonstration of Jewish uniqueness in bringing to justice even the mighty and the politically powerful. The biblical precedent of Nathan’s ethical voice trumping the power of the well-connected King is something very rarely seen in the contemporary world at large.

When a King or a President is brought low it serves as vivid confirmation of the power of law, if adhered to as biblically required, to fulfill the democratic ideal that indeed “all men are created equal.” Better put, it is not only “all men” but women too who have been shown that their rights to be free of harassment and sexual violence will be strictly protected.

The sad headlines have at the same time they have made clear that modern-day Israel has not forgotten the biblical message that even the mighty are culpable.

And that message may very well be a fulfillment, at least in some measure, of the injunction of Isaiah to be “a light unto the nations.”


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