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Rehoboam & Politics

Based on a reading from the first Book of Kings, Chapter 12
Rehoboam was the son of King Solomon, who was supposedly one of the wisest people of his time. Rehoboam was raised in the palace, and he became king around age 41, probably near the year 932 BCE. In this story in the Bible’s Book of Kings, when Rehoboam first becomes king, some of his people come to him to ask him to make their lives easier. Rehoboam says that he will think about it, and he gets two kinds of advice.
First he seeks advice from the older men, who had advised his father. They believe that the king serves the people and should treat the people with respect. They suggest that he make the lives of his people easier and then they will happily stay his subjects.
Then he seeks advice from the young adults who had grown up with him – the Hebrew literally says y’ladeem, or children. The young adults believe that the people should serve the king and that the king should rule by fear. They advise that he should make the people’s burden even heavier than his father did.
Rehoboam follows the advice of the younger men with disastrous results. After the passage that I read, Jeroboam and the people of Israel decide to leave the kingdom, which leads to a civil war between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. This conflict between the two Hebrew kingdoms will last for another 200 years until the northern kingdom is destroyed by an outside invader.
By looking at the passage I read, what can we tell about who wrote it, and when, and why? It must have been written some time after the events took place; it couldn’t have been written before they happened, of course, and it doesn’t sound like it was written like a newspaper article right afterwards. It sounds much more like a later interpretation of what happened, more like a history book. In this time period, a priest or someone working for the king usually recorded anything written. Because this story makes King Rehoboam look bad, someone working for him probably didn’t write it. But Jeroboam, who is the hero of the other side, hides out in Egypt, a long-time enemy of the Hebrews, and then he goes on to make two golden bulls for the people of Israel to worship, so Jeroboam doesn’t look too good either. My guess is that a priest who wasn’t very impressed by kings like Rehoboam probably wrote this story.
To celebrate my Bar Mitzvah, I could have chosen any Hebrew reading, so why did I choose this passage from the Book of Kings? I am interested in politics, and my family often discusses politics and how leaders should act. I found this particular passage interesting because Rehoboam chose to rule with an iron fist, instead of with welcoming arms, and obviously he made the wrong choice.
Another reason I chose this passage was because he did not listen to the people who gave good advice; instead he followed the worst advice. Rehoboam was a ruler who wanted power instead of what was right for the people. I think that Rehoboam made an unwise decision, taking the advice of the younger adults. Sometimes older people actually do know something worthwhile, and sometimes peer pressure makes you do the wrong thing.
Why do I think he followed the bad advice? Probably because he grew up with the younger men and knew them and trusted them better, and he was more comfortable taking their advice instead of listening to his father’s older advisors. He might also have been spoiled from having been raised as a prince, and the advice to act like he was a big-shot right away sounded better to him. Rehoboam even says exactly what the young men tell him to say – he’s not even thinking for himself.
There are times when younger voices can be better: they might be thinking more about the future than just the present, and they might have good ideas. Older people may be more conservative in their lifestyle and in their advice. The important thing is to evaluate for the ideas themselves and not who says them, to consider the options and the consequences for both the present and the future.
In this case, I like to think that I would have followed the better advice of the older men, because then the people might have been happier and wouldn’t have started a civil war. And Rehoboam could have used those extra people a few years later when his kingdom was attacked by Egypt.
There is an interesting irony in Rehoboam’s name – his name means “he who enlarges the people.” But in fact he really wanted to enlarge their suffering, and he actually made his kingdom much smaller because of his bad choices. Of course, Rehoboam couldn’t have known what would happen, but he could have thought more about the future consequences of what he chose to do.
In my own life experience, it’s better to treat people with kindness because it is the right thing to do and because others might do the same to you in the future. There’s also an interesting parallel between the history of Israel and Judah and American history, which also had a Civil war between the North and the South. In America, the story ended a lot better. As the war ended, President Lincoln could have exercised his power, sought revenge and crushed the South. Instead Lincoln instructed the troops to treat the surrendering Confederate soldiers fairly and chose to welcome the Southern states back into the Union. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated before he could make this happen. But by setting this tone of good will, he was able to help heal the nation. Lincoln was a student of the Bible. Maybe he learned how to act from Rehoboam’s bad example, especially about making wise choices.  
Becoming a Bar Mitzvah is all about choices: for me, the first choice was whether to have a Bar Mitzvah at all, since my family background is half Jewish and half Christian. I decided that I could celebrate my Jewish connections without denying the other half of who I am, and that helping to carry on my Jewish ancestors’ traditions gives me a feeling of doing something good to help my family. Then I had to choose what to read, and what to say about what I read. You are hearing the results of that choice. Most important, however, is what becoming a Bar Mitzvah means – it means being a responsible person, which is all about making good choices, like telling the truth, respecting other people’s property, and taking the blame for my mistakes. And it means thinking about the consequences before making a choice, something Rehoboam could have done better. Too bad he never had a Bar Mitzvah, but the idea of the Bar Mitzvah wasn’t even invented for another 1000 years.
One way I chose to be a responsible person was in my Bar Mitzvah community service work. My community service work was in two parts. First, I am working on several projects to improve this Nature Center. My family has been coming to the Heller Nature Center for as long as I can remember. In fact, I planted a tree near the parking lot as a Cub Scout many years ago. Coming here as a member of Kol Hadash has also made me want to do some of my community service work right here. The second part of my community service work is to collect books for children in shelters. Like the people during Rehoboam’s reign, children living in shelters have difficult lives, with many burdens. Books can help these kids in two ways. First, books offer an escape from their difficulties and a window into a better life. Second, books can also educate them and help them improve their lives. After all, the story of Rehoboam is in a book, too.
The philosopher George Santayana once said that 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' What could a modern politician learn from the story of Rehoboam? Lead through respect instead of fear. Think about future consequences, not only the short term. Make the right choice, not just what your friends are telling you to do. Listen to the better advice, not just what you want to hear. In fact, all of those lessons are not just about being a better politician – they’re about being a better person: respect not fear, thinking about the future as well as today, making the right choice, and following good advice. That’s MY advice to you from the story of Rehoboam.
Follow the links below to read other B Mitvah speeches.
Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784