Saturday, November 22, 2008

What Torah Expects of Leaders and Citizens

When I created this blog, I promised more Torah than politics, but the election kind of got in the way. So now that the dust is beginning to settle, I expected to find something in Torah or our liturgy or some other issue of Jewish interest to chew on. But guess what? I looked in one and still found the other.

While the Torah reading of Dina is still 3 weeks away, I've been asked to chant it at my synagogue, so I started preparing this afternoon. After all the times I've read it and chanted it and taught it, I found something new there today that deserves noting.

To summarize: Jacob's daughter Dina wants to take a stroll in the town where her family has just settled, to see what's going on. The prince of the town, son of the ruler and apparently the real power in that family, sees her, "takes her and humbles her." Presumably, he rapes her. He takes her to his home and goes to her family with his father to demand her hand in marriage. Enraged that their sister has been defiled, the brothers plan their revenge. They say that their sister will not be given in marriage to anyone uncircumcised. Further, if the prince and his father want their families to intermarry, all the men of the town will have to be circumcised as well. Fine, say the men of the town. (And privately, the prince and his father make the circumcision attractive because it will be the way they will acquire the wealth Jacob and his sons have brought to town.)

The men are circumcised, and when they are weakened, Dina's brothers Shimon and Levi attack the town, killing all the men. They find their sister and take her home. Not a pretty story.

But here was the aha moment. Why did Shimon and Levi kill all the men in the town? Why not just exact their revenge on the rapist? The sons of Jacob despoiled the city because they had defiled their sister. (Gen. 34:27)

While it might be said that this is a desert style of vengeance - attack an entire city for the sin of one of its citizens - I think there's a much more profound lesson to be learned. In parashat Shoftim (in particular, Deuteronomy 21), we learn that if a corpse is found in a field between two cities, the elders of both cities must be brought to the field and attest to the fact that neither is responsible for the person's death. This is an important lesson about the nature of society and the role of leadership. It isn't necessary for the elders to ever have actually seen the individual - only to attest that their society was not one that would have let a stranger pass through without feeding and sheltering him. The elders take public responsibility for their cities. In the story of Dina, on the other hand, the people of the city seem to be held responsible for the actions of their prince.

Here's the lesson, then. Neither citizenry nor leadership can pass the buck and say they are not responsible for a failure of government. If leadership leads, really leads, the society will be such that the most vulnerable will be safe. If this society does not function so that all are safe, it is the leadership that is at fault, whether they ever lay eyes on the homeless or the hungry (although, if they never see the vulnerable, how can they say they are fit to lead?).

On the other hand, if the citizens of a city or a state or a country allow their leaders to be lazy or careless or corrupt, they will also be held accountable. Because a citizenry gets the leadership it deserves.

Government is thus a partnership, and sometimes we forget that. The people need to know its leaders are trustworthy and honest. The leadership needs to know its people will share in their vision. If leadership envisions a holy society and the people rebel, it's not the leaders who are at fault. But if the people demand a holy society and the leadership resists, the people have a responsibility to change leadership.

Who says there's no political wisdom in Torah?

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