Just Torah: An election campaign during the High Holy Days

When we seek goodness – God responds in kind.’

Decorating a Sukkah  (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Decorating a Sukkah
I was raised in New Hampshire, one of very few Jews in my school, my city and even my state.
My family was secular – and for years growing up I thought that being Jewish meant two things: having Hanukka instead of Christmas, and being a Democrat, not a Republican like most everyone I knew.
My earliest political memory is the 1972 McGovern–Nixon election. Everyone I knew was voting for Nixon; my family, however, was not only voting for McGovern, but my mother was his New England photographer, following him from state from state and taking Polaroid pictures of him with supporters – pre-digital selfies for people to take home with them.
Campaign workers and volunteers moved into our house with us from the summer until the general election in November. I wove in and out of their late-night conversations – the Equal Rights Amendment, the Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War. I loved these campaigners with their long hair and Levi’s. Oh, how I wanted worn, patched jeans like theirs – the garb of the righteous! I felt lifted by a sense of purpose, a feeling I never got from school, sports, or Girl Scouts. These college students who were “taking a semester off” seemed to be tapped into something bigger than politics. There was a glow of goodness and truth flickering in their words and in their work. A handsome college student would pull out his guitar. “This land is your land...”
Fast forward over a decade. It’s 1985 and I’m at Boston University where my husband and I met in our university’s divestment from South Africa, anti-apartheid campaign. Getting to know each other, and talking about the movement, he used language that captured my heart and imagination. Instead of my instinctive “racism and sexism and war are bad,” he said things like, “Everyone is made in the image of God.” And, “We have a brit, a covenant with God. We are God’s partners in making the world a better place.”
I was hooked on him, and on Judaism’s eternal language of tzedek, hessed and brit.
Fast forward again: It is 2016. I’m a rabbi. Yosef and I have five children and we live in Jerusalem. Throughout the High Holy Days, begging God for life, and reminding ourselves that prayer and justice and acts of loving-kindness temper God’s decree, I could not help my mind wandering, in horror, to the US elections. The sense of vulnerability that the High Holy Days evoke was made all the more raw by the meanness exposed in the US through this campaign – a campaign that is characterized on the Republican side by the opposite of the values that captured my heart in 1972 and were formulated for me in breathtaking Jewish language in 1985.
Now it’s Succot. Our vulnerability is highlighted by dwelling in succot and we remember that it is our shared human vulnerability that, perhaps ironically, gives us the courage to live the values that give us individual, communal and, please God, national purpose. As we look through the mesh of s’chach above us, we sense that what we do on earth influences the heavens. When we seek goodness – when we reach for, stretch toward, even risk goodness – God responds in kind. As the rabbis taught, “God rules humanity. But who rules over God?” Their answer: “The righteous.”
Let us merit truly being God’s partners, shapers of the world and the cosmos, by advancing, in the US as well as at home, here in Israel, our foundational understanding that human beings are made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.
Rabbi Susan Silverman, @rabbasusan, is the author of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World (Da Capo Press). Her book tour appearances in the US, Canada and the UK can be found at rabbisusansilverman.com.