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Preparing for the High Holy Days – and the Election

Preparing for the High Holy Days – and the Election

Sign outside polling place that says: Vote Here

This post is adapted from a sermon given at Temple Sinai DC on Friday, July 20. 

I always get a little nervous when we arrive at Parashat D’varim. It is like a little calendar alert that announces: “Summer is passing! Elul is coming! The High Holy Days are just around the corner!” And here we are – this Shabbat, we begin reading the Book of Deuteronomy in our annual Torah reading cycle.

I was talking about this sermon with my sister who works in politics. When I mentioned that I was speaking about Deuteronomy this Shabbat, she said that it made her a little nervous as well. For her, Deuteronomy means High Holy Days are coming, and when High Holy Days are coming, it is a sign that elections can’t be far behind. If we’re starting the Book of Deuteronomy, it means that the midterm elections are right around the corner.   

Other than orienting us in time and setting us on the road toward High Holy Days and election season, Parashat D’varim provides us with insight into this national moment, as we anticipate our country’s next election, as we look anxiously ahead to what comes next. Concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election filled the news this week, and it seems almost certain that there will be attempts at interference this coming November. How do we prepare ourselves for what is to come? How do we have faith in our democracy when it feels so fragile?

Parashat D’varim opens with Moses addressing the Israelite people. It is the 40th year, the first day of the 11th month. Moses is standing just outside the Promised Land. The commentators all agree that he opens this speech, one of his last to the people, with a rebuke. Moses begins to recall the journey in the wilderness, the bickering, the whining, the constant trouble. Moses reminds all of those assembled of the moment decades before, when the Israelites stood not far from where Moses stands now, right on the outskirts of the Holy Land. They dispatched men from each tribe to scout out the land. When the scouts returned, the Israelites refused to go up in to the land. As Moses recounts, God punished that generation and they died in the wilderness. And now, Moses is speaking to their descendents, recalling the failure of the parents.

When you first read this text, this story of rebuke, you can’t help but wonder why Moses starts his speech in anger? Its not much of a pep rally for the next phase of the journey. “You know, your parents stood here but they made the wrong choice, so they all died in the desert. Good luck to you!

But when you consider Moses, and his relationship with this fickle, inconsistent, kvetchy people, you can imagine his anxiety, finding himself back where he began, wondering if this time will be different. Will the people be ready? Have they learned anything from their parents' mistakes?

As we approach November, as we look to the next election in our country, it is easy to become disheartened. There are powerful forces that are working to undermine our elections. Not only are we vulnerable to foreign influence, there are massive amounts of money in politics giving the wealthy outsized influence. There are voter ID requirements and other measures designed to disenfranchise targeted parts of the electorate. But, standing on the precipice of our next election, there is something that we all can do, those of us who are over 18 and American citizens. We can vote, and we can make sure that every single person we know is registered to vote and turns out on election day. In this land of opportunity, of freedom, of democracy, each election gives us an opportunity to engage in the sacred rite of voting. And we know, that all too often, too many people stay home.

So allow me to channel Moses for a moment, and to focus on the past. In the 2016 election, only 58% of eligible voters participated, meaning that 42% stayed home. This was the lowest turnout in 20 years. Only 49% of millenials voted in 2016. Voter turnout in Maryland was 64%, the lowest in 24 years. In DC, voter turnout was 60%. We know that voting does not only happen every two years, so lest we get all snobby, priding ourselves on our inside-the-Beltway attention to politics, this past June, only 18% of eligible voters voted in the DC election – one that included the controversial ballot initiative 77 concerning minimum wage for tipped workers, as well as four contested city council seats.

I know that this information is not shocking or revelatory, and I know that my congregation, Temple Sinai, was in the trenches, particularly during the 2016 election, both here and around the country. Temple Sinai certainly does not need a Moses-style rebuke when it comes to engagement with our elections. But perhaps, as we stand on the precipice of our next election, as we look out just a few months ahead, we do need to remember that our engagement still matters. For those of us who were disappointed in 2016, who showed up, knocked on doors, or made phone calls, or got people registered – as we look ahead, Deuteronomy serves as a reminder that what we do now does make a difference.  

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the social action engine of the Reform Movement has spearheaded a nonpartisan civic engagement campaign, seeking to engage Reform Jews across the country in the upcoming election. Voting is not just an American issue, it is a Jewish issue. 

Judaism is a religion of action. Our texts teach us that Judaism is a faith commanding us not to stand idly by, to repair the world, to be God’s partners. Our liturgy guides us to pray for our leaders, to show gratitude for our freedom, to pursue peace. Our history reminds us of the gift of full citizenship, of the privilege of representation. Our history of oppression, of political marginalization, of vulnerability to changing political whims, reminds us of the sacredness of participation in the democratic project.

Yes, I must acknowledge my own bias, and yours as well, that for each of us individually, this is a partisan enterprise, we’re Americans- each of us has a horse (or a donkey, or an elephant) in the race. And yet, the Religious Action Center’s campaign is completely nonpartisan, it is about fully inhabiting the promised land of democracy – about increasing ALL of our participation. So it means that you should engage your radical daughter in Oakland, and your hawkish uncle in Ohio, and your Bernie Bro nephew in New Hampshire. We must demonstrate that democracy matters, that free elections matter, and that voting is a mitzvah.

At Temple Sinai, this campaign is being spearheaded by the Women of Reform Judaism. They are deep into their preparations; they are planning to focus on the millennial cohort, which data shows needs the most nudging to register and to vote. They are also working with those who are older, who are homebound and need help registering for an absentee ballot, or who need help getting to the polls.

I am going to ask something of you this Shabbat. Ask five people if they’re set to vote in November. It is not too early to get started. Maybe they moved and they need to update their information. Maybe they’re homebound and they need to figure out how to get an absentee ballot. Maybe they need to check the voter rolls to make sure that they are still listed. Maybe they just need a friendly reminder. Tell them that your rabbi told you to make the call!

When Moses stood outside of the Promised Land, his address to the Israelites was not just a rebuke, it was also an act of faith. It began with his fear, his memory about the shortcomings of the past. But he goes on, and the Book of Deuteronomy captures his final addresses to the people. He speaks about blessings and curses, laws to practice in the Promised Land, warnings about what they might find there- but at the end of all of the preparatory words to the Israelites, Moses gives them a simple charge- “chizku v’imtzu”- be strong, and of good courage. Approach this next challenge from a position of strength, do not be afraid, do not be defeated- proceed with the faith that you are up for the challenges to come.

Deuteronomy is here, and so we mark the passage of summer, the coming of High Holy Days, the intensification of the election cycle. As we prepare for what comes next, I conclude by simply offering you Moses’ words: chizku v’imtzu, be strong and of good courage.

Hannah Goldstein serves as an associate Rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, DC. She is a member of the current cohort of Brickner fellows.To learn more about the nonpartisan civic engagement campaign, visit www.rac.org/CivicEngagement.

Published: 7/25/2018