By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The drama and hype of the current United States election process provide an opportunity to observe and draw lessons that contain implications for our everyday lives about the power we possess to influence others, to make a good impression, and to curry favor.
Last week, the Republican Party hosted its convention, where delegates from across the country gathered to nominate their candidate for president. As the country watched, the party offered a program that was designed to showcase their presidential candidate – his leadership abilities, positive attributes, life experiences, and ideas to improve the country’s situation – and generally present his overall suitability for the position he covets.
The party and the people who put together the week knew that the convention was their biggest chance to advance their narrative and reshape the race. America was watching. The voters were saying, “Okay, we’ve heard all the allegations. We’ve seen the critical ads. Our minds are open. Show us what you have. Tell us why we should believe in you and why we should vote for you.”
And the party blew it in prime time.
Yes, there were some good speeches. The public learned that the nominee is a good and decent man, and the vice presidential nominee is brilliant, focused and courageous. There was some impressive oratory and some intriguing ideas, but the most important point – why people should vote Republican – was largely ignored. The Republicans had been waiting and preparing for months for this one-time opportunity, but they were simply not persuasive enough.
They needed to break out their candidate in a big way, introducing him to America in a fashion that would convince wavering people that he is right for the job, not merely a good man. The Republicans realize that they are facing the campaigner-in-chief, who is as skilled at campaigning as he is bad at governing, and they needed to position their man as a better alternative. They were unable to do so.
They didn’t close the deal. They didn’t set forth their positions. They didn’t explain their positions. They didn’t convey why lowering taxes for all Americans will improve the economy. They didn’t explain that if taxes are raised on the so-called “rich,” the amount of extra income to the government’s coffers will be infinitesimal and will exacerbate the recession, because the people who spend money, build houses, shop, cause factories to hum and ensure that people have jobs, will curtail buying and spending.
Republicans are concentrating strictly on jobs, they say, but they failed to tell anyone what their economic strategy is and how their plans will lead to an increase in American employment.
There was nothing specific. There was no talk about the Supreme Court. There was no talk about the need to achieve energy independence, what Romney will do to get there, and how Obama is hampering that goal. There was no explaining why a strong America is important for the world and how Obama is weakening this country. There were a few throwaway lines about Israel, Iran and some other important issues, but that was it.
For the most part, people saw and heard ego-maniacal politicians speaking about themselves and their stories – how their parents and grandparents came to this country from a foreign land and sacrificed, clawing their way ahead so that they and their children could succeed. It may indeed be that people like hearing those soupy, tried, stories, but such tales do not swing voters to the Republican column. Instead of talking about the Republican ideal and how voting in the Republicans will reverse the country’s downward slide, they engaged in self-congratulatory demagoguery.
In the field of touching people’s souls and convincing them that you have what it takes to improve their lot, Republicans were absent. People want to succeed. They wish to believe in something and someone. People want to belong to something big. They desire to be with a winner, not a whiner. They want to be offered solutions and shown plans that will lead them on a path of progress.
The opportunity was wasted. The chance to reset the campaign and win over so-called independents and people who voted for Obama the last time around was lost.
If the Republicans lose the election, look no further than those crucial few hours last week to figure out why.
The lesson for us is large in this important period leading up to Rosh Hashanah. We have a chance now to make our case. Our very lives depend upon us making a good job of it. We must ensure that we don’t miss our opportunity.
When a president comes to a town, the street sweepers work overtime making sure that the route is spotless. The painters refresh the buildings that the president will be visiting. Landscapers trim the bushes and flowers are planted. Everything is done to put the best possible face forward. When the president leaves, everything returns to the way it was, but at least for a few weeks the town shines and the townspeople learn of the potential for beauty that they possess and may never have realized prior to the notable’s visit.
Much the same, lehavdil, before a prominent g’vir visits a yeshiva, the floors are polished and the walls are scrubbed clean. The talmidim are on their best behavior, making sure to wear clean, pressed clothing and expressing proper greetings to one and all. Everyone realizes that the yeshiva‘s future may be on the line and they do what they can to make the best possible impression.
That is where we are now. We must do what we can to impress Hashem so that when He sits in judgment of us and determines our future, He will see our potential for greatness and that we recognize what we must do to improve and grow.
Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 603:1) paskens that “Even those who are lenient in regard to eating pas palter all year long, refrain from eating it during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.“
Many wonder what the point is in undertaking a chumrah for a short period of time. What do we demonstrate by refraining from eating pas palter if we will resume consuming it after Yom Kippur?
The Ribbono Shel Olam is coming to our neighborhood, to our shul, to our bais medrash and to our home. He is coming to inspect us. We have a chance to clean up and show Him that we recognize the significance of the inspection and the opportunity it presents us. We will take advantage of His proximity to rise to the occasion and show our best side. These forty days are meant to define who we wish to become. The precious weeks of Elul and Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are a chance to endear ourselves to Him – Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li.
Just as a political convention is a chance to convince the public to vote for a certain party and candidate, lehavdil, Elul is our opportunity to lay out our platform and show what we have done in the past and what we are planning for the future, in a bid to prove to Hashem that we are worthy of His vote of confidence and support. Elul is an opportunity to ask Hashem to give us more time, more blessing, menuchas hanefesh, good health and the ability to do our jobs, le’ovdecha beleivov sholeim.
Rav Yisroel Salanter, the famed founder and leader of the Mussar Movement, while delivering a shmuess at this time of year, once quoted a Gemorah in Maseches Yoma (86a) that recounts the following tale.
Rav had been insulted by a butcher in his community. He waited for the butcher to ask forgiveness before Yom Kippur, as is customary. When this fellow failed to show up, Rav took the initiative of going to the man’s shop, certain that once the butcher saw him, he would seize the opportunity to make amends.
Rav Huna met Rav on his way and asked him where he was headed. Rav told him that he was going to reconcile with the butcher. Rav Huna replied that Rav was, in fact, going to kill this person.
When Rav entered the shop, the butcher was in the midst of chopping an animal head into pieces. He looked up from his work, noticed Rav, and cried out, “Are you Abba (i.e., Rav)? I want nothing to do with you!”
As he continued chopping, a bone flew off the table, struck him in the throat, and killed him. This was Heavenly punishment for showing such disrespect toward a great Torah scholar.
Rav Yisroel Salanter questions why the butcher died after this encounter with the rebbi of Klal Yisroel. If the sin of humiliating Rav was severe enough to make him deserving of death, why did he not die when he originally embarrassed Rav? And if the cause of his death was his failure to ask Rav’s forgiveness, he should have been killed in the span of time that passed since the incident took place. After all, he could have asked mechilah during all that time and he didn’t. Why did his death come about on that Erev Yom Kippur?
Rav Yisroel Salanter offered an explanation that should haunt us during this period of the year. He says that what caused the severe punishment was Rav’s coming to the man. The opportunity afforded by Rav’s arrival to his shop and the butcher’s decision to ignore the extended hand made his sin that much more egregious, resulting in the horrible punishment.
Rav Yisroel concluded in his shmuess that we are at the time of year when Hakadosh Boruch Hu approaches and comes closer to us. The novi cries out to us and pleads, “Dirshu Hashem behimatzo, kira’uhu bihiyoso korov.” This refers to the forty-day period between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. Hashem is here. Call out to Him when He is close by. We have the chance to ask mechilah, improve ourselves, rectify our sins, and make our pitch to be granted a happy, healthy and successful year.
A more recent anecdote is told by an Amshinover chossid who heads a Yerushalayim yeshiva. One day, there was a knock on his door. The chossid opened the door and was astonished to see his rebbe standing there. The rosh yeshiva froze and had a hard time saying shalom aleichem. He was shocked and amazed, perplexed and frightened as he wondered to himself, “Why did the rebbe come to me? I would gladly have come had the gabbai called and summoned me.”
The rosh yeshiva quickly led the rebbe to a seat at the dining room table and waited to hear what he had done to merit this visit. When they were seated, the rebbe explained that he came because he needed a favor.
“Anything the rebbe wants,” responded the chossid, his mind racing as he wondered what type of favor the holy rebbe could need from him.
“There is a bochur I know who desperately wants to learn in your yeshiva,” said the rebbe, “and I think it would be a good place for him. I know that registration is closed and that the yeshiva is packed, but I want you to do me a favor and make room for him.”
The rosh yeshiva readily agreed and then asked, “Why did the rebbe have to be matri’ach himself to come here to me? I would have been so honored had the rebbe summoned me to him to discuss this in the rebbe’s home or office, with the same result.”
The rebbe appeared surprised at the question.
“I am asking you for a favor,” he said simply. “When you want a favor from someone, it is proper that you go to them. You don’t call them and ask them to come to you.”
Here we are. The Ribbono Shel Olam has come to us. He is a rachum vechachun. He wants us to do Him the favor of helping Him help us. He wants to hear our speech and study our plans for change. He wants to see what our campaign can offer. He comes to us and asks, “Shuvu eilai v’ashuvah Aleichem, (Malachi 3,7). Come back to Me. Draw closer. Show Me what you can do.”
It is the opportunity of a lifetime. Let’s not squander it.