My Country, Right or Wrong?

Dear Friends,


When I was a boy, my father introduced me to the following quote:


“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right, and if wrong, to be set right. (U.S. Senator Carl Schurz, remarks in the Senate, February 29, 1872)


My father would point out that there are some people who cite the first part of the quote, “My country or wrong”; however, they forget to cite the second part, “If right, to be kept right, and if wrong, to be set right.”


Is the message of this quote in the spirit of our Torah?  Anyone who reads our Sacred Scriptures will realize that just as these sacred writings do not hide the faults and failures of humanity, so too, they do not hide the faults and failures of Israel. For example, with regard to humanity, the Book of Genesis records the selfish sin of the first human couple in the Garden of Eden, the first murder in human history, the corruption of the generation of the great flood, and the arrogance of the generation that sought to build a tower to the sky. With regard to Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Land of Zion, the sin of the golden calf and other rebellions against Hashem are recorded. And when the people later established a state in the Land of Zion, their sins against Hashem and each other are recorded.


In addition, the Prophets of Israel did not hesitate to rebuke the powerful leaders of the state when they abandoned the path of the Torah. For example, there was a period when the northern kingdom of Israel was ruled by King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel. The Book of Kings describes the corrupt and evil nature of their regime; moreover, it records how Elijah, the Prophet, courageously confronted these rulers, for he was told by Hashem to rebuke these rulers for abandoning the life-giving path of the Torah and for serving the idols known as “Baalim.” Once, it was arranged that King Ahab would meet Elijah in order to hear the latest prophecy from Hashem, and when Ahab first saw Elijah, he said to the prophet, “Is that you, the troubler of Israel?” (I Kings, 18:17). Elijah replied:


“Not I have troubled Israel, rather you and your father’s house have by forsaking the mandates of Hashem; and you have gone after the Baalim!” (18:18).


Another example of rebuke is when the Prophet Isaiah confronted the corrupt leaders of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah compared the society they established to the corrupt and selfish society of Sodom, and he proclaimed to them, “Hear the words of Hashem, O chiefs of Sodom!” (Isaiah 1:10)


The criticism of humanity and Israel found in our Sacred Scriptures is not due to Divine disdain for either humanity or Israel; on the contrary, it is the result of the Divine respect for both humanity’s potential and the potential of Israel. An early example is found in the Torah portion which we will chant on this Shabbos. Before describing the selfish and arrogant sin of the human being in the Garden of Eden, it describes how the first “adam” – man/woman – was created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27). The Chofetz Chaim explains that this verse refers to the human potential to emulate the compassionate and loving attributes of Hashem. (Loving Lovingkindness, chapter 2)


Another example of this Divine respect is found in the “haftorah” – the portion from the Prophets – which we will chant on this Shabbos. In this haftorah, the Prophet Isaiah conveys the following Divine message to the People of Israel regarding their great spiritual potential:


“I am Hashem; I have appointed you on behalf of righteousness; I will strengthen your hand; I will protect you; I will set you for a covenant to the people, for a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6)


In the next letter of this series, I will begin to discuss how the discovery of certain faults and failures of the State of Israel led me to a deeper appreciation of the soul of Zion – the soul that the secular founders of the state had rejected as a result of their desire to become a nation like all other nations. In order for Israel to become the model nation it’s meant to be, we must first acknowledge and understand these faults and failures, so that we can then engage in an elevating and life-giving “tikun” – fixing. Most important, our discussion should be motivated by respect for the great potential of our people who were chosen to become “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).


If we remember our true potential, we can discuss all our problems with the following awareness:


Our people, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right, and if wrong, to be set right.


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. It is written: “For Hashem admonishes the one He loves” (Proverbs 3:12). When we truly love others, we want them to fulfill their potential, which is why we often admonish those we love the most when we feel that they are hurting themselves in ways which prevent them from fulfilling their great potential. This interpretation is expressed by the noted 12th century Sephardic sage, Rebbeinu Yonah, and it is cited in the ArtScroll commentary on “Mishlei” (Proverbs). Admonishment of individuals or communities should therefore come from a place of love, and one should wisely and carefully choose words which will lead to the goal of the admonishment: helping others to fulfill their potential. For example, in the following quotes, Rav Shneur Kotler describes how his father, Rav Aharon Kotler, a leading sage of our nation, spoke to people when they needed admonishment:


“My father, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, had to constantly arouse people; reprove people; make demands. Yet he never gave reproof or made demands without first expressing that person’s virtue with love…Without making sure that the person knows his worth in his (The Rav’s) eyes, so that his spirit does not fall; so that he doesn’t lose his interest, vitality and creativity…” (Cited in, “The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler” by Rabbi Yitzchok Dershowitz, published by Feldheim: )


The above book also describes how Rav Shneur Kotler, himself a leading sage, followed in the wise and loving ways of his father.


2. Before we begin the next stage of our series, I recommend a review of the introductory letter to the series which appears in the archive on our website.

The following is a direct link:


An e-mail copy can be sent to you upon request.

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