The vote: A primary way to honor America’s fallen

On Monday, I participated in a Memorial Day observance co-sponsored by American Legion Post #126 and the Borough of Cliffside Park. Unless it rains, the annual event always is held in Memorial Park, sandwiched on a little island between the municipal building and library on one side, and the Cliffside Park High School on the other. In other words, you cannot find a more central, public location.

Yet as I looked out from the podium at the crowd, I was disheartened by the absence of so many more people. It is the same story year after year, in community after community, and it is symbolic of a trend of which none of us should be proud. We Americans take our liberties too much for granted — and we take too much for granted the lives that were lost to win those liberties and to keep them.

Memorial Day is not about barbecues, ball games, and treks to shopping malls. It is about remembering the sacrifice made by the more than 1.4 million men and women who served this nation from Lexington and Concord to this day — 69 of them since this past January 1 alone. They gave up their lives to preserve and protect an ideal, yet too few of us can spare a few moments to give them or that ideal much more than lip service, if we give even that much.

Our nation’s honored dead deserve to be remembered not just because they died, but for why they died: for “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…, that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it on the bloodied battlefield at Gettysburg.

In other words, the best way to honor those nearly one and a half million men and women is by honoring and respecting and living our lives according to the values for which they died — values that are summarized in a few pointed words in the Declaration of Independence: “that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In 2016, more than four out of every 10 registered voters in the United States did not exercise their right to vote. In 2017, only 3.5 voters out of every 10 cast ballots in New Jersey’s governor’s race. Last year, only 24 percent of New York City’s registered voters turned out. As a result, Mayor Bill DeBlasio was re-elected by fewer than 16 percent of the city’s registered voters — and by a mere 8.5 percent of its 8.5 million people.

This Tuesday is Primary Day in New Jersey. It is almost certain that voter turnout will hover on or about last year’s turnout of 13 percent (and that was not even a record low).

Government “of the people, by the people, for the people” requires we the people to participate, and the most direct way we do that is by voting in primaries and in elections. If we sit at home on Primary Day or Election Day, those 1.4 million men and women will have died in vain. By “voting,” by the way, I do not mean merely turning out to cast a ballot. I mean learning what the issues are, learning who the candidates are, and then choosing the candidates who best reflect our views on the issues we care about most.

We Jews, especially, should know what it means to live in nations in which all people are not created equal, in which there is no equal protection under the law, in which a person’s fate is decided by the religion he or she espouses, or by the color of her or his skin, or by any of the other artifices created by some to discriminate and subjugate others.

We Jews should know something else, as well —that the values that make this country great, that make it stand out above all the nations that preceded it throughout history, are values we brought into this world when we brought the Torah and the rest of the Bible to the world.

I have written about this many times, but these facts are worth repeating.

“The [Hebrew] Bible was nothing short of the underlying fabric upon which American society was founded,” Dr. John Woodland Welch wrote in the Brigham Young University Law Review some years ago. “[T]he profound influence of biblical law on early American colonial law…was not a passing fancy in colonial America.”

The facts support Dr. Welch. In 1641, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted a law code that was based almost entirely on Torah law. In 1655, the New Haven colony’s legislators created a law code that contained 79 statutes, 38 of which came from the Bible (and most of those came from the Torah). In doing so, they declared that “the judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses, and as they are a fence to the moral law…, [shall] generally bind all offenders, till they be branched out into particulars hereafter.”

Long before Plato ever dreamed of a “Republic,” the Torah legislated for one that began with the premise that all humankind, whether citizen or stranger, are created equal, and should be treated as such. Our Torah did that, and it did it in a time and in a place where such notions were unheard of. In the words of the biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, “In the whole ancient Near East, in all those lands, through several millennia, we have found 52 references to equal treatment of aliens, and all 52 are in the first five books of the Bible,” meaning the Torah.

Into the 19th century, ownership of property was the basis for suffrage in the United States and elsewhere. The Torah dealt with that by making everyone a property owner.

The Torah set the stage for electing a king (electing!) who rules over a nation of equals and is not above the law. In the courtroom, Torah law zealously guards the rights of the defendant, from the right to confront witnesses, to vigorous cross-examinations, to protection against self-incrimination, to equal treatment under the law, and even to the right of appeal.

The Torah protects the rights of the wage earner (he must be paid on time, and is entitled to one day off each week), and the rights of society’s underprivileged classes; and it protects an individual’s right to privacy.

Memorial Day represents remembering those who gave their lives for these ideals. Primary Day this Tuesday and Election Day in November are two essential ways of giving meaning to those lost lives by turning these ideals into action.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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