For many weeks now my Shabbat morning walk to synagogue has taken me down a certain street bedecked with an equal number of Clinton and Trump signs. This past Saturday morning, the first since the election, all the signs were gone — a welcome reminder that the most rancorous presidential campaign in recent history was now over. There is one sign, however, that remains prominently displayed on the front lawn of a particular house, a sign that has served for months as a sobering counterpoint to the vitriolic rhetoric of this year’s election cycle. This is its message:
For those who do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical verses (confession: I had to look up the reference myself), this what II Chronicles 7:14 states: “ וְיִכָּֽנְע֨וּ עַמִּ֜י אֲשֶׁ֧ר נִֽקְרָא־שְׁמִ֣י עֲלֵיהֶ֗ם וְיִֽתְפַּֽלְלוּ֙ וִֽיבַקְשׁ֣וּ פָנַ֔י וְיָשֻׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכֵיהֶ֣ם הָֽרָעִ֑ים וַֽאֲנִי֙ אֶשְׁמַ֣ע מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְאֶסְלַח֙ לְחַטָּאתָ֔ם וְאֶרְפָּ֖א אֶת־אַרְצָֽם — When My people, who bear My name, humble themselves, pray, and seek My favor and turn from their evil ways, I will hear in My heavenly abode and forgive their sins and heal their land.”
America has a lot of work to do in the days ahead.
As the final results of the nail-biting presidential election rolled in, CNN correspondent Van Jones shared his thoughts with viewers about Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College: “People have talked about a miracle. I’m hearing about a nightmare,” he said early Wednesday morning. “You tell your kids: Don’t be a bully… don’t be a bigot.. do your homework and be prepared. And then you have this outcome.”
“You have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of ‘How do I explain this to my children?’ I have Muslim friends who are texting me tonight, ‘Should I leave the country?’ I have families of immigrants that are terrified tonight. This was a rebellion against the elites, true, it was a complete reinvention of politics . . . but it was also something else.” Jones continued, “We haven’t talked about race. This was a ‘white-lash’ against a changing country … against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.” To underscore the fear that some Americans are feeling, a member of our own community told me of an incident that took place the morning after the election in this neighborhood. Having stopped to buy gas on his way to minyan, two young, white men saw his kippah and, rolling down the window of their pick-up truck, shouted triumphantly at him, “No more ‘Jew-S-A’, No more ‘Jew-S-A’!”
Of course, this is hardly the first time idiots in Jacksonville or other places have shouted anti-Semitic slurs from moving vehicles at Jews wearing kippot. I can tell you from personal experience that long before Donald Trump ever dreamed of running for the presidency, at least several times a year I’ve been the recipient of shouted words from drivers . . . who are decidely NOT wishing me Shabbat Shalom. The age of the jerk did not begin this campaign season.
In all fairness, for many the election was about the hopelessness of living in the dying factory towns that dot the landscape of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and other rust belt states, whose residents have lived lives of quiet desperation for 20 or 30 years. These folks will tell you their vote for Trump was framed by poverty and hopelessness, rather than issues of race (indeed, some were Democrats and had previously voted for Obama in the hope that as an outsider he would serve as an agent for change). As for the Latino vote, while exit polls clearly demonstrated a 2-1 edge for Clinton, some 29% of Hispanic Americans voted for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, many ultra-Orthodox Jews voted red, not blue: indeed, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Trump received 69% of the vote. The most shocking election statistic? Nearly 50% of all Americans eligible to vote chose not to go to the polls at all.
I mention all of the above to underscore the fact that the truth is nearly always more complicated than we like. Yes, there were plenty of racists who rejoiced over Trump’s win, but there were members of some minority communities who voted in significant numbers for the President-elect. There are plenty of Americans rightly concerned about the growing acceptability of a prejudice that self righteously hides behind a facade of being tired of political correctness; but there are those who voted for Donald Trump for the simple reason that he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. As for women, plenty voted on either side of the partisan divide. We crave a simple take-away about the state of the American body-politic, but there isn’t one truth to have emerged from this election. Indeed, for us to come together as Americans requires we resist the temptation to engage in platitudes or simplistic judgments.
On the contrary, to heal the divide in this country will require us to acknowledge the extent to which truth has been a casualty of this grueling election cycle. It’s nothing new that American have stopped believing that politicians tells the truth. What should deeply disturb us is that so many voters act as though truth has become totally irrelevant to the election process, that candidates need no longer be held accountable for making up facts, contradicting themselves, or saying one thing and then doing another with impunity.
In the moral universe that Judaism inhabits, we cannot forget that Emet, “truth” is one of God’s names, while the Ten Commandments prohibit us from lying in God’s name (#9). As the Talmud puts its, “The Holy One despises him who says one thing with his mouth, and another in his heart” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 113b). As Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, recently noted in a post-election piece found on his blog, “Jews have learned the hard way, as have other minority communities, that when those in power play fast and loose with the truth, individuals and groups who are powerless, as Jews have been in the past, are the first to pay a heavy price.” We must banish the notion that, “If I like a fact, it must be true; if it doesn’t square with my wishes, it’s got to be a conspiracy.”
There is a time for political rhetoric and hype, and a time to own up to complexity; let’s begin by rejecting the lie that a person or group is either with us or against us. Let’s own up to the complexity of things for a change, and admit that the policies and individuals we favor or oppose are not all good or all bad. As has been true of all elections since the founding of the Republic, the promises made during a campaign are always more numerous than the promises kept afterward — those who believe the 45th President will serve as a political savior should take note that the 44th President was elected on the same premise, albeit by a different group of voters. Our economy, the role of the private sector, Congress, our international relationships, and public opinion all serve to put a brake on the power of the President. In our desperate quest for simplistic solutions, we believe that the President will either make or break America. Without denying the enormous power of the presidency, it remains a fact that there are many, many factors that work with and against the wishes of any President.
Bearing that in mind, it is our task as caring and responsible citizens to be more, not less, engaged in playing our part as members of a Democratic society. If we see something amiss, we must say something, using the power of our voice, our pen, and our protests. America is a strong and vibrant democracy; when we cultivate relationships with our congressional representatives; when we lobby and organize; when we petition and support organizations that espouse our values; we shape and influence the direction our country takes. One should never say never, but I honestly do not see the United States of 2016 morphing into the Germany of 1933. Of course, it would be sufficiently awful if we were to turn the clock back and become the America of 1933 . . . but that can’t and won’t happen if we stay engaged in the work of democracy.
While acknowledging the complexity of politics and government may serve as the first step toward reconciliation, the second is to overcome the hateful speech that has been a part of our landscape for the past 18 months. Words played a pivotal role in dividing us, through name-calling, disparagement, and smears of all kinds.
The rhetoric of “Lock her up” and “The basket of deplorables” fostered doomsday imagery and ramped up fears. In retrospect would the campaign have inflicted as much damage on our sense of unity if the candidates had espoused the same views, albeit in more respectful ways? Had youngsters running for student body president in any high school acted along the lines of the recent election campaign, candidates would have been disqualified, maybe even suspended or expelled . . . which should make us feel good about high school student government in this country, though not the way our country pursues so-called “higher” office. Shame on us as Americans that we mistake a refusal to engage in civil discourse as an admirable way to demonstrate that one is a maverick! We are now paying the price for the excesses of speech on one side and predictions of Armageddon on the other.
Jews, of course, know all about the power of speech: God spoke the world into being as we learn in the very first verses of Genesis; words are the very building blocks of creation. Proverbs teaches, “Death and life are in the ‘hand’ of the tongue” (8:21). Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina asked: “Is it conceivable for the tongue to have a ‘hand’? What the verse means is that tongue can be as murderous as a person’s hand” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b).
Going forward, we have to watch our mouths in the post-election period. No harmful speech, let alone violent action. To quote Chancellor Eisen again, “Let’s listen so well to the words uttered by people who disagree with us, that we hear what is intended and felt — even when it is not actually said.” Folks, the disagreement likely will not go away; nor should they — different ideas about how to govern is what a democracy is all about. Nevertheless, the anger and pain of those Americans who are fearful of the future need to be registered, NOT dismissed.
The very first question that a human being poses to God is: “הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי — Am I my brother’s keeper?” It may be that Cain asked that question without a preconceived answer. The weight of Jewish tradition and teaching over the course of the centuries, however, has rendered the question completely rhetorical. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We have an obligation to reach across every aisle and every fence. Let’s listen hard to the anger and the pain from all sides, without forgetting that some Americans have always been more vulnerable and disenfranchised than others. This is not an opinion. It is a fact borne out by the indelible facts of history.
When Barack Obama was elected eight years ago, a group of individuals sought to cast aspersions on his right to the presidency through the not-so-subtle racist charge that he wasn’t really American. For the past several nights demonstrators have marched through the streets of American cities declaring that Donald Trump is not their President. What happened following the 2008 election and the demonstrations of the last few nights are vastly different in many ways, but they share one thing: a reluctance to accept the result of a free and fair vote that, according to the rules of our Constitution, elected a specific individual to lead our country. Like him or not, President Obama is presently our Commander-in-Chief and the President of the United States of America. Like him or not, President-elect Trump will become his successor in a little more than two months. Whether you wanted this result or not has been made irrelevant by the result of the election. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the last time a group of Americans were unwilling to accept the result of a legitimate presidential election and rejected the duly chosen President, we engaged in a bloody, civil war. That won’t happen, of course, but it is an important piece of history to remember.
It is fitting that in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lekh-Lekha God enters into a covenant with Abraham known as Brit Ben Ha-betarim. The Almighty commands our ancestor to divide three heifers, three goats, three rams as part of a covenantal ceremony between the patriarch and the Eternal. At the end of the Torah portion, God enter into another covenant with Abraham and Sarah through Brit Milah, ritual circumcision. In both cases the oneness of covenant comes from a cutting, a separation. This is appropriate because covenants are always about bringing two separate parties into relationship. In symbolic language it is a statement that, “just as we symbolically divide or cut away something extraneous to us, we simultaneously bring to our beings a vital connection joining us together.”
Last Tuesday’s election is a recognition of a separation that may yet bring us together as Americans. The covenantal promise of America enshrined in our Constitution would have been superfluous were the 13 colonies possessed of unanimity and like-minded purpose. The truth is they were anything but united, and but for the wisdom of our founding fathers, would have become 13 separate countries. The durability and sturdiness of our nation relies on our continued respect for differences of opinion, civil and measured discourse, and a belief in the better angels of our national character.
There will be many important disagreements in the coming months and years about the best course for America to follow. Let us be honest and vigorous in our dissent, but let us move ahead with undiminished faith in the power of democracy to overcome even its own weaknesses. In the words of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, who knew far more about national division than we ever will, “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 . . . and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Ken yehi ratzon — may it be God’s will. And ours.