Lech Lecha and the Elections — Going Forward From Here

Does it not seem like a long time since the Chicago Cubs won the World Series? Last Friday night we were all gathered right here in our sanctuary celebrating the historic victory. What has happened to that spirit of joy and solidarity that we all experienced? What happened? The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States is what happened! In place of feelings of unity, joy and community that we experienced last week, there are feelings of fear, of division and of anxiety. The popular vote was pretty much split down the middle. Half of the people in our country believe that the country has made a terrible mistake. That half is worried about the future of our great nation. The other half of the country believes that in electing Donald Trump we have narrowly avoided a disaster. That half is relieved that our great nation is finally on the right path forward. One half of the nation is rejoicing in the election of our new President to be. The other half is dejected and demoralized by that very choice. As we all know this has been one of the most divisive elections in our history. It has been an election like none in our lifetime, and perhaps like none in American history. We have lived through something unique and historic.
In our parasha for this week, Abraham is told by G-d to leave his home and go to a land that G-d will show him. So, Abraham sets out into the unknown. It is an unknown destination, and an unknown future. In many ways, regardless of who you voted for, we all feel a little of what Abraham must have felt when he headed into an unknown future. The President of the United States holds the most powerful position in the world. Yet, no newly elected President has any experience whatsoever being the President of the United States. There is no internship for it, no formal training, and no apprenticeship. Only three Presidents of the United States were elected without previous political experience – Zachary Taylor, US Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, they were all leaders of men — Generals in the United States military.

Protests have already broken out in 25 cities across the United States in reaction to the election. Protesters chanted “Not My President” in demonstrations across the country. A few thousand people demonstrated in Chicago. In Los Angeles, 1500 High School students left class in a non-violent protest against the election.

Of course, they are fundamentally protesting because they are frightened. They are scared of the unknown, scared for themselves and scared for America.

They have reason to be scared. During the campaign, Donald Trump promised to do a lot of things that many considered unwise and some considered dangerous. He also expressed frightening opinions about different groups of people who are part of the fabric of our nation. We learned alarming things about his behavior, both past and present. Both his rhetoric and his ideas on how to address crucial issues in our country and around the world were deeply disturbing to millions of our fellow Americans as well as many others around the world.

A couple of days after he won the election, I came across a sermon by Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg of Beth Tifiloh Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore. Rabbi Wohberg’s words made me feel a bit more optimistic about the future. I want to share some of what Rabbi Wohlberg said with you this evening in the hope that, if you are worried about what a Trump Presidency will look like, you may find some comfort as well.

Rabbi Wohlberg quotes Mark Cuban, a Jewish billionaire, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, and a severe Trump critic. Mark Cuban tweeted, “We all need to give President-Elect Trump a chance. Support the good. Lobby against what we disagree on. No one is bigger than us all.” I am glad he reminded us of this, as it is the Jewish way. Our tradition tells us to judge people, “lechaf zechut” – giving them the benefit of the doubt. But as Jews and as Americans, we have the responsibility to speak up when we disagree.

Why should we have any hope that President elect Donald Trump will speak and act any differently in the future? Rabbi Wohlberg referred to a Midrash related to this week’s Torah reading that highlights possibility of change. In the beginning of our Parasha G-d tells Avram and Sarai that they will become a great nation and that their name will become great. But years pass, and they have no children. They have no one to carry on after them, and they are in despair. G-d takes Avram and tells him to look into the heavens. G-d tells him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. On the face of it, G-d is simply reassuring Avram that he and his wife will eventually have children, despite their advanced age. But the rabbis see something deeper. The rabbis say that when Avram is gazing at the stars, he is really reading his horoscope. He sees in his horoscope that he is not destined to have a child with Sarai. G-d tells him that he is correct! As Avram and Sarai, they are not destined to have a child. However, because of their great faith, G-d is going to change their names. As Avraham and Sarah, they will have a child. Now, says G-d, look at your horoscope again, using the moment of your name change as the moment of your birth. When Avraham recalculates their horoscopes keeping in mind this new moment of birth he sees that he and Sarah are destined to give birth to a son.

Donald Trump is, in a way, also getting a new name. His name is being changed from Donald Trump to Mr. President. With that new name come new and daunting responsibilities, and a new destiny. In order to be a successful President, Donald Trump will have to work long and hard to unite the country. In order to be a successful President he has to bring us together. He cannot govern a country successfully where one half of the country is constantly at war with the other half. As President Donald Trump, he needs to slowly build consensus. Regardless of our positions we all need to help him do just that.

Remember that when Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel, he oversaw the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip that displaced 8000 people. This was the same Ariel Sharon who was one of the primary architects of the settler movement. When right wing critics and former allies wondered how he could make such an about face, he famously replied, “The view from here is different from the view from there.” Becoming the head of the government, responsible for the welfare of your nation, is different from being the leader of a party or a political candidate. Let’s hope President elect Trump understands that.

These are the words that give me hope that the President-elect will become President for all the people, and not just the people who voted for him. These are the words that give me some hope to believe that a President Trump will temper the words and policies of Candidate Trump. These are the words that lead me to say, “Let’s give him a chance — let’s withhold our judgement about how he may be as President.” And if that hope does not materialize, we must remember that we are a free people. The fate of our country is in our own hands. Though our country is not without its problems, none of us need surrender to hopelessness, despair or paralysis. We are all co-writers of the story of the United States of America and we should resolutely bear responsibility for that story. This responsibility gives us the opportunity to renew and to build and to strengthen the future of this nation in which we are all the primary authors. Please join me now as we recite the prayer for our country on page 418.

“Sovereign of the universe, mercifully receive our prayer for our land and its government. Let your blessing pour out on this land and on all officials of this country who are occupied, in good faith, with the public needs. Instruct them from your Torah’s laws, enable them to understand your principles of justice, so that peace and tranquility, happiness and freedom, might never turn away from our land. Please, Wise One, God of the lifebreath of all flesh, waken your spirit within all inhabitants of our land, and plant among the peoples of different nationalities and faiths who dwell here, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. Uproot from their hearts all hatred and enmity, all jealousy and vying for supremacy. Fulfill the yearning of all the people of our country to speak proudly in its honor. Fulfill their desire to see it become a light to all nations.”

Amen, Shabbat Shalom