The Mitzvah of Voting

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Genesis 6:9-11:3
Haftarah Portion: Isaiah 54:1-55:5

This Shabbat falls three days before critical elections throughout the United States. Voters will cast ballots for candidates seeking municipal, state and national offices, as well as a host of regional and statewide propositions. As a native Chicagoan, I am mindful of the adage I learned as a child, "Vote early and vote often." However, in keeping with my respect for the rule of law, I would amend this to read, "It is a mitzvah to vote (once) on Election Day." Voting is certainly a privilege that we should never take for granted.

The weekly Torah portion opens with a verse that I find useful in scrutinizing political candidates. The parashah begins: Ayleh toldot Noah; Noah ish tzaddik; tamim haya bedorotav; et Ha-Elo-him hit-halekh Noah. "This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God" (Gen. 6:9). This single sentence provides three characteristics of the man called Noah: He was righteous. Noah was blameless. He walked with God. Let's briefly review each of these attributes in turn.

The Hebrew root of the word tzaddik comes from legal terminology. Nahmanides suggests that the root implies a person who is adjudged to be "in the right." In other words, this is an individual whose conduct is found to be beyond reproach by others.

The Hebrew root of the word tamim implies someone who is simple or pure. In the Hebrew Bible, this word often describes an animal without blemish that is fit to be offered at the central altar. When we shift our attention to human beings, the adjective tamim implies an individual who is unblemished by moral fault, someone of unimpeachable character. But the Torah qualifies the use of the word tamim in describing Noah. It says tamim haya bedorotav, literally, Noah was "blameless in his ages." The Rabbinic sages differ in their assessment of this unusual phrase. Some say that Noah stood out from the crowd only because he lived in a wicked age. In another generation, Noah might not have appeared as righteous and blameless.

Not so, according to other traditional Torah commentators. The fact that Noah was righteous in a generation of corrupt and decadent people demonstrates just how remarkable he was. In the face of universal evil, Noah remained a decent human being, a feat that requires enormous courage and fortitude.

What, then, do we make of the third and final phrase that describes Noah's behavior -- "Noah walked with God"? Once again, the rabbinic sages disagree about the import of this appellation. Many commentators suggest that this is the ultimate compliment our tradition can bestow upon an individual. Only the rarest and choicest of human beings may be said to have "walked with God." Others demur, and wonder: Noah walked with God, but did he walk with his fellowmen and women? When God notifies him about the impending flood, Noah builds an ark to save himself, his family, and the animal kingdom. Why doesn't Noah ever warn his fellow citizens that God is set to destroy the world? Why doesn't Noah intercede on their behalf by arguing with God? Where is Noah's passionate defense of the people of his generation?

Call me old fashioned, but I admire and respect candidates for office who are beyond reproach ("righteous") and of unimpeachable character ("blameless"). I admire and respect them even more when they retain their dignity and decency in the cesspool of contemporary political campaigns. As for "walking with God," I applaud candidates who take their faith seriously and are firmly rooted in a religious tradition and community. If they walk not only with God but with their fellow citizens--vigorously defending the rights and duties of those whom they serve--then they are truly worthy of our support.

May we cast our votes with passion and conviction next Tuesday. May our newly elected and re-elected leaders transcend the acrimony and divisiveness of their campaigns and work together to heal our nation.