Let me start with a disclaimer: For the first eight years of my adult/legal-voting-age life I did not exercise my right to vote. I think it took my moving from laissez-faire California, where I was born, to seriously blue Massachusetts, where I am Chabad rabbi, for me to be influenced by my community members to believe that regardless of where I stand on the issue of the day, not voting is akin to not feeding my children, G‑d forbid. I have a civic responsibility.
I think the intensity that now grips the nation about the upcoming mid-term election arrived in Massachusetts a number of years early. A few years ago, a couple of members got into a comfortable debate about politics at the Kiddush after Shabbat services. One thing led to another, and before long there was herring on the ceiling, cholent on the walls, and epithets being lobbed from one side of the room to the other.
OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but things did get so out of hand that I allow no discussion of politics at the Kiddush now, and only five minutes, strictly enforced, of sports talk (it's the whole Red Sox/Yankee thing, another toxic mix). But I have seen people walk out of shul and never return, sadly, over a disagreement about the war in Iraq.
So what is it that gets everyone so crazy about politics? As the Baal Shem Tov often said, from everything you can learn something. What on earth can we learn from the seriously partisan bickering and national chaos surrounding the upcoming mid-term elections?
I will stick to my own rules in this article about not discussing politics, at least in the sense of candidates or issues (forget about it, I'm not weighing in on "healthcare" or "the stimulus") as that can get sticky quickly and lest we lose the message.
What is an election?
In the great wisdom of the founders of this country (a country that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, often called the medinah shel chesed, "country of kindness"), as stated in the Constitution, federal elections are held every four years for the presidency and every two years for Congress. This creates a balance of powers, what is known as a system of "checks and balances" between the various branches of government.
The brilliance of this arrangement is most clearly seen when the system breaks down. If one body is allowed to become too powerful, the saying that "if power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely" is sadly seen to be true.
And so, regardless of where you stand on many of the very important issues of the day, a day of reckoning is coming. For some it will be a referendum on the president's agenda thus far in his term; for others, it is just the ebb and flow of our democracy. When the president has both houses on his side, there is an inevitable shift during the mid-terms.
Regardless, one thing that is absolutely clear is that the way our system was set up, if you don't like what is going on, you have a chance at making a change every so often, "rebirthing" things.This theme is central to Judaism and particularly as expressed in Chabad Philosophy. Many are of the mindset that life is what it is and we have to accept it and learn to live with it. Now, on some level this is true. For example, when dealing with an illness that is incurable, G‑d forbid, or with other material matters that are simply out of our hands, we must make the best of the situation.
However, in matters of the spirit, and particularly of personal self-development, we can always vote a new leader into our personal life. What's more, we don't have to wait four years or even two; we can do it daily and even hourly and even every minute.
The Alter Rebbe, in his magnum opus, the Tanya, describes the body as a city which is the battlefield of our two primary (no pun intended) souls: the G‑dly and the animalistic. They wage perpetual war within us, constantly vying for control of our personal house (of representatives – the expressions of our soul, our thought, speech, and action). All too often, we fall prey to the winds of the world – power, addiction, disillusionment, or simple laziness –and we let our constituents (our body and soul) down. It happens, and when it does, we can call for a special election. We don't need to file any special paperwork; we simply open a book of Psalms, a prayer book, or a book of study and try to remember what our mission was in the first place.
We can vote out the leader that has lost its way (our animalistic instincts) and vote a new, refreshed member into our "body" of leadership. We can start anew.
So when you vote next Tuesday, remember that just as important as who you vote for and what ballot initiatives you vote for is making sure that your personal "house" is in order. And if not, let's get the correct leadership in place there too.
Los Angeles, CA