This is one of those Shabbats where a rabbi is darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, if you know what I mean. If I decide not to talk about the election some of you will be happy, probably feeling, as my wife Becky warned me, just simply exhausted from the whole business, and not wanting to hear any more about it. On the other hand, some of you will be upset, wondering why I chose not to deal with what without question is a significant moment in the history of our country. That being said, if I decide to talk about the election those of you who don’t want to hear about it will be disgruntled, while others might not like what I have to say. As I said, darned if I do, darned if I don’t.
It is perhaps no coincidence that we are reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the Torah portion that tells of God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of his journey. I often think of how Abraham must have felt during those moments. First going to Sarah, and saying to her ‘we have to pack, we are going to leave the one place we’ve ever known.’ They readied their possessions, took their nephew Lot, their flocks and herds, their servants. And then a morning came, and as the sun began to rise, Abraham turned his back on the dawn and looked into the darkness of the distant west. He looked out at that moment on an unknown future, and I imagine he was filled with trepidation, wondering what would happen in the course of his journey.
And there are many Americans this week who feel much like Abraham did so long ago, looking out on an unknown future with trepidation, wondering what that new landscape will mean to their lives, to their families, to their country. The simple truth at this point is that no one knows what the future will hold – if the election taught us anything, it surely should have taught us that. And one of the striking things about the Abraham narrative is that as unsure as he was of his future, he stepped out into it boldly, and with faith. I don’t think that was because he believed it was going to be easy, and in fact we know, because we know his entire story, that he would have more than his fair share of trials and tribulations along the way. Instead I think that Abraham was able to begin that journey, take that first step, because he knew he was not taking it alone. He had Sarah with him. God also was with him. He was not alone.
Neither are we. We will travel the next years together, together with our families, together with our friends, and together as a sacred community, as a congregation. We will share the road with our fellow travelers, some of whom we agree with, some of whom we disagree with, some of whom make us a bit crazy, some of whom we’ve known for years, some of whom we’ve just met. But all of whom we care about, all of whom we will support and respect. Our journey will not be physical the way Abraham’s was, but Abraham’s journey was also, and perhaps more so, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, and it was also a journey of personal growth. And God willing that is the kind of journey we will all be blessed with in the months and years ahead.
Of course we have a say in that, we have the ability to at least in part determine our own destinies, the quality of the journey we take. That is one of the chidushim, the new ideas, that Abraham brought into the world as the first Jew, and over time that idea would grow into one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world. Our actions matter, they make a difference in our own lives, and even in the world we live in. The classic commentators note that Abraham is the first person in the entire Bible to call God by the name Adonai, a name we still use for God today. It happens in this morning’s Torah portion, toward the end of the sedra, in the context of a conversation that Abraham has with God. God assures Abraham that he will one day be in possession of the land of Israel, Abraham responds to God by saying this: Adonai Elohim, במה עדה כי אירשנה – literally, how will I know that I will possess it? But you can hear in Abraham’s address to God the word Adonai – the very first time it is used by a human in the Bible.
What does the term mean, literally translated, the word Adonai? Literally translated it means ‘my Lord.’ Lord in the sense of a master, like in the Middle Ages, the Lord of the Manor. And the Talmud teaches that Abraham uses this term for God intentionally because he had an insight that no other person had had, namely that religion, at least Judaism, is less concerned with belief in God, and more concerned with serving God, with doing God’s work. And so Abraham called God Adonai – my master, my Lord – the One I will serve.
And that is something I’ve come to understand over the last few days. My service of God is not dependent upon who sits in the Oval Office. It is something that is independent of politics, or elections, or the way the country may or may not be divided ideologically. The issues I care about, the concerns that I have, the way that I live Jewishly, the mitzvoth that I engage in, would remain the same regardless of what state I lived in, what country I lived in, or who the leader of that country was. These come out of my understanding of what kind of world God wants us to build together, and what my role in that building process is, and what responsibilities are incumbent upon me in terms of living a committed Jewish life.
For me that is a fairly long list. It includes rituals I engage in every day, like tallit and tefillin and daily prayer. It includes study of our sacred texts and traditions. The celebration of Shabbat and the festivals. And it also includes heeding the words of the great prophet Isaiah, to care about the downtrodden, to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in our world, to ensure that hateful speech and hateful actions are not tolerated, and to cry out when any one group – whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender oriented – is singled out because it is different. And my service of God consists of some complicated stew of all of those things, the values and the practices and the traditions and the texts and the ideals that together make up a full and meaningful Jewish life.
As presidents come and go, as congressional seats change hands, as stentorian senators speak, my sense of what it means to serve God stays the same. In that I take comfort – this week, in all the weeks gone by, and in all the weeks yet to come. There is much work to do to make this a Godlike world, as there was, as there always will be. And I have a responsibility to engage in that work, as I always have. To paraphrase the great words of our sages, I don’t have to finish the job myself, but I am not permitted to walk away from it either.
So there you have it. Darned if I did, darned if I didn’t. In a way I suppose I did both. Or maybe neither – you’ll tell me.