pirkei avot 3:2 - Respect the government

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline

Rabbi Chanina, the assistant kohen (priest) said, "Pray for the welfare of the government for without fear of it, men would swallow each other alive." 

As the ruling power in each country, the government is held responsible for making sure the provinces are running smoothly. Yet let's not forget to mention one of our favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government, "He that governs best, governs least." We take this to mean that the less the state mixes in with the locals, the better. Take into account that this was said by a man who ditched society for a hut and a plot of soil in the woods.

With regards to the Jewish people, what did Rabbi Chanina mean by exhorting us to pray for the government's welfare? More times than not, governments the world over have been giving us nothing but grief for the last two thousand years. Naturally, with indignation, we might demand of Rabbi Chanina, "Explain yourself."  

Don't fret. He does. For one thing, this pirkei avot, to pray for the welfare of such and such a person or program, isn't necessarily limited to just the ruling classes. The idea is to chuck out some of the selfish, somewhat juvenile, ideals that accompany Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on Self Reliance and to work more on seeing past the end of one's nose. 

In a nutshell, Thoreau's inspiration, Emerson, preached originality, frowned upon consistency and abhorred conformity as a means in and of itself. "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide... that no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil... which is given to him to till." Yet, when the term self reliance becomes synonymous with looking out for one's [temporary] truth, or the integrity of one's thoughts, I am personally opposed. Emerson said, "Men do what is called a good action such as courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world. Their virtues are penances." In short, if a person's doing good things is a reflection of his conformism, his virtue is pitiful and, according to Emerson, not something to be regarded.  

So what if people are do gooders because fear of public opinion drove them to it? Don't toss the baby out with the bathwater. There a world of people to care about out there and believe it or not, most of them don't care about why they're being helped, just that they are. If every person's primary focus was only on looking after the "integrity" of his own mind, like Emerson recommends, I do believe humanity would fall to pieces. According to Judaism, living in this world is about emulating G-d i.e. being a giver; also, the sincerest form of love is giving. Even if you're not feeling it at first, the more you give, the more you love the person who is receiving what you have to offer. It's a rule of thumb. Also, fear of doing wrong because of what the masses may consider you can be used as a means to an end. "Lo lishma, ba lishma," even if what you are doing isn't for the sake of heaven, eventually, it will be. 

The bottom line is that our Rabbis of blesses memory have always advised Jews all over that where ever they are living, it would be best not to rock the boat with personal sentiments that oppose the population's or government's views. You can keep your opinions, just keep them under wraps.Then, said Rabbi Chanina, you will continue to live in peace and harmony among the nations.  

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