After Cleveland and Philadelphia, a Jewish Lens

Parshat Pinchas
July 30, 2017—24 Tammuz  5776

            Say this for the last two weeks.  They have not been boring.  Whatever your personal politics, Cleveland and Philadelphia, the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, have presented us with a cavalcade of passionate speakers speaking passionately about our lives, our nation, our world.  If you follow the news, if you are engaged in this world, there is no escaping our political season.

            Rabbis dare not tell people what to think or how to act or who to vote for.

            But by the same token, Judaism dare not be irrelevant to this season, to the questions it raises, to the debates it inspires.  If Judaism does not connect with the urgent issues of the day, if our Torah does not have meaningful things to say to guide our thinking, when we could really use spiritual insight, what are we doing here?

            So this first Shabbat morning after the two conventions, I want to suggest not an answer or an outcome—every one of you is smart and you will come up with your own answer or outcome—but rather a Jewish lens, for you to think about as you approach your vote this November.  This lens came to me this week, specifically Wednesday night, Thursday morning, at 1:45 a.m., as I was on a flight back from Denver to Logan airport which was to land a little after 2:00, which would get me back home about 3:00 in the morning.

            I happen not to like traveling.  Traveling is dislocating in so many ways. Bad eating. Bad sleeping. Disrupted routines. Disrupted exercise patterns. Email buildup.  Regular mail buildup. Laundry buildup. Reentry anxiety.  Not to mention that, when I travel with Shira, we have an ongoing marital conversation, unresolved, over 33 years.  I like to get to the airport early, very early. For me, being at the terminal with an hour to go feels just right, a comfortable margin for error in case there is traffic or long security delays.  Shira’s idea of a perfect flight is getting to the gate as they are announcing that this is the final boarding call so that there is no inefficiency in sitting at a terminal.

            So I don’t like traveling. And yet, every month, I fly out to Denver to be with my Mom, leaving first thing out on Monday morning, and getting back after midnight Wednesday night/Thursday morning.  As the plane was about 15 minutes out from landing, two things converged that, in a strange way, have me thinking about this election.

            The first was that I realized that even though I was getting home at 3:00 in the morning, I was okay with it, because I have gotten used to the dislocation of travel.  Traveling to Denver every month has made the hassles of travel unremarkable. I got used to it, in a good way.

            But at the same time, as I was on the plane catching up on the news I had missed, I was reading an article which underscores the perils of getting used to things that we should not get used to.  There was an article in the Times, by Jodi Rudoren, about how in the last two weeks, there were 8 terror attacks, which claimed the lives of 247 victims.  So much violence. So many victims. We get inured to it. We get numbed by it. We get used to it, in a bad way.

            Compare the reaction to the mass killing in Orlando with the killing a few weeks later in Ft. Meyers.  Yes more innocent people were slain in Orlando than in Ft. Meyers.  But one of the reasons that Orlando got so much more coverage than Ft. Meyers is that the attack in Ft. Meyers was a few weeks later, there is fatigue and weariness in following all this bloodshed, and we somehow got used to it, in a bad way.

            What does our tradition have to say about getting used to stuff?  When is getting used to something a healthy spiritual practice, and when it is not?

            Our address for thinking about this  is the story of Abraham’s arguing with God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  God says:  Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do—namely destroy Sodom and Gomorrah—since I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat, to do justice and righteousness.  Donniel Hartman observes that this story gives the Jewish people our mission statement: doing justice and righteousness.  If you want to join the Jewish conversation, Hartman argues, it is a conversation about what promotes justice and righteousness.

            With that in mind, Abraham role models a classic Jewish voice: arguing truth to power, saying to God challilah lach, hashofet kol ha’aretz loh yaaseh mishpat, God forbid, far be it from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?

            Abraham here says to God:  I cannot get used to injustice.  I cannot get used to the idea that innocent people, schoolchildren in Sodom and Gomorrah, are going to be wiped out because You God do not mete out  punishment that is tailored to individual misdeeds but rather destroy an entire people.

            This story offers us a divining rod as we think about a healthy spiritual practice for when we should get used to things, and when we should not.

            Namely, if the thing that we are thinking about getting used to does not touch on justice and righteousness, does not affect the moral quality of our world, then we might as well make our peace with what we cannot change.  We might as well accept what is.  Travel headaches do not touch on justice and righteousness. Do not affect the moral quality of our world.  Travel headaches are an inevitability.  To travel is necessarily to submit yourself to some forces that you cannot control. Getting used to travel headaches, making travel headaches unremarkable, feels like the right move.

            By contrast, if the thing we are thinking about does touch on justice and righteousness,

does affect the moral quality of our world, Abraham’s example teaches us that we cannot get used to the imperfections of the world.

            We cannot get used to bloodshed and violence at home, in Israel, in Europe.  Anywhere and anytime that innocents are slain by terrorists, or by deranged individuals with an assault rifle, that is a direct assault on justice and righteousness.

            We cannot get used to ongoing conflict between communities of color and law enforcement.

            We cannot get used to stagnant wages.

            We cannot get used to a vanished middle class.

            We cannot get used to a broadly shared sense that the American dream is dead, that things will be worse for our children and grandchildren than they have been for us.

            We cannot get used to the poison, the toxicity, the negative energy, the divisiveness, of our politics.

            So many Americans are so angry. They feel not seen, not heard.  They are languishing, not thriving. We cannot get used to their anger being unaddressed.  Nor can we get used to their anger being manipulated for political purposes.

            Here is a Jewish lens as you think about your sacred right and responsibility to cast your vote.  Which candidate do you think will do a better job of addressing what is wrong with our country and with our world that we cannot ever get used to?  Which candidate will do a better job of bending our nation towards the long arc of justice and righteousness?

            In thinking about this moment in our nation’s history, what comes to mind is an evocative interview that Abraham Joshua Heschel gave an NBC news correspondent named Carl Stern in February, 1973.   The context was another moment of national turmoil: protests over the Vietnam War.  There had been a group of religious leaders, priests and nuns, led by two brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, who were anti-war activists.   The federal government was trying them for their anti-war activities.  Stern was interviewing Heschel about the case.   Heschel was  a religious leader.  Heschel was also famously vocal about his politics, whether it was marching for civil rights or arguing against the Vietnam War. Stern puts the question squarely to Heschel,

a question that could be asked of any religious leader today.  Sterns says:

Prospective jurors, one after another, when being question by the judge and lawyers, said they thought it was wrong for clergymen to be involved in politics, that their job is to administer to spiritual needs.  Why don’t you stick to spiritual needs?

Heschel:  That’s a very good statement.  In fact, it’s such a good statement that if the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail by these jurors.  Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues.  And, frankly, I would say that God seems to be a non-religious person, because if you read the words of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics and in social issues.

My Lord, you, God, should worry about spirituality and not about politics and social injustice.  Do you hear me? Pardon me.

This is precisely what I said before.  The prophets are forgotten. No one reads the prophets.  They have not touched the mind of America.  And this is why such statements come out.  What is the greatest concern in the Bible? Injustice to one’s fellow men, bloodshed.  What is the greatest dream of the prophets? Peace.

            Heschel would say, Abraham would say, that what happened in Cleveland,  what happened in Philadelphia, what will happen on the first Tuesday of November, is a matter of utmost religious concern.   God cares. The prophets care.  We care. There are things that are wrong with our world that we must never get used to.  Which candidate  can get us closer to the qualities of justice and righteousness, tzedakah u’mishpat? That is the question.  That is a Jewish lens. That is the Torah’s guidance here. That is the candidate who deserves our vote. Shabbat shalom.