What the Torah Tells Us About the Media’s Role in Vetting Clinton and Trump
“Donald Trump’s free ride on your television screen is coming to an end,” began an article in the Los Angeles Times last week. The article reports that the ubiquitous appearances by Trump on TV since he declared his candidacy have been heavily curtailed in recent weeks, and from now on whenever he is interviewed, he will be forced to defend his more outlandish statements. Apparently, it finally dawned on the networks that allowing the presumptive Republican candidate unfettered freedom to say whatever he wanted for almost a year did not have the expected effect of making him less attractive to the electorate, and may in fact have boosted his popularity, resulting in the remarkable phenomenon of his nomination.
As hard as it may be to believe, just a year ago Trump’s candidacy was not taken seriously by the media; in my opinion, most news professionals believed that if they allowed him to freely express his outrageous opinions, he would inevitably ruin his own chances of electoral success. And so he was given the freedom to say whatever he wanted, as much as he wanted. It goes without saying that the networks also had their eye on ratings, which increased whenever Trump was on TV. It seemed like a win-win. Trump would self-destruct while ratings went up. But as the months rolled by, it should have become obvious to all that the strategy wasn’t working.
Ironically, the overexposure for Trump also meant that Hillary Clinton was given a far easier ride than she might have expected during a normal primary election season. While there were attacks against her from within her own party, her media exposure was limited, and the media scrutiny was tame. So the electorate is now left with two presumptive candidates — both of whom do not have the greatest record of keeping their promises, nor with the kind of leadership experience that should be a prerequisite for the job — as the only two choices for what is arguably the most important political position on the planet.
It would be easy to use all this as an excuse to go into an anti-media rant, or to start railing against a political system that has allowed such a farce to happen. But let’s face it – neither of these reactions is appropriate. The freedom of the press is without any doubt one of our most precious freedoms, however flawed the media may be. Meanwhile, the political system in the United States has over the past almost 250 years delivered some of the greatest leaders of modern times. To focus purely on the failures of the media and our political system rather misses the point.
This week’s Torah portion records the story of Eldad and Meidad, two nominees for the newly formed council of elders (later on known as the Sanhedrin). For some reason they failed to attend the inaugural closed session of the council, instead opting to remain among the people, where, as a result of their newly acquired status as prophets, they began to prophesize, revealing information that they were not meant to disclose. Moshe and his inner circle were informed of the breach, and the first to react was Moses’ primary disciple, Joshua. Having no idea that Eldad and Meidad were bona-fide prophets, he proposed a draconian reaction: וַיֹאמַר אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶה כְלָאֵם – “He said, my master, Moses, kela’eim!”
The medieval commentator, Rashi, offers two explanations for the rather obscure Hebrew word “kela’eim.” The most obvious explanation is that “kela’eim” is derived from the word “keleh,” which means prison, and Joshua was proposing that the two renegades be incarcerated. But Rashi relegates this interpretation to second place. Instead, he posits a rather more convoluted explanation as his first choice. What Joshua meant by “kela’eim,” says Rashi, was for Moses to impose real leadership responsibilities on Eldad and Meidad, which would ultimately “imprison” them one way or another. Moses, who knew that these two mavericks were actually genuine, was unconcerned, and reassured Joshua there was nothing to worry about – and, as he said, “If only all of God’s nation were prophets!”
Notwithstanding the end of the story, we still need to understand why Rashi preferred his more elaborate interpretation of Joshua’s proposal. I would suggest that he was concerned that Eldad’s and Meidad’s failure to join the inaugural council meeting was a protest against the established leadership. That being the case, putting them in jail would be utterly pointless, as it would simply turn them into political prisoner celebrities, and possibly lead to a much more dangerous popular revolution against Moses. Instead, Joshua suggested that Moses should appoint them to real leadership roles. As leaders with real responsibilities, either their opposition would melt away, or they would be exposed as incompetents.
Opposition politicians and candidates standing for election are not subject to the realities of being in power, nor faced with the complex situations that leaders contend with at every turn. They can afford to speak in utopian terms and make unrealistic promises without the negative consequences that would follow if they had to do what they promised. In a democratic system we are lucky that we do not to have to appoint people to positions of power to find out whether or not they are capable leaders. Instead we can subject them to public scrutiny through the media long before they climb into the driver’s seat.
In this election year, we are faced with a choice between two candidates who many believe are not suited to the presidency, although one of them will certainly be elected. On that basis we must follow Joshua’s advice of “kela’eim.” We must make sure to put them both through the toughest scrutiny process of any election in modern history, so that whoever the winner is will have been tested and thoroughly prepared for the job long before they move into the White House. The future of the free world literally depends on it.