Home > Rabbi Harris > Do Something Great – Kol Nidre 5780
November 22, 2019
My sermon this year is not clever or complicated. My message is not hidden or esoteric. It does not come from the depths of mysticism or academia’s ivory towers.
Today is a hard topic that may touch on the colloquial ‘3rd rail’ but it is important for us to discuss. I know you will not agree with every word I am saying but I ask that you not close yourself off to my message and intent.
My message is this – our political culture is broken and we must fix it.
I will not turn this bimah into a MSNBC or FOX TV studio. We have enough professional commentators in the congregation already. This is not about President Trump specifically. It is about who we are and who we want to be. I am here to speak about Judaism and our vision for rebuilding this great country.
For millions of Jews who immigrated to America, this has been a land of freedom, opportunity and security. In the 1880’s, one Jewish poet wrote that America allowed Jews the:
Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David, and
to think the thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
Freedom to dig the common earth,
to drink the universal air—
for this they sought refuge o’er wave and continent,
to link Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.
This poem, “In Exile” was written by Emma Lazarus.
For Jews, America has fulfilled so many dreams.
But now, our political culture is broken and we must fix it. Because we have benefited from the Goldene Medinah, we must do our part to find a way out of this mess. We blame Republicans or Democrats. We blame the Far ends of the political spectrum. Too easily we say: ‘They’ broke it and ‘we’ are victims of their extreme and amoral actions. Thus, if it is ‘their’ fault, ‘they’ must change – not us.
But often blame is a tool to discharge our own responsibilities to roll up our sleeves and make difficult choices.
To be clear, there is no moral equivalence between those spewing hate, directly and through dog whistle, and others having legitimate policy debates.
America’s brokenness is seen in the blatant disregard for truth, common decency in disagreement, continual abdication of small D democratic values of branches of government checking the power of other branches.
As I was reviewing this talk, Speaker Pelosi announced that an impeachment inquiry would begin for President Trump. While the political and legal processes will move at their own pace and direction, our brokenness did not begin with President Trump and it will not disappear at the terminus of his Presidency.
We must look at the political culture beyond this Administration – regardless if the next one is Red, Blue or Purple.
Maybe Hobbes and Locke were right about our true nature. Our political culture has laid bare our worst instincts to divide each other, belittle perceived enemies, exercise unrestrained power and govern for the few rather than the many.
President Trump has normalized these characteristics in our politics. Their frequency has dulled our rage.
Thomas Paine knew the longer we accepted political wrongdoings, we eventually would accept them as palpable and even unremarkable. In 1776, he wrote in the introduction to Common Sense:
a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
Repeating wrongdoings over and over again desensitizes us. Eventually, a wrong feels alright.
Time makes more converts than reason.
Our political culture feeds our base selves.
Elections are mirrors into who we are.
In Julian Zelizer’s article in The Atlantic titled, “America’s Mirror on the Wall”, he lays out that President Trump’s election was the convergence of deep political feelings. He writes:
It is tempting to think of the worst elements of President Trump’s tenure as a deviation from American history. The nativism, the racism, the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the insular, xenophobic nationalism that have circled around this president, and sometimes flared from within him, have been too unsettling to be smoothly incorporated into the American understanding of the nation’s fundamental values. …Americans must be better than that, or so many say.
(Zelizer continues,) But that understanding of America lets the country off the hook too easily. Viewing the aggressive and socially divisive elements of President Trump’s conservative populism as a deviation from the enlightened path of the nation romanticizes the American political tradition as being purely about cherished values such as liberty, freedom, equality, opportunity, representation, free markets, and justice. This view of America whitewashes away huge swaths of U.S. history in order to perpetuate the myth that at its essence America is a shining city on the hill.
America is many things.
We are a great nation, but not because we never make mistakes. We are a great nation because of our ability to overcome our errors and shortcomings. We are great because we are able to learn, refocus and move forward together. We will need to rely on that greatness if we are going to extricate ourselves from this quagmire.
Two years ago, I shared my concern that the threads which hold us together as a country were fraying. During those High Holidays, I said:
We are living in a time in America where the divisions amongst us are pronounced, painful and growing. America’s Founding Fathers knew 250 years ago there were dangers of deep splits within the country. While they focused on the rift between Loyalists and Patriots and other issues, America’s Founders knew what bound us together was more than only an aversion to the raw authority of the British Crown….
(I continued,) They understood the ties which formed America were both profound and fragile. For them, it was not inevitable that America would succeed. There was significant doubt if we could accept being bound together and accountable to each other rather than a far off ruler.
I said the sacred knot of America was becoming unbound.
Friends, this is happening. The strains that divide us are breaking our system. We must do better, be better.
Within Beth El, I hear the anxiousness, disgust, embarrassment and indignation about the President’s character and many of his policies. There are countless moderate Republicans as well who feel trapped by a party which has mutated into something they do not recognize. It has become something they are not proud of. Within Beth El, I have also heard people express feelings of polarization which have surprised me. I have tried to keep my ears open to everyone within the congregation even as I have my own clear opinions. The voices which haunt me are those statements such as these. I am paraphrasing actual conversations:
How can you talk about constructive dialogue when they are out to get me. I am a lesbian, Jewish mother. I am the daughter of an immigrant father. They hate me. I can’t talk to them while they are actively working to curtail my rights and calculating new ways to delegitimize me as a person.
Another individual within Beth El, and he describes himself as a lone voice within the shul’s political shades of blue-ness, described to me:
The President is a flawed person but he is shaking up a system that has become crippled by its own overreach and meddling. While not elegant, the President is changing the system and that takes breaking some china along the way. It is about time we recalibrate the country. The President is correcting past wrongs that other Administrations forced on us.
Discussing what the phrase ‘re-calibrate the country’ means or might be code for is something important but for a different sermon.
These conversations within our own walls have been raw, passionate and sincere.
Neither has space for the other. In the wake of our national politics, we are divided and unable to see beyond party affiliations. The intense anger and bitterness is palpable across the political spectrum but also across our neighborhoods, grocery stores, lunch conversations and places we gather.
We are living in a charged political climate which is on edge.
And this is the political environment we have created for our children.
But, as the adage says, the first step in getting yourself out of a hole is to stop digging.
So let’s stop digging.
Let’s stop blaming and decide we are going to move forward together. We are going to push against the politics of division. As my old math teacher used to say – you get a lot more by multiplying then dividing.
So for starts, we already know our hopes for our country. You may not realize it but as Jewish Americans, we have already put it to prayer.
Turn to page 117 in the machzor.
The Prayer for Country has been part of the prayerbook for centuries. Dr. Jonathan Sarna, the great historian of American Jewish life, teaches us:
Throughout their long history in the Diaspora, Jews have recited special prayers “for the welfare of the government.” The biblical prophet Jeremiah, writing from Jerusalem to the Jewish community exiled in Babylonia, explained one rationale behind this practice: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I (God) have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” (Jer 29:7) (Sarna continues,) Jewish political philosophy as articulated later in Pirqei Avot and then throughout rabbinic literature assumed that a government, even an oppressive government, is superior to anarchy.
We hear this prayer every Shabbat but tend not to pay attention to it. It is a nice honor to give to a relative of the bar mitzvah. But listen to the hope and values expressed in these words.
PRAYER FOR COUNTRY
Our God and God of our ancestors, with mercy accept our prayer on behalf of our country and its government. Pour out Your blessings upon this land, upon its leaders, its judges, officers and officials who devoted in good faith to the needs of the public. Instruct them with the laws of Your Torah and help them understand Your rules of justice, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom will never depart from our land. We pray, Adonai, God whose spirit is in all creatures, awaken that spirit within all the inhabitants of our land. Uproot from their hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. Plant among those of different nationalities and faiths who dwell in our nation, love and companionship, peace and friendship. May it therefore be Your will that our land be a blessing to all who dwell on earth and cause them to dwell in friendship and freedom. Speedily fulfill the vision of Your Prophets: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’; ‘For all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall know Me.’ And let us say: Amen
It feels like we are a long way away from those ideals.
How we pray, what we pray, and the political climate in which we pray have always mattered. Today is no different.
But prayer is not enough. We need action.
So how do we move forward?
I want to introduce you to some amazing people who are working hard within our own Beth El community to transform the political climate. These are not far off people. These are our neighbors. If they can roll up their sleeves, we can too. They are looking beyond the immediate headlines and tweets to strengthen our political climate. There are many more people within our midst doing important work in this vein but here are two.
As the Prayer for Country tells us:
Awaken the spirit within all the inhabitants of our land
Let me tell you about Julie Zebrak. Julie and her family have been Beth El members since 2005. Their girls went through the Preschool and Religious School. Her oldest daughter just went off to college and the younger one is in high school.
Julie started a grassroots organization called YesMomsCan, focused on getting women engaged in politics. Julie describes her work as ‘helping to demystify ways to get involved.’ She describes some of the work as simply asking a question differently. Can you volunteer for a campaign? The knee jerk reaction, she says, is always NO. But, can you host a casual wine and cheese evening at your house for people to make calls? Julie says the second question usually gets a YES because it is more specific and easy to open your home. In her experience, people are saying YES more and more.
If you don’t want to knock on doors, you can drive other volunteers or drop off water or brownies. The issues are diverse: voter access, the 2020 Census, gun safety, reproductive rights, countless local issues and of course the candidates of your choice. Julie used to work at the Department of Justice but has found a new passion. She told me, ‘if people sit silently in their homes, change does not happen. People need to physically show up because it makes a difference.’
Further, she told me activism is ‘not just about ourselves but teaching and modelling for our kids what being politically engaged and responsible looks like.’
Talking with Julie is inspiring. She emphasizes that the ability to have a voice begins with saying YES. It starts by deciding to act, to influence, to do our part to change the political climate. She told me, ‘we must use our voices, be substantive, and be thoughtful.’
Uproot from our hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife
Rob Fersh and his family have been members of Beth El since 1983. His four kids went through the Preschool and now his grandson attends BEPS as well. They are a founding family of Beth El’s Family Camp which is an annual weekend retreat over Memorial Day. It has been going for 20 plus years.
Rob founded Convergence in 2009. Convergence’s mission is to “convene individuals and organizations with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues.” They are doing important work. Bringing together leaders to see beyond their issues and positions, Rob works with labor and corporate leaders, school boards and unions, Congressional and state leaders to find new options to address health care, hunger and other issues.
Rob told me ‘it is a tragedy that we don’t use our collective intelligence to solve shared problems.” He described, “Larger forces have divided us. We need to create a call not for demonizing each other but solving the serious issues of our country. The only litmus test is if you are willing to listen to others who have opposing but reasoned opinions.” Rob described that in his experience, he has too often seen ‘good people caught in a difficult system.’
Rob and Convergence are bringing people together to find common interests and see beyond their opening positions.
Plant among those of different nationalities and faiths who dwell in our nation,
love and companionship, peace and friendship.
Better Angels is an incredible organization focused on reducing political polarization by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.
In December, 2016, 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters gathered in South Lebanon, Ohio, in what became the first Better Angels Red/Blue Workshop. Their goal was to see if they could respectfully disagree and find any common ground.
Too many people believe their political adversaries are not simply misguided, but they are bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible.
The results of this Better Angels workshop were remarkable.
They were surprised; they liked each other. They wanted to know more about each other. They wanted to keep on meeting.
I want to bring Better Angels here. I want Beth El to host a series of workshops that will be open to the greater community to see beyond the divisive rhetoric. I want us to roll up our sleeves to create the political culture in which we want to live. I need your help and participation to create a discourse which builds community and strengthens bonds between neighbors rather than exploiting wedges between friends.
Please email me if you want to work together to bring Better Angels to Beth El and create new ways for us to come together.
I will close by sharing a story of President Abraham Lincoln’s response to his pastor’s well-crafted sermon:
“An aide asked Mr. Lincoln his appraisal of the sermon. The president thoughtfully replied, “The content was excellent… he delivered with eloquence… he had put work into the message….”
“So it was an excellent sermon.”
“No,” Lincoln answered.
“But you said that the content was excellent.”
“That’s true,” Lincoln said. “But Reverend Gurley forgot the most important ingredient. He forgot to ask us to do something great.”
Friends, we are stuck in a fractured political culture. We must make a way out and we can only do this together. I am asking us to doing something great.
Join me as we start the Better Angels conversations in the community. Do something great by pushing against the voices which seek to divide us, humiliate us, and belittle us. Stand up for the moderate voices, Red and Blue, which have been muted by tweet storms and calculated indignities.
Stand up for what we want our country to be. I believe we as Jews must be Or L’goyim, a light unto the nations, to show we can blaze a path forward.
This is a national crisis but we must act locally, within our own spheres of influence. Do not let wedge voices convince us that we do not have common interests and motivations. We must push against the extreme voices and reclaim the uniting power of the middle. The current state of our politics is not acceptable. If we remain on this trajectory, we will tear the Republic apart. We cannot remain scared, divided, and demoralized. We cannot stay on the sidelines.
We must reclaim the vision of Emma Lazarus to have the:
Freedom to love the law that Moses brought…
for this they sought refuge o’er wave and continent…
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.
We have put our aspirations to paper too.
Again, let’s look at page 117. I ask you to stand and let’s read the Prayer for Country together. Let’s really mean it.
May this prayer come true in 5780. It is time we roll up our sleeves to make it happen. As each American president says, May God bless you and may God bless the United States of America.
 Jonathan Sarna, “Jewish Prayer for the United States Government: A Study in the Liturgy of Politics and the Politics of Liturgy” Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue ed Ruth Langer and Steven Fine