July 7, 2020, Israel
We are in a crisis these days and many do not know what information to trust. Some believe if it is in the newspapers, by definition it must be true. A wise rabbi said many years ago the newspaper can be divided into 3 sections: Truth, Doubt, and Lies. The Truth is the Obituary section, the Doubt is the weather forecast, the rest is lies. That wisdom stands true today. We have a crisis of faith, we do not know whom to believe or trust. Clearly many have lost their faith and trust in political leadership. Going back thousands of years these issues were discussed and debated among rabbis and among Greek philosophers, the issues have not changed at all.
And there is a wise Jew who wrote..."Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters" (Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965). I recall first hearing these words and the impact it had on me. It was written by a young man named Shabsai Zissel ben Avraham, known to his friends in Minnesota as Bobby Zimmermann, known to the world as Bob Dylan.
What does it mean? All I can tell you is what it means to me, and Dylan does not offer interpretations of his songs, that is up to each of us.
Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters. Today we have apps for parking meters, your smart phone pays the parking fees and you can relax. But just a few years ago the parking meter was one of the great challenges of life. In the USA we always saved our quarters (25 cents) because we needed them for the parking meter. In Israel I still have the habit of leaving coins in my car for the parking meter. You need to guess how long you will be away from your car: put in too much money and you are just making a contribution to the municipality or the lucky guy who takes the spot after you, it is lost money for you. Put in too little and you will come back to find a nasty parking violation ticket and fine on your window. Watching parking meters is an important activity.
But I see it as more than that; watch the parking meters, pay attention to the little details in life, take care of your business. Now, Don't follow leaders, why? Throughout history most leaders have cared about themselves, they are for the most part ego maniacs, power hungry and controlling. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. St. Petersburg was built on the backs of the Russian peasants. You will go to war and die for their benefit, as Carl von Clausewitz states in his classic work "On War" (Prussia, 1832), war is simply the continuation of political goals by other means. You are a tool of the king. Now throughout history there have been some benevolent rulers who truly cared about their subjects and tried to improve their lives, but they have been few and far between. Plato in his classic, The Republic (around 375 BCE) discussed the ideal leader, the philosopher king, who is beyond corruption. In Judaism there are two models currently in use; the Hassidic and the "Litvishe". The Hassidic model follows the Biblical command that one who is appointed Judge over Israel must be very wealthy so that he is free of corruption. i.e. No bribe can tempt him as he is already very wealthy. Thus the Hassidic communities bestow great wealth about their "Rebbes", their rabbinic leader.
The non-Hassidic, or Litvishe, take another saying, that one should study the holy scriptures in abject poverty, and thus be beyond the need for worldly goods. This too is practiced to this very day. I saw a video of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, may the righteous rest in peace, who died in 2012 at the age of 102. He lived in a very modest apartment, his bed doubled as a couch for guests, he himself only sat on chairs that he made out of apple carts back in the 1950's. Such a man is impervious to bribes, his decisions cannot be influenced by any outside factor. As such his word was taken as the word of God and was undisputed. His funeral was attended in Israel by more than a quarter of a million people. Such men have overcome ego, financial interests, and anything this world can offer them. To see such a person is a true privilege.
Recently when the Coronavirus issue came up in Israel many of the Ultra Orthodox did not initially follow the regulations of the Ministry of Health. For one reason they do not use internet or smart phones or read newspapers controlled by Secular interests. But another factor is they have learned over many centuries to "not follow leaders" if those leaders represent secular political governments. Once the rabbis understood what was at stake, the order was given. Overnight the community obeyed the law fully. On a news broadcast a secular interviewer asked a religious man if it was conceivable that the community would trust the rabbis more than the national government. The man responded appropriately with a laugh; Obviously. Trust must be earned. When your leader is a man who takes nothing from this world, who sits on a wooden chair and gives all to his people, who studies the holy scriptures day and night; you follow such a man. Sadly our political leaders rarely earn this trust. And this leads me to my second quote from Shabsai Zissel ben Avraham, Bob Dylan.
"Steal a little and they throw you in jail, Steal a lot and they make you king."(Sweetheart like You, 1983).
Sadly, Israel too suffers from corruption, our leaders are not what they once were. We once had leaders like Menachem Begin of blessed memory, of whom it is said that he never knew the price of a new car. He truly lived as a humble Jew and could not be corrupted. Even years after his passing stories emerge of his righteousness. He was as a Moses to our generation, a true leader.
Today sadly we see scandals and backroom deals, we see monopolies and corruption that we the little people must pay for. If you owe a little they will cancel your credit card. If you don't pay your mortgage on time they will evict you from your house and sell your possessions, and yet, there are multi-millionaires who have defaulted on loans of millions of dollars and they sit by their poolside and own private jets. Politicians and police chiefs are bought, newspapers are owned by businesses who determine the content and perspective that we are allowed to read. And we, the little man, pay for everything.
There are many commandments in the Hebrew Bible that end with the words, "I am your the Lord your God", and the rabbis ponder, why is this mentioned again and again and what is the connection to that commandment? The answer is simple and profound; for there are practices that are easy to hide from man, and only you will know if you are being honest or not. But, "I am the Lord your God", I know!
There is a story told about the great Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen of Radun, Poland. He was dressed very simply, not as a rabbi, as he was exceedingly humble. His taxi driver, i.e. horse and wagon, saw some hey stacked up in the field and thought he could quickly steal some food for his horse. He told the humble passenger, "Watch up for me, if you see someone coming, give me a warning yell".
And so it was, as the man was about to steal some hey, the rabbi, dressed as a commoner, yelled out, "Hey, someone is watching!",
The driver, in Yiddish Baal Agoloh, came running, and said, "Thank You!, I did not see anyone, but thank you for warning me. Where was the man that you saw?"
The rabbi silently pointed his finger to the sky, "He is watching".
Honesty, it is the only way we do "business" at IKI. This is our way of handling our affairs.
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