"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Monarchy, democracy, and Rosh Hashanah

Monarchy—a difficult concept

The awesome day of Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us. The central focus of this day is accepting Hashem upon us as king (“kabbolas ol malchus Shomayim”).

Unfortunately, in our times this concept is foreign to us, for monarchy (in Hebrew, “malchus”) as it was practiced in bygone days is almost completely obsolete. But let us try our best to cast our minds back into the past—the vast majority of human history, in fact—and try to imagine what it must have been like.

Well, these are the basics: A king was an absolute authority, with power over life and death. His subjects typically were very afraid of him and very loyal to him. Why was it beneficial for the king to wield such great power? On the basic level, it was needed to keep the people in line—to maintain law and order.

Appointment of the king by grand coronation

Now, at first glance, monarchy sounds very different from modern-day democracy. But in a very important sense, it was not so different. Monarchy is similar to democracy insofar as it is a consensual relationship. The only way that a person could come to have the absolute power of monarchy is for the people to willingly grant him that power.

But how do the people do this—how do they willingly appoint their chosen candidate as king? It is not enough for them to feel that way in their hearts; rather, they must make an external show of their devotion and allegiance.

For this purpose, the people organize a grand coronation event. All the people rally there, declare that they want this man to accept the mantle of kingship, and affirm their unwavering loyalty to him.

Despite the vast differences between people—“their ways of thinking are different”[1]—all the citizens of the country—men, women, and children—join in this ceremony just the same—the simple subjects, the wealthy landowners, the low-level ministers, until the high-level ministers, who are especially dear to the king. They all prostrate before the king and fully commit to obey him. “Long live the king!”[2] they declare.

If, however, one becomes an absolute ruler without the people’s consent; instead, one seizes power by force, then Torah does not define that as malchus, monarchy, but as memshalah, dictatorship. The king assumes his role only by virtue of the people’s demand.

Monarchy vs. Democracy

Moreover, a true candidate for kingship does not aspire to become king. On the contrary, that is the last thing on his mind—he consistently shuns the limelight, and all he wants is to be left alone. But despite his reclusiveness, the people somehow find out about him, learn of his unparalleled greatness, and realize that he is truly worthy of the position. So they approach him and nudge him incessantly to become their king, with this nudging culminating in a grand coronation ceremony.

When the would-be king sees just how much the people want him to rule over them, this evokes within his heart a desire to do so. This feeling is not tainted by any arrogance or bossiness; rather, it is a feeling of humbly and apprehensively stepping up to a role of tremendous responsibility for the sake of serving the community. This is the hallmark of true leadership.

Here the comparison to democracy ends, for according to the democratic system, the candidate can only become elected if he is filled with ambition and aspires to be the leader so much that he “runs” for elections. Instead of the people convincing him to want to rule, he convinces the people to want him to rule.

Although the aspirant to democratic elections may also have some genuine desire to serve the community, it cannot be claimed that his intentions are pure and not tainted by an element of lust for prestige and power. After all, he doesn’t just want any worthy person to rule—he campaigns for the people to decide that he is more worthy than anyone else for the job.

So clearly, no matter what his rhetoric, the best interests of the people are not the only thing on his mind; rather, there is also a strong element of self-interest in his bid for power and his efforts to remain in his position. This self-interest inevitably taints his leadership, for if the interests of the people conflict with his own, he may succumb to temptation and allow his own interests to trump those of the people. For example, upon seeing that another person is much more fit to rule than he, his selfish craving for power may induce him to deny this and even seek ways to viciously condemn and discredit the one whom he views as a threat to his power.

Of course, monarchy also has its pitfalls, for if the king is unworthy, he can abuse his power far more than an elected president can. Much more could be said on this topic, but here is not the place. In any case, a true king only becomes king because the people convinced him so.

Renewing Hashem’s rule and creation

Likewise, Hashem, the King of all Kings, becomes King when we declare our devotion to Him, thereby inaugurating Him as our King.

The difference, though—of course, one of many—between a human king and Hashem, is that a human king does not create the people; he merely enforces law and order, enabling society to function productively. In contrast, when we speak of Hashem as our King, we mean that He creates the world and rules over every single aspect of it.

This is the theme of Rosh Hashanah. The prayers and customs of this day are entirely devoted to repeatedly pleading of Hashem to rule over us as King, especially when we blow the Shofar. This evokes within Hashem the desire to rule over us, such that he commits to continue creating the world.

But why is it necessary to accept Hashem as King every year all over again?[3]

It is written, “The eyes of Hashem, your G–d, are constantly on it [the Holy Land] from the beginning until the end of the year.”[4] What is the meaning of this apparently unnecessary phrase, “from the beginning until the end of the year”—isn’t that already clear from the word “constantly”?

Rather, this verse alludes to the fact that Hashem annually renews the life-force with which he creates the world (and the Holy Land is the subject of the verse, for the entire world receives its life-force through that given to the Holy Land). Each year at “the end of the year”—as the twenty-ninth day of Elul passes, and we enter the night of Rosh Hashanah—Hashem’s desire to create the world recedes, as it were, until it vanishes completely, and although we cannot see it, the world’s very existence is hanging by a thread.

Then, for the next two nights and days, we must devote ourselves to showing Hashem our total commitment to serve Him. We declare, “Our Father, our King!” ... “Be King over us in Your glory,” and so on. And in this way we renew His desire to create the world for the entire coming year, and then this cycle is repeated the following year, and so on.

“Judgment day”

This is how the concept of accepting upon ourselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven ties in with the other, perhaps more well-known, theme of Rosh Hashanah—that it is the “Judgment day” when Hashem judges every creature in existence.

As mentioned, Hashem’s decision to rule means that He commits to continue to create the world, and He does so because we submit to Him as King through our divine service on Rosh Hashanah. Now, this decision doesn’t only mean that Hashem decides to continue to create the world and not destroy it, G–d forbid. Rather, He decides the exact nature and amount of blessings that every single person is destined to receive in the coming year, in all areas.

And on what is His decision based? “Hashem sees the heart,”[5] and judges every individual according to their worthiness at the time of judgment.[6] So the sincerity of the individual’s acceptance of the yoke of Hashem’s sovereignty will determine whether Hashem’s ruling will be favorable, and exactly to what degree, and in which areas.

And this is the connection between Rosh Hashanah and Teshuvah. It is absurd to sin and simultaneously commit to serve Hashem. Until the person repents sincerely of his or her sins, they sully his heart and disqualify his profession of total devotion to Hashem on Rosh Hashanah. So on Rosh Hashanah we do Teshuvah, because Teshuvah is vital to accepting Hashem’s sovereignty.

This is also the reason that we are given the entire month of Elul to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We don’t want to wait until Rosh Hashanah, when we are already being strictly judged, to start thinking about Teshuvah. Rather, we spend the month of Elul doing everything we can to rectify ourselves so that when Rosh Hashanah comes around, we will already be cleansed of sin and fit to commit to serve Hashem with all our heart.

This is the reason that the atmosphere on Rosh Hashanah, especially according to the school of Chassidus Chabad, is very serious. For on Rosh Hashanah we are standing before Hashem, and He is scrutinizing our hearts carefully. Thus, it is the Chabad custom to spend as much time as possible between the prayers reciting the words of Tehillim with a broken heart, and if one can, avoiding all idle chatter.

May Hashem bless us and write and seal us all for a good and sweet new year in both the material and the spiritual, and may we witness the coming of Moshiach to usher in the true and complete redemption this year, 5772, and at its very beginning, NOW!

[1] Berachos 58a.
[2] This declaration was used to appoint Jewish kings; cf. I Melachim 1:31.
[3] The explanation below is taken from Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, ch. 14.
[4] Devarim 11:12.
[5] I Shmuel 16:7.
[6] Rosh Hashanah 16b.

Dedicated by Avi Turner and family in honor of the Yahrtzeit of Mordechai Ben Yosef on 15 Av.

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  1. Ah! Finally this problem - monarchy vs. democracy - is met head on. So many years I'd struggle throughout Rosh Hashanah with the notion of monarchy, accepting it only out of abstract faith...
    1. Isn't Hashem also called a moshel, in addition to a melech?
    2. "A true candidate for kingship does not aspire to become king...he consistently shuns the limelight..." How exactly would we apply these words to Hashem? If Hashem does not desire, as it were, to rule over the world and we must 'convince' Him - well, doesn't this reasoning contradict the very fact that Hashem created the world of His 'own initiative'?
    3. 'according to the democratic system, the candidate can only become elected if he is filled with ambition and aspires to be the leader...' I found this point of contrast very interesting, never heard it clearly expressed before.
    4. "In contrast, when we speak of Hashem as our King, we mean that He creates the world..." This brings to mind the first Chassidus we learned together, in Derech Mitzvosecha (l'hovin inyan hamatzoh v'daled koisos), how on the one hand, 'there is no king without a nation,' but by Hashem, He created the people and everything else...
    5. "This decision doesn't only mean that Hashem decides to continue to create the world... rather, He decides the exact nature and amount of blessings..." Why does Hashem also decide the exact nature of blessings that people will get? Why isn't this delayed for a later date - a later month - entirely?
    Yasher Koach; ksviah v'chasimah tovah!

  2. B'H

    In my very humble opinion, it was one of your best article of the year.

    Thank you for all that you gave us during that past year.

    Hace a sweet and good year.


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