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Interdependent, Not Government-Dependent

This week’s Biblical portion starts the story of the Tabernacle, the portable house of worship in the desert. In his commentary, Rabbi Sacks draws for us some key lessons about the extent to which people could and should depend on the government.

People need a hands-on role in building their lives. No hand-outs.

So long as every crisis was dealt with by Moses and miracles, the Israelites remained in a state of dependency. Their default response was complaint. For them to grow to adulthood and responsibility, there had to be a transition from passive recipients of God’s blessings to active creators. The people had to become God’s “partners in the work of creation.” That, I believe, is what the sages meant when they said, “Call them not ‘your children’ but ‘your builders.’” People have to become builders if they are to grow from childhood to adulthood.

People rise or fall by their own efforts. But they do so by living the Right Way – or not living the Right Way.

It is easy to live a life of dependency. It is equally easy in the opposite direction to slip into the mistake of saying “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut. 8: 17). The Jewish view of the human condition is that everything we achieve is due to our own efforts, but equally and essentially the result of God’s blessing.

Great leaders do not make it all about themselves.

From this we see that one of the greatest challenges of leadership is to give people the chance to give, to contribute, to participate. That requires self-restraint, tzimtzum, on the part of the leader, creating the space for others to lead. As the saying goes: “When there is a good leader, the people say: The leader did it. When there is a great leader, the people say: We did it ourselves.”

Small State, Big Society.

This brings us to the fundamental distinction in politics between State and Society. The state represents what is done for us by the machinery of government, through the instrumentality of laws, courts, taxation and public spending. Society is what we do for one another through communities, voluntary associations, charities and welfare organisations.

The Bigger the Centralized Government, the Smaller the Citizen.

The person who had the deepest insight into the nature of democratic society was Alexis de Tocqueville. Visiting America in the 1830s he saw that its strength lay in what he called the “art of association,” the tendency of Americans to come together in communities and voluntary groups to help one another, rather than leaving the task to a centralised government. Were it ever to be otherwise, were individuals to depend wholly on the state, then democratic freedom would be at risk.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

The Leaded as team-builder.

There is only one solution: to make the people co-architects of their own destiny, to get them to build something together, to shape them into a team and show them that they are not helpless, that they are responsible and capable of collaborative action.