For our Shabbat Evening Service at Woodlands Community Temple (Jan 20, 2017), Inauguration Day, we invited congregants to write iyyunim (directed thoughts about a number of prayers) on the theme of “America: As the Trump Presidency Begins.” The assignment was to find a message of hope. They surpassed all expectations.
Pre-Barekhu Iyyun: Mike Winkleman
In 2000, when Gore ran against Bush, Hillside Elementary School ran a mock election. Gore won, 428 to 4. As goes Hastings, I said, so goes America. I was wrong. This past November, sitting in front of the television watching the election returns, I was certain, as was most of the community in which I live, that Hillary would emerge victorious. I soon realized that wouldn’t be the case. So, I went to sleep so I could wake up early the next morning to go to work.
I’ve been working since July as editor-in-chief for a magazine targeted to chief executives, a population that, when I arrived at work the morning after the election, was cheering the results. While I’ve tried to bring more balance to this magazine, what’s been tremendously interesting and truly humbling about working there is that I’ve been forced out of my bubble. I have to understand conflicting views, reconcile them with my own—and find a way to achieve a level of discussion and even compromise that might help heal the extreme divisiveness that has torn this country apart.
The Barekhu combines the notion of new beginnings with the importance of humility. If nothing else, the forces that led to the outcome some of us witnessed in Washington earlier today point to the importance of our being humbled, as we seek a way to begin a dialogue that will include all Americans in a search for a common definition of social, economic, and political justice.
Pre-Mee Khamokha Iyyun: Jeanne Bodin
“Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. … Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. … And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.” So said President Obama during his farewell speech. Important words for all of us to hear. We could turn over and go back to sleep, but our citizenship and our Judaism demand that we rededicate ourselves to caring for the widow and the orphan, taking in the strangers, feeding the poor, including the other and making sure that everyone has equal rights — doing everything we can to ensure that our democratic values prevail.
In my lifetime, some really bad things have happened in the United States — assassinations, wars, riots, scandals, terrorism. We have come through stronger than ever. Today, we face a new threat to our way of life; our basic institutions are in danger.
Perhaps Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and creator of logotherapy said it best: “Our answer (to life’s challenges)must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.” We are at the Red Sea once again fueled by faith and hope in the future, plunging into the unknown waters, believing that God will lead us to the promised land. I will take that step tomorrow when I join millions of others in a March that proclaims freedom, democracy, and justice for all. Tonight, we all will sing our song of freedom, Mee Khamokha.
Pre-V’shamru Iyyun: Joan Farber
It has been challenging for me to find a sense of calm and hope. The current rhetoric is contrary to everything Judaism values and teaches. So while I want to crawl under a blanket and wait for words of cooperation and understanding, I know that isn’t realistic nor is it helpful to our society.
Shabbat is here to help. V’shamru tells us to keep Shabbat and to make it part of our lives. We need to take advantage of Shabbat as an opportunity to slow down and connect — panim el panim — face to face with those we love, to share our experiences, our frustrations and our dreams. Judaism values respect, understanding and compassion and expects us to demonstrate these values when we interact with others, especially on the holiest day of the week.
Tradition tells us that Shabbat is a taste of olam haba-the world to come. It is a reminder that we need to work to bring about the sense of calm and hope which will permeate the world in olam haba. We take these values and the sense of Shabbat back into the week with us. When we reach out to others with respect, understanding and compassion, we take the first steps to give America a taste of olam haba.
Shabbat is a weekly gift of quiet and renewal, of joy and prayer but only if we accept the gift and make it a part of our lives. V’shamru is the guide to Shabbat observance and by extension, our entry into a sense of calm and hope.
Pre-Amidah Iyyun: Dan Emery
In the Amidah, we remember our ancient fathers and mothers, who shared a story of being God’s chosen people–a story so compelling that thousands of years later, the Torah is our story. We were in slavery in Egypt. By the power of God, we were freed. And, as Reform Jews, our story includes the idea that we are called to repair the brokenness of the world through righteous actions.
As Americans, we have another scroll, the Constitution…and we have other storytelling ancestors, like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and many more…they taught us that our nation is based in ideals of equality and freedom, that our strength comes when we are united, and that we are imperfectly but relentlessly striving for justice across the generations. We learned that people should judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin–and we came to celebrate and value the marvelous diversity of our nation.
As we begin a new chapter in our American history, there is another story in our land. This story says that we are not one united people–this story says that those who look different from us can never understand us, that people who worship differently from us are cannot be trusted, and that people with different complexions must compete with each other for limited resources.
We are in a war of ideas, and the story of America is at stake. Is it a story of hope and generosity–or one of fear and resentment? In every conversation, every social media post, we must refuse to be divided against each other and insist upon recognizing the humanity of others. And, we recite the Amidah, remember that like Abraham and Sarah, we too are guardians of tradition.
Pre-Shalom Rav Iyyun: Andy Farber
Shalom Rav. God, grant us peace.
But nothing is just granted to us, nothing in this world is free. What appears as free is more often than not included with the cost of something else. Tonight, we remember that peace is included with freedom, freedom whose price is eternal vigilance.
The world has seen, and we have survived, tyrants and despots, dictators and autocrats, pharaohs, fools and Hamans. Over the centuries, we have learned to live with them, as in Pirke Avot, “Pray for the welfare of the government.” Or, we have learned to survive in spite of them.
Today, America renewed an experiment in democracy begun over 200 years ago. While many of us are frustrated that Donald Trump claims a mandate, ignoring that 3 million more Americans voted for Hilary Clinton than Donald Trump, so we must acknowledge that nearly 63 million Americans did vote for him.
Tonight, we hope and pray for
–Every minority group in America, for we too were strangers in the land of Egypt,
–Every majority group in America, for America is becoming a majority of minorities,
–The rights of every individual, in every city, state, and land,
–The hope that everyone’s freedom is not everyone else’s tyranny.
–And for our country, that it may truly become an advocate of peace among the nations.
Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of Americans will step out of their homes and into the streets, in our nation’s capital and in cities all across the nation, to remind those watching, and those not watching, of our eternal vigiliance, of Shalom Rav, that justice and peace for all is what we truly desire.
These are my words to the congregation.
When I was in elementary school in Cincinnati, whenever we’d have a school assembly each class would file in behind one student who was carrying their class’ American flag. I was privileged to serve as the flag boy for mine. I remember I had to wear a harness into which the pole would be seated so that I could carry it properly. And after we processed in, I would roll the flag up, extend it inward through the line of my classmates and we’d all sit with the flag and pole resting on our laps.
We were extremely patriotic in Cincinnati in the 1960s. And while I’m fairly certain our teachers taught us what the American flag stood for, I doubt any of us remembered. But we did think it was cool to hold onto it. And I was uber-cool for being the one to carry it.
This evening, just hours after Donald Trump’s swearing in as our 45th president, I find myself thinking about our nation’s flag, about its symbolism, its power, and the message it conveys about American life.
There are certain iconic images of the American flag that remain forever embedded in my consciousness. Four soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima. Three firefighters raising it at Ground Zero. Buzz Aldrin planting it on the moon. The tattered-but-“still there” flag above Fort McHenry in the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And the flag I watched, as a six-year old, that draped President Kennedy’s casket as it made its way along Pennsylvania Avenue.
For me, each of these images embodies something about the meaning of being American. It’s non-specific, something about pride, about strength, and about perseverance. These values have all served us well in times of crisis. But I’m interested, especially as a new, very conservative government steps into office, what other values define the essence of being an American. Is it just about surviving and “the pursuit of happiness”? I wonder if there’s a deeper set of American values, values of a more spiritual nature, values that all of us can share, and on which Democrats and Republicans should all be able to agree.
Perhaps we can find common ground in our nation’s core documents.
In the Preamble to the United States Constitution, we find an expressed desire “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our property.”
I’m no constitutional scholar, but it sounds to me like the United States were founded on principles of forming a union that would be free from the kind of abusive power and authority that our founders had fled from back in England, a nation that would “establish justice” (something they felt had been in short supply back home) and respect for each citizen’s personal religious choice. And to top it off, we would elect and appoint government leaders who would lock into place safeguards to prevent abuse and to preserve these freedoms.
All of this sounds fine, but it doesn’t feel like it goes much beyond protection from outside forces while we build our fortunes.
I looked at the Bill of Rights and, frankly, saw more of the same. Freedom from government meddling, the creation of an army to protect ourselves, protection from our army, and due process of law so that we’re protected even when we violate the norms of our society.
Again, all good stuff, but still not an America that, well, frankly, that God would be proud of, and not the America we’ve spent a lot of time fretting about since Election Day.
I’ve always believed that being an American had something to do with tolerance, acceptance and embracing difference. I thought that these were among our core values. We are a melting pot of different cultures, an immigrant nation that fulfills its primary dictates of independence and security based upon the regular growing of our population with an influx of new citizens, new peoples, new cultures, new ideas, and new energies.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “What is done for one must be done for everyone in equal degree.”
That’s more like it. A nation in which every citizen has an equal stake in its responsibilities and equal access to its rights and privileges. Of course, that hasn’t been easy for our leaders to fulfill. Slavery certainly placed an obstacle between African-Americans and full citizenship with many arguing that blacks weren’t even whole people. With the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln brought us a good distance closer to a color-blind America, but Dr. King, a hundred years later, would still be dreaming of a time when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” All the same, I think our country has, as my third grade teacher Miss Seaver would suggest on my report card about my overall attitude in class, “shown great improvement.”
Here’s the thing, of course, nowhere in any of our founding documents does it say that Americans have to be nice, or even care about each other. I know I learned that stuff in elementary school civics lessons but it’s not in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. We have to respect one another’s freedoms and the government has to respect ours, but we don’t have to do anything for anyone that’s not specifically stipulated in the law books. I actually thought that civics was what we did that goes beyond the letter of the law. Still, imagine if everybody simply followed the law; that’d do plenty to improve life throughout America.
With President Trump’s ascendancy, alongside a newly-dominant Republican Congress, our concerns go way beyond being nice to each other. While we don’t yet know how the next four years will unfold, many of us are fearful. We fear a curtailment of women’s rights regarding health, reproduction, pay equity, and more. We fear a slowing down, if not a downright regression, in rights secured for people of color: educational opportunities, economic fairness, just treatment by law enforcement agencies, and more. We fear similarly for the LGBTQ community, that the advances in equality only recently secured will be undone by an unsympathetic political leadership. We fear increased hostility toward America’s Muslim community, a curtailment of legal rights and possible violence against innocent people. At the very least, our hopes to open our shores and offer refuge for Syrians fleeing war may very well be dashed by isolationist policy changes. We fear a backlash against all of our nation’s immigrant population, unfair treatment in jobs and housing, denial of due process, and possible deportation. There’s even a fear of growing antisemitism and what that might bring upon our own community.
I hope I’m wrong about all of this. I hope that Congress and our new president unite us in powerful efforts to bring all of the people together, to care for the poor as well as the rich, to care for people of all skin colors, for women as well as for men, for LGBTQ as well as straights, for Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, for immigrants as well as … immigrants. The only thing that I’m certain I’m not wrong about is how fearful people are. President Trump’s campaign promises, along with many of his cabinet appointments, have given us good reason to be fearful.
And so, tomorrow morning, many of us will head into New York City, others down to Washington DC and locations in more than thirty countries, to participate in rallies that seek to preempt the realization of these fears. Grassroots organizations, including this synagogue, are gearing up to make sure that no rights are curtailed without a deafening cry of protest and concerted efforts to preserve those rights.
Which brings me back to the Constitution. The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. And the Fifth Amendment: No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
These are why, on this day of great concern and fear, I remain hopeful. We are Americans. We are in possession of a Constitution that allows us to fight on behalf of the downtrodden, to stand up for those who’ve been pushed down. Our nation’s founders wanted peaceful agitation to be part of the process of deciding the path our country would follow. And while individual leaders and groups of leaders may prefer that such dissent be stifled, speaking one’s truth to power is a core value of the United States.
I viewed a recent episode of the show Black-ish in which the characters grappled with the meaning of Donald Trump’s electoral win. The show’s writers affirmed their own message of hope when they had their main character, an African-American, share the following words:
“I love this country even though, at times, it doesn’t love me back. For my whole life my parents, my grandparents, me, for most black people, this system has never worked for us. But we still play ball, try to do our best to live by the rules even though we knew they would never work out in our favor, had to live in neighborhoods that you wouldn’t drive through, send our kids to schools with books so beat up you couldn’t read them, work jobs that you wouldn’t consider in your nightmares. Black people wake up everyday believing our lives are gonna change even though everything around us says they’re not. Truth be told, you ask most black people and they tell you that no matter who won the election, they didn’t expect the hood to get better. But they still voted because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You think I’m not sad that Hillary didn’t win? That I’m not terrified about what Trump’s about to do? I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind, so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains. I love this country as much — if not more — than you do. Don’t ever forget that.”
That’s patriotism! When life claws at you and rips you apart every which way, but you still cling to the hope that your country can make things better, that’s patriotism! A belief that together we can, and we will, build something great for all of us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. And until that day arrives, we’ll persevere … not just to survive, but to continue the vital work of helping to move all of us forward.
And that, I think, are our marching orders for the years ahead. As Republicans and Democrats, let’s disagree about how best to grow the economy, about who to tax more and who to tax less. But as Americans, there should be no disagreement about wanting to create the best nation for everyone who lives here. There are partisan issues and there are non-partisan issues. The Talmud teaches, Eilu devarim she’ein lahem shiur … these are the matters about which there is no discussion. Okay, there’ll be lots of discussion. But being American means we don’t ignore the welfare of anyone who lives here. We don’t ignore their health care. We don’t ignore their job security. We don’t ignore their schools. We don’t ignore their fundamental freedoms.
Remember Frank Zappa? He seemed like a mighty strange guy. But he once observed the following: “Civics was a class that used to be required before you could graduate from high school. You were taught what was in the U.S. Constitution. [But] after all the student rebellions in the Sixties, civics was banished from the student curriculum and was replaced by something called social studies. Here we live in a country that has a fabulous constitution and all these guarantees, a contract between the citizens and the government – nobody knows what’s in it. […] So, if you don’t know what your rights are, how can you stand up for them?”
No matter who takes office, America remains one of the world’s greatest nations because of our Constitution, because of the protections it guarantees for us all. All! And if our leaders falter in protecting those Constitutionally-guaranteed rights – and God knows, they’ve faltered … just ask America’s blacks, America’s women, America’s LGBTQ community, America’s immigrants – we have the right (and the obligation) to stand up and speak out.
When my kids were little, we got them a book called King of the Playground, in which a bully tells Sammy he can’t come into the playground, and that if he tries he’ll tie him up. Frightened and disappointed, Sammy returns home. When he tells his dad what happened, his dad asks, “And what would you be doing while Sammy is tying you up?” Sammy remembers trying to put a sweater on his cat. And so began Sammy’s activist protest against the playground bully.
Yes, it’s quite possible that none of the fears I’ve shared will come true. And it’s quite possible that all of the fears I shared will come true. But just as Sammy’s dad asked him what he’d be doing while the bully tried to push him around, I ask us the very same question.
There are so many amazing and effective grassroots organizations in America. And because of our Constitution, every one of them has the right to stand up to the playground bully. Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the American Civil Liberties Union, and our very own Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. We may not like what we see happening in our nation’s capital, but if there’s one thing that capital stands for, it’s our right to take a stand.
So tomorrow morning, we head off to New York City and to Washington. And if that’s the work we need to do right now, all I can say is thank God we live in a country that lets us do it.
Our nation’s flag was first adopted in 1777. Based upon the Great Seal of the United States, the colors in its design, as reported by the Secretary of the Continental Congress, convey our nation’s ideals of “purity and innocence … hardiness and valour … vigilance, perseverance and justice.”
What do I see when I look at the flag? I see our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and the body of law that has evolved through the generations. I see 240 years of men and women who, when we’ve been at our best, have worked to build a nation that is open and fair to all of its citizens. When I look at the flag, I know that we are a nation that has turned on itself more times than it’s turned on others. But when I look at the flag, I see endless possibility for turning our society into one that is fully welcoming, fully inclusive, and fully committed to protecting us all.
And lastly, when I look at the flag, I hear the challenge of generations past and generations to come, beckoning us to do better than we’ve done before, to work harder to build the kind of nation that France must have been thinking about when she sent us as a gift to stand in the New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty, its shining beacon pointing the way to a land of liberty and freedom.
Rabbi Maurice Lamm, who served the American Orthodox Jewish community in the latter half of the 20th century wrote, “We pray, not by the rocket’s red glare or bombs bursting in air, that we might have proof our flag is still there, but by the tranquility of people’s souls, the decency of their actions, and the unspoiled quiet of nature’s dawn.”
It is a new era. And everything seems poised to change. But it is still the United States of America. And in that regard, nothing has changed. So let’s get to work.
And this is Jason Fenster’s closing:
This week, we start the book of Exodus. The story opens with a big change. A new king arose who did not know Joseph. This king saw the growing minority population as a threat, and he sought to destroy them. Then two Egyptian women, two women who recognized their positions of relative privilege, two nasty women, Shifra and Puah, engaged in a stunning act of civil disobedience. They saved the lives of people whose lives were threatened. And their act of defiance started the process that led to the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom.
Trump is not Pharaoh. We are not in Egypt. But a lot has changed. I don’t know what kind of a leader he will be, but I know that I live in a democracy. And in democracies, we experience change. Sometimes big and sometimes small. But there is always change.
Jews have lived in many places with many types of governments and many leaders. We have seen the world around us change. But, as Jews, there things we know that don’t change.
Genesis still tells about the universal parentage of humanity and the shared spark of divinity in every person. Exodus still calls us to empathy and action as it tells the story about moving from oppression to freedom. The core of Leviticus still enjoins: ואהבת לרעך כמוך (v’ahavta larei-ekha kamokha), and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Numbers still tells us: מה טובו אוהלך יעקב (mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov). How goodly are your tents O Jacob! Delivering a legacy of humility and love for our homes and houses of worship. And Deuteronomy still demands, “Just justice shall you pursue so that you may live and enter the land which is your inheritance.”
Today, those things did not change.
יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אליהנו ואלהי אמותינו ואבותינו
(yehi ratzon milfanekha Adonai eloheinu v’elohai imoteinu v’avoteinu)
May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our foremothers and forefathers, that our country be a beacon of love, harmony, and righteousness. May you bless its leaders with compassion, wisdom, and humility. And may You give us strength and courage to heed the words of Your prophets who call us to make our house a house of prayer for all peoples. Who compel us to beat our swords into plowshares. Who plead with us to do justice and love mercy. And may You, O God, bless us to be one nation with liberty and justice for all.
כן יהי רצון (kein yehi ratzon). May this be God’s will.