Monday, March 16, 2015

What would Moses do? Vote!

There's just something about late winter in Israel that feels like elections. Every single national contest we've held in this country in this century has been between mid-Shevat and late Adar (February-March). Maybe it's the realization that we're not getting any more snow days, so we need another reason for a day off.

[Today's countdown post is right here > ]

But another 21st-century Israeli electoral trend is much more troubling: citizens just aren't that into it. Consider the turnout for the last five elections, percentage-wise: 62.3, 67.8, 63.6, 64.7, 67.8. Compare that to the last five elections of the 20th century: 78.7, 79.3, 77.4, 79.7, 78.8. When once nearly four in five voted, now we're not even averaging two out of three.

For a bit of insight, let's turn to the man whose birthday and yahrtzeit fall smack in the middle of this season: Moses. What was Moses' deathbed wish? To cross over the Jordan and enter the Land of Israel. But why?
R. Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus said Moses, "Many mitzvot were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me."
That's what we find in the Talmud (Sota 14a), but it is still pretty vague. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 816) narrows it down further: "This is the appointment of the king." Moses wasn't looking forward to the first fruits or tithes or sabbatical or jubilee: he was anticipating "the appointment of the king"--not the coronation, not the reign, but the appointment.

This is shocking when we consider how low an opinion some of Moses' successors had of the institution of the monarchy, Samuel first and foremost. "You have said to me: 'No, a king shall reign over us,' but Lord your God is your king!" (I Sam. 12:12). We might expect the man who concluded the Song of the Sea with "Lord shall reign forevermore" (Exod. 15:18) to object to a human king. But on the contrary, Moses' most profound wish is to witness the appointment of a king in Israel--to fulfill that mitzva.

But perhaps this is a one-time command? No, it appears in the lists of 613 commandments, e.g. #497 in the 13th-century Sefer HaChinnukh.
Rather, the significance of the commandment is not limited to the appointing of a new king, it encompasses everything we have mentioned: the appointing of a new king – if there shall be a reason why one shall be needed – and also the establishing of the reign in the hands of the heir, and the constitution of his authority over us; and in all respects, we should behave toward him as we have been commanded, and as we do following the known procedure and command, which truly does apply forever.
But maybe the command is just for important people like Moses? Actually, the king is supposed to be appointed by 70 members of the Sanhedrin, and appointing them is another mitzva (#491):
Now this is one of the commandments which is incumbent upon the entire community in each and every place, and as explained in Tractate Sanhedrin (2b), a community that has the ability to establish among them a council but does not set one, has abrogated a positive command, and their punishment is very great for this commandment is a strong pillar... For each and every congregation in all places should select some of the good among them, people that will have power over all of them to compel by whatever means necessary... and to remove from amongst their midst disgraceful matters and all of that ilk. In regard to those appointed people it is also fitting that they should straighten their way and make their actions fit and have no cause for public shame... Furthermore, they should try continually to do what is beneficial for their colleagues that are dependent upon them to teach them the true way and to establish peace with all their energies among the congregation. They should abandon, leave, and forget from their hearts all of their physical delights; upon this they shall put their attention and upon this shall be the majority of their thoughts and activities, thereby fulfilling the verse (Dan. 12:3) "And those of keen intellect will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars, forevermore."
This is what Moses wanted to do more than anything: to leave behind a political structure that would last, a society that could prosper for generations to come. He could not have been naive about the prospect: he himself, God's direct appointee, had to deal with numerous revolts and rebellions during his four decades. Moreover, he spent his youth in Pharaoh's palace, seeing the cutthroat nature of politics up close. But he wanted his last act to be doing his civic duty.
So yes, Israeli politics are imperfect. But as someone who's lived and worked in the US, Canada and Israel, I can tell you that having a vote that actually counts and a real choice among parties is a blessing. Sure, you may not find that transgender haredi Ethiopian faction fighting to make canola oil kosher for Passover for everyone, but choose the next best thing. Do it for Moses/ Moishe/ Musa/ Mosheh. Because a vote is a terrible thing to waste.

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