Presidents' Day Torah

This past Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world read Parashat Yitro. As the parasha begins, Moses's father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) comes to visit him in the wilderness where he's encamped "at the mountain of God." It doesn't take Jethro long to realize that Moses needs some help... and the ensuing advice he gives Moses is solid and covers topics ranging from having clarity about his own role to how to set up an administration and delegate tasks effectively.

This year, Presidents' Day coincides with the U.S. presidential election season kicking into high gear! Here in Washington State, presidential primary ballots will be mailed at the end of this week, and are due back on March 10th. Needless to say, we encourage everyone to vote in this (and every) election. If you happen to know anyone who isn't yet registered -- perhaps because they've just moved here, or recently turned 18 -- please help them register by the March 2nd deadline to be eligible to vote in this particular election.

This seems like a good opportunity to remind our community that, as a 501c3, Kavana is prohibited by law from participating in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. However, we are absolutely empowered to encourage voter registration and voter turnout, to support issues we care about, and to reflect on what our Jewish tradition has to say about important themes such as morality and leadership. And fortunately, the Torah portions for last Shabbat and this coming Shabbat make reflecting on these themes quite easy this week!

This past Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world read Parashat Yitro. As the parasha begins, Moses's father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) comes to visit him in the wilderness where he's encamped "at the mountain of God." It doesn't take Jethro long to realize that Moses needs some help... and the ensuing advice he gives Moses is solid and covers topics ranging from having clarity about his own role to how to set up an administration and delegate tasks effectively. Jethro knows that every leader depends on advisors, judges and chiefs (whatever the terminology). He advises Moses about the selection of those individuals, stating (in Exodus 18:21): "You shall seek out from among the nation people of courage, God-fearers, people of truth, haters of ill-gotten gain." It's refreshing to me to read these words in election year 2020 and understand that our Jewish tradition has -- literally for thousands upon thousands of years -- insisted that leaders should be capable and trustworthy. As we ponder our upcoming opportunity to vote, I believe that the Torah would have us consider which candidates will demonstrate moral integrity and will apply the highest standards to their own behavior and to their selection of appointees.

Parashat Yitro also contains "the big ten" commandments... and then as we move on to Parashat Mishpatim (the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat), we can see how many small and detailed pieces of legislation, too, it takes to build a society. In biblical terms, these laws run the gamut... from damages and penalties, to laws concerning livestock, from warnings about usury and bribery, to proscriptions about Shabbat and festivals. In our modern analogue, we might say that Mishpatim helps us recall that -- whoever we vote for -- our leaders will be responsible for signing into law and enacting countless pieces of legislation, both large and small. As we vote, we must consider not only the personalities of the candidates and who is most likable, but also whose policies will help to build the kind of free and fair society in which we yearn to live, whether the topic at hand is criminal justice, healthcare, immigration, education, foreign trade, taxes, environmental protections, etc.

Today, as we pause to recall and celebrate some of the foundational leaders of this nation, let's also remember that Jewish tradition calls on us to set our sights high when it comes to both leadership and legislation.  

Wishing you a Presidents' Day of inspiration and vision. Be on the lookout for those ballots!