Readers of this column will know that last week my wife and I, thank G-d, married off our eldest child. What they will not know are the conditions we endured for the days prior to the wedding, when a freak snow storm caused a power outage in our home town of Englewood, N.J. and much of the Northeast. We were preparing for a wedding with a house filled with relatives from around the world who, freezing with no heat, light, or phones, thought America was a third-world country. Compounding that feeling were the dilapidated roads, like the I-95 -- one of the America's premier highways -- that passes near our home and that is so filled with potholes and is so perennially under construction that it calls to mind a war zone like Kandahar. Add to that the staggering traffic in New York City, where it can take 30 minutes just to go around a city block, and my Australian, European, and Israeli relatives came to the conclusion that America is teetering on the brink. We were fortunate that, although the beautiful Rockleigh Country Club and Main Event caterers where the wedding was held itself lost power, its internal generators allowed us to proceed with what was a magnificent wedding. But a few relatives who were supposed to stay for the seven days of celebration that traditionally follow a Jewish wedding left in the morning hours after the ceremony, swearing they could no longer endure the freezing conditions to which our area of the country subjected them.
They were right.
Yes, a freak snow storm in October is a challenge. But this is the third power outage lasting several days with which we have been hit in about half a year. All could have been easily avoided if our town could simply afford to run the power lines under the ground where they belong, where trees can't knock them out of commission, and where they can't dangle and kill small children, as tragically happened in our area in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. But although we have nearly the highest property taxes in America, our town can barely afford to fix its own streets. Most New York and New Jersey municipalities are spending upwards of $23,000 per student in the school systems and are locked into such expensive union contracts that they simply don't have the funds to upgrade infrastructure. The roads in the New York metropolitan area are a disaster zone and will remain that way indefinitely.
While the world reads daily about America's high unemployment rate and a staggering national debt that just about equals its GDP, what they don't see is the dilapidated state of America's infrastructure or the nightmare traffic jams in all its big cities. But government has spent so much money on so many wasteful and ineffective social programs that the funds to stop America from crumbling simply don't exist.
Truth be told, we should by now all be sick of just complaining about the problems. The last thing America needs is more armchair pundits or television talking heads. It's time we all did something about it.
When I was a guest on the Glenn Beck show a few weeks ago, he gave his version of the Ten Commandments, one of which was the obligation to run for elective office if you see your country suffering and more worthy candidates than yourself do not exist. This is probably what America most needs, courageous, principled, visionary, and determined citizens unseating the do-nothing class of politicians who watch America crumble by the day yet continue to waste our hard-earned money on efforts that yield few results.
But anyone who has watched what has happened to Herman Cain the past few days will understand why few choose to run and we continue to see mediocrity in the political classes. We're all human and fallible, and most people have things in their past of which they're not proud. The last thing they want is to be crucified for previous mistakes by the media.
This is not to say that if someone like Herman Cain harassed women, it should be overlooked. Of course it should not. These are serious allegations, and the American people deserve to know that they are electing dependable, good, and honest people. It is to say that were we to live in a society that had proper values, including that of forgiveness, then Cain and many like him -- if the allegations against them are true -- could get up in front of the public, admit their mistakes, request forgiveness, change their ways, and run for office. The fear, however, is that the political climate is so fractured, the public so polarized, the media so hungry for blood, that anyone courageous enough to tell the truth and ask to be pardoned for past sin so that they could serve their country would be dragged through the mud and humiliated.
Yet politicians like Bill Clinton -- seen as flawed yet effective -- remain highly popular, as does the memory of other seriously blemished men like Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.
America has to make a decision. Does it want perfection like Barack Obama, who rarely stumbles but lacks the grit to get American out of the morass of crushing debt and joblessness, or does it want men and women who can dig us out but who have dirt under their fingernails?
The Jewish people are currently reading the book of Genesis. It is a fascinating narrative of incredible men and women who achieved great things while simultaneously guilty of serious error, from Adam and Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to Jacob favoring Joseph over his other children and the tragic consequences that followed. Yet these were men and women who built whole nations, serving as patriarchs and matriarchs. The moral of the story: righteousness is defined not by perfection but by wrestling with one's nature to serve the public good amid one's undeniable defects.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself" and will shortly publish "Kosher Jesus." Follow him on his website and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.