Dr. Yechiel Harari*
An ivy-league college graduate comes to his elderly father, a retired congressman, and says, “Dad, I have some news to tell you; please try to understand.”
“What is it, son?” he asks matter-of-factly.
“I’ve decided to go into organized crime,” the young and gifted grad says.
“Great career choice,” the father says. “Just tell me — in the private sector or the public sector?”
Election season is upon us.
In America, it’s starting to warm up, while the Israeli public is going to a second trip to the polls in less than six months next week. Politics, in the media-dominated modern world, became a national pastime – a sort of a major-league ballgame. Who’s friends with whom, who’s attacking who, and most importantly, what do the polls say today?
If R’ Zusha of Anipoli speaks about seven things we can learn from a thief in our Avodas Hashem. No one is, G-d Forbid insinuating that a politician is necessarily a thief, but if we’re already investing so much time and attention into political entertainment, at least they should produce some valuable spiritual lessons. A politician during an election campaign can teach us even more than a thief in a break-in.
So what can we learn from a politician during an election campaign?
We can learn how to prepare for battle and win the constant and difficult internal struggle waging within us. A struggle between two souls: one, the source of undesirable emotions and improper inclinations, while the other pushes us into living a life of mission and meaning. According to Chassidus, the struggle is the ultimate purpose of a Jew’s life, or to be more precise, the victory in this struggle is currently the primary mission in the life of a Jew.
So let’s begin.
1) Get Into the Ring: There are politicians who have all the reasons to look at things from above, be it a prime minister for almost 20 years, a president of the most powerful country in the world bearing the most powerful and sensitive responsibilities, or a person who’s held an uncontested seat in congress for the past forty years. However, this is election time, and in an election campaign, anyone unprepared to march into battle and get down and dirty will lose. It’s impossible to remain above the fray, clean and proper – and still emerge victorious, no matter which party you belong o and how wide your “base” is. Those days are over.
I worked for seven years in the Knesset and in Israeli government ministries. In several election campaigns, I had an up-close view of some of the leading figures within the Labor Party, foremost among them the late Mr. Shimon Peres. When election time came, they all changed into their karate uniforms. A politician who is not “hungry” appears to show a lack of vitality. Regardless of what task he fulfills, if he’s not ready to get into the muck on the political battlefield, it will be his final task.
The lesson we learn from this in spiritual matters is that it makes no difference what our status was yesterday. If we aren’t prepared to free ourselves from the symbols of honor, our past achievements, our false sense of loftiness hiding the fear of leaving our protective bubble, we won’t be able to develop or make any progress. Our spiritual enemy is the natural, egocentric, animal soul, which wants to drag us down to deal constantly with ourselves. You can’t vanquish this powerful soul “along the way” – without proper effort, kavana, or a sense of awareness.
2) Wake Up in Time: It always surprises me how quickly politicians wake up when there’s an election on the horizon. Their senses sharpen. They know all too well when it’s time to hit the gas pedal and when it’s time to loosen up.
Even on the internal battlefront, there are different levels. The battle isn’t always conducted with the same intensity. We have to learn to pinpoint those times and locations that are potentially problematic. There are battlegrounds that pose dangers of illicit thoughts, fears, anger, and being overcome with sadness and depression. These fronts must be identified. It can be after coming home from work, when we have more time to engage in thought, when we’re busy with our financial affairs, or routine involvement with others.
3) Identify Your Opponent: One of the more complex demands made of a political campaigner is to define who the enemy is, i.e., identifying which battles to lead and which battles to yield, which demographics to target and when to close ranks. A true campaigner will not lie to himself. He will not remain in the comfort zones merely because they are comfortable. He also will not be prepared to swallow the flattering and convincing words of his political rivals trying to put him to sleep. The future of his career is based on the results – at the ballot box.
Those who win in battle don’t try to change themselves in all facets of their lives. They don’t ask to be perfect. They note one “opponent,” one midda at a time that they want to change and improve – whether its anger, perhaps sadness. In the face of this opponent, they decide to concentrate their efforts in battle. In most cases, the results are that when we defeat this rival, many other rivals will retreat, once they become aware of the strength of our victory. The change permeates all aspects of life.
4) Don’t Waste Time: Good politicians learn quickly. They learn to avoid and brush off those who want to consume their most valuable resource – time. They aim for those people and places appropriate for investing their time and effort.
Similarly, in spiritual matters, we find that time vanishes as quickly as fumes from an exhaust pipe. The “world” is loaded with time stealers. A person who desires to be victorious identifies those inclined to waste his time. He’ll fight to gain focus in the completion of his mission. He’ll struggle to “steal” a few more minutes of Torah study, meditation, and thought and another valuable deed for himself and his surroundings. He will not allow time-wasters to take control of his life.
5) Try Again if You Fail: This is where a politician is like a thief… Contrary to popular belief, a good politician isn’t motivated (only) by his ego. He has a goal that he wants to advance. He doesn’t give up no matter how many times he fails. He has come to create change. Therefore, he learns from his setbacks. He gets up off the mat, draws the necessary conclusions, does some fine-tuning, and pushes forward.
In our spiritual avoda, we encounter losers who explain their failures by saying that they’re already quite familiar with a certain approach and are familiar with all its concepts. Yet, it still doesn’t work for them. The truth is that they may have learned the way, but they haven’t internalized it yet. It seems that they weren’t willing, after suffering a setback, to return to battle and implement the proper conclusions.
There’s a saying attributed to the Rebbe Rashab: “Don’t let the person you are now interfering with the person you can be.” To stand by this demand, what’s more important than not losing is knowing to get back on your feet and into the ring. Don’t be deterred by the defeats. Beating yourself over the head and feelings of guilt are enemies of the Jewish soul. They are designed to weaken a person’s resolve and prevent future successes.
6) You’ve Got to Love What You Do: If he’s only there for the media coverage or to remain in the public eye, but he hates the whole political game, it would be better if he withdrew. A good politician is one who enjoys political work, the pressure, the spotlight, and the energy of an election campaign. He revels in his work, and he wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the world.
Even a spiritual warrior has to be happy in his work. He has to be happy with every undesirable emotion and every bad thought. Why? Because here is when the decisive moment comes in determining his ability to win the battle. As the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya (Chapter 27) “If these thoughts occur to him not during his service of G‑d, but while he is occupied with his own affairs and with mundane matters and the like, he should, on the contrary, be happy in his lot. For although these sinful thoughts enter his mind, he averts his attention from them.”
7) Give it All You’ve Got: To achieve victory, the politician is ready to invest all necessary strengths and resources, sparing nothing.
In times of war, as is stated in Chassidus, the king squanders all his treasures and saves no ammunition. The main purpose is to win. A happy, thriving, and healthy soul in close contact with its Creator demands considerable effort and sacrifice. Our inner avoda is not a side job, window-dressing for our career development. It is why we exist and the condition for a happy home and healthy personal relationships.
8) Totality: Career-politicians, in the past decades, are less inclined to have active spousal and family lives. What it says about the state of the world is another story, but it shows that politics is a very demanding and draining job – often consuming a person’s total attention and weighing heavily on the home front. Total politics isn’t necessarily limited to a person’s working hours, as it primarily demands serious emotional and mental commitment. A person married to politics has precious little time for anything else.
By the same token, to succeed in our inner avoda, we need total dedication and self-sacrifice. Throughout the generations, the leading Chassidic giants have demanded “totality.” If Hashem is found in all things and there is no place devoid of Him, it is impossible to free our minds from the main avoda this understanding demands of us. The politician remains with his political awareness, even when he’s attending a family event or when he’s on vacation with his wife and children. Similarly, someone involved in his own inner avoda is also aware of his main task, regardless of the prevailing circumstances.
The big difference, of course, between politics and inner spiritual avoda is that the latter breathes vitality into our home and improves our relationship with our family, rather than harm them.
9) Victory Is Always Temporary: In America, presidents are elected for four-year terms. The Isreali government too is supposed to serve for four years… This is a temporary victory that compels the politician to immediately prepare for the next election. The time in power is relatively short, but it is definitely worthwhile, and many people seek it.
In our spiritual avoda, victory is always temporary. We are victorious at a moment of sadness, anger, or haughtiness, and then the next battle ensues. Yet, while the victories are temporary, they are sweet, and the reward is great.
Even complete Tzddikim need to keep fighting their way upward, “Tzaddikim have no rest, neither in the world or in the world to come, as it is said ‘They shall go from strength to strength…’”
I am certain that if we contemplate the matter, we will find additional spiritual lessons. I believe this to be the true purpose behind this second national election of 5779 – to teach us how to win the real battle of our lives.
Dr. Yechiel Harari (b. 1984) is a researcher, lecturer, and senior author. He has a bachelor’s degree in business management and political science at the Open University, which he graduated with honors in 1998. He studied for his master’s degree in political philosophy in the Department of Political Science at the Tel Aviv University and graduated with honors. He taught at Sapir College. During this period he served as a parliamentary adviser to MKs Ofir Pines-Paz and Eli Ben-Menachem of the Labor Party, and as a communications adviser to the Minister of Construction and Housing.
During a sabbatical, he was exposed to the Tanya which led him to Teshuva. He has since authored several books on Chassidic thought in contemporary language. His most popular books are Tanya Advices and The Rebbe’s Secret, a biography of the Rebbe’s life and teachings.
This piece was translated from a blog on his website, Hitbonenut.net