By Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
Do you remember Pat Paulsen? He was the comedian who ran for president almost every four years from 1968 till 1996. He died a year later. He challenged Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
When approached by the “Smothers Brothers Show” with the idea of running for president in 1968, he said: “Why not? I can’t dance. Besides, the job has a good pension plan, and I’ll get a lot of money when I retire.”
His notable campaigns remarks, according to Wikipedia, include:
- “All the problems we face in the United States today can be traced to an unenlightened immigration policy on the part of the American Indian.”
- “Why should we tell kidnappers, murderers and embezzlers their rights? If they don’t know their rights, they shouldn’t be in the business.”
- “Sex doesn’t have to be taught. It’s something most of us are born with.”
- “If elected, I will win.”
- “Marijuana should be licensed and kept out of the hands of teenagers. It’s too good for them.”
Paulsen ran his campaigns using obvious lies, double-talk and tongue-in-cheek attacks on the major candidates, and he responded to all criticism with his catchphrase: “Picky, picky, picky.”
After watching the Republican and Democratic conventions, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather vote for Pat Paulsen. This is the greatest nation on Earth, and I think we could do better than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Politics aside, I would like to comment on something else that struck me while watching the conventions. It seemed as if there were tens of thousands of people coming together, cheering and chanting. There is great power and energy in such large crowds.
I was reminded of a wonderful bracha that Jewish law tells us to recite when seeing a crowd of 600,000 or more Jews: “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, wise in secrets.”
At such an impressive gathering, why focus on secrets? Focus on G-d the Creator of the world or G-d the most powerful or G-d the Redeemer who brings Jews together. Why G-d wise in secrets?
Isn’t it the size of the crowd that is truly impressive? Or the fact that the number of Jews standing around the foot of Mount Sinai was 600,000, so that such a crowd today is a re-enactment of Sinai? Why focus on secrets?
I’ve had the privilege to serve four synagogues during my career as a rabbi. The first three times I came to a new shul, as I looked out on the shul on the High Holidays, my overwhelming impression surveying a sanctuary full of people was their identity as a group — members of the congregation. I had not yet gotten to know them as individuals.
Now when I stand in front of my congregation on the High Holidays, when we have the largest crowds, it’s impressive even in a small congregation like ours — hundreds of Jews standing together. But when I look at the faces, having been truly privileged to be intimately involved in most of their lives at one time or another, I see the death of a spouse here, a marital problem there, a baby naming here, a wedding there, a job loss here, depression there, a graduation here, a 50th wedding anniversary there.
Yes, it’s a large crowd, but I now see each person as an individual — each one is unique.
When Moses discusses the choice of his successor with G-d (Numbers 27:16), he addresses G-d as Elokey Haruchot kol basar (G-d of the spirits of all flesh). Why the plural “spirits” and not just the “spirit of all flesh”?
The Midrash (Tanchuma 10) teaches that this refers to “G-d who knows the importance of appreciating the uniqueness of the spirit of each individual” — the G-d of each spirit.
Yes, G-d knows that each of us is a unique, holy soul. And just as G-d responds differently to each soul based on its unique experience and abilities, so must a leader of Israel, and so must we all. All of us do a dance of emotions in our lives — from bliss to sorrow, from depression and sadness to joy and contentment.
Sometimes when the dance brings us so low, we get stuck and can’t get up. But if we don’t dance alone, if we hold each other’s hand as we’re thrown this way and that way, we can find a marvelous strength to get up and face what life throws at us and fully take in the joy when it comes.
Communities, families, friendships and even governments would do well to remember this truth that Moses hints at and the rabbis of the Midrash made explicit. Everyone is different, and those differences must be cherished, nurtured and cultivated.
What was so moving to me watching the conventions was that while the halls were filled with people with so many differences, all were Americans. Some were young, and some were old. Some white, some black, some Latino, some Asian. Some wealthy, some not so wealthy. Some Catholic, some Protestant. I saw several kippot at both conventions. Some Muslims, some Sikhs with their turbans. The diversity was remarkable.
I have a theory that I feel is truly profound. To me, it is obvious, although I haven’t heard it professed by anyone else. I believe with all my heart that the United States is a holy country unlike any other.
Unlike most countries, whose people have a homogeneous culture, language and history, America is a microcosm of the whole world, a place where people from all over can come in freedom and contribute their unique perspectives and talents. It is the diversity of America that gives it its remarkable strength.
Rather than feel threatened by this diversity, we should embrace it and celebrate it as a sign of G-d’s presence in our midst, infusing us with passion, energy, wonder and life. It seems to me that the leaders of both parties need to learn this lesson, for each speaks to increasingly narrow constituencies.
It will be fascinating, frustrating, even entertaining over the next few months to watch the election proceed. So who am I going to vote for in November? After serious deliberations, I think it’ll probably be Pat Paulsen, may he rest in peace. Amen.