This sermon was shared on Kol Nidre 5781.
Headline: “U.S. National Pride Falls to Record Low.” This is the sixth consecutive year that the Gallup poll measuring Americans’ pride in our country has marked a new low. This year’s record low was due to a significant drop in pride among Republicans. However, declines in pride have occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Declining pride in America is an all-American issue, not a partisan one.
Although the poll doesn’t explain why pride is declining, I believe that it reflects a sense that our country is not addressing or not capable of addressing the most serious problems we face. These could well include: health care, immigration, income inequality and climate. And, in the past year, we added the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and racial justice. And now we have an election in which, according to a recent poll, a majority in both political parties believe that if their candidate loses, it was because the election was rigged.
So many of us are feeling anxiety that our country cannot successfully meet the most pressing challenges of today and tomorrow. It’s then a short road to despair. Could life be any more difficult? Let’s just breathe for a moment. OK. Where do we go from here? What’s the solution?
We can focus on an issue that is of special concern to us and commit to taking action to bring about a solution. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow. But tonight, let’s think about the things we can do in our everyday lives. What would you suggest? How are you dealing with this moment in history?
I’m going to suggest that we re-commit to an old Yiddish concept: Be a mensch.
How do we inspire people to be a mensch, a person of good, decent character? Stories teach important lessons in character education. Tonight I offer two.
First, in this time of great division within our country, I’m moved by the deep and true friendship between Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, עליהם השלום, peace be upon them. They were scathing in their critiques of each other’s legal opinions. He labeled an opinion of hers “politics smuggled into law” and she said an opinion of his took “a wrecking ball” to the statute. Furthermore, they disagreed on cases addressing the most divisive issues of recent decades, including who would be president and same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, they were the closest of friends—New Yorkers who liked opera and to kibitz and celebrated many New Year’s eves together with their families.
And despite their harsh critiques of each other, each appreciated the other as a jurist. Of Justice Scalia, Justice Ginsburg said, “When we disagreed, my final opinion was always clearer and more convincing than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia homed in on all the soft spots, energizing me to strengthen my presentation.” Regarding their time together on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Scalia said, “She was the best of colleagues, as she is the best of friends.” And there’s the time that Justice Scalia sent Justice Ginsburg his dissent “as quickly as possible, so that she might better reckon with it in her majority opinion.” Justice Ginsburg acknowledged that his stinging dissent made her opinion ever so much better.
Good, decent people can be friends, even when disagreeing. Our country desperately needs this model of deep respect and dear friendship, despite profound ideological differences.
Now, a story about strangers.
“The Stranger on the Bus”
A light snow was falling and the streets were crowded with people. It was Munich in Nazi Germany. One of my students, Shifra Penzias, told me her great-aunt, Sussie, had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner.
Sussie watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why.
“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.”
The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid [idiot],” he roared, “I can’t stand being near you!”
The SS men asked what all the yelling was about. “Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again! I’m so fed up. She always does this!”
The soldiers laughed and moved on. Sussie never saw him again. She never even knew his name.
This spontaneous and courageous act of kindness from a stranger saved Sussie’s life. How can we attune ourselves to that random moment when a stranger will require our kindness? How can we, in ways large and small, be more of a mensch?
This is a challenging time for Americans. We face declining pride in our country and a mountain of crises, not the least of which is anxiety over a fair election. The problems can seem so overwhelming. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about taking action on an issue. But tonight, let us remember, and not underestimate, that just as a little candle will dispel much darkness, so too can an act of goodness bring a ray of hope in troubled times.
May we see the day when our country and our world have overcome these crises. And, in the meantime, let us each in our own way be more of a mensch.
L’shana tova teihateimu. May you be sealed for a year of life and goodness, health and happiness.
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