ROSH HaSHANAH, 5777
I stand before you, forced to select one of two unappealing options. Given the immense range of possibilities, given all the talent and wisdom and charisma out there, how is it possible that our system could not produce more exciting choices? And yet in the end, it is a binary decision. Every one of us has to pick. Either/or. On the awesome day of Rosh HaShanah, we rabbis either must speak about the election, or we must speak about why we will not speak about the election … I’m going to speak to you about the election. Kind of. I’m not talking about the race itself, and not really about the candidates, but about the society that is having this race.
It would be totally wrong for me to suggest who you should vote for, and I will not. First of all, it’s against the rules and I like Ansche Chesed’s tax-exempt status. But on a deeper level it’s because Judaism is not partisan. It should be political, in the sense that Judaism should to contribute to human thriving, to building a good, ethical society, but it is not partisan or ideological in the sense that religion should work to put some people in power and get rid of others and enact some laws and not others. We should help society think about values and virtues, but timeless wisdom does not translate to contemporary policy specifics. Hashem actually is silent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Dodd-Frank. I can say modestly that Hashem wants working people to live in dignity and security, but the precise minimum wage, is not to be found in the scriptures. There may be legitimate human reasons to support Clinton. Or legitimate human reasons to support Trump. But God is not a Democrat or a Republican, liberal or conservative. You might be. God isn’t.
And I don’t need to tell you that the mingling of church and state is a toxic brew. It’s bad for politics because it induces extremism by portraying human interests and judgments as if they were sacred absolutes. And it’s bad for religion because the Torah is too important to be tied to the petty aims of getting elected, and too universally vital to be restricted to any one party. Whatever you think about Obamacare, the Torah still teaches you, inspires you, commands you “to love God with all your heart and soul and might,” to “love your neighbor as yourself,” to “pursue justice,” to “be a blessing,” and to “be holy, as the Lord your God is holy.” No matter how you vote, you’re a child of Abraham and Sarah, a student of Moses and a member of the people of Israel and you deserve a place in a shul that loves you, and cares about you and wants to help you perform mitzvot.
So, when I say I will talk about the election, I don’t mean the specific conflict between the candidates and their parties. I mean that we need to talk about the American society that is having this particular contest.
On Rosh HaShanah we perform heshbon hanefesh; we take stock of ourselves and what we’ve done. Rosh Hashanah is a fearless gaze into the mirror. So as we begin a new year, let’s do this nationally. What do you see in the mirror? What have we learned about ourselves this election year? Does it make you proud? What features of American society and our democracy do you see in the mirror in the fall of 2016? And most importantly: what are you going to do about it?
Now before we get too deep into this, let me say: I can see that some of us are stretching our shoulders out, working those rotator cuffs so we can stretch really far and pat ourselves on the back. If we’re going to talk about the state of society in 2016, that must mean that we’re called upon to rise to the occasion and do the difficult moral thing and condemn those condemnable idiots. We’re must deplore those deplorable deplorables! What’s the Matter with Kansas?! Estoy listo!
I know you and I love you. So I can tell you: On Rosh HaShanah, Jews on the Upper West Side don’t need to hear how smart and sophisticated you are. You don’t need to be congratulated for thinking right things. You don’t need to be reminded that the problem is all those immoral dolts somewhere over there, while fortunately, you are moral and wise. That’s not heshbon hanefesh/self-examination or teshuva/penitence. That’s smug and facile self-flattery. Don’t flatter yourself. Don’t pat yourself on the back. Don’t blame. Try to be better.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the great Sage of religious Zionism in the early 20th century, wrote that ‘True saints don’t condemn evil, they add justice; they don’t condemn heresy, they add faith; they don’t condemn ignorance, they add wisdom.”
So again, let’s ask as ourselves: What are we learning about ourselves this election season? What are we going to do about it? What wisdom, justice and faith can we add?
In a few moments, I will focus on one theme, which has both timeless Jewish resonance and contemporary relevance. But first, let me note some other the images I see as I look in the mirror. And while most of them emerge from Donald Trump’s behavior, I am not ultimately talking about him. Conceivably he is right about any number of important political issues. But beyond one man’s conduct and character, the question before us as Americans, as we look in the mirror on Rosh HaShanah, is how our society has responded. It’s not ultimately whatever objectionable thing he says or tactic he employs, but how well it is working.
We could reflect on the bullying, the incivility, the cruel nicknames, the crude innuendo. We have a Jewish norm called ona’at devarim meaning “abusive speech,” which prohibits such obnoxious behavior, because people’s feelings and personal dignity are precious and should be protected. It is terrible that a presidential candidate violates basic human decency, but it is worse that it has worked. Tens of millions of citizens think, Yes! That’s the way to do it. That guy is strong! The others are “low-energy” and lack “stamina.”
We could reflect on the shameless deceptions by many candidates. The Torah commands mid’var sheker tirhak. Keep far from falsehood. But however outrageously the candidates behave, more important is that our society cannot discern the difference between truth and “truthful hyperbole.” We don’t know the difference between reality and reality TV. Americans have always loved the circus that our P.T. Barnums put on for us. It all calls to mind the words of the early 20th century journalist H. L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” And, by the way, if you think Donald Trump is the only one guilty of dishonest theater, then I have a single payer health care system and free college to sell you, accompanied by Paul Simon music. And while this country doesn’t care about “your damn emails,” as Bernie Sanders said, Hillary Clinton’s response to that investigation proves the adage that “you made your bed, and now have to lie about it.”
We could reflect on many voters’ impulse to break the government’s windows, to destroy rather than to build and improve. We need to punch the establishment in the face, says the Tea Party right. An April survey, during the primaries, found that 65 percent of Trump voters agreed with the statement that “we need a president who will break rules” and tear the whole thing down. And if you think this impulse applies only to Trump supporters, I commend to you George Saunders’ article this summer in the New Yorker that recounted anti-Trump protesters also spitting and hitting, calling all police pigs, and in a couple of cases rock-throwing. We’ve become an often angry society, sometimes violently so. It is destructive anti-social vandalism that says “get a novice in here, as long as he’s not a politician. It can’t possibly get any worse.” Oh, yes it can. This impulse displays a profound contempt for norms and the rule of law.
And I don’t accept the idea that anger is OK if you’re mad at the right people. Anger makes you break things and hurt people, and only love makes you build.
Also, this election year has revealed how superficial our society has become. To borrow a witticism from Andy Warhol: “We are deeply superficial.” Lots of us smirk that the Republican candidate seems incapable of thinking beyond counting the numbers of people who attend his events or re-tweet his posts, or click his on-line polls. To him it seems that it’s all just a popularity contest, totally devoid of ideas and principles or any appreciation for what is at stake. But this election reveals more than one person’s narcissism. It’s not the candidate, it’s the society. It’s not what he says, it is how well it works. As a society, all too often, we make decisions based on the number of “likes” we get, and our “followers” or the thumbs up and down. And that is a society with poor habits of mind.
Those are all important. But to me, the most significant thing we have learned about ourselves and our democracy this year, is our capacity to insult, mock and hate those different from ourselves. It’s terrible that a presidential candidate uses racist and misogynistic dog whistles. It’s worse that we hear them, because they are in our frequency. The candidate appeals to the uglier angels of our nature, but did not create them.
In particular, we’ve become a country all too eager to view ethnic and racial difference with deep hostility and suspicion. What are you saying when you promise to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans? You’re not discussing what our immigration policy should be, or analyzing its effects on the labor market. Actually, you’re just watching Game of Thrones, and imagining the Night’s Watch keeping out the wildlings because they’re really all rapists and drug dealers.
What are you saying when you want to bar Middle Eastern people or Muslim people from entering this country – even those fleeing an extraordinary humanitarian disaster? What are you saying when you imply that that grieving “gold star” mother was not “allowed” to talk by her husband. What are you saying when your answer to racial tension in America is to favor stop-and-frisk across the country in predominantly black neighborhoods?
Certainly, we need a criminal justice system. Like any society, we need immigration laws. In today’s world, we need homeland security.
But today, on Rosh HaShanah, as we look in the mirror, as we listen to ourselves, at the core, voices in this country are saying – to a lot of people but most especially to Muslim citizens and black citizens: I need to protect myself from you. I must oppose your culture. I don’t trust you. I don’t believe in you. I have no faith in you and what you’re going to do to my country.
On one level, that is totally un-American, but sadly, historically, totally American. This nation of immigrants has often tended to say that “I was the last acceptable immigrant.” But the next ones are too foreign to ever belong. The English said that to the Germans, and the Swedes, who said it to the Irish, and who in turn said it to the Italians and Jews, who are saying to the people who look even more different, especially to Syrians, fleeing an unimaginable slaughter in their home country. This truth was captured in the words of an American classic, “West Side Story,” incidentally created by a team of gay Jews: “Life is all right in America … if you’re all white in America.”
From my perspective as a religious Jew, that is not a moral or religious way to live. It is immoral and unreligious to be hoshed bak’sherim, unjustly suspicious of honest people. You don’t have to be naïve and you don’t have to give strangers the keys to your house. But you must look at your fellow human beings generously, and with good will. You must believe that the people you meet are honest and good, whose lives are as important as yours, and in the Talmud’s phrase, whose blood is just as red as yours.
As I look America in the mirror on Rosh HaShanah, I want our Jewish community to give America a gift, and I know that my fellow religious people, Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and everyone else will give that same gift: to teach society to be people of faith. I myself have faith in God. Some of you do or don’t, can or can’t. But that’s not the meaning of the word faith I am talking about.
I don’t need American society to have faith that. To be good citizens, to create the community we long for, we need not believe that God judges us on Rosh HaShanah or that God gave us the Torah. What we need is faith in. We need to believe in our fellow human beings. We need to believe in their good will and their contributions to the common weal. We need to believe they are not trying to steal our homes, but to build their own. We need to believe they want for their children what we want for ours. We need to believe they are, like us, people of values and virtues, of good conduct and good character.
We can find this faith in the world around us, if we imitate the true exemplar of goodness in Jewish tradition, the Blessed Holy One, the Master of the World.
You may be familiar with a theme of the ancient Sages that says that the angels disputed with God over whether human beings should be created. In these Midrashim, some angels said that human beings would act with kindness; others said they would be violent. Some said they would do acts of justice; others said they would lie constantly. Are these humans even worth the trouble?
But God is described in the book of Deuteronomy as El Emuna, a God of faith. Now, what can God be expected to believe in? It certainly cannot mean that God believes in God.
No, according to the Midrash, God is El Emuna, a God of faith, because he’emin ba’Olamo u’verao, “God believed in the world, and so created it.” There were plenty of good reasons for God to doubt people and judge them unworthy from the outset. But God believed in the world, believed in people, trusted them, and took the chance on them.
This is the God I know: The God who has faith in you and bets on you. Now, I’m mostly talking about society, not individuals and their inner lives. But on Rosh HaShanah I cannot fail to connect this – at least in passing – to the theme of Teshuva/Repentance. For all your failings, God still has faith in you. God still sees your strength, alongside your weakness and your great potential alongside your shortcomings. So on Rosh HaShanah day, I hope you find it in yourselves to believe in yourselves, and believe that you are worth the effort and bet on yourself.
And most importantly, in this election season, if you are going to imitate God, have faith in other people and bet on them. To be religious, in the fall of 2016, includes teaching yor fellow citizens the commandments to love.
In two distinct ways, the Torah commands us to love others: We are told ve’ahavta le’re’ekha kamokha/“Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are also told ve’ahavtem et ha’ger/“Love the stranger.” In Jewish law, the mitzvah to love your neighbor is directed specifically to your fellow Jews. And this is a precious thing, after all: We must love other Jews if we are to build intimate, caring Jewish communities. We love each other because of all we share: a history, a family, a future. You love other Jews because they are kamokha, “like you.” It’s not that hard to love people who are like you.
It’s much more difficult to love strangers. It’s much more difficult to love people who don’t look like you or speak your language, whose history is not yours and whose dreams may be different than your dreams. But that is the mitzvah that America needs us to practice needs us to teach and spread in the fall of 2016.
To practice this, I want you to undergo a small exercise with me, based on the words of Shmuel of Lubavitch, “Maharash,” the fourth rebbe of the Chabad movement. You may know that in Hasidic tradition, someone who needed a special prayer would write his or her petition in a note, and give a tzedakah contribution and the note to the rebbe, who would pray. The students asked Rebbe Maharash what exalted spiritual quality equipped him to be able to convey these prayers. He replied that it is so simple that anyone could do it: all you need is to speak the praises of others. But here is the trick: you must say something nice about another person, and it must be true. So please take the next three minutes, turn to your neighbor, and engage in this practice: say something kind and true about another person, who is not the same as you, who is different from you. And this is how you will learn to love … [Following this brief exercise]
As you all know, I like to include the words of a great American songwriter in my divrei Torah. Today, it will not be Bruce Springsteen. It is Brian Wilson, the sweetest soul who ever lived. He has a wonderful song called “Love and Mercy,” in which he sings: “I was lying in my room when the news came on TV. There are a lot of people out there hurting, and it really scares me. So, love and mercy is what you need tonight.”
Some things are complicated. Some things are simple. This is simple. Love and mercy is what you need tonight. Love and mercy is what religious communities like ours can and must bring to America during this angry election season.
Love and mercy. How do you say that in Hebrew? Chesed. In the fall of 2016, let us be Ansche Chesed, the people of love and mercy.