The 19th century Maggid (story teller) of Dubno (Jacob ben Wolf Kranz) once told a story which many candidates in this election season need to hear. It is a story about the way one man tried to make himself appear superior to another man even though both were the same height. Whenever the two walked down a street, the one wanting to look greater always let the other take a position on the sidewalk first. Then he would settle next to him and slowly push him onto the gutter in the street, making the second look shorter.
The Maggid took note of this and made the following observation: If the first man wanted to look greater (by appearing taller) he could have just as easily stood on a platform when the two men stood together before an audience. The lesson: if you want to appear greater than another, work to make yourself standout instead of tearing someone else down.
Many of today’s candidates need to learn this lesson. The vitriolic name calling and denigrating tenor of ads and speeches have turned recent elections, including this one, into verbal and visual cesspools. And this gutter mentality, which has flooded the national political scene, has leached into state and local elections as well.
If a candidate finds it too hard to explain the nuances of a complicated issue or finds an explanation too lengthy to fit into a 30 second sound bite, the solution is obvious. Attack your opponents’ characters and let the chips fall where they may. Attack them for their age, especially if they are too old or too young (and the right age is?). Attack them for their lack of experience. Or, if they have too much experience, attack them for being in office for too long. Attack them for being too wealthy or too connected. Attack them for being too removed from the people or too involved outside the office to get anything done. Attack them for being too complacent or too strong. The reason for the attack does not matter. Just attack, because it’s easier than explaining what makes you the better candidate. Besides, people are more naturally drawn to the emotional gore of gladiatorial combat. It’s an easy substitute for critical thinking.
Sometimes candidates deserve criticism. Voters need to know that. But criticism can be delivered without venom or personal attacks. It is done by focusing on the issues and records. And on telling the truth about both.
Most candidates are truthful including, I’m proud to say, those from our congregation. Yet too many are willing to throw civility into the gutter along with their opponents. Sadly, they then end up there too.
My wish for the New Jewish Year is that all of us would learn the Maggid’s lesson of building up instead of tearing down- in our relationships, our families, our communities and our nation. Let good will replace negativity and let a spirit of kindness infuse all that we do, including the way we elect our leaders.
The clergy, staff and all our families wish you a Shanah Tova, a good year.