Bart Giamatti, the former President of Yale University who would go on to become the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, was once the guest speaker at the dinner of a major Jewish organization. The guests of honor were the members of the New York City Board of Estimate, which at the time consisted of the Mayor, the President of the City Council, the City Comptroller, and the five Borough Presidents. In his remarks, Professor Giamatti quoted a mishnah from this week’s chapter of Pirkei Avos: “Pray for the welfare of the ruling authorities, for if it were not for the fear of it, each man would eat his friend alive.” Later in the evening, Claire Shulman, the Queens Borough President, replied, “Bart, the problem with what you said is that the people on this stage eat each other alive every day.” Professor Giamatti and Borough President Shulman actually represented different approaches to this mishnah.
The text of the mishnah (Avos 3:2) states, “Hevei mispalel bishlomah shel malchus.” The standard translation is “Pray for the welfare of the ruling authorities.” For all its faults, effective government is all that stands between a society in which our rights are protected and anarchy. In his commentary on this mishnah, Bartenura quotes the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 4a), which states “Just as in the case of the fish of the sea, any fish that is bigger than another would swallow the other, so too in the case of people, were it not for the fear of the ruling government, anyone who is bigger than another would swallow the other.”
This concept is inherent in the founding documents of the United States. The Declaration of Independence states that we are all endowed “with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, if we were left to ourselves, we would act like the fish of the sea. It is therefore “to secure these rights that governments are instituted among men.” The Constitution created a system of government to, among other things, “insure domestic tranquility.”
But there is another way to understand the mishnah in Avos. The word shalom is often translated as “peace.” We should pray for peace among the ruling authorities. The Tanna of this mishnah was Chanina the Deputy Kohen Gadol. Rabbi Chanina constantly spoke of the importance of peace. In Sifrei on Parshas Naso, he said, “Peace is so great that it is equal to all of G-d’s creations.” He lived at the time of the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash, which we will hopefully not have to commemorate on the day after this newspaper is printed. He witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of what happens when our leaders are more interested in fighting among each other than in coming together to meet the needs of the people they are supposed to serve.
The era of the Second Beis HaMikdash was marked by strife between the Perushim and the Tzedokim. The later kings of the Hasmonean dynasty did not follow in the path of their illustrious ancestors who helped to bring about the miracle of Chanukah. Under the leadership of Shlomtzion HaMalkah, the sister of Shimon ben Shetach, there was a revival of leadership by Torah standards. But as she neared death, her two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, battled over who would succeed to the throne. Upon the Queen’s death, open warfare broke out between the two brothers. The fighting between the brothers created the perfect opportunity for the Romans to intervene. Even as Roman legions marched on Jerusalem, the two brothers and their supporters failed to unite. Hyrcanus opened the gates of the city to Pompey. The era of Judean independence was over. The battle of the brothers directly caused the Roman occupation and the eventual destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.
In 66 CE, the Jews revolted against the Romans. As Vespasian besieged Jerusalem, the political leaders of the Jewish people were busy fighting among themselves. Some advocated surrender to the Romans, others wanted to hold out until the Romans abandoned the siege, and others were itching for a confrontation with the Romans. As Josephus described it: “Every town was seething with turmoil and civil war. As soon as the Romans gave them a breathing space, they turned their hands against each other. Between advocates of war and lovers of peace, there was a fierce quarrel… Factions reigned everywhere.”
The Gemara (Gittin 56a) states that there were three wealthy men with storehouses that could provide enough wheat, barley, oil, wine, salt, and firewood to withstand a siege of 21 years. The Biryonim, who wanted to fight, burned down the storehouses. The result was a devastating famine. The Biryonim got their fight with the Romans, but men with empty stomachs and a starving population were no match for the Romans. The result was the Churban and a galus of close to 2,000 years.
Having seen how polarization and the self-serving pursuit of power caused the Churban, we can easily understand why Rabbi Chanina, the Deputy Kohen Gadol, would have urged future generations to pray for peace among the ruling authorities.
While the situation in America today is a far cry from Judea in 66 CE, we are dangerously moving in that direction. Congress is bitterly divided between two parties. Each sees the members of the other party not as opponents to engage in debate, or colleagues to be reasoned or compromised with, but as enemies to be vanquished. The two parties are more interested in defeating each other than in dealing with the complex challenges facing us. They prefer to let our problems fester and to use them to stir up the base, with the hope that they will gain complete power and be able to ram their entire agenda down the throats of the rest of the public.
The result is gridlock. People have lost faith in and respect for a government that is no longer able to effectively govern. We are being torn apart by polarization and racial strife. Crime is skyrocketing. Our flag and national anthem, which should be symbols for all Americans of our highest ideals and values, have become the source of controversy and strife. The very values on which our country was founded are being challenged.
With the challenges of COVID-19 and racial strife confronting us, it is more urgent than ever that our political leaders work together. Yet we see the same polarization, grandstanding, and finger-pointing that has stood in the way of progress and positive change for all too long.
The 2020 election promises to be one of the most divisive in our history. The election will come. Someone will win and someone will lose. But the challenges that confront us will still be there on November 4. The gridlock that created the situation will not get us out of it. We will need our leaders and our people to come together not to compromise on principle but to reach principled compromise that can move our country forward. The good news is that there are people working hard right now to make that happen. That will be the subject of my next column.