David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

Damar Hamlin and Kevin McCarthy: A Country Divided

The country took a collective gasp and shed a shared tear last Monday night when a relatively unknown defensive player for the Buffalo Bills Football Team collapsed on the field. What became evident to the sports enthusiast watching or the voyeurs who tuned in to see the drama, was that this was no ordinary injury. The fear on the faces of players and the sincerity of prayer witnessed from afar, spoke to the seriousness and solemnity of the moment.

When sportscasters shared that CPR was being administered, many bent a figurative knee in prayer on behalf of Buffalo Bills number 3, Damar Hamlin.

Bengals players, who were hosting the game along with Cincinnati fans were solemn in their empathy. Ironically, football, which is known as a physical, trash-talking and often violent game, with fierce competition, was now a game of unity, shared worry and collective prayer.

After the traumatic injury, the game was suspended and then postponed. No other play took place. Spectators went home. Players cried. All of America prayed for Damar.

I did not learn of one report of beers thrown in frustration that the consequential match would not be played. I did not read of fans demanding refunds for the tickets. I did not see on my social media feed any accounts of celebration that a starting player was out of the lineup which would pave the way for the Bengals to triumph.

I did see acts of empathy where Bengals fans donated millions of dollars towards charities near and dear to Damar Hamlin. I did see vigils held at the hospital where Hamlin was being treated, from all fan bases. I did witness an entire nation of different faiths and diverse opinions unified in prayers for a player most had never heard of before the ball was kicked off that fateful Monday night.

To me, while saddened and pained by the episode Damar Hamlin has suffered and his teammates have gone through, my spirits have been buoyed and my hope in humanity fortified to see our shared desire for this young man’s recovery.

Juxtapose that to the “second most watched” moment on television this week. The election of a Speaker of the 118th Congress of the United States House of Representatives.

Regardless of whether you wear a donkey or an elephant on your lapel, to see the rudeness, derisiveness and mean-spirited behavior amongst people duly elected to represent America has made me heartsick. One group displayed utter dysfunction while another gloated in their uncoordinated efforts. Even intra-party, it felt like many were gunning against the other, to the point where there was no way to move forward. Nothing seemed to allow any sense of humanity, hope, empathy or kindness to be able to transcend the moment.

This week I saw two Americas: one that rallied around Damar Hamlin and rise above team and city affiliation. And, another that was petty, divided and celebrating the pains and failures of another.

Our political theater has becomes so fractured that this week at a Congressional Memorial and remembrance for the events of January 6th, 2021, all Democrats attended and only one Republican had the temerity to show up. The rest worried what their attendance could convey. This was not a vote, mind you, on abortion rights or taxations rules or budget spending. It was an event to memorialize those who lost lives and others who were traumatized on January 6, 2021.

Former Speaker of the House, John Boehner famously said, Democrats and Republicans should disagree but, should not be disagreeable. That is not a particularly sophisticated nuance or thin line to walk. Why has it been so difficult, as of late?

George W. Bush (43) recently spoke about his father, George HW Bush’s (41) special relationship with President Bill Clinton. Bush 41 and Clinton were political rivals who faced off in a close election in 1992. But what GW Bush (43) explains is that Clinton never gloated in his success over GHW Bush (41). In fact, Clinton sought out Bush 41’s counsel and advice regularly, which lead to a deep friendship and shared admiration.

When Richard Nixon earned the Republican nomination (not the presidency) in 1968, Democratic President, Lyndon B. Johnson hosted him at his Texas ranch to prime him on domestic and foreign affairs, should he indeed win the White House. Bear in Mind, Kennedy and LBJ beat out Nixon in 1960 for the Presidency. Still, they both had the grace to overcome political differences and the ability to rise up over partisanship for the best interests of the country. I am old enough to remember Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, as well as Justices Scalia and Bader Ginsberg, expressing deep differences and contradicting political and judicial opinions, yet they shared a deep respect, kindness and even friendship, one to the other.

Fast forward to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bro-hugging then President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy or more recently, President Biden standing shoulder to shoulder with Florida Governor DeSantis in the wake of Hurricane Ian. These events should be innocuous and common place where our President-Republican or Democrat- stand with any people or places hurt by tragedy. Instead and quite sadly, they are used as a cudgel to weaponize and demonize the embrace of the “enemy.”

Political difference is a good thing and our country should continue to have vigorous and passionate debate, and be vocal about issues that we are passionate for and against. We should be unwavering in our views and be vibrant in our display of ideals and values. But we still need to display empathy to hear and appreciate another side, even if it is not our side. We can still hear and act with compassion and be kind in our work for the people we represent.

We have learned the hard way that the political climate today of name calling, State of the Union tearing and mean-spirited labeling along with disparaging accusations will yield further divide and demonization. We do not need to wait until an elected official needs CPR on the house floor for us to meld our blue and red to a single color of purple.

When having to decide which country I want my kids to inherit, undoubtedly, I want the Damar Hamlin America that rallied around hope and believes in something greater for our collective whole. What I want my elected officials, ranging from the town council all the way to those inhabiting the abode on Pennsylvania Avenue to realize, is that we do not need to have ‘either-or.’ Indeed, all of America can and should be the Damar Hamlin America – filled with love, empathy, support, hope and understanding, even if we are not all Buffalo Bill fans.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.
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