Dickens and Democracy

January 9, 2021

Author(s): Rabbi Michelle Robinson,

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Parshat Shemot
January 9, 2021 — 25 Tevet 5781
Dickens and Democracy
by Rabbi Michelle Robinson
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” In just a few words, Charles Dickens penned one of the most powerful and gripping opening lines in the history of literature.

It is also, frankly, a questionable line. If you read the rest of the story, you will notice that A Tale of Two Cities does a glorious job capturing the grit and despair that Dickens describes as the “worst of times.” It is much harder to identify what makes it the best.

I have been thinking a lot about that line since Wednesday, when a mob desecrated the sacred halls of our democracy. I have been thinking a lot about that line since Wednesday, when the Confederate flag was carried through the “People’s house,” sullying the pride of generations who stood tall knowing that the flag of bigotry never entered its hallowed halls, not even during the Civil War. I have been thinking a lot about that line since Wednesday, when the world looked on in horror as elected officials lay on the floor of the chamber that had been a beacon for us and nations around the world of peaceful rule of law.

It is easy to see the worst of times. A vile noose of racism lifted in the Capitol. White supremacy raging, including overt anti-Semitism, which should make every single one of us shudder. “Camp Auschwitz” emblazoned on the sweatshirt of one man photographed in the thick of the mob, the man next to him smiling. That is not to mention hospitals filling to critical capacity in states across our nation, illness and death growing exponentially as we await vaccination, and an increasingly unbridgeable rift in civic connection.

It is easy to see the worst of times. It is hard to see the best. So I have been wondering: how did Dickens come to imagine that a world filled with so much pain could also hold beauty? Was the “best of times” he referred to simply a swipe at those in their London bubble who dispassionately watched desperate revolution unfolding in Paris from a safe and comfortable distance? Or was it a profound perspective on the world of the revolution itself – that, even there, there could be a “best” to go along with the “worst,” a season of light with the season of darkness, a spring of hope with the winter of despair? Are these just words, or does Dickens, a Victorian Kohelet, have helpful wisdom for our times today?

In A Tale of Two Cities, the personal is a prism of the political. Where does Dickens find “the best of times?” Not just in a far-away bubble, but in the love shared by those battered by the brutal wave of history.

It is tempting to make a similar move now – to say that big historical turmoil may be afoot in Washington, but here we are safe and loved. Here in the middle of the pandemic, if we are healthy, we are counting our blessings. Here in the middle of unimaginable upheaval, if we can close our doors securely, we are surviving the storm.

And that is all true, and all important. But it is not all.

Dickens wrote what he knew. He channeled his own gritty childhood into his words, creating with his characters an inclination to empathy in those who might otherwise turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor.

But he did not just use his writing to open souls. He used his book readings to open pocketbooks to philanthropy, famously going on a book tour to secure funding for a hospital that otherwise would have collapsed. For him, the political was personal.

And so Dickens takes us deeper. In A Tale of Two Cities, tragedy is transformed to triumph in the final words of Sydney Carton, who imagines a world beyond the trauma of the now, a world where the sufferings of today will become the substratum for a new tomorrow. A world that we are always on the road to building. As Carton’s final imagined monologue beautifully captures: “I see … long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing … I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss…” In other words, the despair of the present can be borne with a vision of a future we can help, even now, to build.

Dickens’ one-two move – first the personal, then the political – is a move Moses makes in our parasha today too. In Midian, tending sheep, Moses finds love. He finds family. He finds freedom. And then history knocks on his door. “There’s a world out there that needs you,” God says. “Time to start walking toward its repair. Time to speak truth to power. Time to fight for right in a world that can be better than what it is. Time to own that the world is profoundly broken and needs your hands to mend.”

And – obviously, since otherwise there would not be a story – Moses goes. But less obviously, Moses does not go alone. He meets his brother along the way. And his sister. And the Israelites. It is when they join together that change starts to happen.

So too for us today. It is easy to see all the ways that this is the worst of times. And yet. This week, our democratic system of government was sorely tested and held fast. A majority of Senate Republicans joined with Senate Democrats to uphold our system’s core.

It is easy to see the worst of times, but this week, in Georgia, the epicenter of the famed “Southern Strategy,” a black pastor and a Jew were elected.

It is easy to see the worst of times, but into this moment, God sent you.

And lest you are dispirited, consider the words that rang out from Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1965 preached by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King said, “Now ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence… America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles… But now more than ever before, America is challenged to realize its dream, for the shape of the world today does not permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy… So, yes, the dream has been shattered, and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven’t lost the faith. I still have a dream…”

Today, his successor at that same Ebenezer Baptist Church is headed to the Senate. Reverend Raphael Warnock, reflecting on the meaning of that new fact, shared about his mother: “The 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator…The improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here.”

Wednesday was one of the lowest moments in American history. It also, perhaps, can be the start of our best – if we use the shock of this week to remind us that the American story is a dream whose best of times, even now, still lie in reach.