I write these words as 2016 nears an end taking them from the words I offered to the congregation over several Sabbaths, words of hope and prayer for our President-Elect. I originally spoke of the power of words, how words can create and how words can destroy. As I did, I reflected on the election occurring the same week as Kristallnacht and as Veteran’s Day. Words led to Kristallnacht and to the Final Solution. The defense of words, which created the United States, led to Veterans Day. I suggested to our President-Elect that many of his outright statements and far too many of his dog whistles have given permission for some of our country’s darkest impulses to emerge from their hiding spots. As an American, I know the unique experiment this nation is; as a Jew, I know how fragile liberal democracy can be. And I urged the President- Elect to help bring us together with words of healing and hope and not to separate us with words of harassment and hatred.
Then, on the next Shabbat as we welcomed new members to our congregation, I spoke of Avraham Avinu, of Abraham, our father; of Ibrahim, of the one who sought out wayfarers and brought them into the safety of his tent, of the one who gave food and drink to all who passed by. As Abraham taught us to welcome the stranger and, as our traditions – Jewish and Christian and Muslim – have taught us to reach out to those in need, so must we. As this country long held out its hand to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, to the homeless tempest-tost,” so must we continue to be that nation, a refuge still to those who seek freedom.
On yet the next Shabbat, I offered the Hasidic tale of Reb Nahman about a king who, when informed by his chief advisor that the harvest was to be forever infected by a germ that would drive every person who ate of it into madness, offered the best advice he could. He told his advisor that they, too, must eat of the infected harvest but, before they did, they had to put a mark on each other’s forehead so that every time the king and his advisor looked at each other, they would know that they were mad. I offered the tale as a warning to, slightly changing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s expression from decades ago, avoid defining normalcy down. On one more Sabbath, the Sabbath of December 9 and 10, I noted that it was the 58th anniversary of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Created in response to the Holocaust and as a reaction to the word “genocide” created by Raphael Lemkin, I returned to some of my comments from Yom Kippur. The rabbis taught that the commandment of derech eretz preceded the Torah. Literally, the way of the land, derech eretz has come to encompass everything from civility to common decency to etiquette to manners.
It may sound simple but, in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s words, “God could imagine human kindness existing for thousands of years without the Torah, but…could not imagine human beings existing without the need for civility.” Derech eretz attempts to make life more pleasant and civil for everyone; in fact, as someone once said, civility should be the grease of civilization. With whatever platform is used, political violence should be unacceptable in American society. As the rabbis have taught and, as we have learned time after time, violence will only beget more violence.
Finally, paraphrasing the words from our old Gates of Prayer, I noted that we pray as if everything depended on God. At the same time, however, taking those same words, we must act as if everything depended on us. We must ensure that the closing line of the first verse of our national anthem – “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” that line which ends with a question mark – may always be answered with an emphatic yes.
My prayer for our President-Elect: May God bless you so you may bless us. May your words and your actions help to build that more perfect union for which we, the people, yearn.
And, while we pray, we also act. Thus, I invite all of you to become part of our delegation to the Consultation on Conscience in Washington, DC, from April 30 to May 2. Sponsored by our movement’s Religious Action Center, the consultation is our biennial social justice leadership conference. This year’s special focus will be on issues of racial justice and will provide us with the opportunities for leadership development, for networking and community building, and for an active dialog which concludes with an afternoon of advocacy on the Hill. If you are looking to join our congregational delegation, please be in touch with me.