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It's Really About Character

Like so many proud Americans I was shocked and dismayed by Wednesday’s events. To see the Confederate flag marched through the Capital, rioters wearing Proud Boy slogans and QAnon paraphernalia, groups who traffic in conspiracy theories and antisemitism, to see people smashing the Capital’s windows, the mob desecrating the American flag and climbing Congress’ walls as if it were a jungle gym, to stare in disbelief as rioters vandalized our government’s sacred halls while senators and representatives scurried to safety, to read that people were killed and officers were injured and that one then died all on the day in which Congress was supposed to formally recognize the Electoral College votes and affirm Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice-president, and finally, to hear President Trump’s earlier words exhorting the crowd to do such violence, was more than I could take. It was more than I could bear. Never was I more ashamed, and frightened to be an American.

The hallmark of our system is that we have elections, some of which are of course hotly contested, but when they are over one person is deemed as having gained more votes, whether they be elector or popular votes, and he or she is granted the privilege of serving as our president, vice-president, representative, senator, governor, town supervisor or whatever the office may be. The person who earns less votes then graciously concedes and the disappointed among us start working towards the next election and righting the wrongs they believe their political opponent will now unveil.

Senator John McCain offered these words when Senator Barak Obama became President Elect Obama: “I would not be an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone and I thank the people of Arizona for it. Tonight — tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”

That is the system and that is how it is supposed to work. Until now. Until this year.

And so, when things go terribly wrong, I return to the values that I hold dear, I turn to the pages of our Jewish tradition. Here are the truths that Judaism has long preached about and which Wednesday laid bare how lacking we indeed are regarding these core values and how much we need to relearn these tenets.

First of all, there is a right way to argue and a wrong way. We call it machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. We disagree but with respect for those holding opposing views. We do not vilify the other. We do not denigrate those who disagree with us or hold to different beliefs. We don’t call those with whom we disagree words like stupid or criminal. We believe disagreement sharpens our own arguments and betters our community and country. It is not about winning and losing. It is not about besting the other. It is about trying to figure out how we are going to go forward and that means how both the person I am arguing with and I are going to go forward together. That more than anything is what we have lost during these past years.

Leadership furthermore is about service. It is about devotion to the community. It is about dedication to everyone even, and perhaps most especially, those with whom the leader disagrees, and even vehemently disagrees. John McCain understood this. He embodied the idea that leadership begins with character and a devotion to serve others. It hinges on a clear sense of what is right and wrong. For too long we have papered over, and excused, the character flaws of President Trump. We have now seen what their fruits bear. I have always believed, and I would like to think, taught, that so much, if not all, begins and ends with character. It mattered when Bill Clinton was found lacking in his character and our nation then paid for it, and it matters even more now, with Donald Trump.

It appears to me that President Trump views the world, and most particularly his office, not as a matter of sacred service but instead, and you will forgive the metaphor, a candy jar. He sees the world not, as Judaism sees it, a divine blessing, in which we are intended to better, improve and most especially, relieve the suffering and imperfections we see around us, but instead a matter of what can be taken. “Let me grab what I want and what I can.” It is this broken world view that came crashing to a stop when the election results were finally tallied. If the world is only a candy jar from which I take what I deserve then receiving less votes than Joe Biden in the election becomes in such a worldview, not what can I learn from this moment, and how can I do better in the future, but instead look at the injustices done to me. Look at what they took away from me. And it is from here and this worldview that conspiracy theories are spun to explain away mistakes and opportunities for growth and learning and turned instead into injustices done to me by mysterious nefarious forces.

Listen to John McCain again when he spoke about the election loss. He said, “And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.” So much of our precious democracy, and our system, rests on the concession of the losing party, and perhaps as well the graciousness of the victor. But I realize now that the seemingly mundane custom of the concession speech may be the more important and could very well be the foundation stone upon which this precarious system rests. We need the person who received less votes to say, “It was fair.” That’s what John McCain said as well, “My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey,” he said. “The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.” That is what a true patriot says. That is how a person of character speaks. It is long past time making excuses for President Trump’s character flaws. We are paying dearly for them. They have invited antisemites, and conspiracy theorists, to crash down the doors of our nation’s sacred halls. Enough! And so now we must pledge, “Never forget the lessons of Wednesday, January 6th!”

Do we need as well another illustration of Judaism’s message about lashon harah, gossip? The worst kind is called motzi shem ra, the deliberate spreading of falsehoods. Words matter, our tradition reminds us. Words can cause injury. And they did just that on Wednesday. After weeks, and months, of spreading falsehoods that the election was somehow rigged, we saw how words can be transformed into bloodshed. Shame on all the leaders who joined in these efforts, or who remained silent for the past few months. Joe Biden will be our next president. That was determined, loud and clear, by Saturday, November 7th. All the talk about stolen elections and voting irregularities undermines this fragile project called, the United States of America. It may advance a momentary victory, it may further a political career, but in the end, it only further undermines our shared sense of commonality. Such talk invalidates this great, but imperfect, democracy. There really is only an us, and our shared commitment to the legitimacy of each and every vote. We desperately require leaders who will affirm this and say, “I may not have won but I believe in our system.”

Judaism counsels that small, seemingly innocent, lies can grow into outright falsehoods and that those falsehoods can quickly lead to violence and bloodshed. Look no farther than Wednesday for evidence of this truth. Senator Romney, whose politics I continue to disagree with but whose character I greatly admire, said: “We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.” It really is not about winners and losers. It is not about the spoils of victory or the stinging of defeat. It is about us, and that means all of us. When people truly devote themselves to service, to country, to community, or even to congregation, it is only about us and never about just me or just you.

And so, I close with what should now be abundantly clear, the words of one of my heroes, Senator John McCain, who taught us more about who we are in his moment of loss in the 2008 presidential election, than all his victories in senate elections. And that makes sense for a man whose character was tested, and perhaps even bettered, when imprisoned for years during the Vietnam War. McCain said: “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

And after this terribly dark and frightening week, it is this very association each of us must endeavor to reclaim. May God grant us the strength to do so.