Pirke Avot 2:3

Beware of rulers, for they befriend somone only for their own benefit;

they act friendly when it benefits them, but do not stand by someone in his time of need.

I hesitated over whether or not to include this saying on this blog.

My hesitation was this: some folks hate our government and all politicians – I would hate to feed that hate or to to give even a small piece of “justification” to it.    Especially in the aftermath of the events in Tucson so recently.

So, let me say as I have before, that I worked as a federal employee for 13 good years, that during that time I got to know many outstanding and smart and hard-working people, and that our government system and our politicians have many flaws but have also proven themselves over the centuries by keeping our country strong.

If this wisdom is not suggesting that we hate or despise our political leaders, what IS it saying?

Beware of rulers.  Don’t hate them.  Don’t despise them.  Don’t reject them.  Be wary as you deal with them. 

First note that the wisdom is regarding “rulers” – people already in power.  This wisdom is quite ancient and comes about 1,700 years before the creation of democracy and the idea of a people selecting its government leaders (not rulers) and giving those folks a limited time in power (terms) and their having to exercise that power in a system that limited what they could do (our checks and balances).  Nevertheless I think that we can extend this wisdom to cover dealing with those who are running for office but are not yet in power, and extend it as well to our modern system of governance as well as to kingdoms, to dictatorships, indeed to all forms of governance.

Versailles Palace in France.

The advice begins by reminding us to “be wary” of all of these folks.  Be cautious, be careful, be attentive – be all of these things when you deal with folks who want power or who have it already.  WHY?

They befriend someone only for their own benefit: acting friendly when it benefits them and not standing by someone in their time of need.   Those in power now (and those seeking it) will be all smiles and agreement towards those who have either money or votes as long their money and their votes are needed.

It has been true from time immemorial that as soon as that money or those votes are no longer needed the person who had been so friendly and welcoming and agreeable will likely change.

BUT – it does not say ALL of them.  Which is why the advice is to “be wary” and not simply “avoid”.   Be careful not to expect too much from a promise before an election.  Be careful not to expect too much from a politician to whom one contributes money.   Be wary – watch and see what happens afterwards.  Those who reward your trust (your vote, your contribution) with hard work and good decisions should get the same and more the next time.  Those who don’t should not.

The rabbis note that we need in general not to expect the government to protect or do the work of our faith.  It is up to us as persons of faith and organized religious communities to be vigilant in protecting ourselves and promoting ourselves.  Certainly both the Jewish tradition and the Roman Catholic tradition have been discriminated against by governments in various times and places.  And – my own Roman Catholic tradition has, in various times and places, been an abuser of others through the use of governments as well.

The rabbis note, in their commentaries on this saying, that we are to be wary (individually and collectively) because times and situations can change.  The political winds can shift at a moment’s notice.  One can be “in” today and “out” tomorrow – both as a politician / ruler and as a constituent wielding the influence of friendship or money.  So – be wary, don’t get too dependent on either power or rulers / leaders / politicians!

I think this advice is good for both political conservatives and liberals to reflect on.  No matter which philosophy we hold – power has the potential to corrupt us, has the potential to have us act one way today and another way tomorrow to our discredit.  And we always have the danger that we will substitute our own judgment and our own values over the judgment and values of our religious traditions.