Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 20th, 2017 – 22 Tevet, 5777
After a couple of weeks of snow where our city slowed to a near halt, our programming at CNS is back up and running. My 8 week course on Kashrut which has been delayed because of weather, begins on Sunday at 12:30. I hope you will attend.
As we enter into Inauguration weekend, I start my column with a famous and famously difficult poem. Lines and images from it have found their way into the titles of numerous books and popular music. I include it below. If you wish, you can skip it and start with my comments just below the poem.
The Second Coming by WB Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The year was 1919 when the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote his searing poem entitled The Second Coming. World War One had torn apart the European continent and the Irish were caught in their own nationalist struggles. Modernity’s churn was pulling apart familiar patterns and social structures, and people felt the world was coming undone.
As we enter this inauguration weekend, large numbers of our congregants are feeling a similar sense of foreboding. I have met and spoken with so many people in our Neveh Shalom community as well as friends and acquaintances from farther afield. People listen to Donald Trump’s inflammatory and sometimes demeaning language and his easy threats against certain minority populations–and they are frightened, outraged or both. They believe President-elect Trump will trample on our constitution and worry that this great American experiment in democracy is in peril. They see in President-elect Trump all the signs of an autocrat or worse. Their eyes are literally tear-stained. These people’s anxiety and fear is palpable, and my heart is distressed at the sign of so much suffering.
Simultaneously, a minority of our community (but still a substantial number) weighed their political choices and believed that President-elect Trump was the best option. Their reasons are as varied as the individual, but many of them viewed the Obama years with a similar distress. They saw President Obama’s tenure as filled with one scandal after another. They believe that he carried out countless actions that undermined our constitution, threatened our democratic principles and weakened our economy and security. They were convinced that he was a threat to Israel’s well-being and worried that a Clinton presidency would be more of the same. They too felt that things were falling apart, and many rejoice now at the turn of fortunes.
This divide in understanding could not be more stark. More than anything, this absence of a shared reality concerns and troubles me greatly. Certainly, the work of a healthy democracy is carried out in the interchange between competing visions of the good. Yet surely there must be a limit to how different those views can be before a country collapses beneath civil unrest?
Politics matter. After all, our elected officials wield genuine power and their decisions impact us. Legislation is an expression of our national values (or is written to give voice to some segment of the country’s beliefs). Given how much is at stake, and the importance for all citizens to be engaged, I support all of our congregants’ complex and varied views. I support those who must march and protest and will equally defend those who view with favor the presidency of Donald Trump.
The reason for this is not because I am politically undecided–far from it. Rather, politics is not all that matters. Human beings, with all our foibles and our opposing commitments, matter most of all to me. I hope they matter more to all of us than any particular viewpoint. They must, for we are all God’s children. I say that not as a hollow or wishy-washy statement, but as one of my most difficult and deeply-held beliefs. Difficult, because it’s not easy to care for all people, particularly those who think very differently than we do. Yet the effort to do so is still worthwhile.
Last Sunday, over Dr. Martin Luther King Junior weekend, I had the opportunity to pray with my new friend, Pastor Hennessee of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church. More than any other community, fewer African Americans voted for Donald Trump than any other group–about 8%. Yet among the points he made in his sermon, Pastor Hennessee urged his people “to love Donald Trump, love him till he can’t stand it.”
There are so many ways to understand that statement. Yes, it is a Christian approach which may not be quite appropriate for Jews. Still, as I look at the pain, depression and anger that surrounds me, I am reminded that the greatest form of spiritual rebellion is to remain hopeful, optimistic and committed. Fear is the fuel that permits tyranny to succeed. Anger may motivate, but in the long term it destroys. Optimism and hope, on the other hand are Jewish values and the required habits of free peoples.
Please know that I am available to meet and talk with anyone who finds themselves struggling during this period. Let us also not forget that 98 years after Yeats foretold that things were falling apart, we are still here, making a mess of it, but carrying on. Carrying on.