Selected Sermon/Article
2000-12-15 VaYishlach by Rav Ze'ev Smason
We've all had days when it seemed that nothing could go right. Do you remember the last time you woke up late, couldn't find your keys to the car -- and then, the car wouldn't start. And then, things got worse? We've all been there.

The story is told of a fellow named Chaim who had been suffering from a string of really bad mazal, when he stumbled upon a magic lamp. A genie popped out of the lamp, and promised to grant him three wishes.

First, Chaim wished for a fancy red sports car. Second, he wished for $20 million.

Then, he asked the genie if he could think about his third wish, and the genie said 'OK.' As Chaim was driving down the highway in his new red sports car, he was so happy that he began to sing along with a radio commercial, "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener..."

In the five weeks that has passed since the November 7 general election, many observers of the American political scene also feel that there really wasn't very much that went right! First, the media declared Vice President Gore the winner in Florida. Then, Governor Bush was declared the winner. The election boards couldn't count. Partisan hostility -- the likes of which that have rarely been seen in our lifetimes in this country -- were hurled across the political aisles. The Florida State Supreme Court was split, the US Supreme Court was split, and the closest US presidential election in over one hundred years has left America divided, and with a bad taste remaining in the mouths of many.

The question of the moment for us here, however, is; what guidance can the Torah provide us regarding that lessons that we can learn from the past wrenching five weeks?

After Yaakov wrestled with the angel and subdued him, the Torah states that Yaakov asked, "Tell me please your name." He (the angel) said, "Why do you ask my name?" (Gen. 32:30)

Angels have names? Yaakov wants to know the name of the angel? The angel won't tell Yaakov his name? Isn't this a bit difficult to understand, ladies and gentlemen?

The angel that wrestled with Yaakov was the personification of the forces of evil that seek to overpower the forces of righteousness. In asking what the angel's name was, Yaakov wanted to identify this power to be more easily able to guard himself against it.

When the angel responded by saying "Why do you ask my name," Rashi explains that what the angel was really saying was, "other angels have names, but I have no fixed name." One opinion in the Talmud states that the angel appeared as a heathen, and another states that he appeared as a learned scholar.

Corruption and immorality have many faces. Sometimes, we find ourselves inclined to do the wrong thing simply because our yetzer hara (evil impulse) overwhelms us -- like a heathen. On other occasions, we find ourselves drawn in a mistaken direction under the guise of noble political or social ideals -- when the yetzer hara presents himself to us as a learned scholar.

It's my feeling that in the recent election, both sides were after a win at almost any cost -- not the truth, nor what was right. If the situation had been reversed with Gore winning by a few hundred votes, does anyone doubt that Bush's team would have been screaming for a recount while Gore's team would have been setting up every conceivable roadblock? Ted Olson would have been making David Boies' arguments, Joe Lieberman would have been advocating the same strategy that Dick Chaney did, and Al Gore would have run to the US Supreme Court as quickly as George Bush.

How can we possibly overcome our bias, and guard against the heathen and scholarly rationalizations that come to mind so quickly in matters of politics, money, religion and relationships? I'd like to offer one suggestion.

The Talmud relates that the halacha (Jewish law) was established like the house of Hillel and not Shammai for the following reason; when Hillel and Shammai were in the midst of a vigorous discussion with strongly held differing opinions, Hillel would first articulate Shammai's line of reasoning and arguments, and then his own.

Could a passionate Democrat clearly explain the logic behind the Republican perspective, and vice versa? When we differ strongly with another person, are we so blinded by the feeling that 'we're right,' that we can't even imagine what the other person might be thinking? If so, that's an indication that our bias may have hold of us -- and not, the force of logic. Trying to see and explain the other person's point of view might not have prevented the divisiveness in America over the recent election -- but I'm certain that it would have improved the tone of the discussion. This is a lesson, perhaps, that we can apply to ourselves in our interactions with others, and the decisions we make when faced with two opposite paths.

I know that I speak for all of us here in praying that the Almighty grant President-elect Bush the wisdom and strength to unite and heal this country from its divisions. May the Almighty give us the wisdom, as well, to learn from this most remarkable recent Presidential election -- in seeking to understand, and be able to articulate the other guy's point of view.

Good Shabbos