Sermon: The United States’ Election of 2016–the Prequel
(Composed on Monday and Tuesday before the election results were
known and delivered on Friday, November 11, 2016–
Shabbat Lech L’cha)
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
I made a point of writing this sermon early in the week, before the election results came in. As I prepared my message for tonight, I wanted to make sure that I was specifically not current with the results of who were the winners and who were the losers in the election. I have not commented on this election from the pulpit. I want to speak to you about the election and not about who was elected and who was defeated. I do not feel that it is my place to publicly support candidates or parties. If as your rabbi I refrain from supporting candidates and parties, I can freely speak to the issues of the day when I share what Judaism has to say about the issues we face as a community, as a people and as a nation. As a citizen, I can be partisan. As a rabbi, partisan politics does not have a place on my pulpit. I am here to speak to you today as your rabbi and not as Jonathan Miller.
There are other reasons that I eschew partisan politics from the pulpit, even as I have my own opinions as a citizen. I believe that you should have the ability to come to worship, to bring your tired soul in need of uplift and your thirst for Torah and have these needs addressed. I respect the differences of opinion that our democratic system allows and even encourages. Through the lens of history, I realize that I can be wrong on certain things. I also realize that people and parties who have differed with my opinions over the years have also been wrong. Democracy challenges us with the notion that no single person or party has the corner on rectitude. We can differ from one another, and we can differ passionately.
I also believe that we are one nation, even though at times, as to the run up to this election on Tuesday, we do not feel ourselves to be “under God” or “indivisible.” Sometimes it is hard to be in fellowship with people who do not see the world the way we see it. I want the synagogue to be a place of unity and safety. Here we can discuss issues, and not candidates. We can listen to people, with respect, who differ from us. And we must defend the rights of all the citizens of our country for each person to do their part to determine the future course of our nation and the world through our representative democracy.
There are other reasons that I do not discuss candidates or party from the pulpit. I am usually disappointed in our politicians. Did I say usually? I should have said always. Politics is a rough and tumble contact sport. It is a zero sum game of winners and losers, a popularity contest wherein 50% plus one lands a person in the win column. And coming in “almost a winner” means absolutely nothing. I don’t like to live my life that way. And, while this election was extreme, the people who vie for a position in political leadership more often than not are most effective when they tear down their opponents, instead of building themselves up. Politics is bloody and it is real, and I don’t like to see real blood shed in the public square. In this election in particular, both of our national candidates and their families were wounded terribly. And it was sad to watch the debasement of the character of the people who would wish to lead our nation. More than any election I have witnessed in my fifteenth presidential election, this election was an election of slogans and character assassination. I believe that we are better than that. I pray that we are.
And finally, I am a religious person. I am uncompromising in my beliefs. While I can appreciate the beliefs of others, religious people do not have to compromise. We have to get along and cooperate, but never do we ask a person of faith to explain himself or herself so that we might be satisfied. Politics is by nature a give and take. Politics is by nature most effective when the politicians and their parties compromise for the sake of the greater good. Religious faith is absolute. It should not keep score. Political conviction is a combination of firmly held principles with the knowledge that everyone gives a little and sometimes a lot to make the future better. Political compromise keeps score from one battle to the next. And there is always a next battle. That is the political world in a nutshell. Religion is about finding deeper meanings in the struggles we encounter and working to better align our lives with the dictates of God who commands us to lead better lives.
In the Torah, we read about Abraham and Sarah, who are both people of uncompromising faith in God. They did not make truck with the idol worshippers or the Canaanites. They were not politicians. They garnered respect from the people for their absolute fealty to their faith. But who would want Abraham or Sarah or Isaiah or Jeremiah sitting on the throne or legislating in the halls of Congress or Parliament? Religious people are driven by principle. Politicians bend their principles to achieve results.
With this backdrop, I want to comment on these sorry elections. I want to share with you my views and my sorrow that this is where we have come as a nation. Not a single one of us should feel righteous. All of us, no matter how Tuesday night’s results turned out, or what transpired in the aftermath of the election on Wednesday, or Thursday or today or tomorrow, no one should feel happy and each one of us ought to feel a bit dirty and soiled.
I was shocked at the anger so many of us feel in this country. This election has unleashed a rage against imaginary demons. From the very start of this season, every American was made to feel that he or she is being done wrong, that sinister forces are colluding to take away–ok, let’s do the list–our moral nature, our prosperity, our borders, our health care, our guns, our freedoms, our rights, our security. They, whomever they might be, are coming to take away that which we cherish. Instead of building an inclusive society where all Americans have the opportunity to prosper, we are hunkering down to protect what is ours from our fellow Americans. We have lost our sense of common purpose. No great society was ever built on a foundation of anger.
And after anger inevitably comes scapegoating. The Mexicans are the cause of our misfortunes. The Muslims are the cause of our misfortunes. The communists are the cause of our misfortunes. The Catholics are the cause of our misfortunes, and the blacks and the women and the rich and poor and the corporations and the media and the banks and Hollywood and the Chinese–they cause our misfortunes. Ominously for us Jews, many have pointed to us as the cause of their misfortunes. Good Lord, where does it end? Someone else is always a cause of my misfortune. My friends, what does this do?
All we have focused on is our misfortunes. And our misfortunes are amplified month to month, week to week, until we punch people at political rallies and threaten each other and hurt each other. And all we think about are our misfortunes and revenge. Does this country have any blessings? Are we not blessed by God? Do we not have opportunities and resources and comforts and strength, the kind of which our American mothers and fathers could not have even imagined one hundred years ago. The ever-expanding knowledge of the world is at our fingertips. We can buy raspberries in November and enjoy roses in December and fill our refrigerators in January. Is there not a single blessing that we enjoy? We have focused and amplified every misfortune imaginable.
And then of course, we do not take responsibility for our own state of affairs. It is his fault or her fault or their fault. It is never my fault. I am never responsible for my aches and pains and woes. Let’s blame the Jews or the Muslims or the Mexicans or the Ivy League pinheads. And then none of us have any responsibility for where we have come from or for where we are going. The blaming and the suspicion is beyond anything that could constitute even the possibility of our creating a decent society.
We do not trust either candidate. It feels like forever that we have been lied to. We have been lied to by the Republicans. We have been lied to by the Democrats. We have been lied to by the FBI and law enforcement. We have been lied to by the media. Mark Twain wrote that there are “lies lies, and damned lies–and then statistics.” We find it hard to believe that anyone is telling the truth. Fact checkers check the facts, but for what purpose? The lies, lies, damned lies and statistics are repeated over and over again, and when we hear them we recoil.
2000 years ago, Rabbi Shimon taught in this Midrash:
In the hour when God was about to create Adam, the angels were divided into different groups….
Love said, “Let him be created, and he will do loving deeds.” But Truth said, “Let him not be
created because he will be all deceit.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because
he will do righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he will be
all quarrelsome and discord.”
What did God do? He seized hold of Truth and cast it to the earth, as it is said, You
“cast truth to the ground” (Daniel 8:12). Then the angels said to God, “Why do you
despise your Angel of Truth? Let Truth rise out of the earth, as it is said,
‘Truth springs out of the earth'” (Genesis Rabbah B’reishit 8:5).
In this election, Truth was cast to the ground. And there was no one to claim it. When truth is the first casualty; love, righteousness and peace are established on flimsy foundations. As religious people, we have to hold our leaders accountable not to tell us what they think we want to hear, but instead to tell us what we have to know to be good citizens and to make all of our lives better.
That is a great segue to my next concern. All of us cherry pick our news. When I was a child, we read the same newspapers and watched the nightly news at 6:30. We all had the same experience of living together and absorbing the same set of facts. The facts were rarely in question. Instead, we differed in our opinions and then went to the ballot box to cast our votes. The fringe elements were the outliers. Instead today, we gravitate to the sources of news and comment which first agree with our opinions, so we do not have the ability to speak with common discourse. The proliferation of the “gotcha media” poisons our common good. We have created a fractured universe.
So where do we go from here? Remember, I wrote this message before the polls were closed in Alabama and before the winners were announced.
The Torah tells us about going from here to there. This Shabbat we read “lech l’cha, God’s call to Avram.”
The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your country, your people and your father’s household to the
land that I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all the people on the earth
will be blessed through you.”
Friends and fellow Jews, I have always thought that the United States of America was the greatest nation ever created. I have always believed that despite our problems and the ugliness that sometimes rears its head in this mighty and diverse country of ours, that we have each been kissed by God because we live here. As citizens, in the aftermath of the election, we are charged to take Avram, our most founding father, and be willing to go out from where we have been. We are charged to take the journey together. We are charged to be a blessing. We are charged to live in a world where God’s name will once again be great, and we are to be God’s agents to help the Divine achieve that greatness.
It is well past the time to put the rancor and suspicion behind us and move from where we are to come home to the kingdom of God. America has, since its inception, been the Promised Land for Jews and Christians and Muslims and other believers and those of no belief at all to exercise our freedom for the common good and create a more just and more perfect union. This election, no matter who is elected, cries out for truth, for compassion and for trust that our mission as a nation is still the most inspiring mission for all of humanity. And let us move forward together towards our best selves.
Israel Baline was born in Russia in 1888 and came to America at the age of five. During World War I, Israel Baline served as a soldier in the United States’ army during. He put pen to paper and wrote this now famous song. The song was tucked away in a drawer someplace, and pulled out in 1938 as Europe prepared for its apocalypse and America was riven with post-depression fear, resentment and anti-Semitism. By 1938, the Jewish boy from Russia, Israel Baline was known to the world as Irving Berlin. I will spare you my singing. But listen to the words which came from this Jewish boy’s heart, who loved his country even during challenging times–especially during challenging times.
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:
God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America, my home sweet home.
God bless America, my home sweet home.
May God bless the United States of America, this homeland and this ideal that we all love, and may we live so that we might be worthy of God’s blessings.