Rabbi Robin S. Sparr:
About twenty-five years ago, I accepted my first position as a synagogue religious school teacher. Not long after I was hired, the temple board voted to double the rental fee for the social hall for lifecycle events, and a dilemma arose.
A couple had booked the hall and given a deposit a month earlier, at the old rate. They were not going to be married for nearly a year, and the executive director told them they would have to pay the new fee. The bride disagreed, feeling it was the temple’s obligation to honor the fee quoted in their letter of agreement.
She appealed to the rabbi to intervene. His response was, “well, I have to pick my battles, and how the board chooses to conduct commerce of the temple is not my concern.”
The following year, I left that temple and joined another congregation’s teaching staff. A new dismissal procedure was put into place to facilitate the safest possible parking lot experience for all children. The new procedure increased overall dismissal time by perhaps 5 minutes. Some parents, angered by the change, became verbally abusive to the staff in the parking lot over the following week. The rabbi responded with a scathing letter to the entire community, highlighting Jewish values of both safety and respect, and declaring that less than exemplary Jewish behavior would not be tolerated.
I feel fortunate to have had such diverse examples of rabbinic leadership early in my career, and to have been, from that second year onward, the protégé or partner of admirable rabbis, those who consistently speak up for what is right, even if doing so may not be the popular or career-wise choice.
This morning, I am following the example of my righteous mentors, and speaking up where others might be silent. I am also following the advice of a wise, accomplished woman, whose energy, focus, and drive for justice has long been an inspiration to me. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”
My friends, this has been the most difficult, ill-mannered, election cycle during my adult life, and probably, during yours as well. The behavior and words of candidates, pundits, party leaders, and supporters has led to some of the least civil discourse we’ve ever witnessed in politics. It has been deeply disheartening, and I’m aware many are so dismayed they are planning to sit this one out. If you are among them, I ask that you reconsider.
As Jews, as women, as immigrants, as people of color—we have not always had representation, and our voices were silenced. And so I ask you, to honor the struggle of those who came before us, and to represent those who are still not represented, use your hard-won right and be sure to vote.
I have no illusions about my ability to change anyone’s mind, and I have no right, as the spiritual leader of a holy congregation, to try to influence how anyone casts their ballot.
I will therefore not remark upon any one of the candidates running for office. Instead, I wish to invite you to consider, along with me, how our decisions on November 8th might be guided through the lens of Torah.
In many congregations, there is a verse from Torah inscribed at the front of the sanctuary, above the ark, intended to direct our thoughts and actions, both within and beyond the walls of the synagogue. “Da lifnei mi ata omed—Know before whom you stand,” is a popular quote from Talmud, B’rachot 28b. Another is from Micah, “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” One of my personal favorites is from Deuteronomy 16:20: “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” It goes hand in hand with Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
As a people, we have generally rooted for the underdog, and sometimes been the underdog. We have fought on behalf of the disenfranchised, and toiled to build a just and compassionate society.
Our tradition teaches us to care for ourselves and for the natural world in passages about honoring our bodies, protecting fruit trees and water supplies, and looking after fledglings and mules. Our Torah advocates equitable distribution of wealth, through the rules of the Jubilee year and debt forgiveness.
We are called to care for the poor, by leaving gleanings and corners of our fields for them to gather. We are commanded to be mindful of our words, to endeavor to speak truthfully and to never bear false witness.
Consider how these obligations, these mitzvoth, relate to current issues:
- water in jeopardy in poverty stricken areas like Flint, and by the Dakota pipeline in lands held by indigenous people;
- development of renewable versus harmful energy resources,
- access to affordable, safe physical and mental healthcare which respects individuals’ agency over their own bodies, for both women and men;
- financial and other benefits and supports for veterans, seniors, the disabled, and all of those who, for whatever reason, are unable to make it economically.
As we approach November 8, I urge you to consider for yourself, as well as for the greater good, which of the candidates for any open seat is most likely to shepherd his or her constituents toward greater peace, fairness, and civility. Who among them will support policies that benefit not only a select few, but the greater majority. Every candidate is imperfect—after all, they are, like us, merely mortal. But who among them will help our nation, our cities and neighborhoods, be a beacon of hope?
As you have undoubtedly discovered, there is probably no candidate in any race, local, state, or federal, whose values, policy positions, and goals align perfectly with your own. While we may have a single most important issue, most of us are probably not single-issue voters. Instead, one hopes, we consider ALL of a candidate’s positions and platforms, as well as their past performance and record, when we make these weighty decisions.
Think about your family—your sons and daughters, your neighbors with special needs children, your retired parents—and cast your vote for someone who will support them and their needs, not demean or dismiss them.
In our personal lives, most of us in this room are privileged in that we can make decisions about our individual impact on the world—what we choose to eat, where we shop, the sort of car we drive, and other choices we make every day as consumers and stewards of the world.
We can expand the influence of the decisions we make in our personal lives by offering our vote to those whose values mirror and amplify our own. We can bring about good in the world, and avoid standing idly by, by showing up at the polls.
The Reform movement has been, since its inception, a beacon of social justice. The texts of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted at the offices of our movement’s Religious Action Center, known as the RAC, in Washington, DC. However, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act no longer offers the protections it once held. Overwhelmingly and disproportionately, minorities, seniors, and those who live in poverty are affected, and are likely to face challenges at the polls. The RAC has been working since the summer to ensure that everyone of every background can cast their ballot through initiatives in voter registration, protecting the right to vote, and in getting voters to the polls. You, too, can find out how to participate in this holy work by visiting them at rac.org.
And here is something tangential, but terribly important to keep in mind.
Not one person among us is deplorable. While families and friends have been divided by this election, you must remember that those you love and care for are worthy of your compassion and friendship. If you think you can, try to engage in respectful conversation with your dear ones about their politics, but only if both you and they can do so without raising your voices or your blood pressure. Keep in mind that, no matter how dearly you hold your political views, you should hold the hearts of your beloveds more closely, and there is no higher value than shalom bayit, peace in the home, as it leads to peace in the world. Please, for the sake of shalom bayit, make the effort to mend any relationships that have suffered during this stressful campaign season.
I have great faith and confidence that each of you will read widely and gather your information from many sources, not just the one or two with which you are most familiar. I hope you will look carefully at ALL of the issues before us, from the environment to healthcare, from our economy to our military, from the way we treat the least blessed among us to the way we treat the most blessed among us.
Voter registration ends on October 19th in Massachusetts. If you haven’t already done so, register to vote, and offer assistance to others in your community to get registered, or to get to the polls.
Our vote is our voice—and it is our obligation to ensure that every voice an be heard. May our voices be raised for good, and may our leaders help us to know peace and prosperity in the months and years ahead.