Sign In Forgot Password

We, the People

04/06/2015 08:26:00 AM


We, the People
Rosh Hashana 5769, 2008
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

I invited Senator McCain and Senator Obama to join us today in shul. I prepared this sermon for them. You’re all invited to listen. 

Senator McCain, Senator Obama. Good yontiff. On behalf of our community, we wish you both shana tova, a year of blessings, a year of goodness.

In about 40 days, one of you will be our next President. Please know that you have all our prayers. You’re going to need our prayers. As President, you will face a long list of daunting problems. We are fighting two wars, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with no clear path to their resolution. Islamic fundamentalists and their terrorist continue to threaten us. Iran and North Korea are turning nuclear. Russia is turning belligerent. We are growing ever more dependent on oil from the Middle East, and the amount of our wealth going to those regimes is astonishing. What we haven’t yet sent to them, we owe China. God only knows what’s going to happen in the economy. An environmental crisis looms. Health care costs are killings us. Our schools are failing us. Drugs still infect the lives of our young.

Each of these is a crisis, gentlemen, but none is the biggest and most important problem facing America. 

Each one of these crises will demand sacrifice from us. Each one will require a powerful expression of our collective will. Meeting these dilemmas will test our sense of national responsibility. But sacrifice and will and a sense of national responsibility rest upon foundations of shared values and common purpose … that Americans just don’t have.

The biggest problem facing America is that we lack the collective resolve and the communal solidarity to meet the critical issues that threaten our future. 

This week, the President of the United States told us that we are in the midst of the most serious financial crisis this country has faced since 1929. The only way to save the system, and to ensure the security and prosperity of the country was a bailout plan costing some $700 billion. 

Now, what should he have said next? 

He should have said: “We have a very serious crisis facing our nation. It’s a problem that touches all our lives. It is a problem that belongs to us all. And it is all our responsibility to see to its solution. So I’m calling upon every American to contribute $3500 to this bailout. It will appear on your next tax bill. Together, we will see this problem solved.”

What would have happened if he said that to us? Would we have risen to the summons to solve the problem? 

But that’s not what he said. How are we going to pay for this bailout? 

We’re going to raise the national debt ceiling from 10.6 to 11.3 trillion dollars. We’re going to charge it. And leave the bill for our kids to pick up. No sacrifice. No responsibility was asked of us.

We fought a war in Iraq on the same basis. When countries fight wars, they raise taxes to pay the costs. Instead, our government cut our taxes. The war was paid for out of an increasing federal deficit. Which means, we charged it. We fought this war with borrowed money. 

What would have happened had the President asked each of us to make a personal sacrifice to send our troops to Iraq? Would we step up and accept that responsibility? 

Very few of us sent our loved ones to fight this war. It was fought by volunteers. And because there weren’t enough volunteers, the military forced many of those volunteers to keep fighting long after they were entitled to come home and resume their civilian lives. 

What would have happened if there was conscription for Iraq, the way there was for Vietnam – and all our sons and daughters were called to fight? Would we have answered the call, encouraged them to shoulder the burden and sent them off to war? 

I’m a baby-boomer. My generation has just begun to reach the age of retirement. It is well-known that by the time most of us retire, the Social Security system will be bankrupt. It simple mathematics. There isn’t enough money in the fund. So why hasn’t the system been adjusted or fixed? Because Social Security is considered the “third-rail” of American politics. No political leader can touch it and survive. We haven’t the collective political will to fix it, even though everyone acknowledges the system will soon be bankrupt. 

And if you think fixing Social Security is politically impossible, what’s going to happen when we really do try to wean ourselves from Middle Eastern oil? Does anyone believe that’s going to be easy and cheap and painless? 

Solving big problems demands big sacrifices. Solving big problems demands resources of collective will, of communal resolve, of political courage and leadership. In these resources, America is dangerously deficient. 

How did we get this way?

Some say we’ve become a selfish society. We care only for our own. We cultivate “privatism” --- a culture of the personal and the individual and turn out backs on the other. I’m sure that’s right.

Some say we’ve turned infantile, demanding instant gratification of all our desires with no discipline to pay the bills for our indulgences. I’m sure that’s right too. 

But there is something else, something that flows from the very heart of American democracy.

In fourth grade, I had a wise teacher who believed in that every citizen needed to know America’s sacred canon. So she made us memorize the Gettysburg address, the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. Remember those words?

“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

“We, the people” … the authority of our government comes from “We, the people.” The capacity of our government to govern assumes the existence of a coherent entity – “We, the people” -- a human collective sharing common values, sharing a sense of belonging, sharing a concern for the whole, and sharing a moral bond. We may be friends or neighbors or strangers to one another, but we share a common identity as Americans. That’s why the government can call upon us to help and defend and support one another. 

The Founding Fathers cherished liberty. They believed that each of us has the inalienable right to pursue our dreams and aspirations. But they knew that liberty can only be secure in the context of a national community. Liberty must be balanced by community, rights must be balanced by responsibilities, our individual desires can be pursued only within our obligations to the common good. 

The Founding Fathers built the country on this set of delicate and precarious balances. They assumed we would realize this. They assumed we would have the wisdom and the fortitude to protect these balances. They assumed that every citizen would learn to embrace a set civic values to preserving those balances. The Founding Fathers knew that statecraft required soulcraft. 

But what happens if we lose those civic values? Then the balances are upset and liberty overwhelms and extinguishes community. Then the rights of citizens far outstrip their civic responsibilities. Then we lose our sense of national community, we fracture into factions and interests. We don’t trust each other. We don’t trust our government. 

Without the bonds that hold us together, we lose the communal resolve to solve our problems. Without a collective sense of national responsibility, government might compel us to obey the law, but it is unable to summon us to higher purposes. Without a sense of shared destiny, our leaders are incapable of rallying us to sacrifice for the common good. We turn into a bickering, squabbling mass of special interests politicking for our share of the collective resources. Each wants his own “bridge to nowhere.” Without civic values, we get political campaigns filled with empty promises and ugly, attack ads. We get a divisive, mean-spirited politics of futility. 

What happens when we lose our sense of national community? This ceases to be homeland. It becomes our hotel. In a hotel, strangers live in proximity to one another, but share nothing. They exchange pleasantries in the elevator, but they don’t really talk with one another. Each pays his bill and goes about his business without responsibility or care for the place or its patrons. We offer to contribute nothing more, because the place doesn’t belong to us. It’s not our place to intervene in the lives of the people in the next room, they don’t belong to us. It’s not our place to clean up the mess in the lobby, it doesn’t belong to us. It’s not our place. It doesn’t belong to us. We’re not responsible. 

If you want to know where we are heading, look across the Atlantic to Western Europe. The great nations of Western Europe are disintegrating. Unfortunately, that’s not hyperbole. England, France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, are coming unglued as societies. The Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh made a ten-minute film about the place of women in Islam. He was murdered in broad daylight in front of the town hall, by an Islamic extremist, who was raised and educated in Holland. When a Danish newspaper published unflattering cartoons about Mohamed, rioters took to the streets burning and pillaging. In Paris, gangs of immigrant youths burned cars and destroyed neighborhoods until the military was called in to quell the violence. The July 7th bombings in London’s underground killed 52 people and paralyzed England. But the biggest shock was that the perpetrators weren’t foreigners, they weren’t terrorists who infiltrated England. They were Muslim young people raised and educated in England. 

In the past decades, Europe has welcomed large waves of immigrants to fill its workforce. But Europeans are so commitment to tolerance and multiculturalism they refuse to demand that immigrants learn the national culture or integrate into the national society. So in place of nations with shared values, identity and culture, Europe is devolving back into a form of tribalism. England’s chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes this: “It began [with] a commitment to value all cultures. Then it became valuing all cultures equally, a completely different proposition. Then it became valuing all cultures except your own. That is where it became pathological. …Lack of self-confidence on the part of a nation is dangerous. When it comes to integrating minorities, it is disastrous.” Sacks warns: “When a nation loses faith in itself, its citizens find other identities.” 

We haven’t reached this level of disintegration in America. Not yet. But we’re headed that way. I’ll prove it to you: If you find the conversation at your Rosh Hashanah dinner table dull and unexciting, I recommend you drop two words into the conversation, and then stand out of the way: “Sarah Palin.” 

No one is neutral on Sarah Palin. She’s either an inspiration or she infuriates you. She’s not divisive. And her nomination was not divisive. On the contrary, she was chosen because she is as an archetype of good American values. She is a symbol. She is the embodiment of a certain vision of America. She’s a small town girl, winner of the beauty contest, now proud hockey mom who got into government when she joined the PTA. She loves hunting. She believes in family, in traditional religion, in small town life, and the common sense of common people. 

In other times, in other circumstances, we would have all found this charming: a contemporary remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic, “Mrs Palin Goes to Washington.” 

But today, we are deeply divided on what exactly what America ought to be. For some of us, owning a gun is the highest expression of our liberty to live as we wish without government intrusion. For others, owning a gun is an expression of the brutality of a violent culture. For some, a Harvard education is the world’s finest preparation for a life in public service. For others, Harvard is elitist. Real wisdom is found in the factories and fields and barber shops and school yards where ordinary people live and work and play. For some, our government has drifted away from the values of common Americans into the corrupt hands of professional politicians. For others, the problems that beset us are much too complicated and the risks too dangerous for the uninitiated and the untrained.

We are a divided, conflicted people. And Sarah Palin’s story shines a light on our divisions.

We are a divided people. And we will never muster the collective resolve to meet the threats that darken our future without renewing the ties that bind us together as one nation. The great task before our next President is to gather the people of America once again into a national community; to renew the bonds that hold us together; to re-assert the shared identity that makes us Americans; to teach our collective civic values. 

Senator McCain, Senator Obama, this is why I hoped you would share Rosh Hashanah with us this year. Of all our holidays, you need to understand this one. 

This holiday didn’t come from heaven. There is very little about it in Torah. It came from a critical moment in our history. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem and carried its citizens off into exile. They were a random, varied assortment of Israelites – the king and his court, prophets and priests, merchants and tradesmen, servants and laborers. At home they belonged to different classes and different circles. But exile had thrown them all together. 

They found themselves in the midst of the world’s first great metropolis. The capitol of a great, world-empire: Babylon – Babel -- a cosmopolitan city of many cultures, languages, customs, ways of dress, religions, and ideas. The exiled Israelites were strangers here. And strangers to each other. They knew they would soon be lost in this confusion of cultures unless they found an identity, a narrative, a ritual, that made them distinct and bound them into one community. 

At the beginning of the Fall, when the dry season gave way to the wet season, the Babylonians gathered for their annual festival of covenant. With majestic ceremony, they crowned Marduk patron god of the empire, and re-affirmed their allegiance to their emperor, Marduk’s appointed son. 

The Israelites fastened upon this rite, and made it their own. Instead of Marduk, they declared their faithfulness to the God of their ancestors. Instead of the political covenant of the city-state with its emperor, they affirmed the covenant of Abraham, a covenant that bound them together as a distinct people with a unique identity. A covenant that gave each member of the community a sense of dignity and belonging. A covenant that announced their task in the world. In the words of Genesis:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you;
And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

As a member of the people covenanted to God, no Israelite was ever again a stranger in Babylon, or in any other corner of the world. On Rosh Hashanah, we re-affirm that covenant. On Rosh Hashanah, we renew our bonds with our people, with our story, our shared past and our shared destiny. On Rosh Hashanah, we renew our sense of collective responsibility and pledge commitment to our communal ideals. On Rosh Hashanah, we renew our loyalty to our community, our sense of belonging, and we confirm that in this community, we are home. Wherever in the world we may be, we are home. 

America needs its own Rosh Hashanah. America needs to renew its social covenant -- the covenant that defines the identity of our national community, the dignity of each citizen, our project in the world, our core civic values. America needs a ceremony re-telling our national narrative and affirming our collective commitment to its lessons and ideals. We need to bond together once again, and affirm our belonging, our shared destiny, our identity as “We, the people of the United States.”

The country was founded on a social contract – that defines what each of us gets in return for paying our taxes and obeying the law. We need a social covenant, affirming our responsibilities and what we are expected to give. This country will not long survive as a hotel. It will only survive if it is our home. And a home demands service, sacrifice, responsibility, generosity, loyalty and love. 

Senator McCain, Senator Obama, 

We are an old people. We have witnessed humanity’s greatest, most powerful kingdoms, empires and regimes rise and crumble. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. The Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, the French, the British Empires, the Nazis, the Soviets. In their arrogance, they believed the power of their armies would ensure their immortality. They’re all gone. Because history isn’t only about worldly power. History is shaped by ideas, by conscience, by moral vision. When told that Pope in Rome objected to his policies, Stalin once asked derisively how many battalions the Pope commands. Fifty years later, Russian leaders discovered the power of a Pope’s moral vision to shape the course of history. Armies, economies, interests, governments hold power. But ask Nelson Mandela how much power there is to the idea of justice. Ask Lech Walesa and Vacslav Havel how much power there is to the love of freedom. Ask Martin Luther King how much power there is to the notion of equality. Ask David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir about the power of visions and dreams.

Senators, this too is a lesson of our Rosh Hashanah holiday: Nations are judged. It is our conviction, born of our long experience, that in history, nations are judged according to their commitment to justice, their commitment to the dignity of each human being, their devotion to freedom. This nation, too, will be judged. 

We, the children of Abraham’s covenant – we, who carry humanity’s longest historical memory, -- we are prepared to testify on behalf of America. We will testify that no nation has struggled harder, sacrificed more, devoted itself more earnestly than America to bring about a world of justice, of human dignity, of freedom. We will testify on behalf of America’s past. You, Senators, must assure that its future brings us yet closer to that divine dream. May God bless you. And may God bless America.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780