Late Tuesday afternoon, when the polls were still open and anxiety hung in the air like a mixture of stale cigar smoke and vinegar, I was invited to appear on an Israeli TV news program where they were discussing the American elections. I was actually quite impressed with the way that Israeli commentators, some embedded here, were pontificating on aspects of the electoral college system and the issues on the table at our present moment.
And frankly, as I watched and waited for the host to call on me, I was terrified! While my modern, spoken Hebrew is decent, I cannot think and talk in the rapid-fire mode that is typical of these kinds of programs, even in English. But I had my pre-translated talking points ready.
They wanted from me not only some reminiscences on the two-year anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, but also a perspective on the election, considering our unfortunately unique position here in Pittsburgh.
Now, as the rabbi of a congregation that includes people of a whole range of political perspectives, I do my best to try not to favor one political party over another. While you know that I surely occasionally speak about issues which some may think are political in nature, my primary goal is actually to try to discuss things that we are all thinking about from the perspective of Jewish tradition and Jewish text.
So while the host might have wanted me to pick one presidential candidate over another, I declined to do that, but rather focused on the way that we relate to one another. And I must say that the most important thing that we should be doing right now is to try to speak to each other and think about each other in a healthier way. As a society, we need a whole lot of healing right now, because if we cannot talk to one another, we cannot face the big challenges that we need to address. The great division in our society – over politics, over culture, over race and sexuality and public health and even religion – is actually killing us.
Some of you may know that Parashat Vayyera contains one of my favorite scenes in the entire Torah, one which I have learned with many of you in parlor meetings and in other contexts, and in fact I like it so much that I mentioned it last week, while we were still reading Lekh Lekha.
It is the story of the three strangers who come to Avraham, who rushes to bring them water and find them a place to rest and to feed them. He welcomes them in with an overwhelming show of desert hospitality.
And the kicker is that, at the end of Parashat Lekh Lekha, Avraham had just circumcised himself, at age 99! So he’s in pain. And a midrash reminds us not only of this, but also tells us that God had made the sun especially strong that day, had “taken the sun out of its sheath,” in the poetic language of the midrash. So Avraham is sitting by his tent, in pain, in the most vicious heat of the day, when he sees these strangers (whom we later discover are malakhim, heavenly messengers), and he leaps into action to make them feel welcome.
So what is the message that the Torah wants us to glean from this? It is that hakhnasat orhim, the welcoming of guests, is a Jewish value of utmost importance.
You have probably heard me say that before. But here is a new thought:
Perhaps Avraham needed those angelic guests precisely BECAUSE he was in pain. Perhaps the very act of hakhnasat orhim, into which he leapt with such zeal, enabled him to heal more quickly.
And maybe the healing that we need right now, soothing the pain caused by the great political divide I mentioned earlier, is something we can achieve through haknasat orhim – by reaching out to others and welcoming them in.
“Oh, rabbi,” you’re thinking, “you’re so naive. The people on the other side do not want healing. They want division. They are being cynically manipulated by their self-serving and dangerous leaders and media outlets. They thrive on that.”
But let’s face it, folks: you hired me to be naive. To teach Torah as some kind of theoretical, possibly unreachable ideal. You want me to stand up here and teach you about mitzvot, about halakhah, about the stories of our tradition and the values therein. You want me to challenge you, to encourage you to reach higher, to be a better person. To some extent, it is my job to be naive, to put before you simple truths from the Jewish bookshelf that are uncluttered by the complexity of contemporary life.
And yes, our tradition is demanding. Yes, we fail to meet its expectations time and time again. That is why we all keep coming back for Yom Kippur, to beat our chests and say we’ll be better next year.
So this, too, will be hard. Healing through welcoming is difficult. I do not think we even know how to do it.
How might we heal ourselves, our society? By relating to one another with compassion, with understanding. By seeking out the stranger in our moment of pain and discomfort. By welcoming them in. And we are obligated to do that, even if those folks do not want to be welcomed.
Think of the many people in pain right now. As we were all obsessing over absentee ballots, we set an eye-popping record of 121,000 new positive coronavirus cases in America on Thursday. Now over 236,000 fellow citizens have died. And the wave of new infections will surely bring another spike of death in a few weeks. Think of all those who have lost parents to this virus, who are grieving for the people they loved most, whose loss might not have occurred had more people been willing to engage in mitigation measures.
And let’s not forget the economic devastation it has caused. Yes, the economy has come back somewhat since last spring, but there are still many, many people out of work. It may be hard to quantify this, but I’m almost certain that I am seeing more folks on the street asking for money.
And even before the virus shut us all down, many of us were aware of the statistics indicating that younger people today will likely not exceed their parents in earnings and wealth.
And don’t think the opioid crisis has gone away, just because Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family settled with the Justice Department for billions of dollars over the aggressive marketing of OxyContin.
And did you know that this hurricane season has featured a record-setting 28 named storms?
And did you also know that the US officially left the Paris Climate Accord this past Wednesday, the only nation of the original 200 signatories to have done so?
And we cannot forget the ongoing challenges of providing a decent education for the young people of America, and good-quality, affordable health care for all of us, as any nation should do.
We have so many sources of pain, and the only means to alleviate this pain is to reach out to the people with whom we vehemently disagree. If there is any single lesson to be learned from last week’s election, it is that we are not only heavily divided as a nation, but also that regardless of on which side you stand, there are a whole lot of people on the other side. Nobody will be able to accomplish anything without bringing a few folks from across the aisle with them.
And yes, some of those folks have opted out of living in the world of facts. I think that has something to do with the unfortunate reality that the truths of this world are just so painful. As I have indicated many times in this space, we are going to have to address the misinformation / disinformation problem that we have as a nation. We the Jews know how important the truth is; it is the falsehoods that have been told about us by others that have caused us so much pain and suffering for our people, including, of course, the deaths of the 11 holy souls whose yahrzeit we observed on Thursday.
A few days ago, a colorful graphic of unknown origin floated across my screen. It said, “After the election, if you win, don’t gloat. If you lose, don’t despair.”
Indeed. The way for us to move forward as a society is not for the winners to mock the losers or for the losers to give up and opt out. It is not to scream at each other or, God forbid, drum up violence in our streets.
Rather, the way for us to undo the damage wrought by the unhealthy division in our society is to take a deep breath, to roll up our sleeves, and
(א) to acknowledge that the vast majority of American citizens are good people who just want to make a living and be treated justly,
(ב) to condemn the outright anti-Semites and the racists and the other haters in our society, including those whose brains have been invaded by ridiculous and offensive conspiracy theories, and
(ג) to reach out across the aisle and try to move forward together.
We are in pain. But we can bring healing by waiting by the metaphorical door to our tent, and when strangers come by, rushing to greet them and to welcome them in. Hakhnasat orhim will heal us.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/7/2020.)