We are in the final leg of Election 2014. The airwaves are filled with political commercials, and our mailboxes – virtual and real – are filled with campaign literature.
Barbra Streisand got it wrong. The “luckiest people in the world” are our politicians and government officials, because they are not subject to Jewish law. If they were, they would have trouble getting through a single day.
Consider, for example, how many items on the “For the sin of” litany we ran through on Yom Kippur are ones politicians and government officials violate with abandon.
Several come quickly to mind: “For the sin we committed against You by utterance of the lipsâ€¦; in speechâ€¦; by deliberate lyingâ€¦; by slanderâ€¦; by ridicule.” We can also throw in “by hasty condemnation,” something of which members of any congressional committee are guilty on a routine basis, as are governmental heads throughout the West who were quick to condemn Israel for bombing Hamas, and are now themselves bombing ISIS. Then there is “by deliberate deceitâ€¦; [and] by wronging our neighbor” by misrepresenting his or her record.
Here is a completely made-up campaign scenario to illustrate the point.
A candidate’s commercial opens by showing us a family collecting food from a local charity. The narrator informs us that nearly 15 percent of families in the area live below the poverty line. “Most of the family breadwinners work, but only for the minimum wage. The minimum wage doesn’t allow them to feed their families. Yet the incumbent voted against an increase in the minimum wage three times in one year alone.”
Every word in the commercial is true-but not the whole truth. The incumbent, in fact, voted at least four times since taking office to raise the minimum wage. In one particular year, however, the increase was attached to a bill that would have denied minimum wage employees from receiving health insurance benefits. The incumbent could not vote for such a bill.
This is a made-up example, but there are scores of real ones airing right now, and they violate so many Jewish laws, it is hard to know where to begin.
There is, for example, the law called “motzi shem ra,” which means saying something that would put someone else in a bad light. It also violates the laws of lashon hara (bad speech); the words may be true, but they are being used to convey an untruth.
Then there is the law against putting a stumbling block before the blind (see Leviticus 19:14), which in this case means not only deliberately withholding vital information a voter needs to make an informed decision, but also providing information in such a way as to mislead intentionally. (See, for example, the commentary in Sifra to Leviticus 19:14.)
Politicians and officials often put stumbling blocks in front of each other as well, and at times they can have serious consequences.
The current Secret Service scandal is a perfect example of this. First, we and Congress were told that an unarmed man who was not acting suspiciously suddenly jumped a White House fence, ran across the lawn, but was wrestled to the ground at the front door.
This was an uncommon lapse, the now resigned Secret Service director, Julia Pierson, assured the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. As Pierson explained it, it was her job to brief the president whenever a security breach occurred when the Secret Service was protecting the First Family.
Pierson then was asked, “What percentage of the time do you inform the president that his personal security has in any way, shape or form been breached?”
“A hundred percent of the time,” she responded.
She was then asked, “In calendar year 2014, how many times has that happened?”
Never in 2014, she said, “except for one occasion, for the September 19 incident,” after the man jumped the fence. The inference was clear: One incident in an entire year does not a crisis make.
As it turns out, the man had a knife, so he was armed. Two Secret Service agents recognized him on the street as someone who tried to break into the White House once before. He was not stopped at the front door; he got as far as the East Room at the far end of the building. To do so, he ran past an alarm system that had been disabled, reportedly because it made too much noise when it was set off.
As for the incident being an uncommon lapse in security, the director neglected to mention that just three days earlier, in Atlanta, an armed man with three convictions for assault and battery was allowed into an elevator with the president. Pierson had not briefed the president about that incident, despite her “hundred percent of the time” claim. Distorting the truth can have serious consequences when it comes to protecting lives.
These sins are on the heads of politicians and government officials.
There are sins on our heads, as well. For us average citizens, the key is caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. As we head down the electoral stretch, it is not enough to watch commercials, read advertisements, and listen to speeches, before deciding how to vote. We have to do our homework. After all, acting “out of ignoranceâ€¦[and] presumptuously, or in error” were also on the “For the sin of” list.