Have you heard the joke about the two Jews pondering the future? One asks, “So are you an optimist or a pessimist?”
“An optimist,” replies the other glumly.
“So why the frown?” laughs the first.
To which the second responds: “You think it’s easy being an optimist?”
It’s not easy being an optimist in America today. Not with coronavirus cases surging as never before. Not with too many elected officials more interested in scoring political points than addressing pressing social needs. No surprise then that most Americans believe the country’s best days are behind us.
What happened that our nation flounders in a sea of intolerance, instability and uncertainty, wrenched from the fundamental anchors of honesty, civility and decency? “No one can say when the unwinding began,” writes George Packer, “when the coil that held Americans together…first gave way…and at some moment the country…crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.”
Those lamenting our nation’s current trajectory might suggest the unwinding began four years ago, but we know that’s not true. A Talmudic adage begins, “just like the leaders, so is the generation”; but it continues, “just like the generation, so are the leaders.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Arachim 17a) Our elected officials reflect only our own concerns, priorities and values. We are the ones who have languished in the battle for our national soul, who now must reassert our faith in the principles of honesty, civility and decency that inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in “The Building of the Ship,” to proclaim, “sail on, O Ship of State!…/Humanity with all its fears,/ With all the hopes of future years,/ Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”
We as individuals and as a nation now must arise to rebuild our “ship of state.”
Each year I ask my high school students, “What are the values by which society should live?” They speak about the Ten Commandments, the Bible’s archetype of universal ethics. I ask them to list the 10 in whatever order they can. And every year I am struck by one of the first they recall: “don’t lie.”
While in its narrowest sense, the ninth commandment – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” – forbids false testimony under oath, the injunction is understood more broadly to condemn any misrepresentation of fact. And whether perpetrated by our leaders or by the media, deliberately or in ignorance, in jest or to fire up a political base, the effects are the same: the continued breakdown of trust in our nation’s institutions, and the further normalization of dishonesty in public discourse. “Stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said. We need to stand up for truth.
And for civility. Too many Democrats view Republicans – as many Republicans view Democrats – a threat to the nation’s future. We demonize each other. Each side pronounces its own rightness, intolerant of dissent. Friends of mine hosted a virtual dinner party. As the conversation turned to politics, the temperature began to rise, each guest infuriated by the other’s point of view. The hosts attempted to mediate, but none would listen.
The story is all too familiar. Only when we learn to hear in voices of discontent on the other side of the aisle concerns we may not have recognized or understood, will we begin to make room for productive political debate. And to restore civility to public life and unite our country we must at times be willing to compromise.
We must raise our voices against the perjuring, the poisoning and the coarsening of America.
But never our convictions or our decency. In the last eight months, we witnessed America at its worst. Our nation reels from coronavirus today because our president and others denied, then minimized, then politicized the disease, mocking the science behind it and defying the public health measures that could have controlled it. And the longest pandemic – racism – they have cynically manipulated as a wedge to divide Americans, especially white Americans, claiming we must choose between safety for some and justice for all.
But in the same eight months, we have also witnessed America at its best. We see it in the frontline medics caring for the sick and the dying and the essential workers who keep our cities and towns operating, all at great personal risk. And we saw it in the millions of peaceful protesters who proclaimed by word and by deed what our country has never fully acknowledged: Black Lives Matter.
We too must raise our voices against the perjuring, the poisoning and the coarsening of America. That is what Election Day demands of us. To lift ourselves above the dishonesty, the incivility, and the indecency. And with “faith triumphant o’er our fears,” as Longfellow wrote, to rebuild our ship.
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.