Civic mensches: The foundation of a healthy democracy - Dedicated to the legacy and memory of the Notorious RBG

10 TISHREI 5781 / SEPTEMBER 27, 2020

Holy friends,
tonight, I wish to talk to you
about how our Jewish tradition bears
on democracy and civic engagement.
I will not be sharing words of partisanship.
Surely, we have enough of those.
And I won’t be talking about any one person,
but in fact, about each of us and all of us.
Tonight, I will talk to you about
what it takes to be a civic mensch.
Again, a civic mensch.

Kol Nidrei—our most sacred moment of the year—
is a time to deeply consider what we are accountable for.
We engage in personal and collective responsibility, teshuvah.
In the words of our machzor:
We return to who we are meant to be,
but have not yet become.
Kol Nidrei is a time to elevate our lives, our humanity—
even our democracy—to a higher level.

Let me share a story with you.
I was a teenager at the time,
sitting at the Wendy’s on Decarie Boulevard with my dad.
We were each eating our fries and a burger.

For inquiring minds,
this was how I was raised
in my pre-kosher, pre-vegetarian days.

A man sat down at the table next to us.
He appeared disheveled,
hair unkempt, clothes dirty,
as if homeless.
He was not entirely coherent.
As a teenage boy,
you can imagine I was ambivalent
about engaging this man in conversation.
My dad talked to him, mostly listened.
At the end of the lingering meal, we said goodbye and left.
I don’t remember the topics of conversation.
Yet, this has stayed with me
as one of the defining moments in my life.

What left an impression to this day
was the quiet way in which my dad
acted with simple respect and dignity,
towards a man that I am sure
we as a society had otherwise
treated with neglect and even contempt.

Perhaps my dad engaged him with such care
to show his empathy for this person.
Perhaps he did so to model to his son
how to treat others with dignity.
Or maybe to remind himself of his own humanity,
that, with different life circumstances,
this could have been him.

Democracy is founded on the principle,
or perhaps better,
the aspiration of inalienable rights—
which cannot be taken away—
based on how all people are created equal,
or in Jewish terms,
as betzelem Elohim, created in the image of G-d.

Over the past months,
as I have meditated on both the global pandemic,
as well as the divisive state of our politics
in our country and in our world,
I keep coming back to these words from Psalms 122:

Lemaan achai vereai,
Lemaan achotai vereai,
Because of my brothers and friends,
becomes of my sisters and friends
adabra na,
Please let me sing:
shalom bach,
Peace to you.
Lemaan bait Adonai Eloheinu
avaksha tov lach.
This is the house, the house of the One:
I wish the best for you.

To build a house, to build a society, with a strong foundation,
we must be willing to wish each other shalom.
From the place of humility,
we must be able to say:
I wish you no harm.
I wish the best for you—
to my family, my neighbours,
to those with whom I agree,
and to those for whom I disagree.
For my friends, and even my adversaries—
I wish the best for you.

My experience as a rabbi, a partner, a father,
and a person in many roles and relationships,
has shown me that
most people just want to be treated with human care,
to be heard, especially in their pain,
yet also in their pride.

But wishing each other shalom is not enough, either.
We cannot just be mensches.
We must be civic mensches, too.
If Yom Kippur teaches us nothing else,
it is that our actions, whether towards kindness or harm,
have a ripple effect on others and the greater society,
and that we are responsible for each action.

In our parenting, our work life, our friendships,
our shopping, our travels, our volunteering,
our social spheres, our interactions with strangers.
In what is mundane, and in what is sacred—
we are always citizens of the world.
We are always responsible—
accountable on a larger playing field for our actions.
Including in our political lives.

Democracy is, essentially, how we, the people,
make decisions, writ large.
This happens through civic engagement,
or the “process in which
people take collective action
to address issues of public concern”
which is absolutely “instrumental to democracy.”
(Checkoway & Aldana, 2012).
“Citizens in a democracy have not only rights,
but also the responsibility
to participate in the political system that,
in turn, protects their rights and freedoms.” (Nassoro Habib Mbwana)

We are called and obligated in our society to act,
to participate and not be spectators or bystanders.
This is the essence of what we are doing at JCOGS
with Homegrown Judaism,
where, on a communal level,
we are strengthening grassroots connections and leadership
among our participatory community and our many committees.

This is also what we teach our children here.
In the mission statement for our Olam Chesed Education Center
from our JCOGS education committee,
we declare that by teaching about
our holidays and Shabbat, our values and ethics,
Jewish history, and tikkun olam,
we offer our students
“the tools to be active citizens of the world.”
We expect that as they grow up,
they will bring Jewish values into their secular and civic lives.

Civic engagement has always been a part of our tradition.
Even when we were ruled by kings in ancient Israel,
civics came in the form of the powerful prophetic voice.
The prophets were the ones to challenge
the institutional powers and the society-at-large
in making decisions to care for all its citizens.

Tomorrow morning, we will hear the charged words
of the Biblical prophet Isaiah,
who questions the very notion of this fast day:
58:5 Is this the fast I desire, (he says),
A day for people to starve their bodies?…
58:6 No, this … I desire:
To unlock the shackles of wickedness…
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every tyranny.
58:7 To divide your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked—to clothe them,
And not to ignore your own kin.
58:8 Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing and health spring up quickly,
And the Righteous One G-d will walk before you…
58:9 Then, when you call out, G-d will answer;
When you seek out help, G-d will say:
Hineini, Here I am ,הִנֵּ֑נִי
If you banish tyranny from your midst,
The menacing hand, and evil speech,
58:10 And you offer your compassion to the hungry…
Then shall your light shine in darkness.

What a powerful message—for then and for now.
We must live into this very prophetic tradition
of civic engagement and justice.

In 2020, this means speaking up for injustice with a moral voice,
and getting involved in our community through volunteerism.
It can mean outrage and protest,
against the governing institutions
that do not fully protect all people’s rights and freedoms.
And it also means voting and getting out the vote,
especially for those who have been
disenfranchised from this most basic civic duty.
It involves creating political processes and systems
for policy creation,
where everyone has a voice that can be heard
with great attention to those who have been marginalized
from the political process.
It takes each of us.
It takes all of us.

We each will act in different ways.
In the words of Rabbi Shai Held:
“Good people can disagree
with what justice requires of us,
but there isn’t room for disagreement
about our responsibility to engage.”
But when we all act out of a sense
of personal and communal accountability,
change for the better is possible.

Let me end by dedicating these words
to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
zecher tzaddikah livracha,
may the memory of this righteous woman be for a blessing.

I cannot think of someone more fitting for the title
of a civic mensch.

RBG was a prophet for our time.
As Rabbi Lauren Holzblatt said in last week’s memorial to RBG:

“It is a rare prophet who not only imagines a new world,
but also makes that new world a reality in her lifetime.”

It is now our time to live into RBG’s legacy.
In her own words:
“Fight for the things you care about,
but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
It is our time to engage in civil civics,
and to imagine and help create a new world, a new reality,
all together.

I ask you on this solemn night of prayer:
as we consider how we have missed the mark
in our civic engagement
and in our pursuit of dignity for all,
what is your role in repairing and reimagining
a healthier democracy?

Shana tova and gmar chatima tova,
may we be inscribed in the book of life
and the book of civic mensches for this holy year.