Illegal Blessings

22 Jan

Today is election day in the State of Israel. Thirty-one parties are vying for the support of the 5.5 million eligible Israeli voters. In Israel, we don’t elect our leaders per se, but rather choose the party whose message is best aligned with our priorities and concerns.

But there are thirty-one parties, and a lot of overlap. How do the parties go about persuading the public to vote for them?

Old parties remind us of their track-record, what they have accomplished in the past and what they might do for us in the future. New parties remind us of what is missing, and how they plan to step in and fill the gap.Of course, some parties chose to promise us blessings if we vote for them.

Under Israeli electoral law it is forbidden to coax voters by invoking oaths, curses, divestment, boycotts, vows or promises to give a blessing. Breaking the law carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison or a fine.

I must admit, when I heard this regulation announced on the radio yesterday I kind of laughed at the thought – how can it be illegal to offer a blessing? After all, if mature adults are permitted to be swayed to vote for a party that promises to “bless them” with a higher minimum wage (Likkud Beiteinu), or reasonably priced housing (Yesh Atid), or a long-overdue solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict (Bayit Yehudi) – then what is the problem if Shas or United Torah Judaism want to promise blessings of all sorts to the voting public? After all, a better salary, better living conditions, and of course, peace, are all at the center of our prayers…blessings we ask from God daily – what then makes this different?

I would like to suggest that the issue is related to the separation of people-doings and God-doings.

As we open this week’s Torah reading – Parashat Beshalach – the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the pursuing Egyptian chariots – the situation seems hopeless. Moses rises before the frightened nation and promises them that there is nothing to fear…

“Fear not! Stand by and see the salvation of God which he will perform for you this day…God will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.” (Exodus 14:13-14).

And this inspiring promise of blessing, of salvation, is followed directly by one of my very favorite interactions in all of the Bible:

Then God said to Moses: “Why are you crying out to Me? Go speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to go      forward!” (14:15)

And just like that, God draws the line – blessing will not come from God unless the Israelites themselves take proper steps to bring it about. They must act, they must take their destiny into their own hands at this critical early stage and do what is humanly possible. Only after they have done that can blessing ultimately follow.

Promising voters that they will be blessed for simply casting their vote on behalf of one party or another is not only a abrogation of Israeli election law; according to my reading of this text, it points to a complete misunderstanding of the place of the democratic system in our society.

Democratic elections within a Jewish society are not themselves the hand of God – God does not determine who wins an election, and God will not reward or punish a voter for choosing one party over or another: the choice itself and the fact that we can make it is in itself the blessing.

The elected officials are our representatives – extensions of all of us and of all of our priorities. It will be the choices they make for us and the directions they take us in that will determine the real blessings ahead.


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