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    The tyranny of the majority – Mishpatim

    A basic democratic principle is that power rests with the voice of the people, i.e. the voice of the majority.

    In Judaism this is generally taken as deriving from a verse in today’s sidra, Acharai rabbim l’hattot (Ex. 23:2), “incline after the majority”. But the actual words are lo tih’yeh acharai rabbim l’hattot, “Do not incline after the majority”, which is something quite different.

    The commentators are well aware that majority rule can be a good principle, but following the majority can sometimes lead to harm. Hence they make a distinction.

    If the majority are leading you to do good, follow them, but if they are leading you to do evil, “do not incline” after them.

    In the latter case, Ibn Ezra tells us, you should not say, “A multitude cannot lie”. The fact is that a multitude can lie, and if there is a strength in numbers, there is also a danger.

    Bernard Berzon relates that a somewhat sinful individual was once explaining to the Chafetz Chayyim why he was not more righteous.

    “I am like most other people,” he said, “The majority are like me. Why expect me to be different?”

    The Chafetz Chayyim asked him, “Friend, who do you think are in the majority, the saints or the sinners?”

    The man replied, “It seems to me that the really good people are very few”.

    “And who are in the majority,” the Chafetz Chayyim asked, “Those who get sick or those who are always well?”

    “It seems to me,” was the answer, “that very few people are always well”.

    “So,” said the Chafetz Chayyim, “you want to be part of a majority which is full of problems when you have the chance of enjoying the blessings of the privileged few?”

    People often argue that they are only doing what everyone else is doing. Everyone else experiments with drugs, everyone else is a little less than honest, everyone else makes compromises with morality… why should I stand out and be different from everyone else?

    Acharai rabbim l’hattot! A multitude cannot lie!

    On the world scene we see this argument unfolding day by day in the media and in the international organisations, especially when the many and the mighty gang up as usual against small Israel.

    But the decisive answer was once given by an American ambassador to the United Nations after the welcome given to Yasser Arafat.

    The US ambassador stood up and warned against what he called “the tyranny of the majority”.

    The majority, he solemnly averred, represented a great threat to the survival of mankind.

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