November 17, 2005
Parshat Vayerah (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
"While all other sciences have advanced, government is at a standstill -- little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago." -- John Adams
If the art of government had improved, then war, disease and poverty inflicted by the tyranny and selfishness of man, as well as the corruption of leaders, would not claim so many lives each minute, each second, around the globe. Man's quest for a perfect form of government started at the dawn of civilization and is still far from conclusion.
The Bible describes the failure of monarchy, and history has proven that theocracy usually leads to fanaticism or hypocrisy. Even democracy boils down eventually to decisions made by individuals, and as long as it depends on the wisdom and discretion of one or several humans at the helm it can take disastrous turns.
A system of checks and balances can put democracy back on track, but we must admit that stumbling, falling, hitting the ground and getting up again to repeat the process is not the ideal form of walking.
In the words of historian Barbara Tuchman: "Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.... Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?"
In the early chapters of Genesis, the Torah denounces different forms of government. The anarchy of the generation of Noah started with a corrupt oligarchy, the elite group of Bene Ha'Elohim, or the Sons of the Judges. The attempt of the builders of the Tower of Babel to create a totalitarian society, with communism as its flag and "one language, one ideology" as its motto, resulted in the dispersion and diversification of mankind.
In this week's portion, we read about the destruction of Sodom, which came about not because of sodomy but rather because of its total abandonment of the weaker layers of society, as the prophet Ezekiel declares: "Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy" (16:49).
The model of Sodom was that of capitalism to the max. If you cannot make a living, don't turn to me for help; it's a free country, try harder.
In the midst of that political mayhem there appears our first patriarch, Abraham. He is plucked by God out of nowhere. He is not a king or a chieftain when he is addressed by God. Why was he chosen to be the forefather of Israel? What was special about him?
The answer is disclosed by God: I have chosen Abraham -- or better yet: I have made Myself known to him -- because I know that he will instruct his household members and his descendants in future generations to observe the path of God and to do justice and charity (18:19).
Abraham is chosen because he can prepare the ground for a utopian society, one in which every individual is raised with the understanding that the boundaries of law must be respected and justice must be pursued. At the same time, that charity, lovingkindness and understanding of other human beings are crucial to maintaining these very boundaries.
The path of God is remembering that all humans were created in God's image and therefore all have equal rights. The perfect government, therefore, starts with the individual governing himself.
A short while ago, two friends with the help of many bloggers, created katrinalist.net a powerful Web tool for locating missing Katrina victims. As Discover magazine reports, it was "the kind of data management effort that could have taken a year to execute if a corporation or a government agency had been in charge of it." The PeopleFinder group managed to pull it off in four days for zero dollars.
The activism of Bono and the philanthropy of Bill Gates are but two examples of what inspired and dedicated individuals can achieve despite the shortsightedness of governments. Theirs is a world where the responsibility of justice and lovingkindness lies first and foremost on the shoulders of the individual.
The goal still seems tantalizingly distant, but inspired by the eternal message of the Torah, we are allowed and obligated to dream of a perfect world. Translate the dream to action. Assume leadership of yourself first and then exercise it, combining justice and lovingkindness in order to help your family, your community, your neighborhood and eventually, the whole world. Imagine....
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.