Attention national anthem kneelers and non-kneelers: forget your principles!

There has been much debate over the past few weeks about whether it is appropriate or inappropriate to kneel during the national anthem during sporting events.  Accusations have been thrown from both sides of the debate that the position of the other side is un-American.  If you kneel during the national anthem, regardless of the reason for doing so, then you are disrespecting our flag and what it represents, the dedication and sacrifice of our brave men and women who defend our country as members of our police force and military.  But if you don’t allow someone to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality in this country, then you reject the fundamental American value of free speech.  The tone in this debate has gotten very ugly and once again there seems to have been no attempt to find common ground in this debate.  Perhaps we can gain some guidance from the holiday of Yom Kippur.

The first Biblical Yom Kippur holiday story occurred when Moshe returns to the Bnei Yisrael with the second set of luchot to restore the relationship between God and the Bnei Yisrael that was severed when the luchot were broken after Moshe saw them worshipping the Golden Calf.   But something else happened.  The relationship wasn’t merely restored, but it was transformed.  God introduced His thirteen attributes of mercy, and, according to the Gemara in Rosh Hashana, He wrapped Himself with a tallit like a chazzan, as it were, and showed Moshe how to pray to God to ask for mercy should Bnei Yisrael sin in the future.  The theme of Yom Kippur is that God doesn’t merely wait for us passively to return to Him, but He changes the way He relates to us to make it easier to return.

When we leave the unnatural world of the Yom Kippur bubble and re-join the rest of society, the hope is not simply that God has forgiven us, but that we have learned from God about how to relate to society.  Before his people sinned, God had principles, as He represented “emet”, truth and “din,” strict justice.  Yet, God set aside His principles, and adapted His very relationship with the Bnei Yisrael so that they could reconnect with Him.

How many of us do that?  How many of us don’t want to try budge from our “principles” for the sake of reconciling with someone else?  Both sides of the “kneeling” debate have valid points.  The pro-kneelers believe strongly in free speech.  That is something to which everyone can agree.  The anti-kneelers believe strongly in respecting our men and women in uniform.  That is something to which everyone can agree.  There is a bona fide debate as to how to understand the function of the national anthem.  At the same time, I think we can all agree that it would be nice to have certain opportunities when all Americans can join together to pay tribute to our men and women in uniform regardless of your political philosophy.  Why can’t we have a normal conversation about this without being so accusatory against the other side?  Why must we say that I can’t even engage those from the other side because they are un-American?  Let’s be like God, let’s set aside our principles of what we hold dear as American values and try to look at the other perspective for the purpose of reconnecting.  Because a successful Yom Kippur of learning how to reconnect leads to a Sukkot holiday of unity when we hold all four minim, all four agricultural species representing all different types of Jews, together as one.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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