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Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say… Be careful of the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress.

Ethics of the Fathers 2:3

Good advice for anyone lobbying for a cause among the wielders and brokers of power, and as pertinent today as when offered eighteen centuries ago. But Rabban Gamliel is not only speaking to community leaders and political activists, but to each and every one of us, including those fortunate enough never to have had any dealings with the government. What is his message to those of us whose involvement in politics is confined to the governance of the “miniature city”[1] that is man?

Indeed, the individual human being is a virtual “city” of thoughts, feelings and deeds, each with its own momentum and trajectory, converging, interacting and clashing with one another. What gives it all coherence and unity is the government of the city—the intellect and instincts which are the authorities in a person’s life.[2] As is the case with all governments, this internal authority is crucial, indeed indispensable: without it the city of man would be reduced to a chaotic mob. But as is also the case with all governments, it is profoundly selfish, its every act motivated solely by self-interest and geared solely toward self-perpetuation.

One must avail oneself of this government. But one must also deeply mistrust it, being aware of its self-bias. One must repeatedly challenge oneself: am I doing this because it is the right thing to do, or because it serves my selfish interests?

Based on an address by the Rebbe,  Iyar 1, 5739 (April 28, 1979)[3]

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[1]. Ecclesiastes 9:14, as per Talmud, Nedarim 32b; Tanya, ch. 9.

[2]. Cf. Zohar, part II, 153a: “There are three governors [within man]: the mind, the heart and the liver.”

[3]. Biurim L’Pirkei Avot (Kehot, 1996), p. 95.

 

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