The roster of presidents of the United States might be quite different had every potential presidential candidate studied the Daf Yomi that will be studied all over the world the day after President’s Day in the United States this year.
Love him or hate him, had former President Trump, as a private citizen 7½ years ago, studied the Daf Yomi in the previous cycle, with a specific reference to the daf to be studied again the day after President’s Day 2021, we could be entering the second term of Hillary Clinton as president of the United States, and all the buildings named after Trump would retain their names, PGA tournaments would continue to take place on Trump golf courses, families would not be split and friendships ended because of politics, politicians from both parties would continue to court him for donations to their campaigns, and all the talk show hosts would be happy to banter with him on everything but politics as they did in previous years!
The sentence in the Daf Yomi Pesachim 87b referred to above has nothing to do with Passover and not even a passing reference to presidents per se. Rabbi Yochanan simply observed, “Oy (alas!) for the rabbinate, which buries its occupants.” President Trump has been called many names these past 4+ years, but never a rabbi. What the Talmud means, of course, is that people who take on leadership positions often lose their pre-leadership identities (The Chasam Sofer) or are prone to be consumed by their power (which can be interpreted in various ways, none very pleasant) or by the people they lead. And this is without even accounting for leaders who pledge to drain the establishment in both major political parties, who taunt the press as being fake, and who are canceled by the press and high tech.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the father of the mussar movement, famously observed, “If a congregation does not want to run its rabbi out of town, he is no rabbi; and if it succeeds, he is no man.” There is no shortage of people in both political parties who wanted to run the president out of town, and who still do, retroactively, but we will never know whether they would have succeeded before or after his term in office ended had not the coronavirus intervened, with all the predictable and unforeseen consequences that followed.
The Ethics of the Fathers is consistent with this theme, with this hauntingly relevant piece of advice: “Be guarded in your relations with the ruling power, for they who exercise it draw no man [or woman? or transgender individual?] near to them except for their own interests; appearing as friends when it is to their advantage, they stand not by a man in the hour of his need” (2:3). (Sorry; the Bible is only historically and ethically correct—not politically correct.)
While most presidents in recent times profited by their rise to power, President Trump came to power wealthier than all prior presidents, but once in power lost more to his brand and his net worth than virtually any prior president, and more Twitter account followers than any prior president, bar none. Going back to the Daf Yomi, the former president may not have been buried financially—yet—but his words via Twitter and Facebook have been “buried” before they could get to cyberspace and beyond, and his future will not necessarily be as glorious as his past.
The former president’s rise to and fall from power have taught everyone a lesson from the Talmud more powerfully than taught by any rabbi in the Talmud. Power can lead to the burial of those who have it, even if they are not impeached—twice.
Most people who rise to power are not buried by their positions (double entendre—either by their titles or their orders, executive or otherwise). Presumably, the Talmud is creating an awareness that it can happen, and candidates for political office—or any other position of leadership—should do all in their power to prevent it from happening.
Here is hoping that future politicians will run for office for the right reasons and for the benefit of all the voters, regardless of their skin color, religion, or political or sexual orientation; that the politicians will watch what they say and how they say it; and will not be scared away from running for office for fear of being run out of town, or out of every town (whether or not impeached, a process never considered by the rabbis in the Talmud, nor by the House of Representatives a second time before January 6), and here is hoping that future members of the media and big tech will promote the free exchange of ideas so that liberals and conservatives will at least come to an agreement on the facts, no matter how they view them, and so that politicians who are run out of town will be run out of town for the right reasons and with a united send-off.
The writer is taking no position on politics, at least in this article, other than to pray that future politicians—conservative, liberal, and radical—will be free and encouraged to speak their minds and that what they say will be worthy of respect and analysis by all, whether by those who agree or disagree with their substance.
By Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel, Esq.