What a roller coaster this month has been! Worn out by the Pandemic, battered by social distress and political turmoil, Americans watched in horror on January 6th, as our Capitol building, the sacred halls of our democracy, were trampled by a mob of violent insurrectionists, riled up by a president who couldn't accept or admit election loss. In Jewish tradition, we know the power of words. The Hebrew word for "word," devar, is also the word for thing. Words have real substance and can lead to real consequences.
But this week, the healing began. The rituals and ceremonies of Inauguration week were a balm, even as our capital was secured like a war zone to prevent further violence. Inauguration week began with a day of national service that has become a great tradition for Martin Luther King Day. Citizens were encouraged to sign up to volunteer, not only for the day, but for the year ahead. Personally, I chose to volunteer (from home) for Neighbors for Refugees, a Westchester based non-profit. (Our Tikkun Olam chair Leslie Mack will offer ways for PCS members to get involved in supporting their wonderful work.)
The next day, on the "Erev" (eve) of their Inauguration, President Biden and Vice-President Harris participated in a solemn ceremony to commemorate the 400,000 Americans who have lost their lives to Covid. Four hundred lights lined the reflecting pool on the National Mall, reminding us of the verse from Proverbs 20:27, "for a person's spirit is the lamp of Adonai." The simple but overdue act of acknowledging our pandemic losses with public ritual and compassionate words helped our nation begin to heal.
Today was the Inauguration. As a rabbi I try to steer clear of partisan politics from the bimah and keep my focus on Jewish values. (Note: It doesn't matter how I try to keep that balance. Some people complain that I'm not outspoken enough, while others complain that I'm partisan and political. Oh well.) But an American inauguration should not be partisan; it should be a celebration of our great democracy and the peaceful transition of power. Dignitaries and past presidents of both parties should be together on the capital steps. In the words of President Ronal Reagan in his first inaugural address, the inauguration is
"...a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our Nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."
Surely it is no longer commonplace for us. In recent days, we gazed over the precipice of an abyss that threatened the future of the democracy. But thanks to courageous individuals from both parties, and to true heroics by people like Sgt. Eugene Goodman of the Capitol police, democracy held firm.
Deeds spoke loudest, but ritual was also important. The soaring notes of our national anthem, sung by Lady Gaga, and the soul-elevating poetry of 22 year old Amanda Gorman, as well as the words of healing and inspiration from our new President Joe Biden, showed us the power of speech and ritual.
Jewish tradition teaches us of the power of words, of rituals, of healthy norms of behavior. It also teaches the importance of truth and respect, and that we will ultimately be judged for our deed above our creed. We have been through so much the past year, and the work ahead is daunting. But let us take heart, for the Torah assures us that we always have the choice to renew our days (teshuvah). With wise leaders and engaged citizens, with courage and compassion as our touchstones, we can begin the Tikkun, the healing and repair that we need: Tikkun Olam (healing our world), and Tikkun Halev (healing our hearts).
A Prayer for Our Country:
May You give to all the peoples of this country
the strength and will
to pursue righteousness and to seek peace
as a unified force
to uproot racism and violence from our hearts
and to make healing, good life, and peace flourish,
here and throughout the world.
May I merit to do good works
and repair the world
through all my efforts,
and through the act of… [add your pledge]…
which I pledge to do
on behalf of all living creatures
(From an Inauguration Day prayer by Rabbi David Seidenberg, full text here).
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.