Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Saturday morning Shabbat service on November 12, 2016.
The Torah gives us no indication at all about what was going through the patriarch that will become known as Abraham’s head the day before God commanded him to leave his father’s home and go to a new land where the patriarch was promised to be the founder of a great nation. The Midrash is full of stories of how Abraham didn’t fit in to his society anymore. Abraham had a conception of God that was becoming incompatible with the paganism of those with whom he lived and I guess it was becoming apparent that he would have to leave. God gives him the permission and the promise that makes that departure possible.
Apparently a lot of Americans heard that call to leave their country after the election on Tuesday. The internet rumor was that there were so many inquiries about immigration to Canada that it crashed the Canadian Government’s website. There are now demonstrations all across the country with Americans protesting that Donald Trump does not reflect their values.
I woke up Wednesday morning, just like everyone else, to the news that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. It didn’t feel good; and not because I voted for someone else. I keep saying to myself that I don’t recognize my own country anymore.
I am not a fan of Donald Trump. I didn’t watch his television show. I have not visited any of his properties. I certainly didn’t like the way he ran his campaign. But that is all beside the point today. My mother is 96 years old. She has seen politicians come and go. She reminded me that he is only one person who is rising today and will fade from the scene eventually. That is the path all Presidents travel. The ones I like and the ones I don’t like.
My concern, my real concern is for those who voted him into office on this populist platform he created, a platform that I usually associate with the nationalistic political parties of Europe and the Middle East. Mr. Trump reached out and touched these voters in a way that spoke to their fears and their economic concerns; concerns that turned out to be, in ways that make me uncomfortable, selfish and bigoted. Over the course of this election I have seen those who live to hate those others who are different from them, crawl out from their hiding places and enjoy being in the open again. I have worked most of my life to banish hatred and bigotry and to promote respect, honor and love.
I have seen in this election some very dangerous strategies. Among them, the denigration of “political correctness” now used as a code word to say that we have been given permission to be prejudiced and rude. Hiding behind the phrase “the courage to speak your mind” was permission to bring to light the darkest and most dangerous aspects of our animal roots.
I sincerely believe that the role of Religion in this country has been to push down these tendencies. I believe that we must see other people as human beings; we need to see what connects us to each other and not to fear the unknown. The different faiths of this country have worked hard to support the poor, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick and to love our neighbor. Religion in this country has tried to teach that we need to feel each other’s pain and to care for others when they are down.
In this new political climate, all of these values have become “politicized.” To welcome the stranger means taking a stand on immigration reform. “Helping the poor” now means taking a stand on the minimum wage. “Healing the sick” now implies taking a stand on universal health care. “Loving your neighbor” now means that you have to agree with people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Apparently, after this election, these values only apply as long as it doesn’t require any sacrifice from the privileges voters already have.
But the campaign is over and the reality of today tells me that we don’t yet know what the future may bring. Mr. Trump is certainly an unknown when it comes to leadership and only as we navigate these days of transition will it be revealed to us what a Trump administration will aspire to accomplish. It is not that part of the future that worries me.
I believe that, because of this election, there will be new standards for candidates and campaigns in our future, standards that could take our political system to new lows. Through continuing gerrymandering, campaign finance misuse and the manipulation of our political process, this country will now be seeing candidates who, in order to win elections, will conduct ever more sleazy campaigns since clearly this year’s approach to campaigning, appealing to voters fears and prejudices, is the new wave. If this year’s campaign was about speaking only to what voters wanted to hear then why bother with policies, programs and leadership? If the path to the Presidency requires a candidate to promise the electorate the sky without any plan on how to achieve it, then how much further away is the election that will bring us candidates offering voters a percentage of their Nigerian Bank accounts if only we put up a little cash to “show good faith”.
I guess I have been around long enough to spot a con when I see one. Populism is a con job, big time. Its offers are too good to be true and only benefit those who promote it. Campaign promises in populism are like a big casino. Some people may win a little but the casino walks away with all your money. I honestly believe that it is the role of religion to stand up for values that transcend our individual fears. To bring faith when we feel lost and to bring community when we feel we have been left behind. To cut through political rhetoric to reveal the values, good and bad, that lay at their core. It is then our job to promote those values that bring people together, that build people up and help us all live together in peace, freedom and security.
I understand the political divisions of our country; they are the same divisions we can find right here in our congregation. Our society is divided across so many lines that it leaves us wondering what kind of a country we live in. Can we talk to each other? Can we argue passionately for what we believe and still understand the other point of view? Is there a middle ground where this country can find peace and friendship? I believe that there is such a place and this synagogue as well as other houses of worship can be just that kind of a place. A place where we can stop, breathe, let the anger go and let our rational mind have the space it needs to lead us forward.
There are those who woke up this week and did not recognize their country anymore and, like Abraham, saw this as a reason to leave this country and find a home in a culture and society that fits their values better. They say, Lech Lecha, let’s get going, let’s get out of here and build our future someplace else. I suppose that is always an option but it is not the only option.
On my desk is the poem “IF” by Rutyard Kipling. My son Eitan mentioned it during my installation. Every day some verse of that poem speaks to me and reminds me not to let hot emotions run my life. Today the verse that stood out was the one that read, “if you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop to build them up with worn out tools.” I remain committed to fighting hate and promoting love, to reduce violence and promoting peace. I remain committed to reducing what divides us and promoting what brings us all together. Like Abraham, my tent is big and open on all sides so all who are in need can find a place to rest and rejuvenate for the difficult journey ahead.
I don’t know what the future will hold but I do know what I want it to look like. I know I want to build a future for all people; native and immigrant, women and men, gay and straight, cisgender and transgender, no matter the color of their skin, no matter how much money is in their wallet and no matter how they voted in this election. I want to build a country where all people can speak freely but there is no room for hatred and bigotry. That is the country I want to build.
Lech Lecha, let’s get going and build it. Nobody said it would be easy.
May God always bless us as we find our way forward….
As we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom