Roughly 2,000 years ago a debate broke out in the house of study. Rabbis Eliezer, Akivah, Joshua and Gamliel were debating about a new type of oven. The question, if a portion of the oven became unclean would that render the oven un-kosher? Rabbi Eliezer was an expert on the laws of kashrut and he presented his arguments. Every possible point was made by Eliezer but the rabbis did not accept any of them. They voted. It was three to one and Rabbi Eliezer lost.
Eliezer couldn’t accept it. He said to them: “If I’m right let that carob tree show it.” Sure enough the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits from its place. But the other rabbis were unmoved. And they replied, “The Law isn’t in the carob tree! It’s still three to one.” Distraught, Rabbi Eliezer said to them, “Well then, if I’m right, let that river show it!” Sure enough, the river began to flow backwards. But the rabbis who were again unmoved replied, “A river flowing backward is not a valid argument. It’s still three to one.” It was the final straw; Rabbi Eliezer looked at the rabbis and burst out yelling, “If the law agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven!” Sure enough, a divine voice cried out (it was the voice of God) saying “Why argue with Rabbi Eliezer, don’t you know he is always right?” There was a moment of silence. The Rabbis were startled but finally, the rabbis replied. “Ok, Three to two.”
This joke is based on a text from Bava Metzia 59b. There are many extraordinary meanings that can be drawn from the text but one obvious meaning is that democracy can be excruciatingly difficult.
The period following an election is an important time for Americans. No matter your political beliefs, it is a time to affirm the goodness of a system that allows for the stable and peaceful transition of power. We all hope and pray that our elected officials will, as expressed by the statement released by the leadership of the Reform Jewish Movement, “govern with wisdom and righteousness to create a space where all Americans are respected.”
The tone and tenor of the election was unlike that which has been experienced in prior years. It raises questions for all of us about how to proceed in an America that may change course dramatically. On Nov. 9 I sent out a letter to my congregation, reiterating our commitment to our mission statement. I did so to emphasize that nothing will change our dedication to our core values. We will continue to engage and affirm these values (as I expect all Jewish institutions in Wisconsin will) because our tradition demands it of us, regardless of the outcome of the election. We love the stranger, feed the hungry and care for the orphan and the widow. This is who we are as a Jewish community and none of that will change. On the Sunday following the election, I invited my confirmation class to take a moment and write down the values that they believe in. Values they learned at Congregation Shalom and I asked them to affirm them in the coming years. I want our young people and our community to continue to be empowered to stand up for what each of us believes in through civil and civic engagement.
I understand that there are members of our community who voted for our President-Elect Donald Trump. For them, this is a time of hope. To those with this hope I ask you to remember Isaiah Chapter 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Offer your hand to your friends and neighbors. It is a responsibility of those who are among the victors to engage in the work of healing and unity. Help comfort your friends and family and implant within them the hope in tomorrow that you see with words and more importantly with actions. One positive way for you to comfort your neighbors is to help dispel any bigoted notions expressed during this difficult campaign. Reassure members of your community such as women, Muslims, LGBTQ, Latinos, and others who may feel vulnerable at this time, that your vote and your belief in the president-elect does not reflect animus against them and that you will be among those who support and defend their constitutional rights as Americans.
To those of you in despair, remember Psalm 30, “Weeping may endure for a night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning.” There is a time to mourn and a time to arise from your mourning. Allow yourselves to be comforted and comfort each other. Then work toward the vision of hope that you have in your hearts. The American system is an extraordinary one. It is designed to work for everyone; those in power and those who are not. Let this moment empower you to be involved and engaged in creating the America you believe in. Do so in partnership with members of all ideological backgrounds and keep an open mind to the potential for goodness in the future.
I expect Republicans, Democrats, third party supporters and independents to work vigorously to maintain America as a beacon of liberty and justice for all and a home of which we can be all be proud.
When the Jewish community recites the prayer Oseh Shalom Bimromav at the conclusion of a service, “The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace.” (Yoma 53) Rabbi Efram Goldberg quoting R’ Menachem BenZion Zacks, explains that: “we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities. After stepping back, we ask ‘oseh shalom bimromav,’ God, please bring peace, and we turn to the right and to the left. Rabbi BenZion explains, achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, not just straight ahead on our path.”
Rabbi Noah Chertkoff is the senior rabbi at Congregation Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Fox Point.