this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/7/16 – and as a post script, the Caps won last night to extend their series to a 6th game –
Of all the major sports the one I don’t pay any attention to is hockey. Living in this area I know there are some serious Washington Capitols fans around, and I know enough to know the Capitols are on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs, after being the best team during the regular season, so I feel for their fans. But I always felt that hockey was too focused on violence – on the occasions when I did watch a few minutes of a game while growing up it always seemed to be just at the moment when two players would throw off their gloves, begin circling each other on the ice, suddenly close and violently rain blows down upon one another’s heads. The old joke to me always seemed exactly right – I went to a fight the other night, and the strangest thing happened – a hockey game broke out!
We might say something along the same lines this week about the Turkish Parliament. If you follow international news you probably know that on Monday, while debating a new piece of legislation, a major brawl broke out, with members of the Turkish Parliament jumping over tables, hurling coffee and water bottles at each other, and yes, with their fists beating one another until a number of them were left bleeding and dazed. In a bizarrely fascinating kind of way it is quite something to see, and of course there are a variety of videos available on the internet.
Perhaps in other places in the world people are not shocked by such events. After all, just over the last few years there have been violent fights in the parliaments of Taiwan and Georgia – not the state, the country – and at least three in the Ukraine alone. But to watch this kind of thing go on as an American is an entirely different experience. We know that lawmakers might get verbally aggressive, we know that verbal debates might be filled with tension and acrimony, but we also know – or at least we think we know – that verbal tension and aggression will not spill over into physical confrontation. We can’t imagine, for example, Paul Ryan jumping over his desk trying to throttle Nancy Pelosi. If anything there is a powerful sense of decorum in the political chambers of our country, a fundamental understanding subscribed to by all the politicians that as much as they might dislike each other, as strong as their disagreements might be, they will settle their differences through the political process – debate, lobbying, and voting.
And it is something that maybe we take for granted in the US, but we should not. I would argue it is one of the greatest gifts that our founding fathers left for us. I remember Rabbi Loeb once saying that Americans go to bed on the night of the presidential election with not a worry in their heads that they will wake up in the morning and see soldiers in the streets of Washington. Instead, we all know that the losing party will call the victor and congratulate him – or her. The team of the outgoing administration will meet with the incoming team to give them everything they need in terms of knowledge, access, and power. And at an appointed day and time the old team will quietly pack up their desks and walk peacefully out of their offices, and the new administration will just as peacefully walk in. It happens every time, and we take it for granted – but it is truly remarkable, and one of the many things that should make us deeply grateful to live in this country.
But I will confess to you this morning that more than I ever have before I am worried that a hockey game might break out in our political process. To me it has less to do with the candidates themselves than it does with the rising level of difficulty that we have – the common people – in terms of talking to one another about the important issues of our time. We all know the old saying – never publicly discuss politics or religion. But I know from conversations I’ve had with people recently that they can’t even discuss politics with friends they’ve known for decades, or even with their own family members. The emotional reactions that such conversations produce, the anger and mistrust, even the severing of relationships, make political conversation today different than it was 15 years ago. Two quick stories.
The first, something that happened to me. I was driving home just recently, and I noticed a young man running along the side of the road, looking guilty, like he had stolen something. Then I realized he had stolen something. It was a Donald Trump sign that he had clearly taken from someone’s lawn. Now I understand if that young gentleman does not agree with Mr. Trump’s views – it is his right, and he can, and I suppose will, express that in the voting booth in November. But he has no right to steal a neighbor’s property, and I would argue even more than that the message of his action was exactly wrong – he was essentially saying to his neighbor ‘you don’t even the right to publicly show your support for your candidate. And when you try to do so I will take matters into my own hand, whether legally or not.’
The second story was a bit more disturbing, told to me by a congregant. This family supports Hillary Clinton, and by way of showing their support they had dutifully placed a Hillary sign on their front lawn. They next day they woke up and didn’t see the sign. When they went out to investigate they found the sign ripped to shreds all over their lawn. To me that is worse than stealing. Ripping something to shreds is a violent activity, and I would say – and I can tell you my congregants felt this way – there is an implied threat when someone goes through the trouble of destroying something you have put into place with your own hands.
And what I worry about is that those kinds of actions – actions! – will more and more define our political discourse. Not the debate of ideas, not the exchange of words – even heated words – but the angry and impulsive deed which leaves no room for honest, well meant dialogue, even if that dialogue is difficult. I don’t think any of us want to live in that kind of political climate. I think all of us would be horrified to see a brawl break out in the halls of congress. But I also think we have to take ownership of this issues, we have to understand that we are all responsible in a way, and therefore we all need to guard against it in our own actions and speech, and to speak out against it when we see it taking place.
In this morning’s Torah portion we read the well known 16th chapter of Leviticus, which is also the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning, describing the ritual the High Priest enacted in ancient times on that sacred day. There is no question in the text that part of what the High Priest is doing is atoning for the sins of all Israel, everyone in the nation. My sense of that has always been one of connection – that is to say, when I sin, it doesn’t only impact my life – in some way it also affects you. And when you sin, I am actually implicated – it is in part my fault. We are all connected, and each regretful act brings us all down, even if just a bit, while each redemptive act helps us, together, to rise to a higher and better place.
That is the place I would like to get to – a place of collective responsibility, of mutual respect, of meaningful dialogue. A place where maybe one day we’ll look back and say – you know what? I went to a presidential election, and a respectful debate about ideas actually broke out –