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Jews and Power: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:3

Jews and Power: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:3

Jewish history is one cautionary tale after another: Be cautious of ruling powers.


"Be cautious with authorities, for they offer service only for their own purpose, appearing as friends when they stand to profit, but not standing by one at his time of need."
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:3

Distrust of politicians goes back a long time, or so it appears from a quick glance at our Mishna. In fact, the message that leaders are not to be trusted, that the horse-trading and glad-handing knows no loyalty, that one should distance oneself as much as possible from the falseness and opportunism of politics is so obvious that it seems to go without saying. So there must be a more subtle message behind the words of the sages.

Among his many fables, Aesop describes a donkey and a fox who, having entered into partnership for their mutual protection, went out into the forest to hunt. They had not proceeded far when they heard a lion. The fox, sensing imminent danger, approached the lion and offered to help capture the donkey if the lion would guarantee his safety.

Returning to his former partner, the fox led the donkey to the edge of a deep pit and pushed him into it. The lion, seeing that the donkey could not escape, immediately seized the fox, knowing that he could devour the donkey at his leisure.

Service to the crown counted for nothing when defending the Jews conflicted with the king's agenda.

Jewish history is replete with similar episodes. Despite the valuable counsel of the prophet Daniel to King Darius of Persia, he was thrown into the lions' den at the urging of Darius's advisors and survived only through miraculous intervention. Despite the economic prosperity brought to medieval Spain by Jewish financiers and King Ferdinand's Jewish finance minister, the brilliant scholar and commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel, the king imposed upon his Jewish subjects first the Inquisition and ultimately expulsion. Despite similar economic success brought to 17th century Poland by its Jewish middle class, the king of Poland abandoned his Jews to the ravages of the Cossack leader Chmielnicki.

In every case, service to the crown counted for nothing when defending the Jews conflicted with the king's agenda.


Authority is, almost by definition, separate and apart from the community at large. Machiavelli, whatever his shortcomings, understood correctly that familiarity between the ruler and the ruled inevitably leads to a breakdown in the stability of government. By aligning oneself with the ruling powers, one inevitably separates himself from his friends and neighbors.

Elsewhere in Ethics of Fathers, the sages warn, "Do not separate yourself from the community." Many centuries before John Donne declared that "no man is an island," Jewish tradition emphasized that both a person's value and his fate depend upon his association with and contribution to the society in which he lives.

Consequently, after having taught us in our previous Mishna that "all who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven," our Mishna now cautions us that even where he intends to benefit the community, one should exercise the greatest care before entering into collaboration with authority. For whatever favors, services or flatteries a person employs to gain recognition from the ruling powers, he will never win their loyalty, and their gratitude will extend only as far -- and not one iota beyond -- their own self-interest.

In the process of attempting to serve his community, the one who seeks familiarity with authority may actually severe his connection with the community, forfeiting his share in its collective merit and perhaps even betraying those whom he thought to serve. The Mishna warns that he may reap only isolation and failure for all the effort he has sown. As for his good intentions, we all know what is said to be paved with those.


An alternate interpretation translates the opening words of our Mishna thus: "Be cautious with authority..." Interpreted this way, our Mishna advises us not of the dangers of association with authority, but of becoming an authority. The old cliche that absolute power corrupts absolutely applies to every level of power, and the temptation to abuse one's power is constant and difficult to resist.

Beware of good intentions. How many tyrants, despots, and corrupt politicians began as idealists thinking that they would change the world? But the effects of political gamesmanship and brinkmanship, the pressures of producing immediate results, the fear of opposition parties equally determined to contrary ideologies -- all these can quickly combine to turn the most well-meaning leader into the most ruthless dictator or the most compromising politico.

Jewish history is replete with leaders who set out to do good and were seduced by their own power.

Lenin, Trotsky and, much later, Fidel Castro, may all have sincerely believed in the workers' revolutions they sought to engineer. Perhaps even Stalin and Mao Zedung at one time believed their own propaganda. Even Mussolini may have truly intended to make his country a paradise. Certainly Jewish history can recount leaders in almost every generation who set out to do good and were seduced by their own power. "Be cautious," warns the Mishna, lest in seeking to use power to benefit others, you become corrupted like so many before you who eventually used their power only to benefit themselves.


Yet another interpretation understands the Mishna's warning not that kings and rulers are inclined to be disloyal, but that they may have no choice. A ruler's first obligation is to the welfare of his people and his dominion, so that he cannot afford the luxury of allowing personal relationships and loyalties to influence in judgment in determining what course of action will best benefit the collective.

In the last scene of Henry IV, Part 2, King Hal, upon ascending the throne, utters what are considered the most cruel words in all of Shakespeare. After years of drinking and carousing with Falstaff, his loyal companion and friend, Hal dismisses him with the cutting words, "I know thee not, old man."

But King Hal does not reject his friend out of disloyalty or caprice. Rather, he realizes that the crown he has so recently inherited does not allow him to share company with a drunkard and a buffoon such as Falstaff. As a prince he could choose his friends; as a king he has to be more selective in his associations.

Similarly, every authority should answer first to the collective for whom it is responsible. Personal loyalties, even those a ruler sincerely might wish to honor, must sometimes have to be sacrificed for the national good. Therefore, the Mishna advises us to take care even with the most upright and benevolent authorities, for even if they may wish to repay loyalty, their honorable commitment to best interests of their community may prevent them from honoring their personal debts.


Finally, a subtle variation on this interpretation shifts the emphasis from the will of rulers or flesh and blood kings to the One King who reigns over kings. As much as earthly rulers may appear to wield great power, ultimate power resides only in the hands of the Creator, who dispenses it according to His will.

No worldly king has the power to thwart the master plan of the Master of the World.

Our Mishna therefore reminds us of the folly of trusting in the power of monarchs, for nothing happens without the approval of the One above, and no worldly king has the power to thwart the master plan of the Master of the World. Seek more humble avenues along which to direct your efforts, rather than seeking to flatter and curry favor with authorities and rulers. Rather, seek to find favor with the True King, for it is His will alone that will benefit you in the end.

There is a story of a king whose close advisor, through a freak accident, cut off the index finger of his monarch. Enraged, the king ordered his former friend thrown into the castle dungeon. Some time later, the king embarked upon a journey to distant and unexplored lands accompanied by his new advisor. As they made their way through a jungle wilderness, the king and his companion were seized by cannibals, who quickly made a meal of the advisor. When the king's turn came, however, the cannibals discovered his missing digit; according to their custom, they rejected him as unfit and released him to go on his way.

When he returned to his kingdom, the king immediately ordered his former advisor released from prison. "If not for you," the king said, "I would have been eaten along with my companion. Please forgive me for imprisoning you."

"There is nothing to forgive," said the advisor. "Had you not imprisoned me, I would have been the one who was eaten."

For all of our strategies, schemes, and devices, we will attain the end that awaits us and no other. Better not to curry favor with kings but to seek the best path we can to reach the best possible end.

February 19, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Ron Kean, February 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Apropos For Presidents' Day

The history of Judaism is a story of recurring circumstances that have proven the wisdom of the Mishna to be timely and correct. It makes some of us pause that a Greenspan, Pearle, Wolfowitz, and others are part of the monitary, life and death decision making process that concern both us and gentile America. Michael Moore made millions recently slamming Wolfowitz among others. Hopefully, our 230 year old democracy and a growing number of democratic newcomers will end persecution and prevent a bad turn of opinion. Rather than just assume that though, it may still be something to continue to pray for.

(2) Anonymous, February 21, 2005 12:00 AM

What does this mean for Orthodox parties in Israel?

To David Levine's comment, I would add that the writer might well have addressed himself to how this passage applies to Orthodox political parties in Israel, especially those that from time to time participate in a ruling coalition and thus achieve substantial influence and power over large segments of a population that in many particulars and some broad aspects is at odds with those parties.

(1) David S. Levine, February 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Wrong Advice in a Democracy

While Rabbi Goldson's advice might be correct in a non-democratic society I do not believe it is right in a democratic one. By definition, in a democratic society the government is not separate from the people for, as Ross perot put it, it's our country and we all own it. Therefore, Jews have an obligation to become part of the democratic system and take part in politics. While politicians make promises they often do not intend to keep, e.g. Jimmy Carter's promise to move the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, only by participation can the politician be held to account. Notice--Jimmy Carter was not reelected and Jews played a noticable role in that event!

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