I was reading an article recently about someone who was born before she had the right to vote, and I thought, “BIG DEAL!” We’re all born before we have the right to vote. Think about it….
Actually, I was reading about Geraldine Emmett, of Phoenix, who was born in 1914 before women had the right to vote. She remembered how impassioned her mother had been about politics and changing the world. She knew her mother had opinions which she could express but which were muted on election day. The absence of her vote meant an absence of her ideas. The lack of vote made her invisible. Then after the 19th amendment was ratified in August of 1920, she remembers going with her mother as she cast her first vote. She recalls, “[My brothers and sisters and I] all walked out in the middle of the street and cheered….because my mother was going to have a say. That was something!”
We can assume, Geraldine Emmett has never taken her own vote for granted. She sees the vote as the extension of the self. It represents her dreams and aspirations. It is her wish for the future. Still better than a wish, it is a way of actively shaping the future that she envisions. In a way, a vote sounds an awful lot tike a prayer. And in Judaism, we promote the idea, Ani Tefillati. I am my prayer. The prayer is an extension of our most heartfelt desires. So too should we feel about voting, I am my vote. Our votes matter. Our dreams matter. As with prayer, we must never take the opportunity for granted.
I am pretty sure most of you know my politics. The fact that I am a Reform Rabbi narrows down the choices, and if you spend ten minutes with me, my leanings and beliefs become pretty apparent. But, as a rabbi of a Temple who values our non-profit status, I recognize and honor my mandate and what I can say from the pulpit. My job is to teach and promote Judaism. Jewish values extend beyond the walls of our Temple. They guide all that we do, the way we treat our families, the way we handle business, and yes, they affect the way that we vote. A vote is an expression of values, and aspirations. The gift of voting allows us to influence the policies country will pursue. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, a direct match for any set of beliefs, especially in our two party system, but…. but…. a genuine democracy demands that we make a choice. We must make that choice a true extension of ourselves. On November 8 and whenever we enter a polling place, we should begin with one understanding— I am my vote.
Today, I want to consider four Jewish values which can help our vote be an extension of our Jewish selves.
The first is the command not to oppress the stranger for we know what it was like to be strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex 23:9). As American Jews, the Freedom of expression has given us great comfort, and we recognize needs to extended and protected for all peoples. As and extension of this idea, we also understand the plight of the refugee and the responsibility that comes from our relative position of strength. To paraphrase Hillel’s famous dictum (BT Shabbat 31a), that which is hateful to us, we must not allow to happen to our fellow man. It seems pretty obvious, the duty to protect the stranger comes from our understanding that we are only as free as we allow others to be.
The second value is Ahavat Yisrael. Loving Israel. Ahavat Yisrael, means a special camaraderie shared by Jews all over the world as we care for and look out for one another. On another level, Ahavat Yisrael means loving the State of Israel, unconditionally, as we celebrate its role as the world’s only Jewish state. Our history has taught us that the existence of Israel is a necessity as a beacon of democracy and tolerance in a region plagued by autocracy. Israel is as a center of scientific and technological progress. It is a model for making the best of limited resources. It is a country in which every Jew can take pride, and know that, as our homeland, it is a safe haven whose doors are always open to any Jew who needs to flee from oppression. Israel is a necessity and we must support her.
That said, there is no single way to support Israel. Even in Israel, at the highest levels of leadership, there is disagreement regarding how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. There is disagreement on how to handle the occupied territories. There is division on the expansion of settlements. There is even disagreement on how and when to use military force. The one thing we all should agree upon is Israel’s absolute right to exist as a sovereign nation with a duty to defend her borders and her citizens. Our nation has been a strong ally to Israel ever since May 14, 1948 when President Truman was the first foreign leader to recognize the new nation. That support has been maintained by every President since. No matter what you hear about the current administration, the fact is during President Obama’s tenure, the United States has provided 26 BILLION dollars to Israel and has made commitments lasting through the year 2028 totaling in excess of 38 BILLION dollars. Our country’s support of Israel has been and will continue to be unwavering. That is a given. Still there are other issues to consider with relation to Israel. Once we know that her security is guaranteed we can get into the weeds on secondary matters.
While I believe unconditional love for Israel is part of voting like a Jew, it does not prevent us from being critical. Unconditional love of anyone, whether parent, child, friend, or Jewish state, demands that we are honest and vocal when we disagree with decisions they make. Loving someone means you accept them fully and completely, even with its flaws. It also means you actively participate in making them the best they can be. As Jews, we advocate for Israel, teach others about its real history and its role in the world and we can express our opinions freely as long as the goal improvement not just punishment. This is why the line gets drawn at BDS. For Ahavat Yisrael, the “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” movement is out of bounds. It is a growing movement that targets specific American companies who have contracts in Israel. Economically, in real terms, it is not a very effective protest, BUT, it stirs propaganda and lends credibility to groups who deny Israel’s right to exist and who, believe Israel and Israel alone should be held accountable for the violence inside her borders. BDS does nothing to stop bus bombings, knife attacks on civilians, or rocket launches from Gaza. All it does is attempt to defame and humiliate Israel for taking measures to protect her civilians. Israel’s record is not perfect, though they have taken unprecedented measures to limit civilian casualties when they have engaged in armed conflict. But no war is completely clean, and we cannot sanitize the brutal reality of it. But BDS spreads a false perception that Israel is solely responsible and overlooks all the positive efforts, financial aid, humanitarian services, medical care, they offer to the Palestinian authority. BDS is purely a defamatory effort, and, yes there are Jews who support it. They claim their support for BDS is done out of love. But we do not defame those we love, we help to build them up and realize the dream expressed by Shimon Peres, of blessed memory, who said these words when he was inaugurated as Israel’s President in 2007:
“Israel must, not only be an asset but a value. A moral, cultural and scientific call for the promotion of man, every man. It must be a good and warm home for Jews who are not Israelis, as well as for Israelis, who are not Jews. And it must create equal opportunities for all segments of the population without differentiating between religion, nationality community or sex.”
That is an Israel we can all love and be proud of. That is the vision of Israel we can hold as we strive to be our vote.
The third Jewish value to consider in the election is tzedakah. Tzedakah means so much more than charity. It means justice, in the truest sense of the word. It means creating fairness and balance. The Tanach calls upon us to defend the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:17). These are symbols of anyone who is vulnerable in our society, the hungry, the homeless, the sick. It is a mitzvah to share our joy. At Passover, it is a communal responsibility to ensure that everyone, even the poorest among us, have four cups of wine in balance with everyone else (Mishnah Pesachim 10, 1).
Still our tradition forbids keeping people in a state of perpetual need. Maimonides says that the highest level of tzedakah is helping someone to become self-sufficient (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7-14). Short of that, we have an obligation to provide for them until they can sustain themselves. Saying that a people need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps may sound good, until you realize how many people don’t even have boots. A person can’t be expected to get an education or hold a job, if they are starving or homeless. Once the basic needs are met, only then can they hope to pull themselves up to greater achievements.
And so when we enter our polling places on November 8, we must consider who will do the better job of raising up those in need, providing more jobs and opportunities, equalling the playing field so that we can break cycles of poverty. So that we can fulfill the ideal of Maimonides as we do our part to provide for people until we can lift them out of need.
Lastly, on this day of days, we should consider the value which is staring us in the face. Repentance. Maimonides famously taught that true repentance is when you have a chance to make the same sin again, but you don’t (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:1).That means repentance is more than a mere apology. It is a sign of learning. To be our vote, we can consider who sees the collective mistakes of our nation and who can help us avoid Einstein’s definition of insanity— when you keep doing the same thing but expect different results. Repentance reflects a desire to improve things, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. The atonement of an individual can have an impact which reaches far beyond the self.
It all starts with serious reflection, then apology. In some circles, apology is a dirty word— a sign of weakness. That is the opposite of Jewish values. Apology is a path to holiness, and in our tradition, holiness leads to strength.
Some argue that leaders must assert dominance. And admissions of wrongdoing open them up to criticism even liability. Still others promote apology as a sign of confidence, and to not apologize is a symptom of insecurity. A Washington Post article from this past September 13, quotes a book titled “On Apology” written by Aaron Lazare. It says, “the reason people apologize is to relieve feelings of guilt and shame. But the reason others won’t apologize is to avoid ever feeling guilt or shame.” And as the columnist Catherine Rampell points out, “it is foolish to assume that without remorse there is no sin.”
Even King David, after the prophet Nathan confronted him for having Uriah killed so that he could marry Bathsheba, he apologized crying out, “I have sinned before the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13 and Psalm 51).” If apology is good enough for King David, it should be good enough for us and the leader of the free world.
Ronald Reagan, arguably the most popular President in American history, set an example by never being above apology. He apologized for the Iran-Contra scandal. He apologized directly to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the invasion of Grenada. And he made an apology for a great national sin that occurred long before he entered politics. He apologized to Japanese-Americans for the internment camps during World War II. These things did not make Reagan or our country weak. They demonstrated that we are willing to admit and learn from our mistakes, and that is how we become a More Perfect Union.
Apology is humility. As our observance of Yom Kippur demonstrates, it is an incredibly sacred, and time-consuming act. And no, it does not happen in a single day. It began last year at the end of Yom Kippur, and it will begin again when the Gates of Repentance close tonight. Yom Kippur is but a point on the continuum of time. True apology evolves as we do more than recognize our mistakes, we prove our desire and ability to do make them right.
And so on this Yom Kippur, we consider the true meaning of Repentance, what we expect from ourselves. what we expect from each other, and in this important year, we consider what we expect from our leaders. May we truly be our votes, so that our leaders are extensions of our greatest values. May they be kind to the stranger, lovers of Israel, considerate of even the poorest among us, and may they never be afraid to learn from a mistake. And may we as a congregation, with our city state and nation, may move forward together.