To Refine Character


Prince Amadeo of Savoy ascended to the Spanish throne in 1870, becoming King Amadeus I of Spain.  After a volatile three years in which his realm was riven with republican conspiracies, assassinations, uprisings, a separatist movement in Cuba as well as in Catalunia and among the Basque, he abdicated in disgust and proclaimed that Spaniards are ungovernable.  James Michener takes up that theme in his book “Iberia” in which he mentions how Spaniards act on the basis of an extreme sense of honour called “pundonor” as well as a self-first and and other be damned philosophy called “Viva Yo!”   This toxic mixture produces such a caustic result that only the strong-arm tactics of an omnipresent police, the Guardia Civil, can keep society in check.  

Compared to the Germans, for example, or Canadians with a cultural affinity for order and good government, ruling Spain is like herding cats.  But I doubt that being ungovernable is a uniquely Spanish trait.  Italy has seen 61 governments since the end of the Second World War.  And the Greeks have not shown an enviable record of cooperation since the Persian Wars.  Closer to heart, it is worth noting that there has never been a majority government in the entire history of the modern State of Israel whose sixty-fourth birthday will be celebrated this month.   Fierce independence and self-interest seems to be characteristic of humanity, not any one people.  As philosopher Thomas Hobbes once wrote, were it not for a strong central government imposed by a powerful monarch, human life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In Judaism it is not a person that regulates and governs the masses, but a text that aims to cahnge the attitude of the masses.  As the rabbis once put it:  “The commandments were given for the express purpose of refining the human personality.”   The Torah weans people away from selfishness and directs people to selflessness.  Returning lost property, intervening to save a life, caring for the wisow, the poor, and the orphan – are all parts of the programme to train people to be sympathetic souls who act with concern and with compassion.  The Sages expand on the idea and add to the ways that can make this happen.  But it is the Torah and its revolutionary concepts that is the starting point.

Accordingly, the celebration of Shavu’ot is more than just a small matter.  It is a celebration of the Giving of the Torah and, hence, the beginning of the transformation of humanity.  By emphasizing this holiday Jews maintain that humanity is indeed governable, provided that people are willing to refine their character.

Hag Sameah.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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