Rabbi Craig Lewis, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun/The South Street Temple
In the wake of the Presidential election (for the record, I am typing this before any results are in), many of us may be thinking these words from Psalm 121:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains. From where will my help come?”
We are probably thinking this regardless of how we feel about the outcome. The months leading up to the election were wrought with tension which deepened ideological rifts.
In this atmosphere, we witnessed some of the worst parts of human behavior. Grownups, while our children looked on, acted in ways we would condemn in them. Thus, we have a significant challenge — to demonstrate how we as a nation recover and rebuild after the highly contentious campaigns. They have seen adults raise their voices, argue, cast insults, make false assertions, and ridicule others in the name of politics. Now it is over. The people have spoken. It is time to show our children the best of America and what makes our states united.
Despite the remnants of genuine dislike and bitterness, we have to find ways to model cooperation. It is not merely an election question. It is a question of character. When we have strong disagreements, when things are hotly contested, whether we win or lose, we do not have the luxury of staying mired in bitterness. If we do, we teach the next generation that this is normative, acceptable behavior, and we will be perpetuating a cycle of recalcitrance and enmity. That must not be our legacy. Like the Psalmist, we look to the mountains and wonder from where our help comes.
It comes from the sacred teachings of Torah. If Ishmael, who had been cast out of the family home, can re-unite with the favored son Isaac to honor their father (Gen 25:9), then we can unite to move our nation forward. If Jacob and Esau, who felt mortal hatred toward each other, can later fall upon each other in a brotherly embrace (Gen 33:4), then we can look across the proverbial aisle and see, even in our former adversaries, “the face of God.”
Our biblical patriarchs model for us the healing our nation needs. They had genuine, legitimate grievances; but when it mattered most, they recognized their greater duty. The things which made possible these rapprochements are the very things which can help us heal the wounds in our country.
It is no real secret what we require. We have to build trust, and building trust begins with stripping away labels, the Ds, the Rs, the blues, the reds, those things which divide us and lead us to see our neighbor as opposition. At times when it mattered most, Isaac looked at Ishmael, and Jacob looked at Esau, and the only thing these men saw was their brother. We have to challenge ourselves to do the same, so we can then take the next step in building trust — collaboration.
Nothing builds trust like shared experience and shared success. In no way am I suggesting that we have to let go of the very important, very real issues, but before we can tackle those issues, we need to build trust. Trust begins when we discover points of agreement. Isaac and Ishmael agreed the respect for their father after his death superseded their rightful hard feelings. They did what needed to be done.
So, instead of yelling and screaming accusations, let us engage in dialogues that help us discover the values we share. Then let us tackle projects together proving to each other, proving to ourselves that collaboration is possible. Some might dismiss these basic projects as low-hanging fruit; but if you begin by harvesting the low-hanging fruits, bit by bit trust can grow, until we can comfortably stand on each other’s shoulders to reach the highest apple on the tree.
This was the pattern set by Isaac and Ishmael, then repeated by Jacob in his encounter with Esau. After all the hatred and bitterness, they were forced to meet face to face, showing respect, putting aside any airs of superiority, extending humble gifts of peace. And Esau did the same, running ahead of his army of protectors, making himself vulnerable before Jacob. After their famous embrace, Esau spoke these very important words: “Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace (Gen 33:12).”
After all of the years of hatred, the two brothers put their differences aside, built trust, and were willing to walk together. For the sake of our country, for our world, and, most importantly, for the future of our children, may we be able to do the same, finding our help in lessons of Torah to walk together on darchei shalom, paths of peace.