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We're in this together: thoughts about this extraordinary week

11/14/2016 11:45:22 AM

Nov14

By Rav Yosef Kanefsky

I’ve never been particularly good at threading a needle, in the actual physical sense. I’m not sure how much better I am at it in the figurative sense, but I am obligated this morning to try my best. To offer words and ideas, that we ALL find meaningful, applicable and true; Thoughts that comfort and encourage all of us who are in need of comfort and encouragement; and thoughts that challenge each and every one of us, for I do believe that there is no one in this room for whom this election cycle is not a call to serious moral action. Thoughts that unfold against the backdrop of a political election, but which are not themselves political. To cite the words of Kind David, יהיו לרצון אמרי פי, והגיון לבי לפניך May my words and the ruminations of my heart find favor before you.

Now in his 80’s and still without an heir, Avraham uncharacteristically confronts God: מה תתן לי?… What have you really given me, God? I have done everything you have asked. I followed You to this place, I built alters and called out in your name, I have become recognized as your servant, the emissary of אל עליון the maker of heaven and earth. And for what? All of my efforts will simply follow me into my grave. And the world of Ur as ruled by Nimrod will come to dominate the whole land, unchecked and unchallenged.

God famously responds by leading Avram out of his tent, directing his gaze at the star-filled heavens, ‘thus shall your children be”.

And Avram’s anxiety was assuaged.  והאמין בה' ויחשביה לו צדקה.  Avraham trusted God. And God appreciated the generosity and righteousness of Avram’s doing so. And appreciate it He should! Avram’s trust was in fact an extremely generous and righteous gesture. As Radak points out, in showing Avram the stars and pronouncing “thus shall your progeny be”, God was not projecting the numerousness of his A’s future offspring. It was a דרך הפלגה – hyperbole - for stars are literally numberless, a quantity that Avram’s nation would never even grossly approximate. Rather, God was here assuring Avram that there will be progeny, there WILL BE a nation, AND also breaking the news that the day of nationhood is distant, remote, beyond anything that Avram will be able to see or touch– indeed, it would come about only after hundreds of years enslavement in a foreign land. And yet, despite the disappointment he invariably felt - the disappointment of deferral – Avram trusted in God. Who quite appropriately appreciated his patience.

But it not just Avram’s patience that God appreciated.  What God really appreciated was Avram’s unvarying, steady persistence. The way that he raised and loved Yishmael with every fiber of his being, despite the uncertainty around Yishmael’s place in the nation’s future. His willingness to subject himself, at age 100, to brit milah, and bringing all the members of his household into the brit as well.  And the way that just days later he and Sarah resumed their tradition of welcoming nomadic strangers with offers of food, drink, and a place to rest. It was this that led God to conclude definitively “I know of him that he will command his children and his household after him to observe the ways of God, doing righteousness and justice [18:19] …. Avram was a portrait of dogged, irrepressible persistence, demonstrating the truth that though the righteous may be deferred, they are never deterred.

We were all participants this week in a remarkable and historic exercise in democracy. The voice of millions who had felt unheard, uncared about, left out, joined with millions of others to elect a president who has pledged that they would go unheeded no longer. An exercise in democracy that highlights its Biblical roots, verses in the Torah which insist that every person be equal before the law, that no one enslave his brother or possess his brother’s land in perpetuity, that the king be no less answerable to God than the commoner. That Sefer toldot ha’adam, the record of human existence is founded on the idea that God created each human being in His image. (Braishit 5:1)

Every one of us should be proud of our democracy. And every single one of us, not just as a matter of custom and convention, but as a matter of rightly venerated historical tradition, must follow the lead of the losing candidate and of the current president in congratulating the President-elect, and praying sincerely for his success in leading this country, praying that he succeed in fulfilling his pledge to be president for all Americans, for every citizen of this land. Any claim of believing in democracy – and in its ethical and humane exaltedness – is belied by a failure to uphold this hallowed tradition.

And at the same time, we are also participants this week - and every week - in the sacred work of constituting a community. And as we’re all aware, there are many, many in this community of ours who are not merely disappointed today, they are shaken, dispirited, frightened, and even despairing. And about this, I want to make two observations:

One is that all of us together, as members of a community, are obligated to engage and to discuss these feelings and fears, regardless of who we supported in this election. This is what friendship is about, this is what community means. Any claim of believing in community - and its ethical and humane exaltedness – is belied by the failure to accept this obligation.

And the other is that my first observation is based on a false dichotomy. It is an over-simplification. For the truth is that every single one of us is shaken and upset today, no matter who we voted for. For over the past many months, the values that every single one of us holds dear, the values that we have received from our parents and try desperately to instill in our children, value like trustworthiness and truthfulness, compassion and empathy, respect for others and humility within oneself – have been debased and belittled, mocked and ridiculed on the most public of public stages.  And now we face – all of us together – the frightful prospects that the American social fabric has been severely damaged, and that those with the darkest understanding of America are emerging empowered.   

So what do we do?  Like Avraham, we must not be deterred. If we are fearful that the “others” in our society – “others” by virtue of their religion or their immigration status or their disability - are in a tenuous place, then we double-down on strengthening our ties and relationships with the “others”, and to committing to being with them in their hour of need. If we are fearful - as I am – that humanity’s last best shot at averting calamitous climate change is in danger of slipping away, then we double-down on our support of the national organizations that lobby for environmental protection; if we are fearful that dignified and dignifying human discourse is being replaced by a culture of insults and bullying, - then we double-down on modeling respect and honor, on listening attentively to those with whom we disagree, and on gaining insight into those whom we do not understand. If we are fearful or enraged that our society has again become accepting of the sexual objectification of women, then all of us together, men and women, reclaim the core value of tzniut, which is about being humans first, and gendered second. 

This is a time for being resilient. For recognizing that the only thing that has changed is that we need to work harder, for the righteous, though they may be deferred, are never deterred.  We do not ever surrender who we are. This too is the splendor of democracy.

And I am confident that this shall also be, the splendor of our community,

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי, והגיון לבי לפניך  .  May my words and the ruminations of my heart find favor before you. 

Tue, March 26 2019 19 Adar II 5779