The first part of this week’s Torah portion, Shof’tim (Magistrates) begins by providing a constitution for the state, which our ancestors were instructed to set up in the Land of Israel at the end of the Exodus. It provides for two branches of government, executive and judicial. On the other hand, the legislative branch is based on the revelation of law through prophecy. The Torah’s discussion of government focuses primarily on the issue of integrity. The king is to keep a copy of the Torah with him at all times and is admonished not to indulge in excessive government or personal spending. Judges are warned to be fair and impartial in their rulings and prophets can only speak in the name of the one God.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the theocratic monarchy of ancient Israel and government in the United States is that our ancestors only had the right to choose their judges. The other appointments were to be made by God. In our republican form of government, the people chose their leaders both directly and indirectly in all three branches of government. The right of the people is based on their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, the key element in the social contract which defines the United States. Significantly, in the history of our democracy this week marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
The most important statement on voting as the foundation of democracy was issued by Chief Justice Earl Warren in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 555 (1964): “The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government. […] Undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized.” Similarly, Justice Hugo Black shared the same sentiment in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 17 (1964): “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
As a country, we are only about 70 days away from our national elections this fall. Sadly, but consistent with the long history of voter suppression in the United States, fierce debates about voting are currently raging in our country. The most important concerns the role of the post office in the election process this year because of the COVID pandemic and dangers involved in voting in person for people with underlying medical conditions. A related issue involves the availability of volunteers at the polls. Traditionally, poll workers tend to be older and are unavailable for this year’s voting because of health concerns.
Two other issues are of concern both nationally and in the American Jewish community. First is the need for support for our elderly population who are unfamiliar with the new technologies involved in registering for mail in voting. Second, is the lower level of voting among the youngest cohort of voters. The American Jewish community, well known for its high voter turnout, is not immune to this downward trend.
At Keneseth Israel, our Social Justice Policy Committee is correctly focusing much of their efforts on getting out the vote this year and will be providing information and voter support. The synagogue will be running voter information links in its electronic communications. Everyone is encouraged to vote and to encourage others to vote as well. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote 56 years ago, “the right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society.”
This week’s Torah portion begins with the words, “you shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” In our time, those “appointments” are “of the people, by the people and for the people” through our ability to vote freely, fairly and securely. This year please do your civic duty and vote!
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.