Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rhetoric and Action

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The subject of leadership is indeed on everyone’s mind these days. Ambitious politicians are flying around the country, trying frenziedly to sell themselves as the perfect candidate for president of the United States. Inflated by grandiosity, these people are expert at erecting a façade of superiority to mask their inexperience and ineptitude.

It’s almost comical to watch the media reporting their every statement with utter seriousness, as if their comments are really worth studying. No matter that the candidates’ records are bereft of accomplishment. An undiscerning, naïve public mindlessly swallows the rhetoric and propaganda.

What a field day a presidential election is for the media! They pounce at the unparalleled opportunity to influence the course of human events. They crank out hype in the service of their favorite candidate to satisfy an electorate craving entertainment and diversion. The campaign turns into a colossal game. Petty politicians look upon every event, including the most consequential, and every policy statement, strictly as a means to promote their political advantage. What drives them is not the public interest, or the need to find solutions to the problems of the times, but rather the consuming drive to score points and win primaries.

Polls are conducted and people are asked all kinds of questions concerning the various candidates. Based upon what people answer, these power-hungry hopefuls begin tailoring their message to conform to what pollsters say the people want to hear.

And as the public appetite for fresh news drives the media to embellish and fabricate non-events into major happenings, individuals who are wholly undeserving of attention become the focus of elaborate public recognition.

Ultimately, the people get what they deserve. If voters maintained a grasp on the issues, they wouldn’t become enamored by the latest poll-tested sound bites. If people were less superficial they would see past the glib, meaningless platitudes and focus on who is really best for them. They would study which party raises taxes as a matter of policy and which seeks to reduce taxes, which candidate will fight for a secure and confident country and which is for passivism and compromise. They would analyze the candidates’ records and determine which one espouses positions closest to theirs.

In a sane world, a person like Barack Hussein Obama would never be touted as a viable presidential contender just two years after entering the senate, and with no record of accomplishment in any area. In fact, many of the people in political leadership positions would never have attained office had people actually stopped to think before they voted.

Here’s the biggest testimony to what nonsense the campaign has descended to: A wooden ineffective robotic candidate, sensing she was going downhill in popularity, tried a desperate measure: she shed a crocodile tear. Lo and behold, as if on cue, the compliant media resurrected her moribund campaign. Without asking how she would handle real issues if she can’t handle a silly question in New Hampshire, and why she hasn’t shown any emotion during past stressful periods in her life, the opinion shapers simply pounced on a theatric display of fictional emotion to ratchet up the campaign once again. Thus the campaign that had been already written off by the very same experts as being witless, boring and monotonous, revolving around a woman reviled by half of the country, was injected with new life.

The gullible masses following the story line and fell in line, voting for the preferred candidate. Thus the race continues between incompetents who refer to themselves as “agents of change,” but are unable to validate that title with any specifics. The more qualified people who had records of accomplishment and took principled stands on real issues have disappeared from the race. Doomed prematurely by the media, three democrats – Biden, Dodd and Richardson – who offered solid resumes and platforms are out of the picture.

In their place, virtual nonentities continue to score in the polls and get elected to high positions. People hear only what they want to hear and ignore the rest. They are content to swallow half stories and half truths and never try to penetrate beneath the glibness to determine for themselves what is going on around them and around the world. They develop opinions based on snippets of information tainted with preconceptions and bias.

Newspapers that could inform them are brushed aside. When intelligent people offer clarity and insight, their words are largely ignored. The poorly informed prefer to remain that way, criticizing all who attempt to accomplish something worthwhile. The masses don’t want to be alarmed; they prefer to be pacified with false words of comfort and hope.

The catchword of the moment is “change.” So, in an effort to woo voters who reportedly seek above all, that nebulous achievement, “change,” everyone has become an advocate of change. Change who? Change what? How to go about changing it? They don’t offer a clue.

Barack Hussein Obama, in the best populist demagogue tradition, has perfected the mantra and is succeeding in promoting himself as the most promising agent of “change.” He too offers no specifics on what he will change and how or why. Yet no one seems to care.

In our community, leadership carries different credentials. Change for its own sake is not the panacea—and not even a virtue. We would like to think that experience makes a difference, as does intelligence and a plan. Nobody gets elected in our world by standing up and saying, “Vote for me because I speak well, because my words have a sweet cadence.” Nobody is crowned as leader because he offers hope without any substantive proposal.

The problem, as most of us are aware, is that we are suffering from a dearth of leadership. It appears as if not enough young people are rising to the level of competence and farsightedness to become communal leaders. This situation has serious implications for the future of our community.

Every community requires leadership; every group needs someone who can bring them together and infuse them with drive and ambition to do good and grow as individuals and as a group. Every society needs a figure who has vision, someone who can see the big picture and contemplate solutions for problems that lie ahead.

The masses crave charismatic leaders they can rely upon to point the way through the confusion and turmoil of our times.

There are so many who require advice, assistance and direction. They need a shoulder to cry on, a loyal guide to help them navigate the moral and physical minefields threatening our world.

A leader provides inspiration in an apathetic time. He enables people to find the good in themselves and work towards perfection and positive accomplishment. He exhorts his followers to help themselves and others. He does his best to prevent them from falling into the trap of lethargy and negativity. He gives them a reason to go on despite the obstacles thrown in their way.

Leadership in our community should be determined by those whose knowledge and study of Torah is coupled with a heart that cares deeply about fellow Jews. Leadership comes along with a lifetime of service and fidelity to G-d and His children, the Jewish people.

We can look around us and see desolation and destruction. We can see ill winds blowing from Iran, Iraq, Gaza, Yerushalayim, and other portents of danger. Or we can look at the positive and see how far we have come in the past decades. A real leader looks behind to look ahead. As he guides his followers, he looks to the past and to the future in order to gain a clear understanding of the present.

We are still numbed by the loss of Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, Rosh Yeshivas Mir, who, among his other saintly qualities, was a true leader of his people. Bnei Torah feel as if they have lost their king. Rav Shmuel was never crowned by any organization, and occupied no formal public position outside of his yeshiva. Yet, he commanded the love, reverence and obedience of tens of thousands of people nonetheless.

The Bnei Torah’s love of Rav Shmuel was reflected back in his devotion to them. He cherished Bnei Torah. He made it part of his life’s mission to encourage, inspire and enable us to grow in learning, to attain gadlus b’Torah.

His unwavering championing of the Torah led to the great outpouring of kavod haTorah his passing triggered.

Rav Shmuel had no gabboim or ambassadors to the outside world. He was unlearned in the sophisticated telecommunications of our contemporary world and had no use for anything other than Torah. As more and more stories emerge about his devotion to Torah and Bnei Torah, the esteem and stature he was held in continues to grow, confirming Klal Yisroel’s unerring instinct for recognizing true gadlus. And bearing witness to the phenomenon, “gedolim tzadikim b’misosom yoser m’bechayeihem.”

Throughout his life, Rav Shmuel was a man of the people without any airs or conceit, without a shred of the hubris that dooms so many leaders who are driven by their thirst for self-aggrandizement. He and his renowned rebbetzin raised a family of gedolim in their simple, spartan home, which was like a bubble of bygone Lita transplanted in Brooklyn.

This gadol lived a life we, the simple people, can all emulate. He showed it was possible to live a life of pashtus and gadlus. At every opportunity he portrayed for us the ability to excel in Torah by recognizing what is important in life and dedicating ourselves to it.

And now that he is gone, we look to the next generation to continue the transmission of the hallowed mesorah and Torah and replace the void which has been created by the loss of Rav Shmuel and the giants of his generation. It is up to us to recognize greatness, nurture it and support it so that it may grow unhindered. We have to separate wheat from chaff, gadlus from katnus, hanhaga from gaavah, and emes from sheker.

In times like these, we have to ensure that we don’t fall for false prophets of change and hope. When a vacuum is apparent, we have to ensure it is properly filled by men of distinction and greatness. We have to do all we can to ensure that our vision does not become clouded, and our judgment remains untainted, so that we can rise together and be machzir atarah leyoshnah at every opportunity.


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