By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva.org
R. Chanina Segan Hakohanim would say: You should pray for the welfare of the government because were it not for fear of it, man would swallow his friend alive. (Avot 3:2)
Jewish communities today still adhere to R. Chanina’s directive and recite a prayer for the government every Shabbat. Apparently, we prefer government, warts and all, over anarchy. Human flourishing depends upon some form of authority capable of preventing the powerful from devouring the weak. R. Yisrael Lipschutz offers a brilliant reading of how susceptible unchecked humanity is to this kind of evil.
In theory, factors such as human dignity, friendship, reluctance to do something truly wicked, and the risk of a crime not producing any tangible benefits might stop mankind from devouring each other. Yet despite all of the above, human beings do terrible things. R. Chanina’s original Hebrew reads: “ish et re’ehu chaim ba’lao.” According to R. Lipschutz, each phrase refers to one of these four factors. “Ish” means a person of dignified nobility, indicating that such people commit crimes as well. “Re’ehu” conveys that even friendship does not always stand in the way of corrupting influences. “Hayyim” refers to indifference to a victim’s pain including willingness to devour a live creature suffering torment. Finally, “ba’lao,” swallowing, is a form of eating devoid of enjoyment, thus communicating the potential of not achieving anything in wrongdoing.
Some rely upon a combination of human decency and prudence to feel totally secure. Surely people will not attempt to cause harm because their conscience or good sense will stop them. For R. Lipschutz, R. Hanina was warning us not to adopt such complacency. Unfortunately, humanity is capable of terrible things and requires some kind of governmental authority to provide prevention and deterrence.
Of course the wrong kind of government also proves dangerous. Why does the mishna refer to “malchut” and not to a melech? R. Lipschutz explains that R. Hanina wanted to include various kinds of government including the democracies of ancient Rome and of modern Switzerland. Abravanel, on the other hand, thinks R. Chanina indicates a preference against the monarchy. Governments help us avoid anarchy but monarchs simply bring us to tyranny.
We could view this mishna as quite pragmatic and negative, saying only that we need a government so that we do not tear each other apart. Rashi and Rabbenu Yona add a more idealistic element. Rabbenu Yona writes: “A person should pray for the welfare of the entire world and be pained by the travails of others.” Rashi cites sources indicating our caring for the welfare of gentiles. Lurking in this mishna is a powerful message of universal concern. We want the world to flourish and we envision decent government as the only way to achieve that worthy goal.