The King and his Son
Thoughts on Parashat Naso
Two weeks ago I devoted my drasha to Jewish unity and diversity. This week I will take up the topic of the role of our leadership. This week’s Torah portion speaks extensively about roles of Levites (in particular Kohathites and Gershonites), Kohanim in the Tabernacle services, ritual purity, the ritual of nazirite and so on. The idea of purity, of “being fit” to perform certain position of power and responsibility it is a motif that is constantly present in these biblical verses.
This issue is, of course, also constantly present in politics, raised cyclically, whether from the left or the right side of the political scene, often in the form of the postulated obligation of moral purity of people in power, demanded first and foremost from political opponents. This matter was also addressed by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in one of his tales: The King Who Transferred His Kingdom To His Son During His Lifetime. I will not quote the whole story but you can read it here, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Tales_of_Rabbi_Nachman/13, I will focus only on its interpretation.
In this story we have a King and his Son. The King transfers his power over his kingdom to his Son during his lifetime. The King is God, and his Son is a specific man, to whom the power was transferred or Man, understood as the entire humanity. The transfer of power in this story is a divine act of withdrawal from the world, called cimcum in Kabbalah.
The act of cimcum has tremendous practical consequences. Leaving the man alone creates great opportunities for him, first of all great possibilities of expressing his will and power over the world. However, it also entails a huge responsibility and the possibility of error. The greater the power the greater the tendency to go astray, and to err and to do damage.
Man begins to enjoy his new position very quickly. He starts organizing society his own way. Shortly after reorganizing the world, the man starts his philosophical inquiries about the nature (and basically everything that surrounds him), which is aimed at conquering and controlling it. And here we come to the main moral of this story and a great philosophical point that defines man’s existential status quo in the world: only truly happy, fulfilled man is fit to have power and control over the society, world or nature, without damaging it. An unhappy and insatiable man will abuse his power and exceed its limits, which will put into danger himself and everything that depends on him. That’s the thing that, according to Rabbi Nachman, makes also God Himself sad. Unhappy man isn’t fit to be any sort of king, any sort of sovereign over society or nature. According to the story only a happy and a humble man (which means the one who does not need to be a king to be happy) can fit to be sovereign of the world. Only that kind of man can replace God as king and only that kind of power replacement makes God happy.
But the man from Rabbi Nachman’s story turned out not to be completely fit to be sovereign of the world. He started to torment himself with existential questions and it brought political disorder to his society. The leadership of the state went astray, embracing heretical doctrines and detaching themselves from reality. This happened to be the case many times in human history, starting from the biblical times, and caused the entire empires to fall.
A fish rots from the head down, but even then there is a hope for society/humanity. The hope, according to the story, is in common folk, that was not contaminated by the heretical, erroneous wisdom of their leaders. Thanks to that societies can survive various mistakes and failures of their leadership.
But the story actually presents an optimistic variant of described situation, in which ordinary people weren’t harmed by the entire situation. It is partly due to the fact that ordinary people simply have to adapt to life and have too many everyday problems and responsibilities to get involved in doubtful, heretical concepts. But it does not have to go this way and we know from history that they can become victims of this situation or mere tools in the hands of insane and despotic leadership, precisely because of this capacity to adapt, to almost every life conditions. We experienced this scenario very painfully in the 20th century in Europe, where this capacity to adapt happened to be the main cause of either serving the totalitarian regimes or being completely indifferent to the situation of its victims.
I’m aware that the requirements from the Rabbi Nachman’s story might not be completely realistic in different periods of history. It is also questionable that happiness is the core goal of human life itself: life, in general, is not about being happy. It is more about doing or being involved in things that bring happiness as their ‘side effect’. That’s where the idea of ‘being fit’ comes back again. If you do things that you are ‘fit to’, if you do them well and if they are meaningful for you and your family or community, happiness will be your constant companion.