- Rabbi Ephraim Meth
“When they fell ill, my garb was sackcloth. I afflicted my body with fasts. I returned prayer to my bosom” (Tehillim 35:13, as interpreted by R. Levi, cited by Ibn Ezra ibid.). Thus King David describes his reaction to his enemies’ afflictions. The king empathized with their pain and prayed for their recovery, for although they were his detractors, they also were his subjects.
Chazal equate King David’s actions with those of Avraham, who prayed for Sodom’s salvation despite the fact that Sodom’s value system was antithetical to his own. Avraham prayed because, as the Av Hamon Goyim, the father of multitudinous nations, the Sodomites were his children. Indeed, they, before most other nations, had acknowledged his spiritual and temporal authority in the aftermath of their catastrophic battle with the four kings. Hence, his prayer.
The Gemara (Makkot 11a) states that the kohein gadol had an obligation to pray for his constituents’ salvation. For this reason, the murderous sinners of Israel, condemned to the confines of the Cities of Refuge, would be justified to pray for his downfall; the kohein gadol bears a debt of guilt towards them, for had he loved them and prayed for them properly, they would not have fallen into sin.
R. Shlomo Wolbe elaborates on this theme. It is deplorable, writes R. Wolbe, for a leader not to love those who submit to his authority (Alei Shur, vol. 2, p. 222). Heads of household, masters of classrooms, and presidents of countries must at times display a stern and rebuking countenance to their families, students, and citizens; yet without a vibrant love to counterbalance their righteous anger, they risk surrendering equilibrium and in rage shattering those whom they are charged to mold. How does one nurture such love? How does one cultivate love for a citizen he or she has never met, for a child once obedient but now rebellious? Marshaling the above examples, R. Wolbe responds: pray for them.
This understanding, I believe, informed Chazal’s descriptions (Menachot 65a, Eiruvin 22b, and Bava Metzia 118b) of Moshe Rabbeinu and Yehoshua as ohavei Yisrael, lovers of Israel. Whence this conviction that our early leaders were not just our leaders but also our lovers? True, imitatio dei demands such love. True, also, that an explicit verse demands this love, “You shall love your friend as you love yourself.” Yet, by ascribing excellence in love particularly to Moshe and Yehoshua, and by associating these sagacious legislators with the mitzvah to love one’s fellow, the Gemara emphasizes the inestimable significance of the symbiosis between leadership and love.
While it is clear that leaders must love their followers, and must enshrine their love in prayer and legislation, it is perhaps less clear how this idea relates to the followers. Upon reflection, however, it should be clear that every citizen in a democracy that protects freedom of speech, as a voter, pundit, and inchoate activist, helps carry on his or her shoulders the girder of communal leadership. Democracy is government by the people; representatives are only representatives; we, the people, lead. Even if our representatives are, for the duration of their terms, our monarchs, we, the voters, exercise national leadership by being the mamlichei melachim, as well as by lobbying. Hence, we too are obliged to love all citizens who submit to the authority of our government, to pray for their salvation, and to enshrine our love in legislation.
Painfully, politics across the world nowadays appear to be a calculus of selfishness. This malady afflicts not only politicians, but also voters, and particularly voters like us. While it is true that the ballot box is the most direct avenue to redress or forestall injustices against us, it is nonetheless painful that the public discourse preceding elections tends to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on our particularistic concerns. True, everyone agrees that free love can be deadly both for its givers and its receivers; witness the catastrophic consequences of Yaakov’s unbridled love for Rachel and Yosef, and of King David’s undisciplined love of Avshalom. Hence, at times, pragmatic and symbolic concerns demand that our discourse display “love that is hidden and rebuke that is revealed.” Yet if such concerns are dominant most of the time, our responsibility is that much greater to seek out and take advantage of those opportunities that present themselves to let our love of those we lead shine through. If we believe, as we do, that the freedoms and funding we request are in our neighbors’ best interests as well as our own, then we must whenever possible shift our discourse from the language of self-interest to the language of love. I pray for the love that inspires prayer, the love of Avraham and David, and I pray for my followers, prayer that inspires love.