Like so many of you, I continue to be astounded and distressed that Donald Trump was elected. I was sure that Hillary would prevail. But the election is over. In less than a month, we will have a new president.
For many of us, this is very difficult to fathom or to accept. Most of us are still put off by reckless and vulgar manner in which he campaigned: his negative depiction of Hispanics, his belittling of opponents, his disrespect for women, if not downright misogyny, his attitude toward Muslims and immigrants. There is a lot for us to swallow.
This article is about where we go from here, and the wisdom of our Torah has some insights to offer.
In Genesis, we read about the patriarch Jacob. As you may remember, Jacob was not a pleasant person. Jacob, in his early years, was not the kind of person you would not care to spend time with. He was a spoiled child, his mother’s favorite. Without question, he was smart and clever. He was an opportunist who took unfair advantage of his brother Esau and cheated him out of his inheritance as well as their father’s blessing. However, on the eve of his much feared reunion with his estranged brother, who he feared intended to kill him, Jacob had a dream, actually more of a nightmare. In Genesis we read that when he slept he wrestled with a messenger of God, most likely his own conscience. When the struggle ended, the messenger told Jacob that his name would no longer be Jacob but Israel, meaning the one who had struggled and prevailed.
We know from the Torah text that from that point on, Jacob indeed became a changed person, so much that he deserved having the entire Jewish people named after him. To this day, the Jews are the b’nai Israel.
I offer this well-known story to affirm that, although unlikely, people can change, most often as a consequence of cataclysmic events in their lives.
A second story from the Torah: At a very advanced age, Moses takes a second wife, a Kushite woman. (Polygamy was permitted in Biblical times.) Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ siblings, are highly critical of Moses, perhaps for good reason. But, as a consequence, God punishes both. Miriam is stricken with leprosy. The ancient rabbis, searching for a reason why they should have been punished offer the explanation that Moses deserved the benefit of the doubt.
The Mishnah picks up on this theme, as we read in Pirke Avot: The Talmudic aphorism which usually is paraphrased: “Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
In truth, the accurate translation of the rabbinic proverb is “Judge the whole of a person favorably.” In other words, when we assess another, we should not rely exclusively on some bad things we know about the person; rather we should be influenced by the good things we know as well, particularly if they are more significant.
For example, I came across a largely critical assessment of Oskar Schindler in a magazine; the critique focused on Schindler’s reputation as a womanizer. In addition, Schindler, prior to World War II, was an unscrupulous businessman.
While these unattractive qualities were all genuine facets of Oskar Schindler, he also repeatedly risked his life and used his extraordinary ingenuity to save some 1,150 Jews who otherwise would have been murdered by the Nazis. In assessing Oskar Schindler, this one big truth overwhelms the smaller truths in significance.
What all this has to do with Donald Trump should be clear.
Despite our disappointment and our misgivings, we need to give soon-to-be President Trump the benefit of the doubt. Not necessarily because he deserves it, but because to do so is in the best interest of the nation we love. We should not wish for Trump to fail because, if he fails, the United States fails too. I do not entertain any illusions about the man who will be our president, but as a student of history, I realize that the Presidency does change men (only men so far) in ways that could not be anticipated. One of the great-unanswered questions of history is whether it is the leader who changes the times, or whether the times change the leader.
Donald Trump is about to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Soon the gravity of his responsibility will be his 24/7. We must all hope that he will be a successful president. History will judge him, not by his billions, nor by his businesses, but by what he accomplishes for America and the world. I do not recall anyone ever asking Donald Trump exactly why he would want to become President. The simple answer may be his immense ego. But I would like to believe that his motives are nobler than that. I would like to believe that he truly does aspire to do great things for our country.
We, the people, need for him to succeed and to make America even greater than it already is.