As you know, I am on a modified sabbatical this year. While I remain integrally connected to our synagogue community, I am taking some time to work on special projects and engage in some wonderful Jewish learning. As part of my sabbatical, I have been invited to be a LEAP Fellow and take part in a year-long learning program hosted by the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This program was inspired by Clal, the same organization that runs Rabbis Without Borders. Clal’s partnership with the Katz Center and the University of Pennsylvania make for a truly unique opportunity. This year, the LEAP Fellowship program is focusing on Jewish political thought. I just returned from my first session where I had the opportunity to gather with rabbinic colleagues from across the country as we learned from three leading Israeli scholars: Arye Edrei, Julie Cooper, Menachem Lorderbaum.
Dr. Lorderbaum focused on a biblical text in I Samuel 8 that highlights a major change in the way the Israelite people were governed. The people were not happy with the way the government was working. Samuel, who was the chief judge and leader of the Israelites, had recently put his sons, also judges, in charge. But, the people were not happy with their leadership and demanded that Samuel create something new and different: “Give us a king to judge us!” This demand would pave the way for great leaders like Kings David and Solomon. But, at this point, Jewish kingship was a new, radical idea – an idea that Samuel did not like at all. Samuel warned the people about the potential dangers associated with appointing a king and establishing a new form of government. He was, however, unable to change the people’s mind. Samuel goes to God with his concerns. God too was not in favor of appointing a king. Such an appointment was an affront to God’s authority. The people should not need an all-powerful human as a leader when they have an all-powerful deity. This being said, God tells Samuel: “Listen to [the voice of the people] and you shall make them a king.”
What a powerful story for us to look at today, more than 3,000 years after Samuel led our ancestors and oversaw a major change in the way they were governed. Today, our governmental structure is not changing. We are not, despite what some think, appointing a king. However, our government and the way we do business as a nation is about to change. Some of us are like the people during Samuel’s day: we want a change and we’re willing to enter unchartered territory. Some of us, however, feel like Samuel: we’re not happy with this change and we’re fearful.
As the story of Samuel shows us, for thousands of years the Jewish people have struggled with governmental changes. The transition that is described in I Samuel was not the first example of this kind of change, nor was it the last. As God wrestles with the establishment of an Israelite king, God’s wisdom is important to us today: “Listen to the people!”
While the popular vote and the Electoral College vote give us different winners, our voting process says that the latter is the voice of the people. And, in a few days, the Electoral College will elect President Trump, a leader unlike one we’ve seen before. For those struggling with this, our tradition speaks loudly: “Listen to the people!” Please remember that when it came to the governmental change described in I Samuel, God was not happy either, but the voice of the people must be listened to.
Given God’s unhappiness in governmental change, God’s belief in the power of people to bring about change is admirable. In the end, despite God’s concerns, the people not only survived, they thrived. God willing, we will continue to do just this.