Put Not Your Trust in Princes

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Almost everything there is to know about human nature can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Amazingly, it’s all there. Centuries change, countries and circumstances change, but the things that animate and motivate people remain the same, even if they seem to be masked over by different cultures, degrees of sophistication, wealth, or learning. Even if they feel close to God. Perhaps Psalm 146 states it best – and succinctly.

Put not your trust in the great (princes),

In mortal man who cannot save.

His breath departs;

He returns to the dust;

On that day his plans come to nothing.

Psalm 146

Way back in 722 BCE, when Assyria, then a strong power in the Middle East, captured the ten tribes of Northern Israel (also known as “Ephraim”), the two kings of a then divided Israel (the region known as “Judah” was in the south) rivalled one another. In particular, the rebellious northern region (itself riven by divisions and idolatry) made alliances the prophets warned against (see Isaiah 20) with Egypt, with Syria, with Edom – alliances that deserted Northern Israel and switched to the other side when the going got tough. Thus, as Psalm 146 explains, don’t put your trust in the great (the princes of old), whose words and actions may be mercurial. Far better to trust in God – and your own wise innate and learned moral actions.

Fast forward to 2018. Currently, both the divisions in the modern State of Israel and in the Diaspora are worrisome. Internally Israel is divided politically, religiously, and in its foreign policies. Left and rightwing parties are continually at loggerheads, and Israel’s present foreign policy — throwing in Israel’s lot with Saudi Arabia (in the hope that it will rally the other Arab countries to force the Palestinians to make peace and for Hezbollah to stand down) and with the U.S. (in the hope that Jerusalem will at last be recognized by the nations of the world as the capital of Israel). Unfortunately, Israel’s moral standing – and support in the Diaspora — is being sacrificed to these aims.

There are spiritual divisions too. Although Judaism traditionally encourages different points of view, the religious right remains too rigid in its interpretation of halakhah (Jewish law). The Israeli rabbinate’s extreme orthodox attitudes toward and authority over marriage, divorce, and conversion, as well as towards women are all sources of controversy. There is little, if any, recognition of the spiritual validity of the various Jewish religious denominations prevalent in the Diaspora, especially America. In resistance, the secular left, both in Israel and the Diaspora is close to throwing away the baby with the bath water. Thus in many area of Jewish life, there is a dissonance in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. That’s why it is so important to remember the circumstances that led to the captivity – and eventual assimilation — of the ten tribes of old by the Assyrians, who dispersed them to other areas, never to let them set foot in Israel again.

While their northern brothers were being taken captive, southern Israel (Judah), ruled by the 8th century BCE “good king” Hezekiah, son of Ahab, was also to suffer, in part from ascribing too much goodness to others. In fact, the prophet Hosea warned the king not to show his very considerable wealth to other Middle Eastern nations like Babylonia lest they war against him to plunder it for themselves (See Isaiah 20). And indeed, at a later date during Hezekiah’s 29-year reign, Babylonia did so. Meanwhile, after the devastation of Northern Israel, Southern Israel became a vassal of Assyria, required to pay vast sums to the Assyrian king.

Nevertheless, in order to preserve southern Israel’s independence from the Assyrians, King Hezekiah implemented a clever strategy. He diverted the waters of the Gihon spring, which were outside the city of Jerusalem’s walls, by means of a tunnel to the pool of Siloam, which was inside the city walls. It still exists in Israel. I walked through that same tunnel, trying not to slip on its cobblestones covered with water to my knees, when I visited Israel (it was my children’s first time) in 1989.

But long ago, when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, King Hezekiah was powerfully backed by the prophet and statesman, Isaiah, and Jerusalem had the water to survive. Although the Assyrian army was soon decimated by the plague and retreated, the kingdom of Judah had to continue paying vassal tribute.

Despite thousands of years of deprivation, dispersion, and persecution, the Jewish people have somehow endured. So many centuries later, in modern Israel, the north and south are physically together again, one country, indivisible (although there are usually aggressive intentions toward Israel from both directions). Better, it seems to me, that Israel should believe in itself for its own protection than in any foreign entities. Especially in the word of foreign potentates in modern guise with their own agendas. Better that those who claim to love Israel, both in the Middle East and in the Diaspora, should continue to believe in the wisdom of a guiding God, Creator of our universe. Even princes. That’s what the Bible tells us.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.