It’s hard to escape the US elections, even here in Australia, and certainly not on social media. And with Yom Kippur approaching, two related themes and associated lessons come to mind.
1. Preaching to the converted. If social media echo chambers weren’t bad enough, the election campaign has made them worse. The only thing that surpasses the defence of Trump and vicious attacks on Clinton by the right, is the sheer number and variety of different ways the left has found to attack Trump. Their creativity is a marvel.
But alas, they are almost all preaching to the converted. Most people have decided their voting intention, and very little will change their minds. The election will likely come down to a few well-targeted districts in a handful of key swing states, which side can better encourage people to actually vote, and whether independent candidates take away too many votes from the major parties.
Rabbis on Yom Kippur must avoid the same mistakes, and find something meaningful and stimulating to say from the pulpit. Shule goers, like voters, should never be taken for granted, and need a positive message to keep them coming back.
2. Who will be put down, and who will be raised up. These days, politics is at best a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers, with little in between. There are rapid rises, and even more rapid falls. This brings to mind the stark liturgy contained in Unetanneh Tokef, which is recited at the apex of the services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: God decides … who will live, and who will die, … who will be calm, who will be turbulent … who will be put down, and who will be raised up.
On these holiest of days, we acknowledge God’s authority as He sits in judgement, and pray that ours will be a favourable one.
The put-down/raise-up dynamic between two opponents can function in two different ways. One can seek to raise themselves up, and as a consequence their opponent will be put down. Or one can put down their opponent, and as a consequence see themselves raised up.
Unfortunately, this election campaign has been a textbook example of the latter – the most vicious and negative political battle ever seen.
The choice facing voters is not between who is the best person to lead the country, rather who is least bad. The candidates are the product of a political system where “put-down” comes first.
But just because God is making what appear to be binary choices that will affect our lives doesn’t mean we can’t exercise some important choices of our own.
In particular, just because politicians resort to mudslinging and negative campaigns doesn’t mean we have to play along and lower ourselves to their level. If our ‘leaders’ take their battle into the gutters, we don’t need to join them there. We have a choice.
In the lead up to the High Holydays, the weekly Torah reading exhorts us to “choose life” (Devarim 30:19). The concept of choice and free will is essential in Judaism. This Yom Kippur, let’s choose to raise ourselves up, rather than to put others down. Let’s choose to be positive rather than negative.
Wishing everyone a gmar chatima tova.