Parsha Pearls: We Are Our Actions
By Yochonon Donn
As president, no one came into office with a nastier reputation than Chester Arthur. The running mate of James Garfield, Arthur was not merely suspected of being loyal to the corrupt Republican political machine which controlled all levers of power in New York, the allegations were actually true. It was a world where it wasn’t what you knew but who you knew. The politically connected were rewarded with plum jobs, and Arthur sat on top of the pile.
In fact, when Garfield was assassinated months into his term in 1882, the assassin openly declared himself a member of the Arthur clique and said he killed the president so Arthur could take over and award him a job.
It was therefore with much apprehension that Washington greeted the new president, with predictions of the end of the republic approaching.
“What president ever entered office under circumstances so sad!” wrote Julia Sand, a disabled woman from New York who penned dozens of letters to Arthur. “The day [Garfield] was shot, the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the foul act. ... Your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right’ — adding gloomily, ‘he won’t succeed, though, making a man president cannot change him.’”
Sand must have been astute. “But making a man president can change him!” she added emphatically. “At a time like this, if anything can, that can. Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.”
And that is what happened. Arthur broke with a lifetime of shady friends and launched a war on corruption. During the three years of his term, Arthur ended the spoils system and attempted to introduce honest government to Washington.
“No man,” wrote Rep. Alexander McClure, “ever entered the presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected alike by political friend and foe.” Even good government advocate Mark Twain wrote that “it would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration.”
So — was Arthur a good man with a checkered past or a bad man with a good three years?
The Chinuch questions why Hashem commanded that the korban Pesach be eaten in royal fashion. It must be grilled and eaten while leaning back, along with the crunch of matzah and tartness of marror — and no bones may be broken in the process. Kings do not bite into bones while dining and neither shall Yidden on Pesach. Why is this? Are we, some of us who may be manual laborers or workers at menial jobs, kings?
Yes, replies the Chinuch. Adam nifal k’fi peulosav. Man is what he does, not who he imagines himself to be. Act royally and you are king for the night. A rasha for life who determines to perform mitzvos, study Torah and dedicate himself to davening properly, promises the Chinuch, will over time develop into the character he is imitating. And conversely, a tzaddik who is coerced into repeatedly sinning will eventually turn into a rasha.
The lesson of the korban Pesach is that no person is cemented into a reputation. Hashem doesn’t demand that we be tzaddikim, masmidim, good neighbors or devoted spouses and parents. What He wants is for us to perform acts of tzidkus, learn with hasmada, act graciously to neighbors and with love to our spouses and children.
After 120 years we will find out who we truly are. Until then, every situation presents another opportunity to try and influence that label.
Chester Arthur was corrupt for 59 years but changed in his last three years. We can too.