One of Hollywood’s favorite stereotypes is that of the corrupt politician. Inevitably, the character has a flashback, or at least refers to, his/her youthful, idealistic goals. Usually the politician mutters a line such as “I got into it to make the world a better place.”

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish sages declared: “Let all who occupy themselves with communal affairs do so for Heaven’s sake, for then the merit of their fathers sustains them and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you [People of Israel], God will then say: I count you worthy of great reward as if you had done it all yourselves” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 2:2).

Working for the benefit of the community, whether on the simplest level such as the local synagogue board or within the more complex infrastructure of government, requires a person to stay pure of motive. This is something that is extremely difficult to do – not because of the Hollywood-portrayed lure of corruption and greed, but rather because there are many motivations that can drive a person into public life that are not really in the public interest.

The sages’ declaration about the nobility of service for the community is actually the second half of a longer Mishna that praises the benefits of combining Torah scholarship with worldly occupation. That fact gives definition to the seemingly incongruous final line of the Mishna: Those who cannot find time to study Torah due to involvement in communal affairs are credited for their dedication (if done with the proper motivations).

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