Word of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election – still contested by the current President, as I write — came on the Saturday morning when American Jews were listening in synagogue (virtually, in most cases, because of the pandemic) to the section of the Book of Genesis, (18:1-15) in which angels visit Abraham to announce that Sarah would soon bear a child in advanced old age.
Sarah’s immediate reaction to the news is to laugh. When the angels demand to know why she laughed — “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” — Sarah denies having laughed, “for she was afraid.” The angels insist: “no, you did laugh.” In due course – after God has totally destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great wickedness, and has rescued the family of Abraham’s nephew Lot from the firestorm, and has rescued Sarah from the clutches of the local chieftain Avimelekh (who, believing she is Abraham’s sister, is about to make her his wife) – Sarah gives birth to a son.
Abraham names him Yitzhak, meaning “He will laugh.” Sarah says, “God has made laughter for me. All who hear will laugh for (or: at, with) me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah should give children suck?” Laughter features more prominently in this portion of the Torah than in any other.
My family laughed a lot, long and loud, when we heard the news that Joe Biden had been declared the winner in Pennsylvania, and therefore would be President. I slept well that night for the first time in weeks. Many friends reported the same experience. I don’t hold to a theology in which God decides American elections. Nor am I arrogant enough to believe that if God did intervene in US politics, the divine vote would necessarily align with mine. So my laughter did not stem from wonderment at the presence of a miracle. Nor did it express the sort of unbounded joy and thanksgiving one feels at the birth of a healthy child or grandchild. I have experienced both those sorts of laughter in the past, and this was different.
The laughter that erupted so spontaneously at news of the election result was more a sign of relief at dodging disaster and living to fight another day with better odds than one had a moment before. It gave voice to the sort of happiness that comes with reassurance that one has not been alone in feeling fear and doubt about the danger our country was facing. (Biden received some 75 million votes, more than any candidate in the history of America.)
Most of all, I suspect, my laughter burst forth at the restoration of possibility, which in the months leading up to the election had narrowed almost to a vanishing point. A door had seemed about to close, and because of Biden’s victory, it would remain open, or at least ajar. Abraham and Sarah perhaps felt something similar when Isaac’s birth enabled them to see a path forward toward the promised future to which they had pledged their lives.
I do not think this Torah portion — which begins, continues and ends with angels announcing and accomplishing divine interventions in the history of particular individuals and societies – comes to teach us to expect similar interventions in our own lives. I read it rather as a warning and a call to action. Do not expect that God will rain down destruction on every evil and injustice in the world, we are told, or that evil nations and societies will be saved from disaster because of a righteous minority in their midst (the agreement that Abraham secures from the Lord in protracted negotiation over the fate of Sodom). Nor will God make sure that a chosen family escapes town safely (as Lot’s did, escorted by angels, no less) before the disaster strikes. We all know that this is not the way the world works — just as we know that women in their nineties do not conceive and bear children to hundred-year-old husbands. Sadly, tragically, we also know from experience that all too often caring parents and physicians – good angels all — cannot protect their children and patients from the angel of death, as Isaac is spared at the conclusion of the Torah portion that begins with the announcement of his impending birth.
I am not saying, and the Torah is certainly not saying, that “anything is too hard for the Lord.” I do not believe that. The Bible teaches that the very opposite is the case. The point, rather — as many Jewish sages and philosophers have taught over the centuries — is that “the world continues on its course.” There is so much about the working of divine providence that we do not understand. Good people get sick and die. Fires and floods ravage lives and property. Nature and history do not always proceed in accordance with our notion of what a just God should allow. We have so much to be thankful for — and so much occasion to fear and to mourn.
The stories from Genesis that Jews read this past Shabbat do not come to solve the mystery of why things are as they are but to summon us to action. There are some disasters that we can prevent, and a great deal of pain and suffering that we mitigate. Every day we can and do alter lives for better or for worse: in our families, our neighborhoods, and our societies. We sometimes permit cities to sink to the moral level of Sodom and Gemorrah and cause others to flower with opportunity. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said wisely, we cannot be sure of divine salvation from the world’s evils, but we can make ourselves worthy of such salvation.
No voice from heaven will solve these problems
All of us were confronted again this election season with the sobering and perplexing fact that Americans radically disagree on fundamental matters of right and wrong, and even Good and Evil, when it comes to our responsibilities to one another and the sort of leadership we want for our country. No voice from heaven is going to settle these matters for us any time soon. I could not help noting the fact this week that, while nearly 80% of American Jews voted for Biden, many (perhaps most) of the Jews who, like me, read the Torah portion in synagogue had voted for the President. So did the vast majority of evangelical Christians who likewise take the word of Scripture seriously. They did not greet the news about Biden’s victory with laughter. Our political, moral and religious differences will not easily be bridged. It’s yet another way in which “the world continues in its course,” uncorrected by direct intervention from God.
The stakes are especially high right now, far greater than the normal divisions between Democrat and Republican, liberals and conservatives (though past voting habits proved a good predictor of how people on both sides voted last week). More than the usual matters of foreign and domestic policy were at issue. This election turned on basic commitments and beliefs such as how much one cares about the ethical character of the president, which – whatever one thinks of his policies — is widely agreed to be woefully deficient; how much one cares about hearing the truth from scientists, government officials, and the President himself; how much liberty individuals should be prepared to cede in order to protect the lives and well-being of their neighbors; whether aggressive, unified action should be taken to fight the pandemic and better steward the planet; whether we should respect differences of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or politics — or act to exclude, demonize and stamp out such differences within our country’s borders.
To me, an American Jew raised in both public school and Hebrew school to go out of my way to care for the needy and the stranger, to love America for its commitment to justice and opportunity for all, to look up to elected leaders as role-models, and to always tell the truth and never cheat – it has been deeply disturbing to have a president who stands for none of these things, and works actively to undermine them.
It is hard to trust a leader who is convinced that no one can be trusted – no country long allied with our own; no federal agency, including the FBI and CIA; no cabinet officer, no matter how loyal; no one. It is just as difficult, if not more so, to reckon with the fact that over 70 million Americans either share the President’s views and character; or — thanks to reliance on Fox News, talk radio and Twitter — are not aware of them; or (the more likely explanation) do not believe that the deplorable aspects of his character and leadership outweigh the good things that they believe have happened on his watch.
Having faith that decency and common sense will prevail
For Jews, support for Israel tops that list; for Evangelicals, the appointment of Supreme Court judges who will perhaps roll back the Court’s decisions on abortion and gay marriage, and might help reverse the perceived dominance of anti-religious elites in American culture; for many, the economy, and putting the brakes on a headlong rush toward a globalized future of IT and AI in which working-class jobs are no more and people lacking a college degree cannot compete. The President’s supporters do not hold him responsible for the suffering inflicted by the pandemic, because they do not want or expect the federal government to take responsibility for their lives in this way. Some apparently believe that the virus is an act of God in any case: an affliction that must simply be borne
Biden gets all that, I believe; he went to Church this past Sunday, as he does every week; most important of all, in my view, he assured the nation that “I’ve always believed we can define America in one word: possibilities” — the same word that engendered my laughter at news of his victory, and perhaps the laughter of Sarah and Abraham. We have to believe – we have no choice but to believe — that Americans can find enough agreement (including agreement to disagree) to move forward together. (The situation seems similar in many countries, including Israel.). Biden was asked yesterday how he will work with senators who were still refusing to acknowledge his victory in the election? “They will,” he smiled — a response in keeping with his stated commitment to keeping the faith, and spreading it, in this case faith that decency and common sense will prevail over political commitments and deep-seated moral divides. We all need to laugh a lot more in America. We need the better angels on both sides of every divide to carry the day.