Every year around this time, I share an abridged version of my High Holiday sermon (minus the jokes). Here goes:
You know, and I know, that there is an elephant in this room today, and that elephant is your secret desire to have me preach a sermon about President Donald Trump. Let me apologize to all of you right now. I am not going to dance with the elephant today. I believe that political sermons recast rabbis, priests and ministers as political pundits, and that is not what God put us here to be.
So, having resolved to turn my back on the elephant, I began work on a sermon about how to use Jewish values to truly change our lives in the year ahead. I was deep into my list when I realized the values that are needed to make us whole again personally, are precisely the same values needed to make America whole again collectively.
Here is my list of the values that can save us, one and all:
Individually and as a country we need to believe in tzelem elohim.
Tzelem elohim is the Hebrew phrase for the foundational Jewish belief (that is now also a foundational Christian and Muslim belief) that all people are created in the image of God. Tzelem elohim is the belief that our rights do not come from the state, they come from God. It means that there is a force — a being, bigger than the state that assures each and every one of us dignity and sanctity and respect. Tzelem elohim puts political parties and political differences into a lower, more manageable and less toxic level of our personal identity. This encourages humility and equality because we all stand before the God of our lives with equal standing. This belief is what enables us to truly find one another.
Reb Nahman of Berdichev was once walking with his disciples when he stopped short and pointed to a man walking across the street. “Who is that?” he asked his chasidim. They looked and replied, “Oh that is nobody, Reb Nachman. That is just Moshele the water drawer. That is nobody.” Reb Nachman scolded them, and said, “None of you can be my students until you say about any person you see, ‘There goes the image of God walking down the street.’” Our politics and our personal lives depend upon our ability to see others not just as a worthless mob of Mosheles.
This year believe in tzelem elohim a little more and believe in political labels a little less.
Individually, and as a country, we need to believe in elu v’elu.
Hillel and Shammai were the first two rabbis. They lived in the first century before the common era. They replaced the biblical sacrifices with prayers. They replaced biblical priests with rabbis, and they altered, augmented and even replaced biblical law with rabbinic law. In this monumental task, of course, they did not always agree on what was to be included in rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud recounts, in tractate Eruvin 13b, that Hillel and Shammai were once engaged in a furious dispute,
when suddenly a heavenly voice interrupted their argument saying, elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim, “These and also those are both the words of the living God.”
What does elu v’elu mean now? To me and to Judaism, it means that both personally and politically, we must learn how to listen to those with whom we disagree. True listening is not an inconvenient pause before you go ahead and say what you were going to say anyway. That is listening to respond. True listening is listening to learn. True listening is trying to take in the truth of things being told to us that oftentimes we do not want to hear. True listening teaches us that some people who believe nothing that we believe can occasionally be right. True listening teaches us that there are words of the living God being spoken everywhere. True listening teaches us that there is not one political party where all the good and smart people have gone to vote, no city where they have all gone to live and no media outlet they have all chosen to watch. This is obvious and obviously true, but as journalist Irving Kristol once said, “When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious.” So when someone on the other side of the political divide from you is talking, try not to say to yourself, “Nothing he or she just said is true.” Try saying this instead: “What part of that could be true?” Your answer will save your soul and your answer will save America.