Prophets and presidents, precedents and profits

Keep Dreaming: An open letter from Moshe Rabbenu to Moshe Katsav arguing that Jewish tradition provides ample precedent for a former president receiving a punishment as severe as the law allows.

Katsav (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Dear Moshe, If it’s any consolation, you’re not the first to bear the name, reach the pinnacle of national leadership and protest the severity of a sentence imposed for an offense involving the use of force. Though truth be told, I’m not writing to offer consolation. Rather, I’m appealing to you to drop your appeal.
Indeed, I, too, challenged the appropriateness of my punishment. Should I have been denied the privilege of stepping foot in the Promised Land merely for striking a rock rather than speaking to it as I’d been commanded, when my only motivation was to draw water from it to alleviate the thirst of my flock? Was that just recompense for a lifetime of bearing the burdens I’d borne in the service of the Lord for the benefit of my people?
“And I pleaded with God at that time, saying, I beg You, let me cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan... But God was angry with me for your sakes, and would not listen to me; and God said to me, ‘Enough. Speak no more to me of this matter’” (Deuteronomy 3:23-26). And I was quiet and I obeyed. Why?
“For your sakes.” Those were the words that silenced me. I understood that in the position I had assumed – a position, I remind you, which I never sought – that my life did not belong to me alone. However reluctantly, I had become a symbol and I needed to accept that along with the privilege of leadership came the responsibility of personal example. How much more so for one who vigorously sought the rank you attained. What might be excused in the behavior of others, cannot be tolerated in one to whom the people are expected to look for moral guidance.
But please, take no comfort in the parallel I have drawn. It is imperfect, to say the least, and any attempt on your part to draw any correspondence between your life and mine would be repugnant. The crimes for which you have been found guilty are heinous and could not be forgiven in anyone. They are deeds of vanity, conceit, aggrandizement and arrogance. What you were unable to attain through coaxing and thus took with violence violated the sanctity of others – and for no purpose other than to satisfy the basest of animal impulses.
While my zealousness and impatience constituted a misdeed motivated by the national interest, yours was in the interest of nothing but self-satisfaction. I have invoked the story of my judgment only to make the point that in our teachings, prominence is grounds not for leniency but stringency. “Enough. Speak no more of this matter.”
You have already profaned God’s name and made a mockery of His promise. The words of Ezekiel (36:17- 28), read in synagogue this past Shabbat: “O mortal, when the House of Israel dwelt on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds... So I poured out My wrath on them... I scattered them among the nations and... I punished them in accordance with their ways and their deeds. But when they came to those nations, they caused My holy name to be profaned...
Thus said the Lord God, not for your sake will I act... but for My holy name... I will take you from among the nations... and I will bring you back to your own land… And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh... and you shall be My people and I will be your God.”
FOR THE House of Israel, national redemption was always to be entwined with spiritual renewal. I implored you to recognize this as I readied you to take possession of the land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and as we approach the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt it is a particularly opportune moment for me to remind you again. And regrettably, not only you but so many others who have been entrusted with the sacred task of leadership. How many ministers, Knesset members and highly placed government officials have been sent to jail or are under investigation for having pursued personal profit rather than the prophets’ teachings? “You shall be My people and I will be your God... Then you shall recall your evil ways and your base conduct and you shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abhorrent practices... Be ashamed and humiliated because of your ways...” (Ezekiel 36:28-32).
With all due humility, I invoke the words of Malachi (3:22-23), read on Shabbat Hagadol immediately preceding Pessah. They should be especially resonant for you as past mayor of the town of his namesake, whose residents you have shamed along with the entire House of Israel: “Be mindful of the teaching of My servant Moshe, whom I charged at Horev with laws and rules for all Israel... so that when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”
Accordingly, I entreat you to ask yourself a fifth question in addition to the traditional four at this year’s Seder: Will my own interests, the interests of my family and the interests of my people whom I was entrusted with serving from the highest office of the land be better served by my continuing with my appeal or abandoning it? Let your answer begin with the words that caused me to reconcile myself to the punishment I received: “For your sakes...”
Moshe, you have accused those judging you of having been persuaded by the clamor of the masses and you have claimed that they were prejudiced by a vindictive left-wing media. I prefer to think that perhaps they were influenced by my Torah, handed down from one generation to the next, and embellished by each.
The ensuing tradition provides ample precedent for a former president receiving a punishment as severe as the law allows.
I don’t know if in Israel witnesses swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth while laying their hand upon the Bible, but I trust that those who are charged with sentencing the guilty are well versed in the morality that lies between its covers.
Teacher, prophet and servant of God
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.