Would we devour each other without good government?


Just returned from a visit to our neighbours to the south, my original home and native land. Except that it is no longer my home, less and less like my native land.

There are many things to say about the U.S. elections: some good – more young people involved – and some very, very bad.

Unless you are just back from Mars, you know the tenor of many speeches on television: what passes for platforms are slogans; what passes for debates, obscenities; for dialogue, bombast and boast.


I thought back to my Grade 7 class debate, the year Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ran against Adlai Stevenson. Our social studies class (then called citizenship) held a debate on the platforms of the respective candidates.

I was the Republican supporting Eisenhower, another classmate the advocate for Stevenson. In the end, I won. So did Ike, although without my help. No surprise there, as Pennsylvania is, and was, a Republican stronghold and Ike a war hero. But we addressed the issues: e.g. Communism, the atom bomb, the welfare of newly de-mobbed soldiers.

Fast forward many years and what have we got? Un-reality TV.

Yes, we are not living in America, but make no mistake. The outcome will affect us all, both as individuals (think border crossings) and as a country (think NAFTA, security, immigration.) More, think of the example this campaign sets to all young people contemplating a political career.

What can be derived from our Judaic heritage to guide us at this fraught moment? The rabbis of Pirkei Avot had some wisdom for us: “Be wary of the government, for they get friendly with a person only for their own convenience. They look like friends when it is to their own benefit, but they do not stand by a person when he is in need.” (Pirkei Avot, 2:3)

How well we know this can be true. However, as long as we keep alert, usually in a democracy we can be assured the government will stand by us, and by Israel.  It’s not the 1930s anymore.

“Pray for the welfare of the government; for if it were not for fear of it, one person would swallow another alive.” (Pirkei Avot, 3:2)

This feels acutely relevant. Every week on Shabbat, we pray for the government and the people of Canada, that we may be governed wisely and compassionately. So what kind of government are we praying for? Is it true that without government we would devour each other? Where are those better angels of our nature? What are we losing?

We only have to look at parts of the world where government has ceased to function to see the truth behind this cynical view of humankind. Syria, or what was once Syria. Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East. Afghanistan. Libya. South Sudan and other areas of Africa.

But is any government suitable? Is any old kind of governance preferable to none? Would we actually fall into chaos if our institutions ceased to act on behalf of the people? We only have to remember the Weimar republic to see how a nation can choose poorly in order to survive. Or, for example, Rwanda today, where a saviour has become a tyrant.


Yet what is on offer by my Grand Old Party? Candidates who are racist, xenophobic, and above all, ignorant of the fundamentals of government. Nor has the media distinguished itself in drawing out the vacuity of the campaign.

Indeed, the U.S. government has almost ceased to function, with congressmen openly refusing to do their jobs. When this happens, we have incipient chaos. Soon, perhaps, people will begin swallowing each other.

Yes, every head of state is an imperfect choice. They will do things we dislike, or make policies injurious to the vulnerable. So we need to hope that we have chosen someone who can govern wisely. Right now, that seems an open question down south.