Posted on November 9, 2020
Given the way the last few days have gone, it may be time to declare that the American election is actually a Jewish holiday. The preparation for the day feels like it goes on for months, the main event begins in the evening at sundown; and then it doesn’t end, but lasts for several days. With Jewish holidays we sometimes say that they follow the pattern: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat – and given the stress and tension of the last few days, it may unfortunately be applicable here too.
As I stand here this evening, I’m exhausted, more than after those other Jewish holidays. I am not sure that I have ever felt this emotionally and physically drained ever before in my life. And I’m sure that I am not the only one. I like to aim for a regular 8 hours of sleep a night; on Tuesday, I barely managed 4, and in the ensuing nights it hasn’t been significantly better. But it’s not just the lack of sleep that is making me tired. The uncertainty of these past few days as we waited for an election result, has been exhausting. People have been living with an all-pervasive sense of anxiety surrounding them – there have been moments of fear and moments of hope, chances for optimism and for pessimism, times to despair and times to dream.
The average roller coaster lasts for 2 minutes, because the engineers and designers recognize that this is the optimal amount of time for a person to experience that type of stress, excitement, uncertainty, and adrenaline. I would suggest that we have been on a significantly longer roller coaster for the last several days, and maybe for the months preceding them – and it has taken a toll. As individuals, as communities and as a country we are all exhausted. And when you think about it, the result of the election might suggest that this is the only thing that we all have in common with each other. All of us have been through this ordeal, all of us would like it to be over, all of us want some certainty about what comes next.
This country has never been a united, homogenous group. We’ve always been divided into different subsets and communities. From the very beginning a single country was established out of a confederation of different States, with different identities, different loyalties and different cultures. One of the things that has made this country such a shining light for the world is the way that we have been able to bring together a diverse population and create a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
At this point, as we look at the electoral map from the previous evenings, or many electoral maps from previous contests, we can see the divisions in our country. The two-party system encourages a situation of them or us, of being allies or enemies, of being red or blue. The election itself becomes an all-consuming contest, a fight between the forces of good and evil, with both sides claiming and giving the respective designations. We lose the ability to talk civilly with each other, to hear the opinions with which we disagree, and to recognize that we are ultimately “one nation under God.”
If at this moment we are united by a sense of exhaustion, I think that on Tuesday evening we were also united by the way in which that evening was characterized by moments of despair and moments of hope. Whether the candidate or party that you were supporting won or lost, the way that the results and the election played out ensured that there were feelings of triumph and defeat – sometimes occurring simultaneously. So many of us were left asking: how could they vote for him or her, for that candidate or that party? The question was asked by Republicans and Democrats. We shared in the experience and yet we were further divided by it.
Even for those who are celebrating a candidate’s expected victory, it would be easy to despair at the divisions in this country which have been brought to the fore by the electoral process and which are unfortunately now being exacerbated by those who make baseless claims of fraud or corruption.
There are so many sermons that need to be delivered in the aftermath of this election. So many subjects that should be considered through a Jewish lens. So many topics that would be worthy of our discussion and consideration. I was unsure what the topic should be tonight, and so on Wednesday evening, while still in the midst of the counting uncertainty, I asked my students, the teenagers in our AISH program – what should I talk about? In my two classes of 8th Graders and Seniors they had the same answer: Talk about how we must now come together as a community. Preach about the need to stop the fighting and to find ways to unite with one another. Speak about the fact that we must open our eyes to recognize the divisions in our country, and then we must find a way to reach across the aisle and to work with those with whom we disagree.
My teenage students all saw in this moment the need to find ways to come together despite our differences. Despite our dismay at the choices of those with whom we disagree. Despite the fact that right now we feel very broken, very divided, and very hurt as a country. Despite all of that, they saw the need to talk about coming together.
As a Jewish community, we know how to do this. We have always been divided into different groups and subsets along ethnic lines, along denominational lines, along national lines. And while we might imagine that this is a new phenomenon, in reality it has been this way since we began. When we go back to the Biblical account, while we talk about Bnei Yisrael – the Children of Israel, we are also always talking about the tribes. That tribal loyalty and sense of belonging appears to be central to the identity of the various figures and places that are discussed throughout our Bible. Yes, they are all Bnei Yisrael, but they are also and significantly members of their tribe.
And yet, despite all of these differences, we know from reading our Jewish history that we rise when we find those ways to unite. We succeed when we recognize those things that we share, rather than focusing on our differences. The tribes conquer the land of Israel because they are able to work together, for the common good – putting aside their individual loyalty and identity to recognize they are part of something greater when they are able to come together.
The idea of America coming together now feels almost impossible, and yet we can look to history for those times of despair and division to see how we were able to emerge stronger. Yesterday, Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke about this moment and the need for perspective: “History shows us we’ve lived through worse times before and we’ve endured them, and we’ve come out stronger.” Mentioning the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War Two, she continued: “they felt the anxiety we are feeling now, not knowing the end of the story, but when you look back at history and you see us emerging through those times, it gives you hope, it gives you perspective and it provides lessons.”
As we look for inspiration at this moment, we might well look to the speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln at his second inauguration. The Civil War was coming to an end and yet he did not look to gloat, but rather he searched for ways to find unity. As he concluded his remarks, he famously said: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In his words Lincoln is clear in the unjustness of slavery, he is unequivocal in his belief that there is a right and a wrong, but he also recognized the need for the nation to find a way to come together. My belief in the need to come together does not mean that I stop fighting for what I believe in, it does not mean that I no longer oppose opinions I find abhorrent and it does not require that I give up the obligation to fight injustice, inequality, prejudice, and persecution. Instead, and I recognize that perhaps these words come from a place of privilege, I see that there is a need to pursue my values, beliefs, and ideology, and simultaneously there is a need to find ways to bring this fractured nation together.
For too long we have allowed ourselves to be divided by political leaders, we have accepted the idea that there is a them and us, and we have stopped listening to those with whom we disagree. Existing in our echo chambers I think that people on both sides of the aisle expected a landslide, because we only ever hear the opinions of those with whom we agree.
We need to return to the words of Shema for our next steps, they were spoken to Israel, but they are relevant for America. The first statement Shema Yisrael calls on us all to listen, to open our ears and to hear what others are saying. Adonai Eloheinu – acknowledges that God is our God, we access God in different ways, with different understanding of who or what God is. But, we finally declare Adonai echad – despite our different opinions and connections there is a oneness to God that is final and absolute. Listen America, we are a nation made up of diverse people, states, and beliefs, but we are fundamentally one nation.
12 days ago, I stood in the United States Citizen and Immigration Services and I became an American citizen. With fifteen other men and women in the room, we all looked different, we sounded different and I am sure we all had different beliefs and opinions. But together we recited the Naturalization Oath, together we recited the Pledge of Allegiance declaring affirming that we are “one Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all”, and together we became Americans.
We might suggest that Jewish holidays follow the flow: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. But the truth is that in Judaism there is always a fourth stage: It is – and together, let’s now journey to the Promised Land. We remain on that journey, and with faith, dedication and commitment we can get there together.