An Elul Reflection

Ladies and gentlemen, we have hit the jackpot.  Whichever political party you love or hate – life here in the US is pretty amazing. There is economic bounty, political freedom and only four years until you get to vote your least favorite politician out of office. It is hard to think of the time and place we would rather be than 21st Century America.

Looking Backward

The problem is that Judaism is backwards looking. Every week, we utter the wish that G-d will bring us back “Y’mey Kedem” – the days of old. On a daily basis, we pray for the sprouting of Davidic rule when we will return to a theocratic monarchy. Hmmnnn, let’s try selling that idea in the 2020 election.

Do we really want to go back to Davidic rule and monarchy?  Plenty of evil came about in the world as a result of hereditary monarchy. How can we Daven for a return to the days of old?

Is Truth Self-Evident?

We are used to the idea that things change and progress, and that the change is a good thing. Yet, change is not always so great. There are plenty of problems in our wonderful free democracy, whether widespread loneliness or the proliferation of mass murder.

When Thomas Jefferson first wrote the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable that all men are created equal.” Sound a little strange?

Well, Benjamin Franklin suggested a fateful edit of that phrase: instead of “sacred and undeniable”, he suggested, “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”  While Jefferson’s original language was of a religious bent, Benjamin Franklin took a rational approach. In this edit, Franklin suggested that the foundational concepts of the US were based on human reason, not sacred belief.

Still, perhaps Jefferson was on to something with his first draft.  How much is really self-evident? When we look at American culture, we find that matters of moral bedrock can be washed away in a generation or less. What was self-evident in American society a decade or two ago, is morally reprehensible today.

There are so many eternal truths in the Torah. But these truths may be more “sacred” than “self-evident.” There are plenty of times that sophisticated societies reject important moral postulates. Democracy is a very good system, but any intelligent person can see an array of societal ills that may arise within a Democracy.

What do we Jews say? What is our solution to society’s ills? Get rid of Democracy and have a hereditary monarchy? Can we honestly relate to a desire to go back the day of old?

The Jewish King

The Torah presents the Mitzvah to appoint the king in a rather odd way. The Torah remarks that when we go to the land of Israel, we will say, “let us appoint a King like all of the nations that surround us.” This doesn’t sound like an overwhelming positively way to put that Mitzvah.

By the time we get to Sefer Shmuel, we see even more explicitly that kingship was not desired by G-d but rather tolerated. HaShem says that when the people asked Shmuel for a king, it was an implicit rejection of G-d. People are supposed to be subservient to the true sovereign of the universe, not overly powerful humans.

Yet, the Torah adapts to monarchy. We are given a version of kingship that aligns it with Torah values. There are checks and balances within the Jewish monarchal system. Perhaps the most important one is the prophet. The prophet and king are two different figures who work in tandem. The Rambam points out the king in Israel derives his power from the prophet. David was anointed by Shmuel, and so on.

Prophets and Kings

The prophet is the person who keeps the King in balance. This was true for all kings, tzaddikim or otherwise. When King David sinned with Batsheva, Natan chastised David. And Natan didn’t even get his head chopped off. Even Achav – the classic evil king – was chastised by Eliyahu. The King was only part of a total system and was not all powerful.

What’s more, the king was commanded to make his own internal balance.  He was required to have a Sefer Torah written so that “he will read from it all his days in order that he will learn to fear HaShem his G-d” and his heart will not become haughty above his brethren. Notice: it does not say that he shouldn’t become haughty over the masses, but over his brethren. The Jewish Melech is a first amongst equals.

The Rambam adds to this equation. When it came time to bring the Melech’s son into the kingship, the son must be the equal of his father in wisdom and fear of Heaven. If the son is lacking in wisdom, we teach him more wisdom. If he is lacking in fear of G-d, he doesn’t get to be the king.

Unlike the kings of Europe, a king of Israel was not justified by his family alone. His rulership was justified by the degree to which his kingship pointed to G-d, the sovereign of the universe. King David was the ultimate example of using his life to reflect the fact that G-d is the true king.

What Are We Praying For?

The prayer for “the sprouting of David” is not a desire for any non-Jewish system. Rather, it is a hope to return to a uniquely Jewish paradigm. We pray for a return to a system where G-d is recognized as the sovereign of the universe.

There are so many problems that we can see in the world. For example, in American society today, there is widespread anxiety amongst college students, which leads to an array of mental health issues including greater instance of suicide. We have spent so much time convincing kids that their self-worth comes from academic achievements, with catastrophic results.

Given the value that we place on prestige and academic achievement, it is little wonder that we find privileged people cheating the system to get their kids into a prestigious college. The “Varsity Blues” is but one indication of a systemic problem.

Where does this problem come from? It comes from the fact that G-d’s kingship is not fully realized. In a world where G-d’s kingship reigns, people will be able to see that their self-value is based not on academic achievement but on their growing connection to G-d, the sovereign of the universe.

Every day, we daven for a time when we our days will be renewed. During Elul, we prepare for Rosh Hashana, when we will coronate G-d as our king. We are not looking to a discarded past, but to a renewed future. A Jewish future that is utterly unique.

The Torah’s vision of HaShem as the Melech of the world is the greatest vision that can make our world a better place. Torah has the vision that our world needs. We bring about that vision by aligning our lives Judaism.

An Elul Reflection

But much like the Jewish king, each one of us needs to find an equilibrium. First, we need a prophet. We need someone outside of ourselves that we can talk with honestly about who we are and how we can improve. It could be a spouse, a close friend or a rabbi; we need an outside perspective to help us reach our potential.

Second, we need to write a Sefer Torah that we read from all of our days. Elul is a time that we get aligned with the Jewish vision. The only way that we can do that is through deep and consistent Torah study.

This Elul make sure that you take the time to get closer to someone that can help you in your Jewish journey. And make sure that you write your own Sefer Torah by making regular, daily Torah study times so you can meditate on what G-d wants from you in your life.

And as we Daven for the sprouting of David, remember the Torah’s vision of G-d as the sovereign of the universe. Our unique Jewish vision – expressed in our own lives – is the vision that the world needs to overcome every great challenge.