The Will of the People

Throughout our long history, the Jewish people have lived under almost every system of government imaginable. When we left Egypt, we were a band of twelve tribes, governed by a charismatic leader, Moses, who took his orders directly from God. When we entered the land of Israel, we were ruled by prophetic judges who led us through conflicts with neighboring tribes. We then transitioned to a monarchy, whose most famous kings were David and Solomon. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and forced out its Jewish inhabitants, we made our homes in every land across the globe. In exile, we lived under kings and dictators; in theocracies, democracies, and republics; under socialism and communism. And since 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, we have formed a new type of self-governance and created a Jewish Democracy in the Holy Land.

But even among radically different systems of government, Jewish tradition has always taught that the will of the people is paramount. Listening to and accounting for the desires of the populace has always been an important value when it comes to Jewish understanding of politics.

In the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, there are countless examples of the importance of the will of the people. Even as a rag-tag group of wanderers in the desert, the Israelites make a number of demands of Moses, Aaron, and God: “In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community complained bitterly to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.’ And the Eternal said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion’” (Exodus 16:2-4). The people bring their grievances to their leaders, who in turn heed and fulfill their desires.

When the Israelites are settled in the Land of Israel, they are ruled by a series of prophetic judges. But eventually, they demand to be governed by a monarch who will lead them “just like all other nations.” Though both the prophet Samuel, as well as God, are disappointed by the people’s choice, God says: “Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you” (I Samuel, 8:5, 9). Even though God is upset by the outcome, God recognizes the importance of the political will of the community.

In exile, bereft of their homeland and their own sovereign government, the Jewish people are instructed to be politically aware and involved. The prophet Jeremiah teaches: “seek the welfare of the city to which [you have been exiled] and pray to God on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Wherever the Jews may live, they are commanded to make their voices heard to preserve the wellbeing of their adopted homeland.

Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, the Rabbis of the Talmud teach that “One may only appoint a leader over a community if that person consults with the community and they agree to the appointment.” They use the example of Betzalel, the chief artisan appointed by God to design the Mishkan, or “Tabernacle,” which would serve as God’s portable dwelling place in the desert. The Rabbis outline the following interaction between God and Moses: “The Eternal said to Moses: ‘Moses, is Betzalel a suitable leader in your eyes?’ Moses said to God: ‘Master of the universe, if he is a suitable appointment in Your eyes, then all the more so in my eyes.’” But that wasn’t good enough for God. “The Holy One, Blessed be God, said to Moses: ‘Nevertheless, go and tell Israel and ask their opinion.’ Moses went and said to Israel: Is Bezalel suitable in your eyes?” (Berakhot 55a). Even though God appointed this leader, the Rabbis teach that God still valued the opinion of the Israelites.

The day before the election, a JCP Middle Schooler put it best: “If we don’t get the results tomorrow night, it’s going to be a major cliffhanger.” It feels that the whole nation is experiencing that cliffhanger, all of us holding our collective breath. No matter an individual’s political leanings, this waiting period is hard on us all. But Jewish tradition teaches, and our democracy demands, that the voice of the people be heard, and that all the votes be counted.

In the midst of this tumultuous week, I hope you will join me tonight at 6 pm on the Zoom link here (Meeting ID: 893 4555 7892; Password: JCP) for Shabbat services. Cantor Galeet Dardashti, our Musician in Residence, will join us, leading us in song and reflection. There’s nothing like gathering as a community, even virtually, during a moment like this, and I hope to see you there.