What the Sadness is All About

Wednesday morning, I woke up my kids and told them what I didn’t think I would ever have to tell them.

I told them who won the presidential election, but what I was really telling them was that their world and how they had come to understand it had changed. In small ways it was the same but in larger ways it would never be the same. Then I went downstairs to make coffee like I do every morning.

Mornings are fairly rushed in trying to get everyone fed and out the door but after I made the coffee I sat at the kitchen table for a minute and before I even knew what was happening I was heave sobbing into my hands. It happened a few other times this past week. Blindsided me sitting at my office desk and overwhelmed me while I was driving.

I received lots of emails from congregants who were similarly distraught. I spoke with a psychologist in town who described an exhausting day of seeing client after client. Why all the sadness?

I received one email from a person who tried to explain it this way:

“I know you are not much interested in these other views….but in Mt Kisco, your congregants are upset by what they see as the rejection of a liberal philosophy, if it is not that, what about the election are congregants upset about?”

Is that what it was? All this sadness and shock because of a rejection of a governing philosophy?

I think its a lot more than that.

In 1992, while I was in college, I worked for my congressman from the 10th district of Illinios, John Edward Porter. He was a Republican. A fiscal conservative and a social moderate. Above all he was a gentleman who believed that in order to govern you had to partner with people of different views and compromise. One of his signature achievements was the founding of the Congressional Human Rights Commission which sought to encourage congress to work on issues that were in the spirit of the post World War II United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His partner in founding this commission in 1983 was Congressman Tom Lantos, the first Holocaust survivor to serve in congress. Tom Lantos was a Democrat.

That commission’s work was based on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which said in part:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights envisioned a world in which every single human being was considered uniquely precious and deserving of equal protection under the law independent of race, religion, sex, political affiliation or country of origin.

This idea is first enshrined in our Torah. That every person is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. And it is acted out by Abraham.

God wants to destroy the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah because they are guilty of acting in depraved and immoral ways. Abraham has the courage to challenge this and say ‘What if there are 50 innocents among them? What if there are 40, 30, 20 or 10? Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?’

If we pay careful attention to what Abraham is challenging it should unsettle us all.

Take a group of people we think very little of. In fact take a group that indeed has many bad actors. God proposes to treat them uniformly. If you are part of a bad group you live and die by the actions of the majority. Abraham refuses and instead offers an alternate vision. No matter the group you are association with, we seek a world that engages with every single person on an individual basis.

This is an undermining of all our proclivities as human beings. We as animals seek to understand the world in categories, generalities because it makes us feel better. It makes us feel that we have control over information that would otherwise overwhelm us. And so we label and categorize, not because it reflects truth so much as it allows us to order our worlds. It makes us feel better. Hate is not the root of this proclivity, it is our desire to create order out of that which is different, out of that which we do not understand. But make no mistake, once we have oversimplified it becomes much easier for us to speak and think in generalities and then we have no problem dismissing a human being.

Abraham envisions a world in which we don’t see a group, we see the individual.

A ban on Muslims coming into America is a rejection of Abraham’s vision.

A belief that Latino immigrants are more likely to be criminals is a rejection of Abraham’s vision.

A belief that tens of millions of people who voted for a presidential candidate are racist and xenophobic is a rejection of Abraham’s vision.

A belief that people who are distraught after this election are upset about a liberal philosophy is a rejection of Abraham’s vision.

To this person who emailed me to diagnose our community I wrote: “People are infinitely more complicated than that. Every single person, every single one takes a lifetime to understand.”

That’s why I cried. I cried because the world in which Republican John Porter and Democrat Tom Lantos could partner to encourage all of our leadership to speak and think of people as individuals, infinitely precious and regardless of who they are, deserving of equal recognition under the law, that world seems like it existed in some distant imagined past.

The hard work began this past Wednesday morning. And here’s where I suggest we start; the minute you hear someone say something about a group as if they have had a chance to speak to every single one of them in order to justify their blanket assessment, even if in your gut it feels right, resist it. The only way back to a better place is if we stand as Abraham did against the most powerful forces of dehumanization and seek to understand each other, one person at a time.

I think we will be fine. But if we can’t or won’t at least do that, I’m not so sure.

About the Author
Aaron Brusso is a rabbi in Northern Westchester, New York.
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