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Reflection on the Election – Parshas Lech Lecha

This past Wednesday, at services in Ner Tamid, there was some heated debate. After speaking to colleagues, I found out that the same debate took place in shuls all over the country. After the silent Amidah, some argued that we should recite Hallel in thanksgiving for a Trump victory. Others argued that we should say tachanun, a sad and despondent prayer, because Trump won. And some even argued that we should say Kaddish in memory of democracy.

I’d like to share some thoughts about the recent election but I have to be entirely honest – I have never been so unexcited to speak about something. In an ideal world, I would not be speaking about politics today. First of all, it’s Shabbos. It’s not only Shabbos, it’s the Shabbos Project! Shabbos is a day of rest and man, do we all need a break from this!

There are people who only speak words of Torah at their Shabbos table, there are people who only speak in Hebrew, the holy tongue, on Shabbos; we are supposed to speak differently and more loftily on Shabbos. If anyone could put this into practice, and not speak about politics today, you would be in such a good place. And it’s like there aren’t things to do – you could sit around and sing Hallelujah in memory of Leonard Cohen, you could play that ridiculous mannequin challenge game all day long, you could talk about the Chicago Cubs because that was pretty amazing. Talk about the weather, Dr. Seuess rhymes – ANYTHING! Just do yourself a favor, take a deep breath and take a break from the crazy and divisive elections talk.

There’s another reason I hesitate in speaking about the election, and that is because our society is so uptight and politically-charged right now. There is absolutely no room for nuance and anything and everything I will say will be misunderstood and misconstrued. I guarantee it.

You may notice that I’m not wearing a tie right now. I learned my lesson these past few weeks because whenever I wore a blue tie, every Hillary Clinton fan would give me a high five. And if I’d be wearing a red tie, the opposite would happen. I wore a purple tie the day after the election – not on purpose I promise! And people commented on me trying too hard to be neutral. Guys, I like purple!! Get over it!

Hillary Clinton wore purple at her concession speech. Do you know how many different opinions there were about her choice? Google it.

Was it to demonstrate unity – as blue and red make purple? Was it to demonstrate her affiliation with the National Women’s Party whose color is purple? Or did she just run out of other suits?! For G-d’s sake!!

Anyway, I’m going tieless today because I don’t want any misinterpretations in such a charged environment. That being said, in this less than perfect world where we probably will still be talking about the election throughout the day, I feel compelled to share two thoughts.

#1) We read today about some of the challenges or tests that our patriarch, Avraham, faced. The first challenge was that he was told to go; lech lecha. Leave your birthplace and homeland. He was asked to leave everything he knew behind him. That’s quite challenging to leave your entire life behind you.

But if you read closely, there is actually a second challenge in those words. G-d says, el ha’aretz asher ar’ecka, to the land that I will show you. G-d never told him where he should go. He just went. Avraham walked around almost aimlessly waiting for more instructions from G-d, never knowing what tomorrow would bring.

Avraham passed this test because he didn’t question G-d, he didn’t lose faith; he believed that although he must do everything in his abilities to care for himself, ultimately, G-d runs the world.

And I think that that’s an important and humbling message that we all need to hear right now. Because there are those of you who hated Donald Trump and everything he stood for with every fiber of your being. There are those of you who loved and embraced everything he stood for. There are those in the middle, who weren’t so sure, who saw values at stake, Supreme Court appointments, Israel, and other such things, and held their nose, deciding to overlook many many flaws and fears, and voted for him.

But whichever one of these groups you may be part of: Now – now that it’s all done, whether you’re saying Hallel in celebration, whether you’re saying tachanun, or even Kaddish in mourning, or whether you’re not saying either, what we all have to do is pray. Because like Avraham who didn’t really know what the future held, let’s be honest, we too are facing an unknown future. It may be great, it may be huuge, but it could also be pretty lousy, or messy. Who knows?

The vote is behind us, what’s done is done, yes he is your president. You could and should still lobby for whatever you believe in, you could and should still ensure that whoever is in power is held accountable for their actions. But as Jews, we have a saying , lev melachim b’yad Elokim, the heart of kings is in G-d’s hands. We’ve had presidents that we thought would be bad for the Jews or the economy, and things were great. And we had presidents that we thought would be great for the Jews and the economy and education, and they weren’t. Lev melachim b’yad Elokim, G-d is in control. Right now, the most effective thing we could do is pray that G-d watch over this wonderful country.

Point #2) and here I’d like to you read to you a post from Elli Fischer, a writer and translator, originally from Baltimore. I amended what he wrote to make it relevant whether you voted for Trump or Clinton. Here it is: “Today’s Exercise:

1) Leave the echo chamber. If you’re like me, the overwhelming majority of people on your social media feeds voted for whoever you voted for. The echo made it hard to hear the other voices.
2) Find one of the 60 million or so people who voted for the candidate you did not vote for. Make sure it’s someone you like (or liked), you respect, and who you deem intelligent. The goal is to find someone–anyone–who does not fit the stereotype of a Clinton or Trump voter.
3) Try to understand what motivated that person, why they were so dead-set against Clinton or Obama or dead-set against Trump. Make it a real, one-on-one conversation with the goal of understanding. Don’t go in trying to change that person’s mind. It’s too late for that.

The aim is to foster empathy, to help us understand, as individuals, where America is going and why it’s going there, and to try to overcome the stark polarization that afflicts American politics.

4) If you can’t find such a person, or if, after an earnest conversation, cannot empathize with that person, then you should instead look in the mirror. For a very long time.” (end quote)

I hear people lamenting the division in the country. Personally, division is good, division is healthy. What’s unhealthy are the echo chambers, are people who are unwilling and unable to appreciate another perspective. To me, what’s been entirely missing from the all the news I read and too many of the conversations I had was any semblance of empathy for the other side, any semblance of nuance that these topics deserve. That is a terrible tragedy.

In ancient Jewish history, to be elected to the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s equivalent to the Supreme Court, you had to suggest 150 reasons why something the Torah lists as impure, tamei, is actually pure. You know what that means? What that means is that the highest level of intelligence, the prerequisite for sitting on the highest court in Israel, is the ability to not see things in black and white, to recognize that even if in the final analysis something is impure, something is wrong, something is evil, nothing is absolute. There are 150 pure features in something that is ultimately impure; see the whole picture, step out of the echo chamber, listen, empathize, and grow.

I’ll conclude by reading a famous poem from John Godfrey Saxe.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


And I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking, I can’t believe Rabbi Motzen spoke about an elephant and not a donkey!

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s not just politics, it’s everything. Men see the world differently than woman, people in their thirties see the world differently than those in their sixties, sixties than those in their nineties. Break down those echo chambers, and broaden yourself!

You know, there’s a social hall rental this Shabbos, and so during Kiddush, you’re going to be crammed into a little area between the wall and the curtain, you will get elbowed, you will get spilled on, and usually that’s really annoying. But today we’re going to take advantage of that. I challenge you, every one of you, to meet someone new, specifically someone who isn’t your age. If they’re wearing a red tie or dress and you’re wearing a blue one, you get extra credit. Really, really!

This is not even my idea. Irma Pretsfelder suggested we do this, and you wouldn’t want to make the sweetest, coolest woman in shul upset, would you?

And if you somehow know everyone in shul, then feel free to go across the curtain, take some cake, and meet someone new. (Don’t take the cake, it’s stealing!) Let’s bring some unity into the world. We don’t have to agree to one another, but let’s empathize, appreciate, and become more intelligent, accepting human beings. And may G-d, because it is really only He who can, may G-d bless America.

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