Campaign Promises

There is a quote, widely misattributed to both Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, which goes as follows: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

While the origin of these words may, perhaps, never be known, they ring most true when it comes to elected government — especially on the federal level. We keep switching our “leaders” and yet, for the most part, our lives remain the same. If maintaining the status quo was the goal voters had in mind when they pulled the lever, our leaders would be be unqualified successes. In all likelihood, however, status quo isn’t what the American voter is looking for.

If it was, politicians (especially those running for president) wouldn’t always be promising some sort of “change.”

On both sides of the aisle, populist arguments are made. Democrats promise more “equality” and talk about shrinking the “gap” between the wealthy and those who are less well off. Republicans — especially the more libertarian kind — talk about “freedom,” curbing the involvement of government in our lives, and reforming the inefficiencies created by said bureaucratic overinvolvement.

But time after time, the grand promises of these candidates go unfulfilled, until the next crop comes in and the cycle begins again. Each iteration manifests in its own way, but the basic story is already written: Candidates make promises to voters, and the biggest “regrets” they have when they leave office is that they weren’t able to make good on those promises. (Usually this is someone else’s fault.)

But they do make these promises, and they do get things done while in office. It just isn’t ever the things that the millions of voters who supported them wanted. Promises made to powerful industries and donors are honored, and presidents leave the White House with the prestige and earning power that only an ex-president can have. The politician is well taken care of, but the masses hardly ever are.

Why?

We all know that Korach had a few partners in his uprising against Moshe Rabbeinu. The first passuk in this week’s parashah lists them for us: the infamous duo, Dassan and Aviram, and the otherwise unknown On ben Peles. While Dassan and Aviram ended up sharing Korach’s fate, On’s end was a bit different. The Gemara tells us (Sanhedrin 109b) that On was saved as a result of his wife’s wisdom.

Every schoolchild can tell the story. On’s wife gave him strong wine to drink and sat at the entrance of their tent with her hair uncovered so that those who came to call on On to take part in their “stand” against Moshe Rabbeinu would pass by without stopping to try and wake him. The Gemara lauds eishes On, describing her with the passuk (Mishlei 14:1) “Chachmas nashim bansah veisah” — “The wisest of women built her house.”

But it is the exchange she had with her husband before that which is most significant to us, on a practical level. On’s wife asked him a simple question. “Mai nafka lach minah?” — “What do you stand to gain from this?” “Ee mar rabbah ant talmida, v’ee mar rabbah ant talmida!” —  “If he [Moshe] is the leader, you are a student, and if he [Korach] is the leader, you are a student!”

A very simple question. But apparently, it is one that escaped On until his wife brought it up to him. What had On been thinking up until that point?

Rav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, shlita, in his sefer Birkas Mordechai, explains that this is the power of machlokes: a simple thought such as this can elude a person involved in one. It’s a worthwhile idea to keep in mind, especially as we approach the summer months and the upcoming days of Bein Hametzarim.

The Steipler Gaon, in Birkas Peretz, points out an inherent contradiction in what Korach was doing. On the one hand, the entire impetus for his uprising was his perception that he was passed over for the position of nasi. On the other hand, his stated argument with Moshe was that nobody should be in charge: “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim … u’madua tisnasu al khal Hashem” — “The entire camp are holy people … why should you rule over Hashem’s people?”

The reason for this is quite simple. If Korach would have approached anyone, asking them to take part in a rebellion against Moshe Rabbeinu with the stated goal of gaining power for himself, he wouldn’t have been able to win anyone over. So he waged a campaign of “equality” as a means of gaining support in his effort to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu. In his mind, however, if he were to succeed, he would be the one that administered this new “equality” — but that was not something he was sharing with his co-conspirators.

While politicians make grandiose promises to the general public, it generally isn’t because they are on a mission to make the world a better place or one in which everyone is “equal.” They may be okay with everyone being equal, but, to paraphrase George Orwell, what they really want is to be more equal than everyone else.