Friday, January 11, 2008


A marvelous young man in Jerusalem is fighting for his life against a malicious cancer. His name is Elimelech Dovid ben Chaya Bayla. I would like to dedicate this week’s Table Talk to his speedy convalescence. To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

Last week I promised to write something about Jewish wisdom on choosing a leader.

But first, what do you and those at your dinner table think? On each of these alternatives, choose the one that you think is most important:

1. [A] Wise in all major matters of state v. [B] Relies on wisdom of advisors
2. [A] Upholds the letter of the law v. [B] Upholds the spirit of the law
3. [A] Doesn’t make serious mistakes v. [B] Admits mistakes and apologizes
4. [A] Clean background v. [B] Proverbial skeleton in the closet
5. [A] Commands respect and wields authority v. [B] Walks humbly
6. [A] Multicultural v. [B] Patriotic

OK, don’t peek below until you’ve made your choices...

Now, I’m not claiming there are right or wrong answers, but it seems to me that the weight of Jewish thought would say as follows:

1. B – When King David faced an unemployment problem, he consulted with his advisors on what to do. (He had the advantage of having Nathan, a card-carrying prophet, among them.)
2. A and B. The leader has to be extra diligent in upholding the law in all aspects. Tradition suggests that he or she should possibly keep a copy of the Constitution on hand at all times just as a reminder that not even the King (or President) is above the law.
3. B – no question about this – everyone makes mistakes. If we expect our leaders to be perfect, we are guaranteed to have scandals and cover-ups. If, on the other hand, we let our leaders know that we can live with their errors as long as they own up to them, then we might have both more honesty in government and better role models for us and our children.
4. The surprising answer here is B. now, the Talmud states this specifically about a mayor, but I think it could also apply to a head of state. The idea is that if your leader has something ignoble in his or her background, they are less likely to become haughty.
5. However, the avoidance of pride doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t uphold the great dignity of the office. A head of state, if not lower leaders, must command respect and know how to wield authority. Tradition is highly critical of King Saul for ignoring someone who brashly insulted him.
6. I think this one depends on which leader we’re talking about. On the one hand, the individual Head of State, as the face of the country, must be quite patriotic. On the other hand, he or she must be worldly. The Midrash claims that the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were polyglots as a rule. Other leaders, too, including legislators and judges, serve the people better if they a multilingual.

Multiculturalism is undoubtedly an asset in any time in history. In that spirit, here is one of the most intriguing multi-cultural videos I’ve seen, Fiddler on the Roof in Japanese.

Shabbat Shalom

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