Last December, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote in The Jewish Week, “Five Lessons in Jewish Ethics for Donald Trump.” I have neither Rabbi Greenberg’s learning nor his authority. But I have 25 years spent in Washington, D.C., including several tours in government, and spent much of the rest of the time observing it closely. I have watched friends achieve much and fail completely; have seen careers take off and collapse, and have been witness to both noble and contemptible conduct.
Like Rabbi Greenberg, I turn to “Pirke Avot” (“The Ethics of the Fathers”) for moral instruction and wisdom. The only thing that compares with it in the secular realm is the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, a reflection on the stoic way that is a favorite of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the most upright man in this administration.
My selections from “Pirke Avot” are, I am afraid, a bit grimmer than Rabbi Greenberg’s, but wisdom they remain.
1.10. Love work; hate lordship; and seek no intimacy with the ruling power.
The lure of power is one of the most seductive things there is. In its sillier form, it is the yearning for the trappings of power — the black limousine taking you to Andrews Air Force Base, the pass that gets you in without question to the White House, the deferential acknowledgment of the State Department operator. In that environment it is hard to remember that your job is your job: to serve the American people and their government. The temptation to abuse authority even in small ways is omnipresent, to include by lording it over underlings or friends; to throw your weight around. And nothing beats the desire to get inside what C. S. Lewis in a marvelous lecture called “The Inner Ring.” It is the most insidious and seductive of desires — to snuggle up to authority, and to compromise oneself getting there.
2.3. Be guarded in your relations with the ruling power; for they who exercise it draw no man near to them except for their own interests; appearing as friends when it is to their own advantage, they stand not by a man in the hour of his need.
They are not your friends. Even the good ones. Even those who smile at you. Politics is always a ruthless business, but it is more so in this administration, at the top of which stands a man who has not sacrificed his fortune, his reputation, his physical comfort, or his personal safety for any thing or any person other than himself. Have no expectations otherwise.
2.21. Where there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God; where is no fear of God there is no wisdom.
Of all the trivial compliments in Washington, by far the most trivial is to say that someone is smart. But smart is cheap; wisdom, in the sense of judgment about people and things, is much rarer. And wisdom is useless, as the rabbis knew, unless it is married to character — the fear of God. Clever schemes in Washington often succeed in the short run, and usually fail in the long run. If you do not revere the truth because you do not fear God, you will begin by deceiving yourself as well as others, and end by destroying yourself as a decent human being.
2.6. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
Displays of character occasionally happen in high office, but rarely. Most people get along, shade the truth, avoid conflict, accommodate themselves to power, and sign off on things they would deplore in others. The temptations are omnipresent, and none of us are immune to them. Government is a place where there is not much uprightness. In that environment, it is all the more difficult to take a stand. I kept a signed but undated letter of resignation in my office at the State Department and looked at it at now and again, hoping that it would give me the courage to do the right thing if it became necessary — thankfully, I never needed it. Remember, too, that although standing up to authority or common opinion may be difficult, it requires none of the torments suffered by the rabbis in their opposition to Rome. Speaking up may leave you isolated — but it may also inspire others to step forward, including some who will surprise you. Leaving government service voluntarily does not mean poverty or imprisonment; and it does mean leaving with your integrity intact. You don’t need much courage: just a bit of spine, that’s all.
2.7. Moreover, he saw a skull floating on the surface of the water: he said to it, Because you drowned others, they have drowned thee; and at the last, they that drowned thee shall themselves be drowned.
Or, for those of you who prefer Johnny Cash, listen to “That Old Wheel.” The most common failing of the victors in Washington is arrogance, thinking that they can wield power arbitrarily or carelessly or vindictively, failing to realize that it usually returns back on their own heads. Richard Nixon learned that the hard way.
In the Talmud (Hagigah 14b), the story is told of the four rabbis who entered an orchard. Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went mad, Elisha ben Avuyah (whom the rabbis later called ‘The Other’) lost his faith, and Akiva came out in peace. The orchard can be a metaphor for the allure of power and influence. But it can destroy your career, or drive you mad with anger and resentment, or cause you to lose faith in yourself, your country, and your ideals. Or you can be like Akiva, who, the Talmud tells us, entered in peace and left in peace. The word peace is essentially the same as the word “whole,” or as we might say, “with integrity.” Enter government service whole, and with humility, faith and a bit of luck, you will come out in peace.
Eliot A. Cohen served as the counselor of the Department of State, 2007-2009. He is the author of “The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force” (Basic Books, 2017). He graduated the Maimonides School in 1973.