Four were leaning toward Hillary Clinton. Four were leaning toward Donald Trump. And four were undecided. Of the eight that were leaning toward a candidate, only two of them said they were particularly “proud” of their choice.
Perhaps most insightfully, these twelve Wisconsinites were all asked to choose a smell to describe their sense of this election season. The respondents answers included: “sulfur, rotten eggs, garbage, manure, [and my personal favorite…a] skunk’s fart.”
Given the dissatisfaction (or lack of enthusiasm) that so many of us have with our wider political process, I have been reflecting on the wisdom of our tradition, and what response it offers to our politics, and to the seemingly imperfect candidates who are the standard bearers of the two major parties this election cycle.
On this Rosh HaShanah, join me as we seek to let go of the always-fruitless search for perfection…in the leaders we elect…and in ourselves as well.
Let’s begin by giving thought to the leaders we elect, and the unrealistic expectations we so often project on to them.
George Orwell grappled with the question of the character of the seemingly unimpeachable Gandhi. Orwell provocatively wrote: “To what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity - by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power - and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?”
Orwell suggests that however good, wholesome, and pure our leaders are before they enter the political arena…that to enter in to politics is to sully oneself by taking part in a process that inevitably corrupts.
This reality of human nature, that even our most revered leaders are fatally flawed, is even reflected within our Torah. We grapple with it during this morning’s Torah reading as we read of Abraham, and his shocking willingness to unhesitatingly offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. What kind of father, no matter how faithful to God, would really consider doing that? Although the Biblical author praises Abraham for faithfully fulfilling God’s command by bringing the knife to Isaac’s neck, for me: the moment permanently damns him, and leaves me wondering what it means that we are spiritually descended from someone whose judgment could be so clouded.
Of course, Abraham is not the only flawed ancestor we encounter on the pages of the Hebrew Bible! Everyone in the Bible suffers from one character foible or another. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has fashioned himself of late into a modern spiritual commentator, offers these words on our Torah’s hero, Moses: “The Moses of Exodus is not some majestic, charismatic, Charlton Heston-type hero who can be trusted to run things. He’s a deeply flawed person like the rest of us. He’s passive. He’s afraid of snakes. He’s a poor speaker. He whines, and he’s sometimes angry and depressed. He’s meek. The first time Moses tries to strike out against Egyptian oppression, he does it rashly and on his own, and he totally messes it up. He sees an Egyptian soldier cruelly mistreating a Hebrew slave. He looks this way and that, to make sure nobody is watching. Then he kills the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand. […] Even the Israelites don’t admire it. They just think Moses is violent and impetuous. Moses has to flee into exile.”
If the characters of Gandhi, Abraham, and Moses are to be called in to question, then we really shouldn’t be surprised that we are drawn to do the same with modern day would-be leaders who are called Trump and Clinton.
As we come to terms with the shortcomings of these candidates, and the polling data about unfavorable ratings that goes with them, it seems to me that we have three choices about how to respond.
One theoretical response is to stay home on Election Day. Our unregistered No Vote would be a silent protest of dissatisfaction over the candidates that we are invited to choose from as we think about casting our vote.
I want to take this opportunity to gently advise you not to do that. The right to vote is a sacred part of our democracy, and when we fail to exercise that right, we run the risk of taking the right for granted.
Earlier this year, my work with the international human rights organization American Jewish World Service took me to the Dominican Republic. Over the course of a week, I was immersed in the human rights crisis known as statelessness. Around the world, the United Nations estimates that 10 million people are having their civil rights violated every single day when they are denied a nationality. 200,000 of them are Dominicans of Haitian descent who currently live in fear in the Dominican Republic. They lack access to health care, education, the right to earn a living, the right to own or carry identity papers. And their disenfranchisement is perpetuated because of an inability to vote.
The Dominicans of Haitian descent that I met in January, like the would-be professional baseball player named Ignacio, hunger for the right to vote - so that their voices can be heard, and change can be affected by bringing healing to their broken country.
I don’t think I realized quite how precious our democracy was until I met Ignacio. Speaking personally: for me to abstain from voting this year would be an affront to the hopes and dreams of Ignacio and to stateless, marginalized, disenfranchised peoples everywhere.
A second possible response to two lackluster major party candidates is to head to the polls on Election Day and hold our noses and vote for the one that is least problematic to us. We’ll have fulfilled our civic duty, however half-heartedly.
Our Jewish Tradition, however, offers us a third option as we seek to meaningfully participate in this Presidential Election season.
We can cast our vote for the candidate who most closely embodies the values that each of us holds dear. And we can do that enthusiastically if we accept that our leaders are not unlike us. They are broken and flawed and imperfect. And we are broken and flawed and imperfect too.
Let’s be honest. There’s something intoxicating about voting. For a brief moment, we are given explicit permission to pass judgment on someone else. And God knows that the 24 hour cable news cycle and our social media make it so easy. All we need to do is pick a side, and then we are instantaneously armed with an unending stream of ammunition to use against the other party, to demonize the other candidate and his or her followers as much as possible.
In the early 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov cautioned against such behavior. He wrote : “Be careful when you pass judgement on another. It is really yourself whom you may be judging.”
The Baal Shem Tov’s student and successor, the Magid of Mezritch, expanded on this idea when he commented on the Torah’s detailed designs for the construction of the ancient Tent of Meeting that our ancestors carried through the desert.
The Torah notes…very precisely…that the wash basin in the Tent - that people would use to prepare themselves before offering a sacrifice - was to be made out of brass. Why brass? The Magid of Mezritch teaches us that brass is a reflective surface - like a mirror. And he goes on to teach that we should think of our neighbors - and all of the people of the world who surround us - as mirrors. When we look at them and see their faults, we should really understand that we are being shown our own faults, hidden inside of ourselves.
Are we prepared, at the beginning of these Ten Days of Repentance, to honestly turn inward, and do a full accounting of ourselves? Are we prepared to admit to ourselves that we too have fundamentally fallen short? Can we once and for all admit that we’ve disappointed the ones we love? And that we’ve disappointed God?
Before we judge our political candidates, and before we decide how imperfect they are…we should take this holiday season to judge ourselves, and to use that reflection to identify how we can best grow as people in the year ahead.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of Mussar - our Jewish practice for ethical improvement - once observed that “When I first began to learn Mussar, I would get angry at the world, but not at myself. Later I would get angry at the world and also at myself. Finally, I got angry at myself alone.”
It’s so easy to get mad at the world (and our politicians) for all of the things that are broken ‘out there.’ But our tradition advises us to take all of that energy and turn it inward, out of the belief that a more positive sense of change in the world can come about if we passionately work on our own self improvement.
There’s something revolutionary about that approach! Think about all of the time and energy we invest in listening to, and perpetuating, partisan blather about the state of the country. If we took a fraction of that and re-directed it towards ourselves, as we sought to live with more kindness and generosity toward others, how much more whole our world might be.
There’s a corollary to this approach that is also worth mentioning.
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that: He who judges his fellow man favorably is himself judged favorably by God (b. Shabbat 127b).
During this season when our folk mythology suggests that God sits in judgment of each and every one of us, and accounts for the choices we have made in the last year, there is merit in bending over backwards to find the goodness in others. Even those whose party or ideology seems so foreign to our own worldview. Doing so isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also an incredible opportunity for us to serve as role models for God. We hope and pray that God will bend over backwards to find something meritorious in ourselves, just as we have tried to do with others.
As we embark on a New Year that will be dominated by our obligation to history, as we seek to discern who is most capable of leading our country forward, may we feel good about the votes that we will cast. Let us not shy away from the civic obligation that stands before us. Let us not be dismayed by the flawed candidates who have been nominated by our fellow Republicans and Democrats. Let us, instead, see our very best and very worst traits as human beings reflected in both candidates. Let us make peace with the fact that the next president of the United States will be an imperfect president. Just as we, in the coming year, will inevitably be imperfect version of our own best selves.
We are all like Donald Trump. And we are all like Hillary Clinton. And we are all like our ancestor Abraham too. We make mistakes as we parent, and over the course of our lives as children, siblings, friends, and lovers. All of us are flawed. The brokenness that we can so quickly identify in our leaders is - if we have the strength and humility to admit it - the very same brokenness that resides inside us all.
All of us, each in our own way, is from time to time recklessly thrown off the paths we chart for our moral selves. We all make mistakes that, under ordinary conditions, we could never imagine ourselves making. As Emerson observed: “There is a crack in everything that God has made.”
Emerson reminds us that this election is really less about the imperfections of our candidates, and more about the imperfections inside ourselves - and whether we are up to the task of accepting those shortcomings. Because if we can’t figure out a way to make peace with our own flaws, then we’ll never be able to do it with others.
The acclaimed Native American novelist Louise Erdrich writes that: “To love another human in all of her splendor and imperfect perfection, it is a magnificent task...tremendous and foolish and human.”
Election Day is not about loving the candidate we’re voting for. It’s about loving ourselves. And knowing that if we can make room in our hearts for our own flaws, then we have a small, but fighting chance, to do the same for the candidate we vote for, and for all of the other inevitably imperfect but cherished loved ones in our own lives. Shanah Tovah.