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  • To Lead is to Serve

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

     Our parsha talks about monarchy: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the surrounding nations,” set over you a king whom the Lord your God chooses.” (Deut. 17:14-15). So it should be relatively easy to answer the question: From a Jewish perspective, is having a king a good thing or a bad thing? It turns out, however, to be almost unanswerable.

    On the one hand, the parsha does say, “set over you a king.” This is a positive command. Maimonides counts it among the 613. On the other hand, of no other command anywhere does it say that that it is to be acted on when the people say that they want to be “like all the surrounding nations.” The Torah doesn’t tell us to be like everyone else. The word kadosh, “holy”, means, roughly, to be set apart, singular, distinctive, unique. Jews are supposed to have the courage to be different, to be in but not entirely of the surrounding world.

    Matters are made no clearer when we turn to the famous episode in which the Israelites did actually ask for a king, in the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 8). Samuel is upset. He thinks the people are rejecting him. Not so, says God, the people are rejecting Me (1 Sam. 8:7). Yet God does not command Samuel to resist the request. To the contrary, He says, in effect, tell them what monarchy will cost, what the people stand to lose. Then, if they still want a king, give them a king.

    So the ambivalence remains. If having a king is a good thing, why does God say that it means that the people are rejecting Him? If it is a bad thing, why does God tell Samuel to give the people what they want even if it is not what God would wish them to want?

    Nor does the historical record resolve the issue. There were many bad kings in Jewish history. Of many, perhaps most, Tanakh says “He did evil in the eyes of God.” But then there were also good kings: David who united the nation, Solomon who built the Temple, Hezekiah and Josiah who led religious revivals. It would be easy to say that, on the whole, monarchy was a bad thing because there were more bad kings than good ones. But one could equally argue that without David and Solomon, Jewish history would never have risen to the heights.

    Even within individual lives, the picture is fraught with ambivalence. David was a military hero, a political genius and a religious poet without equal in history. But this is also the man who committed a grievous sin with another man’s wife. With Solomon the record is even more chequered. He was the man whose name was synonymous with wisdom, author of Song of Songs, Proverbs and Kohelet. At the same time he was the king who broke all three of the Torah’s caveats about monarchy, mentioned in this week’s parsha, namely he should not have too many wives, or too many horses, or too much money (Deut. 17:16-17). Solomon – as the Talmud says[1] – thought he could break all the rules and stay uncorrupted. Despite all his wisdom, he was wrong.

    Even stepping back and seeing matters on the basis of abstract principle, we have as close as Judaism comes to a contradiction. On the one hand, “We have no king but You,” as we say in Avinu Malkeinu.[2] On the other hand, the closing sentence of the book of Judges (21:25) reads: “In those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” In short: without monarchy, anarchy.

    So, in answer to the question: Is having a king a good thing or a bad one, the answer is an unequivocal yes-and-no. And as we would expect, the great commentators run the entire spectrum of interpretation. For Maimonides, having a king was a good thing and a positive command. For Ibn Ezra it was a permission, not an obligation. For Abarbanel it was a concession to human weakness. For Rabbenu Bachya, it was its own punishment. Why then is the Torah so ambivalent about this central element of its political programme?

    The simplest answer was given by the outsider who saw most clearly that the Hebrew Bible was the world’s first tutorial in freedom: Lord Acton. He is the man who wrote: “Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won … the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.”[3] But he is also the originator of the classic statement: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Almost without exception, history has been about what Hobbes described as “a general inclination of all mankind: a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death"[4]. Power is dangerous. It corrupts. It also diminishes. If I have power over you, then I stand as a limit to your freedom. I can force you to do what you don’t want to do. Or as the Athenians said to the Melians: The strong do what they want, and the weak suffer what they must.

    The Torah is a sustained exploration of the question: to what extent can a society be organised not on the basis of power? Individuals are different. Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Rembrandt needed no power to achieve creative genius. But can a society? We all have desires. Those desires conflict. Conflict eventually leads to violence. The result is the world before the flood, when God regretted that He had made man on earth. Hence there is a need for a central power to ensure the rule of law and the defence of the realm.

    Judaism is not an argument for powerlessness. The briefest glance at two thousand years of Jewish history in the Diaspora tells us that there is nothing dignified in powerlessness, and after the Holocaust it is unthinkable. Daily we should thank God, and all His helpers down here on earth, for the existence of the State of Israel and the restoration to the Jewish people of the power of self-defence, itself a necessary condition of the collective right to life.

    Instead, Judaism is an argument for the limitation, secularisation and transformation of power.

    Limitation: Israel’s kings were the only rulers in the ancient world without the power to legislate[5]. For us, the laws that matter come from God, not from human beings. To be sure, in Jewish law, kings may issue temporary regulations for the better ordering of society, but so may rabbis, courts, or local councils (the shiva tuvei ha-ir).

    Secularisation: in Judaism, kings were not high priests and high priests were not kings. Jews were the first people to create a “separation of powers,” a doctrine normally attributed to Montesquieu in the eighteenth century. When some of the Hasmonean rulers sought to combine the two offices, the Talmud records the objection of the sages: “Let the royal crown be sufficient for you; leave the priestly crown to the descendants of Aaron.”[6]

    Transformation: fundamental to Judaism is the idea of servant leadership. There is a wonderful statement of it in our parsha. The king must have his own sefer Torah, “and he shall read from it all the days of his life … not considering himself superior to his kinsfolk, or straying from the commandments to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:19-20). Humility is the essence of royalty, because to lead is to serve.

    Failure to remember this caused what, in retrospect, can be seen as the single most disastrous political decision in Jewish history. After the death of Solomon, the people came to Rehoboam, his son, asking him to lighten the load that Solomon’s projects had imposed on the people. The king asked his father’s advisers what he should do. They told him to accede to their request: “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favourable answer, they will always be your servants" (1 Kings 12:7). Note the threefold appearance of the word 'serve' in this verse. Rehoboam ignored their advice. The kingdom split and the nation never fully recovered.

    The radical nature of this transformation can be seen by recalling the two great architectural symbols of the world’s first empires: the Mesoptamians built ziggurats, the Egyptians built pyramids. Both are monumental statements in stone of a hierarchical society, broad at the base, narrow at the top. The people are there to support the leader. The great Jewish symbol, the menorah, inverts the triangle. It is broad at the top, narrow at the base. The leader is there to support the people.

    In contemporary terms, Jim Collins in his book From Good to Great[7] tells us on the basis of extensive research that the great organisations are those with what he calls ‘Level 5 leaders,’ people who are personally modest but fiercely ambitious for the team. They seek, not their own success, but the success of those they lead.

    This is counterintuitive. We think of leaders as people hungry for power. Many are. But power corrupts. That is why most political careers end in failure. Even Solomon’s wisdom could not save him from temptation.

    Hence the life-changing idea: To lead is to serve. The greater your success, the harder you have to work to remember that you are there to serve others; they are not there to serve you.

    Shabbat shalom.

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    [1] Sanhedrin 21b.
    [2] The source is Rabbi Akiva in Taanit 25b.
    [3] Lord Acton, Essays on the History of Liberty, Indianapolis, LibertyClassics 1985, 8.
    [4] Hobbes, The Leviathan, Book 1, Ch. 11.
    [5] See, e.g., Michael Walzer, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale University Press, 2012.
    [6] Kiddushin 66a.
    [7] James Collins, From Good to Great, Harper Business, 2001.


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  • The Baseless Hatred Mystery Revealed

    by Shmuel Katanov

     Our Chachamim z"l tell us that the First Bet Hamikdash was destroyed because of three sins: Avodah Zarah/Idolatry, Shefichat Damim/Murder, and Arayot/Adultery. The second Temple of only one sin - Sinat Chinam - Baseless Hatred.

    Each of the sins are bad in their own right, but it took three sins to bring down the First Temple and only one the Second. Why? Why only one, what is so destructive and bad about it?

    Let's dive into Sinat Chinam cause I believe the reasons for the destruction of the First Temple are pretty self explanatory.

    So what is Sinat Chinam? It is Baseless Hatred or simply Hate that is coming from a place of evil. It's a wish to see another's demise or failure and when you in that hating mode you observe and translate anything that person does to negative with no benefit of a doubt.

    When you hate you always pursue the harm of another. You speak of him in harmful way, you make up stories so you get more people on your side to believe the lies, so he can have enemies. You speak and spread lashon hara - an evil speech, because you want others to see him in a bad way. You may say things to his spouse, so the family will have no peace and eventually falls apart. You make up stories about him and his children, so it should effect their shidduchim/marriage prospects. You make sure his reputation is ruined in his community and places of business. You make sure your family and people around him show him a cold shoulder so he feels unwanted and unbelonged.

    All of this is done stealthily where few people involved in the community or many across many communities. In our times, all of the above can be accomplished with just few clicks of the computer or the phone.

    Because of this ugly behavior, of the few or the many, Hashem has destroyed the Second Temple. So if the Temple is destroyed and it may seem like nothing is at stake today, what do we have to lose this time around?

    Chachamim tell us, that when a new family is born, the chatan and kallah are on their way to build something enormously holy - their Own Bet Hamikdash, where each room of their house resembles the original Temple. The bedroom is like the Holy of Holies, the living room table is like a Mizbeach where we cater the guests and consume our earthly sacrifices. Kitchen is where it's all prepared to the strict laws of kashrut.

    Our houses and shules are small Batey haMikdashim. This is where Shechina rests, this is where the mitzvot are done and kedusha is kept.

    Hashem wants peace and unity between people in the community or between communities, where people help each other, happy for each other, where they see good in each other with no jealousy and hate towards each other. Where they want others to have better houses, cars, vacations, respect and accessories. This is what Hashem expects from his people.

    Second Temple was destroyed because of Hate, the most ugliest trait that consumes many communities and people no matter their religious backgrounds. The solution to it is Achavat Chinam - Baseless Love. Otherwise our small Batey haMikdashim are at stake.

    The Sages taught, "Any generation in which the Temple is not built, it is as if it had been destroyed in their times" (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1a).

    Our job is to change for the better, to do good to others, more of baseless love and no hate and animosity towards others - be it in their own community or outside of it, better ourselves in our servitude to Hashem and earn the merit to see Moshiach and the Third Beit Hamikdash rebuilt in our days. Amen.

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  • Band Of Brothers

    by Rabbi Avi Matmon

    Rabbi Yissachar Frand relates an article. Major Jered Spencer, United States Army, graduate of West Point, wrote an Op Ed article in the New York Times. In the military there is a concept called band of brothers, it refers to soldiers who are in the same unit who fight together, eat together, sleep together, laugh together, and cry together. The bond is so closely knit that they become willing to risk their lives for their fellow soldiers. Anyone who ever saw the old "Combat" or "Rat Patrol" series knows the cohesiveness and respect each one has for his fellow in the unit. It doesn't matter if one is in the Israeli, American, or whatever army unit in the world, the "band of brothers" concept is real. Spencer was in Iraq in 2003 and in another tour of duty in 2008, and he noticed a profound change in cohesion of his unit in those five years. These are some notes that he conveyed that the reader might find intriguing.

    "I had forty men in combat in Iraq. We practically lived and slept in our vehicles. We ate together; we experienced missions together. The only real contact we had with the outside world was an occasional letter or infrequent phone calls. At that time, cell phones have not really arrived. When I returned in 2008, by this time our living quarters were fully equipped with 24-hour internet service and we had purchased cell phones from the Iraqis. Facebook was taking off and changing social media. Soldiers spent hours and hours on the computer lab, posting to their Facebook wall and sending messages to their friends. Astonishingly, this new burst of modern technology had a terrible effect on the cohesion of the group. They would criticize each other more often. I saw them arguing on what decisions to make. We went from a band of brothers to a band of tweeters."

    The 'band of brothers' concept has been established since war began. It has been a full proof signature act of brotherhood that ever existed. The goal is to focus on comradery, humanity one for all and all for one. What happened? How can one get so unfocused? How can this group unravel? There seems to be doubt cast in the relationship with their fellow comrades-in-arms. The focus on bringing men together to perform kindness to each other is gone. The drive and focus for the goal of brotherly love has been diluted.

    It was perhaps the single greatest collective failure of leadership in the Torah. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralize the nation. "We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large ... We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are ... The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height ... We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them." (Num. 13: 27-33)

    This was nonsense, and they should have known it. They had left Egypt, the greatest empire of the ancient world, after a series of plagues that brought that great country to its knees. They had crossed the seemingly impenetrable barrier of the Red Sea. They had fought and defeated the Amalekites, a ferocious warrior nation. They had even sung, along with their fellow Israelites, a song at the Sea that contained the words: "The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away." (Ex. 15: 14-15)
    They should have known that the people of the land were afraid of them, not the other way around. How and why did they stray off the plan? They were riding high, steamrolling into Eretz Yisrael. The land of "milk and honey", here we come; this was the rallying cry, the focus throughout the exodus. How did they get off course? Furthermore, even more bizarre, this week's parsha tell an additional story of the Mapilim. (14:44) After the sin of the spies, G-d decreed that the generation would die in the desert and they won't enter Eretz Yisrael. A group of people known as the Mapilim decided they would go to Israel regardless.

    Rashi explains {Mapilim} implies force. These people made themselves strong and stubborn and they decided to go to the land with or without permission from G-d. Essentially, they were sinning in the reverse way. At first, when G-d told them to go, the Jews were apprehensive and scared, then when G-d took away the option, now, all of a sudden, they have the strong urge. Moshe said, "Why are you going against G-d decree; it will not succeed. Do not go up because G-d is not in your midst, lest you will be smitten before your enemies..."

    But they tried to go to the Holy land anyway. The verse tells us (14:45) "Amalek and Cana'an who live on the mountains went down and smote them." These verses are surprising. The previous day, everyone was afraid to go to the land, on the next day they were courageous and fearless. How can we explain this? How did they change their stance so quickly?

    The Chasam Sofer says the Mapilim were misguided tzadikim. Their focus was de-focused. He proves it from a Gemara in Shabbat. (96-97) How did Tzelafchad die? Reb Yehuda ben Beisera said he was one of the Mapilim and had good intentions. They wanted to repent and couldn't bear that they lost the opportunity to go to Israel. Interestingly, now we attach a prequel to the story of his daughters. Tzelafchad's daughter wanted to claim the right of inheritance of their father in the land of Israel. (Tzelafchad had no sons to inherit him.)

    In order to understand our problem, I say our problem for it haunts each one of us today, we have to go to the source. The nachash-snake was able to seduce Eve into eating from the fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil. By eating from this tree, Adam and Eve brought the yetzer hara-Satan into themselves. This means that they now constituted of a combination of the good that emanated from their pure soul, and the evil that came from the yetzer hara-Satan.

    The result of this was that they were now subject to the main weapon of the yetzer hara; confusion and with this confusion he will always attempt to un-focus the focus. When a person knows that something is clearly wrong, he will not do it. The yetzer hara's tactic is to convince him that this sin is actually not a sin at all, in fact it is the correct thing to do. Furthermore, he will convince him that his good deed was not as good after all.

    The Netivot Shalom (the Slonimer Rebbe) writes the following idea in his book. Every night we say in the Aravit prayer: "Remove the Satan from in front of us and from behind us". It is obvious to all of us what the purpose of the "Satan in front of us" is. Many times, we are on the way to do something positive and we find it becomes very difficult to accomplish the task. This is due to the "Satan in front of us" who tries to prevent us from doing mitzvot. In the most famous act of trust and love towards the Master of the Universe, the Sages tell us that the Satan wanted to get in the way of Avraham Avinu and not let him accomplish the Akedah [binding] of Yitzchak.

    But what is the significance of the prayer to remove the "Satan from behind us"? How can there be a "Satan behind us" if the mitzvah has already been completed? The Netivot Shalom explains that sometimes after we have already completed a mitzvah, or passed a nisayon [spiritual challenge] things don't work out the way we thought they would and we begin to "second guess" our righteous acts. We wonder whether or not we did the right thing. The Satan never gives up. He may lose battle after battle, but he does not give up the war so easily.

    What does the person think? What do the people around him think? This is the idea of "Remove Satan from behind us." After the good deed is done, the Satan does not want you to be at peace with it. Even if the person was not contemplating going back to where he came from spiritually, nonetheless, it is no longer the same. It is with a regret and remorse that one decided to do the right thing and become religious.
    The Sages tell us that a person only sins when a 'spirit of insanity' [ruach shtut] overtakes him- this means that he loses touch with his sense of right and wrong and therefore does the wrong thing, whilst convincing himself that it is actually the right thing to do.

    The Ben Ish Chai and Maskil leDavid both point out that the prayers which we recite stating "please prevent us from sinning" seem to contradict a well-known axiom, that 'everything is in the hands of heaven except for fear of heaven.' This means that the one thing that is completely in the control of man is the ability to choose between right and wrong. If we pray for things beyond our control, such as health and livelihood, it can be highly beneficial because those things are totally dependent on Divine Providence. However, praying to not sin would seem to have no benefit because God does not determine whether we sin - that is completely in our hands.

    The Ben Ish Chai explains that there are two different ways by which a person can come to commit a sin. One is where he has total clarity that a certain act is forbidden but he nonetheless decides to do it with a clear recognition that he is sinning. The second is where his yetzer hara (evil inclination) clouds his judgment and persuades him that this act is permissible; enabling him to rationalize that he is not sinning at all.

    The principle that 'fear of heaven is completely in our own hands' only applies to the first form of sinning, where a person is absolutely clear that acting in such a way constitutes a sin. In this area there is no benefit for a person to pray for God to stop him committing this sin; it is purely in his own hands and God cannot, so-to-speak, change his free will decision.

    However, this is not the case with regard to the second form of challenge where a person may genuinely believe that he is not sinning. The main factor that causes him to sin in such a case is lack of clarity as to the correct course of action. This is not completely within one's free will. When a person wants to do the right thing, but is at risk of being seduced by his yetzer hara, he can turn to God to help him not be clouded by its rationalizations. Therefore, in this situation it is beneficial to pray to God.

    We don't have to be in the army to cry over the loss of the "band of brothers". We can cry for it for it has hit us much closer "band of family". I once played for the reader a music video by the Maccabeats where the whole family was sitting around the dinner table and each one had a laptop in front of them. No one said a peep to their family members. Here, the Satan won; he used his primary weapon confusion. The primary goal was to focus on the family, to take advantage of the time with parents, children, and siblings. Satan convinced the individuals of the family that conversing at the table and saying I love you is secondary. The family missed an important moment in life and that is to enjoy and learn from each other. Satan altered the goals of life and threw clarity for a spin. Perhaps, it is similar to the spies an Mapilim whereas a burst of confusion is thrusted upon the situation, the primary focus derailed.

    Rabbi Asher Hurzberg relates a famous story of a king who sends his diplomat to another country but instructs him to not remove his shirt when he meets with their king and his advisers. When he got back, the king asked him how the trip went. He replied that it was good and the King would be happy. When he arrived there, the advisers looked at him from top to bottom and asked, "Are you a hunchback?" He responded "No." They persisted, ending up wagering $100,000 that he was. The diplomat thought "Boy, this is easy money." So he took off his shirt and showed them he wasn't a hunchback. The king's face turned red. "You fool I told you not to bet. I bet them $1,000,000 you would not take off your shirt."

    Let us stay focused on our primary goals and not get distracted by what seems enticing or for that matter reluctance due to fear for this is the weapon of the Satan. Let the band of brothers live on.

    Rabbi Avi Matmon

    This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbis Yissachar Frand, Elimelech Bidderman , Lord Jonothon Sacks, Asher Hurzberg, Yossi Bilus, Yonatan Gefen


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