sermon: Veterans Day, 2016

Because Democracy Matters

It may not be a perfect system, but it is far and away the best our world has.

Democracy can be messy and divisive. But, as all our veterans know, and as I believe with all my heart, it is absolutely worth fighting for and protecting.

USS Boxer (CVA-21)

USS Boxer (CVA-21) in port, probably San Francisco, in 1954.
[source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command]

My father and uncle completed their studies at UC Berkeley in less than three years as part of the Navy’s officer training program before being sent to serve in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. Sandra’s father served as the navigator of the USS Boxer, an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan during the Korean War. Serving in the military was a source of pride for all of them and Sandra’s father, Joe, firmly believes our nation should have a requirement of national service for all of our youth, because service, military or otherwise, makes us understand in a different way what it costs to support and protect our democracy.

And democracy matters. It may not be a perfect system, but it is far and away the best our world has. Why? Because our democracy is premised on the notion that each individual matters, that each person has the same rights no matter their level of income, their religious beliefs or the color of their skin.

Is democracy easy? No. Like Judaism, it requires thought, contentious debates, and being willing to listen to the other side.

And democracy matters because it is the only system that allows for the peaceful transfer of power – even after a hard-fought and divisive election. We do not worry every four years that our country will descend into chaos and war. Is democracy easy? No. Like Judaism, it requires thought, contentious debates, and being willing to listen to the other side. Democracy can be messy and divisive. But, as all our veterans know, and as I believe with all my heart, it is absolutely worth fighting for and protecting. American democracy has worked well for 240 years and it is our job – our moral obligation – to make sure it keeps working well forever.

Right now, that seems like a tall order because this election has also shown how deeply divided we are as a country, and in particular, how divided we are by where we live. It is interesting that the armed forces provide an opportunity for service people to get to know all kinds of people, from all kinds of places and backgrounds. My father-in-law noted that this is one of the best parts of the military – learning to accept others who are different because your life may depend on the person next to you.

One of our Jewish values is that we respect the opinions of all. We are taught to engage in arguments for the sake of heaven. And while I agree that we all need to get better at understanding the opinions of others, I would be remiss as your rabbi if I didn’t express my concern directly about some of the comments our president elect made during the campaign. His misogynistic and racist statements and his legitimizing anti-Semitism are affronts to Jewish values. I know that so many of his supporters do not condone those comments either.

So I offer this reminder to all: it is our mandate as Jews and Americans to speak out when any group is marginalized or derided and threatened with denial of their Constitutional and basic human rights. We have to speak out for our Muslim, Latino, and African American brothers and sisters in this country. History has shown us that a true democracy depends on protecting all of our citizens. We should do this first and foremost because it is the morally right thing to do, and secondly, because we are a minority as well. Part of protecting our democracy means protecting the most vulnerable among us.

Regardless of who we voted for, regardless of whether we are distraught or elated by the results of this election and we have thoughtful intelligent congregants on both sides of this divide, this has been a difficult election. A rabbinic colleague in Los Angeles, Zoë Klein, offered this insight from our Jewish teachings.

When God offered King Solomon anything he wished in I Kings 3:9, King Solomon asked for one thing only: ‘Give me a listening heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?’

He didn’t ask for might. He didn’t ask for wealth. He didn’t even ask for wisdom. He asked for a listening heart. May the new Leader of the Free World be blessed with a listening heart. A heart that listens to the pain of a divided people. A heart that listens for commonalities. A heart that listens to those whose voices are tiny and soft. A heart that listens for the weeping at the margins.

May we all be blessed with listening hearts, and step into tomorrow together with a commitment to hear one another. To receive each other’s presence with hearts that are open and compassionate.

Zoë Klein, An Open Letter to All Americans Following the Presidential Election (Nov. 9, 2016)

Even though our country was almost equally divided about the best way to move forward, I have to hope and believe that we all value our democracy, as we come together tonight to say thank you to our veterans who have served to protect us and our way of life. Let us all be clear that the United States of America is the greatest country on earth, and I pray will continue to be a beacon of hope to others around the world.

I’d like to end by quoting from a prayer for our country written by local rabbis Janet and Sheldon Marder:

We pray for courage and conscience as we aim to support our country’s highest values and aspirations: the hard-won rights that define us as a people, the responsibilities that they entail.

We pray for all who serve our country with selfless devotion – in peace and war, from fields of battle to clinics and classrooms, from government to the grassroots: all those whose noble deeds and sacrifice benefit our nation and our world.

We are grateful for the rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that our founders ascribed to you, our Creator. We pray for their wisdom and moral strength, that we may be guardians of these rights for ourselves and for the sake of all people, now and forever.

Mishkan HaNefesh for Rosh Hashanah, p. 272