We are about to enter the presidential primary season. This tiny fact means different things to different people. To the candidates, it obviously means that the moment of truth is imminent. They will soon discover if all their efforts have been in vain or have borne fruit. To the pundits, reporters and other professionals, there will be opportunities to analyze, prognosticate and pontificate about things they will probably completely misread and misinterpret. However, for us, the vast simple electorate, there will be moments of crucial decision-making. Will we or our children be drafted into deadly wars? Will the economy flourish or falter? Will our leadership be moral and ethical or craven and tyrannical? For us, as Jews, particularly, there is our concern for our brethren in Eretz Yisroel. Will the new president be friend or foe, a one-sided apologist for our Arab enemies, or an objective and honest broker of what is best for those who truly seek peace? The decisions we make can have irrevocable effects upon the lives of millions and generations beyond.
Or can they? Does it actually matter whom we elect or should we simply apply Shlomo Hamelech’s famous words, “Lev melech beYad Hashem – The heart of a king is in the Hand of Hashem” (Mishlei 21:1)? Before we continue, it may be wise to correct a common error. Many people misquote this posuk as, “Lev melochim vesorim beYad Hashem,” which would mean, “The hearts of kings and officials are in the Hand of Hashem.” The great boki, Rav Shammai Ginzberg zt”l, pointed out that this phrase was coined by the Maharatz Chiyus (Megillah 11a), but it is not a posuk anyplace in Tanach (see Hagaon Hechossid, page 246). The reason this makes a difference, besides the obvious need to be accurate in citing a source, is that the Brisker Rov is quoted as having stated categorically that “only monarchs and governmental officials are included in the category of lev melochim” (Rabbi Y. Hirshkowitz, Toras Chaim, page 159). Lower-level bureaucrats are not elevated to this lofty status of Hashem’s divine providence (although, see Rashi to Brachos 58a).
In any case, we must ask the basic question of where free will comes in. Does a king or another major ruler lose his ability to make his own decisions? According to many meforshim on this very posuk, the answer is yes. The Ralbag teaches that “kings do not have free will, because they could cause too much harm and wreak too much havoc if left to their own devices…[The king] is simply the agent of Hashem.” The Malbim adds the caveat that the king certainly has free will in matters pertaining solely to his private life, “but in public matters, he has no free will at all.” In other words, whether or not the king is a good husband and father are his own personal issues, but his national and international decisions are fully under Hashem’s control.
Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah, Devorim 17:15) proves this point from two sources. When Ezra seeks support for rebuilding the Bais Hamikdosh, the Persian king, Artaxerxes, is surprisingly supportive. Indeed, after reading the king’s letter urging everyone to contribute to the beautification project, Ezra declares, “Blessed is Hashem, G-d of our forefathers, Who has put such [thoughts] in the heart of the king” (Ezra 7:27). The Meshech Chochmah sees Ezra’s gratitude toward Hashem, not directed toward the king, as proof of the rule that kings are merely Hashem’s tools in His conduct of the world. Rav Meir Simcha’s second proof is from the time of the Mishnah. The Roman emperor, Antoninus, sends Rav Yehudah Hanosi, known universally as Rebbi, a valuable as gift for Rebbi’s shul. Rebbi responds by thanking Hashem (Yerushalmi, Megillah 4:2, 23b). This demonstrates that monarchs act as Hashem wants them to, not according to their own proclivities.
One amazing fact about Jewish history is that our enemies seem to be aware of this teaching as well. Even a secular historian makes reference to this strange phenomenon. Let us read the description of a poignant moment in the saga of the Jewish expulsion from Spain. Rav Don Yitzchok Abarbanel is pleading with the evil king Ferdinand and his equally vicious Queen Isabella to cancel their nefarious decree: “King Ferdinand remained stonily silent, his ears deaf as a viper. Queen Isabella stood ‘on the king’s right to lead him astray.’ Piously, she whispered that G-d had put this obsession in the king’s heart. There was nothing she could do about it. She invoked Proverbs 21:1: ‘The king’s heart is in the hands of the L-rd, as the rivers of water he turneth it withersoever he will.’ Do you think we were the ones who said this to you? She continued, it is the L-rd who placed that word in the king’s heart” (James Reston Jr., Dogs of G-d, page 258).
It was not only the diabolical Queen Isabella who invoked the Divine override of free will. The defense was raised as early as the atrocities of Paroh. The Ramban (Bereishis 15:14) explains that the Egyptian ruler cannot claim innocence of his murder of Jews, because “it is clear that throwing Jewish children into the river was not included in the [bris with Avrohom Avinu]… Paroh and the Egyptians far exceeded any mandate they might have had from Hashem’s edict.” In any case, it is manifest that leaders and even their followers may sometimes be exonerated if they are actually following the exact details of a Divine mandate. To be sure, anti-Semitic leaders throughout the ages have attempted to invoke this argument to defend their fulsome machinations. As recently as the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, mass murderers and other demoniacal villains claimed that they were agents of a greater authority.
As we noted earlier, the Brisker Rov zt”l makes clear that only monarchs and governmental officials are included in the rule of “hearts of kings.” Rabbi Menachem Porush zt”l, the veteran Agudas Yisroel leader and Knesset member, once asked the Brisker Rov if he thought that it would be possible for chareidim to live a proper Torah lifestyle in a secular and anti-religious state. The Rov answered that the rule of “hearts of kings” applies to Jewish leaders as well and then pointed out a poignant and crucial historical fact about both anti-Semites and anti-religious Jews:
The Torah tells us concerning the time of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, “Hoyu tzareha lerosh – Her oppressors became great” (Eichah 1:5). The Brisker Rov commented that this was inherently a good thing. “Otherwise,” the Rov concluded, “they would be mere Pogromchiks. Once they are elevated to official titular and formal status, they are included in the category of ‘the hearts of kings’” (Toras Chaim, ibid.).
So we return to our question:
If, indeed, all rulers are in the Hand of G-d, why vote and why do elections matter? The answer, which is important not just on Election Day, relates to the ancient conundrum of bitachon versus hishtadlus. To what extent should we rely upon the Hand of Hashem and to what extent must we attempt to do our part? We know that “we are not to rely upon miracles” (Pesachim 74b). Therefore, if someone with an animus to the Nation of Israel is elected to major office, a miracle might be needed. To be sure, the ruler is in Hashem’s Hand and has no free will. But for someone evil to suddenly turn into a friend is an open miracle and we might be unworthy of such open Providence.
So elections may be important after all.
If we could be absolutely sure that our Torah and mitzvos observance were in perfect order, perhaps we could sit back on Election Day and rely upon Hashem’s control of kings and other powerful mortals. Of course, Hashem can manipulate them and often does. Our issue today is not whether or not Hashem can, but, sadly, does He wish to pull those strings?
We certainly must work on our spiritual merits so that Hashem causes us to find favor in the eyes of the powerful. And, in the meanwhile, we must continue to vote, doing our hishtadlus so that Hashem can preserve us without changing the course of nature in His world. Should we vote? Yes, indeed, but we must try to have in mind that in an ideal world, it would unnecessary and superfluous. So vote, but with the proper kavanah!