The Stench of The Debate
We haven’t seen the bottom yet.
I have been retired for just over 4 years. I have not given a sermon at the synagogue that I am Rabbi Emeritus of since February 16 2019. It ended with a spontaneous applause by many in the congregation, but was deemed by the then leadership to be too controversial for a Shabbat sermon, too political, even though it was rooted in the very Torah portion for that week. After having served the congregation for 33 years I retired to see what stress free life was all about. It is great. The last thing I need was controversy and personal attacks on me. I have a wife and children for that.
I have remained very proud of that sermon and if anything feel as though it was prophetic. The final vindication of that sermon was on full display in the debate of Tuesday night. I think it is time to resurrect that sermon and to share it with the world. With a little editing primarily to shorten the sermon I share it with you all, if only as a response to the debacle we saw the other night. It is not often that one is present at the nadir moment of our democracy, but at least I can hope that this sermon will motivate everyone to vote. This election will tell us if we still live in the land of the free and the brave, or the fearful and the bullies. I fear it is a 50–50 proposition.
Sermon Tezava The Danger of Lies
Many years ago we were fortunate to have the late Rabbi Sidney Greenberg as a scholar in residence at our synagogue.
He once wrote about some elementary school children who were visiting his synagogue as part of their social studies program.
He brought them into the sanctuary and explained to them the significance of various synagogue symbols, including the Ner Tamid, the eternal light which burns constantly about the holy Ark.
He pointed out that we use the eternal light because of a verse that is found in this morning’s Torah portion. It says,
“ you shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.”
In Hebrew, the word for kindling lamps regularly is the Ner Tamid.
Shortly after that visit, he received a packet of thank you notes from the youngsters who had visited. He got one in from a fifth grader that he found very interesting. It said in part,
“I especially liked your explanation of the internal light”.
Rabbi Greenberg went on to say, “out of the mouths of babes a profound truth was discovered.”
Whether we realize it or not each of us is born with an internal light and it may be the single most important factor in explaining the differences between man and beast.
It is the internal light that endows man with his specialness; with his creativity; with his ability for greatness, because it is an internal light, a spark, a glow of the Divine that is kindled in each of us.
That light is our spirit, it is our soul, it is what makes us unique and distinct. It is the source of the creative aspect of human beings. It answers the question of how someone can sit at the piano and create a tune. Or how a melody arrives in a composer’s head.
It explains how Michelangelo looked at a block of marble and saw David inside. It is how an architect sees an empty lot and imagines a beautiful building to fill that emptiness.
I believe when that spark exists in many members of a population, it explains how their country goes on to achieve wondrous things for their people and mankind.
But what happens if it starts to get dark? What happens if the intensity of the light begins to diminish or as is more likely the case, layers upon layers of darkening agents obscure that internal light until there is no oxygen left and it is extinguished?
President Ronald Reagan said,
“America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom loving people everywhere”.
In his farewell address he said, “…. In my mind it was a call from the city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, and God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there. That’s how I saw it and see it still”.
Is that how any of us see our country now?
Is there a beacon light emanating from our country that guides freedom loving people anywhere”?
Pres. George HW Bush in his speech accepting the presidential nomination in 1988, talked of all the American clubs and volunteer organizations as,
“1000 points of light in a broad and peaceful sky”.
In his inaugural address he said,
“we will work on this in the White House, in the cabinet agencies. I will go to the people in the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part, in pitching in.”
I was not born an American. At one point in my life I chose to become a citizen and was adopted by this country. Long before that decision, long before I even arrived in the United States I was inspired by its brighter side.
When JFK spoke, a young Canadian boy soon to become bar mitzvah was enthralled and inspired. All that beacon of light shone northwards and illuminated my world. Even the darkness that followed his assassination and the turmoil of race riots and the Vietnam War still produced the light of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Through the darkness of President Nixon, the light of the Washington Post and Woodward and Bernstein refused to allow darkness to overwhelm us.
Later through the presidencies of Gerald Ford ,Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan , George Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, there was always light even if the intensity of the wattage varied significantly.
America’s internal light was never in danger of going out.
We could and did disagree with each other about the policies of all those presidents. Some achieved much, others much less, and for some, we still need time and history to give us an assessment, but one thing they all possessed was a dignified uplifting presence.
“Mr. President” was a term of respect and it reflected a person of dignity, responsibility, and trust.
Even the second President Bush, who many of us thought was very lightweight, rose to the expected level of the president after September 11.
My point is not to talk or debate policy, it is to focus on character and dignity, on the public expression by our leader of the spark of God inherent in His creatures.
So what do we do when our President has no internal light? When he fits the kind of person that Rabbi Geld, of blessed memory, once described to me thus,
“If a dog were to lick his organs it would die of poisoning”.(It sounded even better in Yiddish)
Let me make clear I am not talking about any policies that he might advocate. I may disagree but that does not mean the light is gone. Who says I am right or know more or better?
What I am talking about is the loss of morality, the debasement of human beings, and most importantly the pollution of incessant lying that is occluding our light, and that threatens us with moral darkness.
It is true that everybody lies at some point.
“The check is in the mail,”
“I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”
“Five pounds is nothing on a person of your height.”
“You made it yourself? I never would have guessed.”
“Of course I’ll respect you in the morning.” Or,
“Give me your number and the doctor will call you right back.”
Numerous studies tell us that lying is one of our most common sins. The book THE DAY AMERICA TOLD THE TRUTH says that 91% of those surveyed lie routinely about matters they consider trivial, and 36 % lie about important matters; 86 % lie regularly to parents, 75 % to friends, 73 % to siblings, and 69 % to spouses.
Every President lies. Every politician lies. It comes with the turf.
Nikita Khrushchev once said. ” Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”
Doug Larson once said,” Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.”
Henry Cate, VII said, “The problem with political jokes is they get elected.”
Aesop of the fables fame said, “ We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”
Finally Clarence Darrow said,” When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”
It is not news that most people are suspicious of, or just dislike politicians, but most politicians do not threaten to extinguish our internal light like the current resident at Pennsylvania Avenue.
He does not lie like a politician who wants to promote a particular position that he thinks is best for the country. Like Iran Contra.
Or a politician who truly believes an Iran nuclear deal is good for the country and therefore soft peddles the dangers and untrustworthiness of the Iranians.
Our President lies about everything in pursuit of his ego.
There is no strategic argument to be made for lying about the size of the attendance at his inauguration.
That he lies about his extra marital affairs doesn’t make him unique, President Clinton did the same, but President Clinton didn’t promise a tax plan and economic program that would help the poor and struggling workers, only to grant the wealthiest classes the bulk of the money.
But again it is not policy that debases our discourse. It is language and tone.
He castigated President Obama for playing golf on his vacations and a little bit during the year, while playing more golf in his first year than anyone in my memory. To be fair I don’t remember Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, but I know they talked a lot about his golf.
I know that every president I remember, worked night and day to the detriment of their looks and perhaps health, while he spends endless hours in executive time, tv and tweeting and then declares himself perhaps the hardest working president in our history.
If the lying and exaggeration were not enough, it is the debasement of the discourse itself that is extinguishing our light.
“Little Marco, low energy Jeb, Pocahontas Liz.” Grab a women by her private parts.. As my grandparents would ask, “ Azoi rett a President?”. This is how a president speaks?
Fish rots from the head down. If this is acceptable behavior for a president what will happen to our children?
Is this a role model for them to learn from?
Will the next generation of politicians continue to throw shmutz so that we will have the metaphoric equivalent of nuclear winter, when after the bombs go off the sun will be blocked for years and without sunlight the planet will freeze?
I read recently the NY Times obituary for Leonard Dinnerstein.
He died at the age of 84, a historian and leading scholar on anti-Semitism in the US.
He wrote that anti-Semitism peaked in the late 1930s and early 40s when Americans were unnerved by the depression and anxious about another war in Europe.
Some people he said, felt trapped between what they imagined was a global cabal of Jewish bankers and an influx of subversive Jewish refugees.
A typical inherently contradicting lie that Jews were right wing capitalists and communist sympathizers at the same time.
And so the danger of the multiple unchallenged lies is that when you hear so many lies, fatigue sets in. You let your guard down and then someone slips in a real juicy one and no one filters it out as a lie, and others repeat it.
You remember how the president opened his campaign coming down the escalator and talking about the horde coming from Mexico and who they were and what they were going to do to us?
One demagogue back in the late 30s said, “ 200,000 communist Jews at the Mexican border are waiting to get into this country”, a horde that not only threatens democracy but, if admitted, would also, “rape every woman and child that is left unprotected.”
President Trump is not even original in his lies, he just changed the actors.
At the Oscars this month be on the lookout for a nominated short subject documentary called, “ A Night At The Garden”. The ad in the paper said,
“80 years ago this month, 20,000 Americans filled Madison Square Garden to attend the Nazi rally. It can happen here”
The beacon of light is diminishing, darkness is descending, Winter is coming. The internal flame is at risk, what will you do about it?
Please share with as many people as possible.