My son Hillel, who like me is a pulpit rabbi, has a t-shirt which he’s no doubt soon to break out. “Rabbis Love Heshvan,” it happily declares. Actually, it’s Rabbis Heart Heshvan, but absent a heart emoji to insert, I’m taking the easy way out.
For those unfamiliar with the names of the Jewish calendar year’s months, Tishrei—just now reaching its conclusion—is characterized by unrelenting High Holy and Festival days. Heshvan however, which direclty follows it, is without even a single holiday to disrupt our routines. It’s all about a return to regular work weeks (we rabbis have had them all along!) undisturbed by mandatory synagogue attendance and restrictive rules. That is not to say that Tishrei is devoid of its singular pleasures. It is, in an unparalleled way, rich in tradition and ultimate meaning, and the sensory pleasures of Sukkot are as lovely as any in Jewish tradition.
But it would be disingenuous to deny that Tishrei is hard on us, both clergy and laity. It seemingly endless cycle of eat/pray/sleep, punctuated by frequent, sobering reflections on our mortality and the unsettling reality of God’s judgement, wears us down both physically and spiritually. By the time we reach the end of Tishrei, where we are right now, it is the rare Jew who isn’t ready to move on to Heshvan. Rabbis do, indeed, love Heshvan… and quite a few lay people as well.
All true, without a doubt. But this year, Heshvan is offering precious little respite from the anxieties and exhaustion of Tishrei. The secular calendar finds us unusually late in the fall for the holidays to be ending. October is yielding, as it must, to early November and under ordinary circumstances, we would be looking forward to that greatest of secular holidays, Thanksgiving. But there is absolutely nothing that will be business as usual during these next two weeks. This craziest of all presidential elections looms just in front of us, and there is no ignoring it. America is in the midst of its own version of the High Holidays, with all the attendant anxiety and disruption of routine. For better and for worse, we Jews are being swept along for the ride, along with the rest of the country.
The earliest presidential election that I have any memory of is that of President Kennedy in 1960, and as I was growing up, I was unfailingly fascinated by the give and take of electoral seasons. In fact, my college major was political science, and it owed to my ever growing interest in how America chose its leaders. Through the searing years of the '60s and '70s, through Vietnam and Watergate, Nixon and the anti-war movement, the broad tapestry of American democracy at work captured my imagination and broadened my appreciation of the country I called home. Not that long ago President Obama quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends towards justice.” I have always felt that way about America, even in its less than wonderful moments. It always seemed as if, despite ourselves, we were headed in some kind of winding but positive direction, towards a better and more constructive future.
Now, for the first time, I’m not so sure. The existential anxieties of Tishrei have given way to the unfailingly “this world” anxieties of an America at a crossroads, with profoundly unsettling results. How can it be, I have found myself wondering, that America has become so bitter and so cynical that a man so obviously limited, hateful and damaged as Donald Trump is as close to the White House as he is? Even for those who have issues with Hillary’s candidacy and her policies, is it not true, as former Republican presidential candidate Senator Lindsay Graham has said, that “love of country must overcome hatred of Hillary?” How can it be that forty percent or so of American voters can consider voting for a man who received the full-throated endorsement of Klansman David Duke? What happened to us?
I have always believed—and I still do—that America is a greater and stronger country when our two party system works as it should. Americans both need and deserve a spirited and thoughtful discussion of the optimal size, role, and function of government, weighty matters about which Democrats and Republicans have differed for as long as we have been a sovereign country. That kind of political discourse has almost totally been pushed aside by personal vitriol and, this year particularly, pathological and self-destructive narcissism masquerading as political ideology. The biggest losers have been we the people.
November 8 couldn’t come fast enough for me, and I suspect that I am far from alone. I only hope—and pray—that Donald Trump comes out on the short side of this election, and beats a hasty retreat from all of our sightlines… but I suspect that that is far from the truth. The narcissist is only nourished by attention, and he’ll find a way to continue to vex us, I’m sure. Assuming that he does indeed lose the election, the biggest favor we could do ourselves, and this country we love, is to stop paying him the attention he craves. He richly deserves to be ignored, and I can’t wait to do just that… and feel better about the country I love.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.