A Monarchy of Maybes

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 14th, 2016 – 12 Tishri, 5777

A hearty yashar coach to our kehilla for a heartfelt series of High Holidays. It was clear to me from the bima how intent many of us were during these heightened days of prayer. And although the weather for Sukkot looks a bit wet, the turn from introspection to celebration during these later Fall holidays is always so welcome. I hope to see you on Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and our Octorafest Simchat Torah festivities.

A Monarchy of Maybes

The King of Thailand died. King Bhumibol Adulyadej had been the world’s longest reigning monarchy, a distinction that now goes to Queen Elizabeth II.

That’s the sort of piece of news I would have quickly noted, then turned my attention elsewhere. Except that on Wednesday, Laura was in a networking group for her life coaching services. There she met a woman from Thailand. It appears that not only did the king serve for 70 years, but that he was also widely beloved. Indeed, this woman said there is a law against speaking ill of the king–and then added, it was very easy to do with Bhumibol Adulyadej.

To mourn his passing, the flag of Thailand will be flown at half mast for 30 days. The government workers will wear only black clothes for an entire year. As Jews, this is quite striking. Our mourning practices are most intense during the first week, and then for shloshim, the thirty days from time of death. Lesser but still real practices continue throughout the full year. Most people know about reciting kaddish for a close relative. Our tradition also dictates that a child mourns a parent even more intensely, refraining from certain types of celebration and live music for a full year.

So it was intriguing to see how there is so much overlap between the timing of our mourning practices and those of Thailand. Indeed, I was intrigued enough to give a half hour of my time to learning a basic outline of the king’s life and reign.

First of all, what a fortunate country to care sufficiently about a ruler’s death to take on these intensive practices! I remember watching the pageantry of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.  While the United States has some pomp associated with a president’s death, it is pallid in comparison, and certainly much shorter. We view ourselves as too busy, I imagine, to give a pause to national life in this way. And of course, what leader of ours is so beloved that we could muster such a show of unity?

Indeed, this was one of the most startling things I learned in my quick history lesson of Bhumibol Adulyadej. He had a deft political hand, serving continuously despite numerous military coups, and most likely initiating, or certainly blessing some. In America as we are currently constituted, we would cry bloody unfair. Why this difference?

The Bible quite clearly warns the Jews against taking a king when the beseeched the prophet Samuel to anoint them one. “Yes,” God says finally relenting, “you may be like every one else, but prepare yourself for corruption and submitting your freedom for no good end.” Or that’s a good enough paraphrase for our purposes here.

Why didn’t the Thailandesi protest the king? On a basic level of realpolitik, his fingers never seemed to be directly involved. I want to offer another possibility. I looked at hundreds upon hundreds of images of the king. In almost none of them do you see more than the slightest glimmer of a smile. Rather, there is a weight, sometimes even a sense of being haunted creeping through his visage. At moments he would manifest a distant sense of strength and determination. But in none of those pictures was there even a hint of cruelty.

One gets the sense that even if he was responsible for steering those coups through, he did it with absolute and total concern for his country’s well being. Maybe even, like so many of our prophets, he was reluctant to take on the role.

He was also a photographer. Maybe it seems obvious, but a photographer sees things. Really sees. That’s what lets one take the picture. A king who takes pictures of his people is one who wants to see them. Perhaps that’s the other possibility. If the people think a leader really sees them, they might forgive any other behavior. Though my own unsullied idealism argues that if you really see them, your behavior has to change for the better. There’s one picture of him behind his camera in which his face seems most alive, childlike and filled with some sense of awe and focus. He apparently plays the saxophone also, but that’s just cool because I love the saxophone.

These musings of mine have been filled with a quandry of questions and a monarchy of maybes. I’ve never been one attracted to monarchy. I was never pulled into Princess Di’s story nor do I much follow Prince Charles, even though fascinating tidbits about him catch in my ear. And how much of king Bhumibol Adulyadej’s story do I really know? Next to nothing.

Yet how I hunger for an elder statesman who could stand up for America through an appeal to unity and the common good. I don’t think we are ready yet to offer that to a serving leader, any leader in office.  But how I hunger for an elder statesman. Our need for wisdom has never been greater.

So if as a nation we can’t get that from our past presidents, maybe it’s up to each of us to find and share what wisdom we’ve uncovered along our ways? Maybe? Yes, maybe!

Let’s roll up our sleeves.

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Share your thoughts as to why and whether and how nations need to mourn when their leaders die. What is its goal? What might happen to countries whose mourning is perfunctory?
  1. What we do with our feelings of mourning highlights other questions that surround our mortality. Is it better to tell an ailing relative that the doctors have pronounced their imminent demise? When if ever might it be better not to share such news? How can we distinguish between our own discomfort to enter into such a discussion or to cause a loved one pain and when we are making such a decision entirely for their benefit? How do we discern such tricky emotional terrain?
  1. We’ve all known friends who have been caught in tumultuous relationships. Some of us have been in them. It’s been said that some people feel such stormy relations are a real barometer of truth. The person’s willingness to stick it through shows their dependability. What are your thoughts on and feelings about such dramatic relationships?