Friday, January 8, 2021

The Unthinkable Occurs in America

The unthinkable has occurred in America. The United States of America, long revered as the beacon of freedom, liberty, and democracy, has a moral stain that will not easily go away. A hallmark feature of democracy is a peaceful transition of power, and our great sadness is that it did not occur this week. As our adversaries around the globe have pointed out, it will be unacceptable for America to lecture any country about the need to have a peaceful transition in their government. The millions of people worldwide who have always looked to America for inspiration in their own quest for liberty and freedom are dispirited and saddened. That is only one consequence of many that may be felt for years into the future. It was traumatic for us to see the citadel of liberty-- the United States Capitol run over by a violent mob that intended to disrupt the legislative proceedings of certifying the presidential election results. It is not just enough to condemn the violence or the individuals that ransacked the Capitol. Moments like these do not occur in a vacuum and require some reflection as to how we got here. We must all undergo a national exercise of soul searching and reflect on what areas of improvement we can all focus on to move forward in a positive way. These are some areas of inflection for me that I would like to share. Two wrongs do not make a right: I found it distressing to hear from people that while this violence may be inappropriate, there is a double standard in acts of rioting or violence by other groups that are tolerated. It's important to acknowledge and take responsibility for any situation in life without equivocating or making any qualifying statements. The first King of Israel, Shaul, was not removed from his position simply because he erred in the battle with Amaleik. It was because he was reticent to take responsibility. His successor, King David, committed multiple infractions and remained King for forty years because he was able to take responsibility for his actions. The Death of Nuance: Over the last several years, as we have slipped more into a caustic polarized environment, the art of nuance has been a casualty. Many issues have become binary choices. One is forced to choose between unlimited gun rights with no limitations or a mandatory confiscation of firearms. One is forced to choose between not allowing any immigrants into the country or complete open borders. As a student of Halacha, I have learned the importance of nuance, even in the most sacred Jewish obligations. One is obligated to fast on Yom Kippur or keep the Shabbos but some situations would exempt one from these Mitzvahs. A casualty of the rhetoric and charged discourse has been thoughtful and a nuanced approach to complex issues, and we must work on improving the nature of the discourse. Losing with Dignity: Nobody likes to lose or be associated with the losing side but the reality in life is that we don't always get everything we desire. The Orthodox Jewish community overwhelmingly voted for President Trump. There was considerable disappointment in many of our circles when he did not prevail at the ballot box. I have heard many voices in our community of despair as if somehow our republic has entered a death spiral with no hope of redemption. At a moment like this, I recall the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who at the throes of the destruction of our Second Temple in Jerusalem, had a climactic meeting with the Roman general Vespasian. During the meeting, Vespasian was informed about the Roman Emperor's death and the authorities in Rome nominated him to become the new emperor. Vespasian was impressed with Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and asked him if there was anything that he can do for him. The Rabbi responded with three seemingly unimportant requests to which Vespasian agreed to. For about two thousand years, a nagging question has been why didn't the Rabbi ask the new emperor to call off the siege of Jerusalem and spare the Temple ?? I once heard a powerful insight from Rabbi Yisroel Reisman to this question. The Rabbi was teaching us a powerful lesson that is hard to internalize. He was teaching us how to lose with dignity. Rabbi Yochanan realized that Jerusalem was already doomed to its fate, and there was no way to reverse that catastrophic event. He also felt it was imperative at that moment to be pragmatic and gracious in defeat. My favorite part of NFL games is what occurs immediately after the game. The losing coach congratulates the winning coach and they usually offer each other warm words of encouragement for a good game played. In my opinion, the post-game ritual should be modeled by all of us in all areas of life. A silver lining to this traumatic season can be if we use this as an inflection point. It is not by looking outwards and pointing fingers at different people or groups but by looking inward and reflecting on what we can all do to engage in healing and reconciliation.

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