Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Capital Ideas

Following the news this week about Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital I am reminded of an old story about a Jewish court presided over by a wise Rav who can see all sides of an issue.  After one side presents its case to the Rav he proclaims ‘you’re right!’  The second side then presents its view of the case, in direct opposition to their opponent’s.  After carefully listening, the Rav proclaims ‘you’re right!’  A second member of the court leans forward, saying ‘But Rav, they can’t both be right.’  At which point the Rav exclaims ‘You’re right too!’

So it is with Israel, Jerusalem its capital, the Palestinians, the (largely moribund) Peace Process and the way these issues are viewed by the right (in a political sense) and the left.  Both sides are a bit right (in the sense of being correct!), and both a bit wrong.

First the left.  The left is correct in that Trump’s move leaves Israel more isolated internationally, and potentially more exposed to violence internally.  En masse the western nations Israel would like to have a good relationship with have sharply criticized this week’s announcement, to include Great Britain, France, and Germany.  The left is also correct in that they continue to wrestle with the moral compromises required to maintain control of the Palestinian population in the West Bank (now nearly 3 million strong).  And they are right when they say that the continued buildup of settlements over the green line is making it harder and harder to one day separate the two peoples.

But they are also wrong.  It no longer makes sense to say that this declaration will destroy the Peace Process.  There is effectively no Peace Process at this point, and although you can point to the Netanyahu administration to explain this, the truth is the Palestinian leadership is just as much to blame, if not more so.  Besides, as many on the right have pointed out, the US refrained from making this change for decades, and it never helped to move along peace negotiations.  A better message from the left would have been ‘Yes of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and we are grateful the US has formally recognized this.  But we also want to remind everyone that if Israel is ever going to have a chance at peace with the Palestinians we have to be prepared to accept a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.’  The fact that the left is unable to say this is an illustration of how ideologically inflexible the lines have become, and of how difficult it is for people to view these issues with a sense of complexity and nuance.

The right, for its part, is also correct and incorrect in its reaction to Trump’s announcement.  They are of course correct in stating the obvious – Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and that is not going to change.  Everyone knows that, even the Palestinians, so why not just come out and state the obvious?  They are also correct in pointing out that the Palestinians have been poor peace partners, never wasting an opportunity to waste an opportunity.   Last (but certainly not least) they are right when they remind us that Israel is commonly held to higher standards and expectations by the international community than just about any other country on the world scene.  All true.

But the right is wrong as well.  They are conveniently ignoring the real problem, which is the rapidly growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.  Trump’s statement does nothing to help Israel cope with that existentially threatening elephant in the room.  It certainly does not advance the idea of peace in any way, and it also in all likelihood removes the US as a trusted broker in any future negotiations that might take place.  If you have a US embassy in Jerusalem surrounded by one large territory that is controlled by Israel but is majority Palestinian in terms of its population, that is not a good place to be.  And yet it sometimes seems that Bibi and his right leaning cabinet are determined to take that path.

At the end of the day Jewish groups both right and left have almost overwhelmingly embraced Trump’s statement, as they should.  How can we reject something we have waited so long to hear?  But it is difficult to swallow so much snake oil just to get to the sweet taste at the bottom of the bottle.


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In his column in this morning’s NY Times David Brooks seems to suggest that we should evaluate the Trump presidency by dividing the president elect into two.  On the one hand, we’ll have the Trump who will send out late night tweets, ranting and raving against those whom he sees as enemies, making strange policy pronouncements, commenting on product lines or movie stars (Trump #1).  On the other, we’ll have the Trump who sits in the Oval Office and works with his staff, crafting the nation’s agenda and working to implement economic, domestic, and foreign policy (Trump #2).  Brooks argues that we shouldn’t evaluate Trump #2 by what Trump #1 might say or tweet. Almost as if they are two different people, unconnected in all but appearance.

Certainly there is precedent for this idea.  We have long understood that the private behavior of the president does not necessarily reflect on his ability to do the job, to lead the nation, to be the voice for all Americans.  Bill Clinton’s indiscretions come to mind.  So do JFK’s, the famous Camelot of early 60s Washington now tarnished by the probing scope of history.  But there does seem to be a limit.  Nixon’s image was irreparably damaged by Watergate, crossing the line from indiscretion to illegality the way he did.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day evidence indicates that we want someone in the office who can do the job, whether or not they are a paradigm of moral rectitude and probity.  Whether or not they are a person of integrity.

Of course integrity has another meaning, commonly the second definition you’ll find when you look it up in the dictionary.  From its verb form, ‘to integrate,’ the word also means the state of being whole and undivided.  That is to say that the outside of a person matches the inside, the public persona and private persona are one and the same.  This is a challenge for members of the clergy.  Publicly we espouse certain values, we sermonize  about faith and our fellow man, we challenge our congregants to become better people (and for rabbis better Jews!).  But privately we may struggle with our own faith.  We may all too often give in to our baser instincts, over time souring and sinking in a sea of cynicism.  We may begin to look at others and wonder what they want from us, instead of what we can give to them.  This may be all too human, but it is not holy.

There is an old midrashic comment about the ark that contained the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.  According to Torah text that ark was gilded with gold, both on the outside, and the inside.  Of course the outside makes sense – that is what is visible to the world, so when the people looked at the ark they saw the beautiful gold gleaming in the sun.  But why bother with gold on the inside, a part of the ark that no one saw?  The answer, of course, is that the inside is just as important as the outside.  At the end of the day the people we are most impressed with are those whose inner qualities shine through, creating a brighter light than any polished gold ever could.


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An Ambassador to Israel

This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –

It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration.  And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel.  That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post.  Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.

That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize.  And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are.  And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.

What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration.  He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible.  He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank.  He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite.  In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.

All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.

Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves.  The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador?  Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?

As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion.  I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker.  I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible.  Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence.  While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father.  But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago.  He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive.  And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.

It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’  The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’  Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?

Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears.  Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother.  This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him.  It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story.  Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife?  Or shoot him with an arrow?  All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?

Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom.  Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over.  The loser does not die or leave;  though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”

Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other.  They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary.  The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away.  They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.

When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over.  There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness.  And there is no moral path to making them go away.   And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them.  That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with.  Wishing otherwise will not make it go away.  So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –

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The Height

Of hypocrisy, that is.  The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel was in a pickle.  A bind.  Facing a conundrum.  They had vigorously and vociferously supported Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.  When Trump was elected one prominent Israeli rabbi publicly said it was a sign that the Messiah was about to arrive.  But there was a problem, and it had to be resolved fairly quickly.  Trump’s daughter Ivanka was a convert to Judaism, but Israel’s Orthodox rabbis had previously stated that her conversion was not valid.  What to do?  How could they not accept the Jewish status of the daughter of the man they so desperately wanted to be president?

It seems it wasn’t so complicated after all.  The very rabbis who deemed the conversion not halachic (not properly performed according to Jewish law) were now willing to ‘reexamine’ the issue.  Just last week Israel’s chief rabbis released a statement in which they said a check list for proper conversion procedure would be put together, and once a rabbi was determined to follow that list all of his conversions would be considered valid.  Interestingly the statement mentioned Ivanka Trump by name, adding that in a case like hers there would not be a need for investigation – her conversion would be valid, end of story.

What a relief!  Just in the nick of time Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate remembered that in fact Jewish law can be flexible.  It is a good thing, because it sure would have been embarrassing (awkward!  in today’s vernacular)  if those Orthodox rabbis had so warmly embraced Donald Trump while at the very same time so coldly rejecting his daughter.   What would the Messiah have thought of that?  We should be able to ask him soon.  Now that Trump is going to be president, he should be here any day.

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Finding Your Runway

this a text version of my sermon from day one of Rosh Hashanah 5777

The young couple, looking forward to their wedding, smiled as they entered my office and settled into their seats across from me.  It was a meeting I’ve had hundreds of times over the years, and one I always enjoy.  Talking about the wedding, getting to know the bride and groom, and exploring with them at least a bit their hopes and dreams for the life they will make together as husband and wife.  In the course of those meetings I always ask the couple about their plans for having a family – how many children might they like to have?  When will they start?  I know it is a nosy question!  But if the rabbi can’t ask that question who can?  And the truth is we need more Jews in the world.

But as soon as I broached the topic with this couple, I could tell they were uncomfortable.  They looked at each other for a few moments before the young woman said this:  “Rabbi, we just don’t know if we want to bring children into this world.  It seems like such a dangerous and scary place right now, like it is all headed the wrong way.  There is terrorism and climate change, racism and riots in the streets, shootings in schools, how can we bring a child into this kind of world?”

I was a bit taken aback, but I caught myself and I talked with them about it.  That we need more Jews in the world.  That we need more good people in the world.  That we need hope in the world.  But as I talked, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘who can blame them?’  I was sitting with them in the first week of September, coming off one of the most disturbing summers probably any of us can remember.  Police were shot in the streets of Dallas and Baton Rouge.  There was horrible gun violence in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  Refugees from the Syrian civil war wandered through Europe.  The terrorist attack in Nice France on Bastille Day.  Financial anxiety as the market teetered and tottered back and forth, the unsettling and frankly sometimes bizarre rhetoric of the presidential campaign.  There were new reports about climate change and rising seas.  It seemed for a while every day the news was worse than that of the day before.

And I also knew that my young couple was not alone in its feelings. We can actually measure these things today, in ways that we never have before.  Big data, as they call it, can be assembled by analyzing the millions upon millions of Goggle searches that take place on a daily basis.  Over the past 8 years internet search rates for anxiety have gone through the roof.  Searches for ‘anxiety at work,’ or ‘anxiety at night’ or ‘anxiety at school’ are the highest they’ve ever been since scientists started tracking such things.  So if you feel that sense of unease that my young couple feels, if you are anxious about the world, worried about what is happening around us, then you are in good company, because it seems that almost everyone is experiencing that in one way or another.

Of course we Jews understand ourselves as worrying experts.  Who worries better than the Jews?  We gave the world Woody Allen and Larry David.  It was Woody Allen who once famously said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and its all over much too soon!”  It is a particularly Jewish joke that the mother who is about to visit sends a telegram that simply reads ‘start worrying details to follow.’  And we are the people who brought the world the phrase ‘oy vey!’   We use the term so often that Penny Wolin, the great Jewish photographer, once remarked that oy is not merely an ordinary word for Jews, but is actually an expression of an entire world view.  This certainly was a summer that deserved a lot of ‘oys.’

I think there is a cogent argument to be made that the presidential election process we’ve watched unfold over the last months was a direct reflection of that pervasive sense of unease and anxiety.  As Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rose in the polls many experts saw them as two different sides of the same coin, in both cases attracting groups of people who felt disenfranchised, who felt they did not have a voice in the traditional political system, and who felt afraid about what the future may hold.  The general sense of both groups was that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and that radical action needs to be taken in order to set it right.

And we also know that come November 8th, when Americans head to the voting booths to elect a new president, many of us will cast a ballot with great trepidation, regardless of which candidate we vote for.  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in recent memory, maybe in history, and I know from speaking to many of you that regardless of which person you vote for you may very well feel uncomfortable with the ballot you cast.  And so even our presidential election, which is so often filled with hope and expectation for a brighter future, I think will be filled this year with anxiety.

A few of you here today are old enough to remember the ringing phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933.  That also was a dark time for our country, it was the height of the Great Depression, and FDR stood in front of the nation vowing to speak candidly and honestly.  What was his memorable phrase?  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  I understand that phrase in two ways:  One, fear can paralyze us, fear can keep us from acting when we must act.  But I also think it means that fear and anxiety can distort our understanding of things, and prevent us from seeing things as they really are.

This morning’s Torah reading is a perfect illustration of that idea.  You remember the story – Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is threatened by the concubine Hagar’s presence in the household.  She presses Abraham to send Hagar away, and he relents.  Early one morning he takes some simple supplies, a loaf of bread, a single skin of water – he gives them to Hagar and he sends her and their son Ishmael out into the wilderness.

Things unravel quickly.  She gets lost, she wanders aimlessly, the water runs out,  and Hagar falls into despair.  She places her son under a bush and walks away to suffer alone, not wanting to see his pain, wanting only to withdraw from the cruel world she sees all around her.  But then the story turns, an angel appears, and Hagar is able to rediscover the strength she needs to carry on.  What is striking about the passage is that Hagar’s circumstances don’t change.  God does not make a miracle for her, but what God does do is open her eyes.  ויפקח א׳׳לוהים את עיניה – God opened her eyes – and then she was able to truly see, and to realize there was a spring of water just a ways away that could sustain her and her son.  The well had been there all along, but her fear prevented her from seeing it.

And I am wondering what the fear and anxiety of our time are preventing us from seeing.  You remember being a child, and your mother or father turns out the lights at night and leaves your room.   All of a sudden any ordinary object – a dresser, a chair, a jacket – could be transformed into a menacing shape.  I feel like that is where we are right now.  Standing in a dark room.  And in that darkness we can lose our way, and in losing our way, lose our understanding of what truly matters most.  The values we cherish.  The people we love.  The expectations we have for ourselves and our lives.  And I think, I hope, that Yom Tov is a time to reclaim what truly matters most.  To dispel darkness, to open eyes, to see with clarity our lives and our world.

I am sure you are familiar with the so called Miracle on the Hudson, the story of the pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who miraculously managed to land a failing jet plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of every crew member and passenger.   The story is playing in theaters these days in the movie Sully, Tom Hanks playing the no nonsense pilot.  Haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard the movie is ‘OK’ but Hanks is terrific.  Fundamentally that story is about one person who is able to set aside fear and to see something, to perceive it, to truly understand it – in a way others could not.  Everyone else looked at the Hudson and they saw water and a sinking plane.  Sully looked at the same river, and he saw a runway.  What angel gave him that insight, opened his eyes in that kind of way, we will never know.

But what if an angel were to appear to you and God were to open your eyes during these sacred days? What might you see? Could we recognize the wells that are right beside us? If we did we might take a fresh look at our families and see them as the gift they are.  We might reach out to old friends we once laughed and cried with. We might feel compelled to reconnect to a community of faith and service that sustained our people for thousands of years. We could see within ourselves the strength, always there,  to overcome disappointment and fear and anxiety, to emerge with new found hope and faith in ourselves, in those we love, in humanity and in God.

The holidays come each year to open our eyes.  They remind us of what matters most, they give us an opportunity to reaffirm our very best qualities.   The holidays come to help us truly see that there is great light in the world, and enduring hope and kindness and caring in the human heart.  May that be our faith and our fate as we together welcome this New Year.

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Negativity Won’t Pull You Through

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 5/21/16

With the Preakness this weekend and Memorial Day just around the corner in a presidential election year we know that it is only a matter of time before we are confronted with ad after ad, phone call after phone call, and email after email for the candidates in the race.  We also know from experience that a significant percentage of the publicity will be negative, what we commonly call today attack ads against the candidates.  This is an unfortunate and unpleasant part of the political process, but it is also seemingly unavoidable today, just part and parcel of the way running for office works in this country.

But the truth is the negative ads are only a small part of what the candidate has to deal with.  There is an intensive vetting that happens with every presidential candidate, a detailed examination of every recorded statement, tweet (in Donald Trump’s case), email (in Hillary Clinton’s case), business deal, taxes, public position taken, the list goes on and on.  In essence if you are running for president you are subjecting every aspect of your life – in many ways both public and private – to detailed scrutiny.  And the process really just has one intended purpose, which is to expose any flaw – any defect – in Hebrew any מום – that a candidate might have.

You may not be surprised to find out that this is not a new idea, in fact I would submit to you this morning that it is at least as old as the Torah, which pushes it back some 3,000 years or so.  In this morning’s portion there is a passage that in my mind is one of the most difficult and troubling series of verses anywhere in the entire Bible.  It crops up in the 21st chapter of Leviticus, in a discussion about the types of flaws – מומים in Hebrew – that would automatically disqualify a person from priestly service.  Most of the items on the list are physical in nature – for example if the person is blind, or lame, or even if the person has broken their arm or leg at some point, they are automatically disqualified, and not permitted to serve in the Temple rituals.

You can see why the passage troubles me.  It is in direct conflict with our modern value of inclusivity and our modern understanding that someone who struggles with a handicap can be just as productive a worker as someone who does not, and often more so.  The objection the Torah seems to have to people with these flaws is that either they might distract the worshippers, or the physical limitation they struggle with might limit their ability to properly perform their duties, and the truth is sometimes the priestly responsibilities were of a physical nature.   One way or another it certainly does remind us that the idea of scrutinizing a potential leader, a public servant, of looking for that person’s mumim – their blemishes – is something that has been going on for a long, long time.

What might be a little bit different today, however, is the number of blemishes we find in our candidates, and the striking level of unpopularity with which they are perceived.  You may have seen this week a major poll which was released comparing ratings of popularity and unpopularity between the major candidates.  More than half of registered voters have unfavorable views of both candidates – both!  Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 52% of registered voters.  And Trump is even worse, unfavorably viewed by 55% of voters.  What that means is that the majority of voters looking at the election are seeing two candidates that they don’t like, and that many people don’t feel entirely comfortable voting for.

But the truth is even before the poll came out I could have told you this.  My evidence is only anecdotal, it would not hold up to statistical analysis.  That being said I have had person after person say to me that they don’t like either candidate, and they don’t know what to do – they don’t feel comfortable voting for either Clinton or Trump.  And my sense is people are actually considering not voting at all – it is like they can’t stomach casting a ballot either way, so they might just sit this one out.

I have two things to say about that – first of all, please don’t sit it out!  Get out and vote, it is not only a privilege of being a citizen of this great country, it is also I think a responsibility, a civic duty, one we should take seriously and fulfill.  Just participating in the process is an affirmation of the core values that drive America, and we should come together on election day to share in those values.  Which is why I believe election day should be a national holiday, like it is in Israel, but that is a sermon for another day.

The second thing I would say is this.  Challenge yourself to make your decision not on negatives, but on positives.  What I mean by that is don’t decide to vote for Trump because you don’t like Hillary.  And don’t decide to vote for Hillary because you don’t like Donald.  Even if you don’t like either candidate, they have positives.  They are accomplished people, in fact two of the most successful people in the world in their chosen fields.  Look for those positives, make a list of them, and compare them.  List out what policies, what issues are most important to you – is it abortion, is it taxes, is it Israel, is it immigration, or health care – list them out, figure out the candidate’s views, and decide which one’s views you like the most, not the least.  And then get out to the voting booth in November, and cast your vote for the next president.  Don’t base that vote on what disqualifies a candidate, on what flaws and blemishes they have – base it on what qualifies them for the job, on what positions they hold or don’t hold, on what characteristics you see in them that would make them a qualified leader.  Not a perfect leader – I think we all know that doesn’t exist.  But the best possible leader we have at this time.

So in the months ahead, as the ads keep coming, as the blemishes  – the mumim – are exposed in the candidates – lets do our best to rise above the negativity.  Some of you may remember the song by Jonny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, memorably recorded by Bing Crosby in 1944 –

You’ve got to – accentuate the positive –

Eliminate the negative –

Latch on to the affirmative

and don’t mess with Mr In Between

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A Hockey Game Broke Out

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 –

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