Who Would God Vote For?

Alex Braver
January 2, 2012
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Well, at first the Tanach seems to think that God would vote for nobody…or for God’s self.  After entering the Land, things don’t really go as planned—there is chaos and disorder, idolatry and wickedness—not the idyllic picture of a land flowing with milk and honey that the people expected when wandering the desert.  God chose Samuel as a prophet to help restore some sense of order, and yet the people complained about Samuel and his sons, rejected the idea of prophetic and priestly rule and instead demanded a king.

ו וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר, בְּעֵינֵי שְׁמוּאֵל, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמְרוּ, תְּנָה-לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵנוּ; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל שְׁמוּאֵל, אֶל-יְהוָה.  {פ} 6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said: ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל, שְׁמַע בְּקוֹל הָעָם, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ:  כִּי לֹא אֹתְךָ מָאָסוּ, כִּי-אֹתִי מָאֲסוּ מִמְּלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם. 7 And the LORD said unto Samuel: Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.
ח כְּכָל-הַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ, מִיּוֹם הַעֲלֹתִי אוֹתָם מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, וַיַּעַזְבֻנִי, וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–כֵּן הֵמָּה עֹשִׂים, גַּם-לָךְ. 8 According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, in that they have forsaken Me, and served other gods, they also do to you.(1 Samuel 8:6)

One model of thinking about Jews and government, therefore, might be rejectionist—the ideal Jew should be focused on their spiritual life, on remembering God’s beneficence, and realizing that government in and of itself is only a concession to our human condition, our inability to get along peaceably and morally on our own without a strong hand guiding us.  By desiring an active role in government, are we as Jews rejecting the role of God in our lives??

Yet so much of our tradition guides us to be actively involved in the affairs of the world, in improving our societies and pursuing justice.  If this is so, there must be a way for us to imagine how we might choose leaders and be involved in government, in a way that would be in accordance with the will of God.  While we may look forward to a distant day in the messianic future where we have no need of government or kings, what should we do while we still exist within historical time, when human flaws and failings are ever so evident, and when we require governments to maintain order?

ו וַיְהִי בְּבוֹאָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-אֱלִיאָב; וַיֹּאמֶר, אַךְ נֶגֶד יְהוָה מְשִׁיחוֹ.  {ס} 6 And it came to pass, when they were come, that he beheld Eliab, and said: ‘Surely the LORD’S anointed is before Him.’ {S}
ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל, אַל-תַּבֵּט אֶל-מַרְאֵהוּ וְאֶל-גְּבֹהַּ קוֹמָתוֹ–כִּי מְאַסְתִּיהוּ:  כִּי לֹא, אֲשֶׁר יִרְאֶה הָאָדָם–כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם, וַיהוָה יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב. 7 But the LORD said unto Samuel: ‘Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him; for it is not as man sees: for man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.’ (1 Samuel 16:6-7)

Samuel is searching out a new leader here to replace Saul, who has failed to carry out God’s will.  God sees Eliab, and based solely on a first visual impression, decides that he is fit to be the new King.  Yet God replies that appearances can be deceiving—that human beings can easily be fooled, but God sees into the inner life of a potential leader.

This becomes even more poignant when David is selected as the new leader to replace Saul—even though he is described as:

אַדְמוֹנִי, עִם-יְפֵה עֵינַיִם וְטוֹב רֹאִי ruddy, and withal of beautiful eyes, and goodly to look upon.  (1 Samuel 16:12)

…we as readers know that he was not selected for his good looks, but for his inner character.

So much of the current discourse in our politics, especially surrounding the relentless stream of Republican presidential debates, has been around impressions.  Who seems the most presidential?  Who made a gaffe that will hurt their image?  Which political positions can a candidate adopt to best encourage their political supporters?  Oftentimes I have heard pundits talk at length about how a particular statement made by a candidate will affect their polling, and very little about whether or not it is actually true!

I think we learn from the story of David’s election two lessons—first, that even the best human beings are easily deceived by the appearances of their leaders, and second, that our goal as politically involved Jews should be to look past outward appearances and judge the true character of a leader.  This might be even harder for us when assessing Presidential candidates than it was for Samuel assessing potential kings, given the constant stream of advertising and superficial analysis on TV and the internet—yet it is comforting to know that this is not a new problem, unique to our time.

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