Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
When my children were very little, I was the chief disciplinarian in our house. When one of the four kids wasn’t on task, so to speak, I would tell the culprit to go to his or her room, sit on the bed, and wait for me. There we would have a talk about what happened and how to learn from it. This happened too frequently for me but it was about average for their ages. One day when my son acted out again, I told him to go to his room, sit on the bed and wait for me. So accustomed to the routine and obviously disturbed by it, he stormed down the hallway to his room with his hands in the air while he shouted, “Not another talk! Not another talk!”
Oddly, this week I felt like my son when I marched myself down the hall to take my seat before the television and listen to another political convention. “Not another convention!” I felt myself screaming silently. Last week’s GOP convention came first. It was predictable in its bravado, but alarming in its aspirations for fast results here and abroad. I heard the platform, but where was the plan; where were the answers to the questions “how” and by what constitutional authority? This week’s Democratic convention began with misfires by the DNC chair and unmet hopes by Sanders’ supporters. The DNC speeches were, by comparison, more hopeful and less dark; but, did they clarify the issues for us? Both conventions left us with choices about whether we believe that our cups are either half-empty or half-full. Which cup you think you hold in your hand might explain your outlook and how you might vote on November 8th.
The challenging part of my analogy is that my son who screamed down the hall was actually guilty of breaking a rule and violating the norms of our household. We, the American voters, on the other hand, are not as clearly at fault for our nation’s ills and hardly in need of these convention displays of power and hubris. Whatever gains our society has made in areas of equality and diversity have to be balanced by what our society has lost in areas of foreign relations and economic opportunity. No one should have to relinquish their social or economic gains, but unfair access to those same rights and resources for social and economic advancement is reflected in an unhappy electorate in both parties.
If a family system produces only unruly children, then the system needs to be adjusted. Members of the family are fixed, but their understanding of their roles can change and improve. In a nation there’s a system, too, which begins with the constitution and subsequent interpretations of it that makes us “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” If the system is failing, we can’t easily change the foundational documents of our nation, but we can act in democratic ways to interpret them for our time and our issues. Think of it this way: Torah is our Jewish “constitution.” Mishnah and Talmud are case laws that brought Torah teachings into a framework wherein conversation and dialogue wrested from the text what was needed in order to thrive hundreds of years since it was revealed. All the more so, we must be able to ask ourselves in the 21st century what Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, and myriad texts since then can teach us about our own time and issues. Never completely divorced from these foundational texts, but not obliged to read them fundamentally, either, we find our way forward by inviting lessons from the past to inform the present and shape the future.
My son grew to be a mensch. He learned what he needed from those awful talks I made him endure when he was young. What he didn’t learn from me he found out for himself and from others who also taught him well, including his mother. Though his future has become something that I couldn’t define for him, it’s still meaningfully tied to our family’s values and to our people’s past. Giving way for his future is not the same as letting go of the reins; it’s much more akin to handing them over to him who learned from us how to lead. On August 6th, my son will be married to a remarkable Jewish woman. The joy my wife and I feel leads us to believe that our shared cup is much more than half-full.
My confidence in systems when they work and how they respond to change allows me to believe that the nation will get beyond these conventions, too. Their role is tiresome, but “another talk” on the convention floor prepares us to arrive at the voting booth in November, better informed and more deeply connected to the person who will take the reins and serve us over the next four years.