America

America
Lech Lecha 5777 / Post Election Torah November 11, 2016
Rabbi Noa Kushner

1.
We were in Ruben Arquelivich’s unfinished basement. He has a good couch and a giant screen TV. Ruben is the director of Camp Newman and we’ve been friends for many years.

It was Michael, me, our three daughters, and their family. We hung pink streamers in honor of the first woman president and there were cupcakes with sprinkles that said, “vote.” It was not a fancy party but it was festive. The girls were high on sugar and optimism, dancing around as the results came in.

And then, like so many other election parties this week, it took a turn.

We were so sure of the outcome.

I had said to my daughters when I woke them on the morning of election day, “We will have our first woman president tonight.” We were so sure that when the impossible happened, when the world was inverted like some kind of backwards Purim story where Haman wins, when in an instant the whole world changed, we were utterly unprepared.

As I saw the votes accumulate and the reporters furrow their brows,

Searching for words, my mother's bear instincts kicked in. It was a school night after all, and I wanted my daughters to go to bed one more time thinking there was still hope.

I said, “We’re going now.” The sugar had long worn off, their protests were emphatic but losing steam.

The party was over. It was time to go home.

 

2.
I don’t want to give this Torah. I don’t want to have to teach about this week, about the election. When I see the clip of Trump sitting in the White house chair next to President Barack Obama and in front of the bust of Martin Luther King, I literally shake with disbelief and fury.

As Kitchen-ite and my friend Daniel Sokatch of New Israel Fund wrote:

“The world just took a huge step backwards. The United States is one the best ideas the world has ever known; the election of a candidate who trucks in ultra-nationalism, isolationism, racism and misogyny is one of the worst ideas the United States has ever had. This election threatens to upend the very notion of what America means, to ourselves and to the world.”[1]

I don’t want to stand here and teach this, but here we are.

 

3.
And the worst of it is that our problems run far deeper than any one candidate.

The worst of it is that what this election has revealed is that many people in this country have been suffering for decades, there have been many kinds of suffering and we have not paid attention.

There is the suffering of those who are watching their children lose direction without work, become addicted to crystal meth, and end up in prison.

There is the suffering of those who watch their trade become obsolete, their work unnecessary, as if they themselves are unnecessary. The suffering of those who cannot support their families or afford a reasonable place to live.

And there is the suffering of those who have lost their sense of self-respect and dignity because no matter how hard they try, they cannot make a decent life. Not this year, not last year, not for decades.

To give you an idea, listen to this story from George Packer’s The Unwinding:

“John Russo, a former auto worker from Michigan and professor of labor studies, started teaching at Youngstown State University in 1980. When he arrived, he could look down almost every city street into a mill and the fire of a blast furnace. He came just in time to watch the steel industry vanish before his eyes. Russo calculated that during the decade between 1975 and 1985, fifty thousand jobs were lost in the Mahoning Valley alone – an economic catastrophe on an unheard-of scale.

…It was happening in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, St. Louis and other cities…’ Russo said. “If a plague had taken away this many people in the Midwest, it would be considered a huge historical event.” But because it was caused by the loss of blue-collar jobs, not a bacterial infection, [the] demise was regarded as almost normal.”[2]

And when, as Packer suggests, we combine that suffering with the dissolution of civic organizations, the unraveling of religious communities, and the reality that family members live further and further apart,

When we add what has become an unprecedented, mutually beneficial relationship between Wall Street and Washington, these two centers of power a little too cozy for anyone’s comfort,

When we add news sources fighting for clicks that have less and less by way of greater journalistic responsibility, websites that create complete alternate universes complete with conspiracy theories, when we add the concept (in the words of George Packer) that “There were no longer any facts that everyone in America could agree on at the start,”[3]

When we throw in a culture addicted to escapism and voyeurism, a culture where freedom does not mean greater responsibility but rather being completely unfettered, not having to sacrifice anything of one’s own, a culture where the greater good can be seem so remote it is only for suckers, a pipedream,

When we consider all this, perhaps we need to register a certain amount of pained gratitude that this election was not another band-aid on the wounds of America, that rather, our problems are now exposed for all, even us, to see.

For there are simply too many people who have brought their radically different narrative forward for us to dismiss all of them and go back to business as usual.

 

4.
In the story of Sodom and Ghemorrah, the city that is destroyed for its cruelty, (and of course the reason has nothing to do in the rabbinic sources with gay life) the rabbis are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that God would destroy any city, so they fill out the picture of what it was that made that place so bad.

And they start with a very simple idea: Namely that Sodom and Ghemorrah was a place where the land was so beautiful, so rich, that everyone had more than they would ever need. (Does this sound familiar?)

Every path was shaded by seven fruit trees, when you pulled up a root gold flakes would fall off, and the rocks were giant sapphires and rubies. In fact, it was so beautiful and so rich that the people got together and said to themselves, “We have so much here. If a traveler decided to come through, they would only take what we have. So let’s not allow any travelers.”[4]

What ends up happening in Sodom and Ghemorrah, is that although it is the richest country in history (I repeat: Does this sound familiar) it becomes a place where everyone has a delusion of scarcity, and so they answer, ultimately, only to themselves. And that delusion grows to the point where the people stop answering their doors, where they steal from any public project or building effort for their personal gain, where the legal system contorts to protect the privileged and powerful, and where those who break the norm to help the weak and powerless are punished and shunned.[5]  

And as we hear these texts written centuries ago, it sounds too much like our own experience for comfort. We realize we also did not question the status quo, we also did not look far enough outside our doors. 

We realize we are guilty of an aveira (sin), we are guilty of the aveira of not knowing, of not knowing that our country was slowly falling apart. We realize that those of us with power, the “haves,” pretended we represented the whole. We realize we assumed that as long as we were safe, things were safe for most everyone. We realize we were blind to the desperation just barely beneath the surface, or in some cases, out in plain sight.

And we can’t afford to make the mistake of pitting victim against victim, cause against cause. While there are always hard choices, the story of Sodom and Ghemorrah teaches we have more than we think, we have more than enough:

We have seven fruit trees over every path, we have gold in the soil, we have more than just about any other country in the history of the world.

So we can no longer afford to pretend we must choose to treat one kind of suffering over another. If we are going to be a part of repairing the social infrastructure of America we cannot help one group but not the others, we cannot attend to the bridges but leave the roads on either side untouched. It is hard but we will have to address the whole of us.

Yes, the decimated working class of America deserves our national attention

And yes, black lives matter

And yes, this country was built on the principle that immigration is a greater good and many peoples can thrive together, this is perhaps our greatest contribution to the world

And yes, women are people and we can do what we want with our whole selves

And yes, sexual harassment and assault are serious crimes, not trivialities

And yes, the LGBTQ movement is one of our most important social victories to date

And yes, no Jew, none of us should have to be afraid, not on twitter, not at work, not on the streets

And yes, our Muslim brothers and sisters must be free to pray, to wear what they choose, to work, to live lives with honor, to contribute to our country as they always have

And yes, those with disabilities are full human beings and are more than their disabilities 

And there are many more groups of people, people whose contributions to who we are as a nation are significant. So many that we begin to realize that there’s no one left who doesn’t fit in at least one of these categories. It has become painfully obvious that there is no “them” anymore. We are “them.”

We are them and they are us – and maybe this very idea is what it means to be an American. The united states of us. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

 

5.
But, let’s be clear, it is not so easy now. The risks are very real. Our President Elect has broken every rule of social obligation, every basic social contract to great effect. He has proven that one way to win is to consider everyone an enemy, to trust no one, to make the very structures of society and political life suspect, untrustworthy, to let fear and power reign.

And this last idea, that we would always be afraid, is the most dangerous, if unoriginal.

In the Pesach story, what is so devastating is that as bad as things get, we Israelites are so afraid for our lives and so used to being slaves that we never react. Pharaoh had taught everyone that there was no use in resistance. So when a taskmaster kills a slave, no one says anything, no one even moves.[6] And when Pharaoh commands all the boy babies to be thrown in the Nile, there is not a single response recorded.[7] Israel is silent, and I think it is the loudest silence in all of Torah. We could not see beyond our own fear and so we let the unspeakable take place.

Many things are precarious in this moment: The way our country is run, the supreme court, the future of journalism, many things hang in the balance, but the question of whether or not fear and self protection will reign is underneath them all.  

ָAnd so we must remember that we cannot afford to let fear reign. For we have learned from our own story in the Torah, and we have learned from our own mistakes, that when we believe in the lies of Pharaoh, then we lose everything.

We know, we have learned: No matter how strong and invincible the Pharaohs of the world seem, they never win. The tools of Pharaoh, fear and oppression, never win.

And not only that, our tradition teaches it is more than possible to build a society on the command v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha/ to love your neighbor as yourself, it is what we expect of ourselves.[8]

And not only that, it is more than possible to build and be citizens of a country that’s only as strong as its weakest members, it is expected of us to bring this into reality, we expect it of ourselves.

And even though this kind of compassionate society, this kind of moral country takes unprecedented amounts of work and sacrifice, more than we can even imagine from our current sheltered life experiences, the opportunity to help build it is there, it is here, the reward is great. It is nothing less than the reward of being a citizen in a country that is decent, of fulfilling the promise of a great land, of continuing the work of our families in the America of opportunity and hope they worked so hard to build.

 

6.
Last, in moments like these, I think of my friends in Israel who have had their share of political heartbreak.

My dear friend Daveed Ehrlich owns a literary café in Jerusalem, לשוםש תמול. He writes that in 1996, the great writer and poet Yehuda Amichai (z”l) came into the café and sat in a chair, a chair that to this day the café calls “עמיכי כסא / The Chair of Amichai.” Amichai came in and sat down the morning after the election in 1996, right after the assassination of Rabin, a man who was killed for trying to make peace. On that morning, instead of Peres winning, a man who would have likely continued the work of Rabin, Netanyahu became the prime minister for the first time. Amichai ordered a coffee.

Gili, who was a waitress then remembers, “I said to him that if Daveed the owner was here, he would be handing out free whiskey.” But Amichai replied, “Already we have had many mornings when we thought it was the end of the world, and just as it wasn’t so then, so it isn’t today.”[9]

 


 

[1] New Israel Fund letter, 11.9.16.

[2] George Packer, The Unwinding, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 52. Many ofthe ideas I string together in this section were heavily influenced by this book.

[3] Ibid., p. 314.

[4] Paraphrased from Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 36-37: 30. See also: Numbers Rabba 9:24, Leviticus Rabba 5:2.

[5] Ibid. p. 36.

[6] See Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1993, chapter 4, “Moses seeks his brethren.”

[7] Exodus 2:22. Of course the midwives secretly resist and Pharaoh’s daughter also saves a baby (Moses) but there is no response in the public sphere. See Also Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s teaching on the silences that precede the Exodus in her book, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, New York: Double Day, 2001, esp. chapter 2, “Vaera: The Exile of the Word.”

[8] Leviticus 19:18

[9] “Story for the Morning After,” T'mol Shilshom.