Whether You’re Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump, Strive to be a Mensch

Korach and his followers swallowed by the earth. From the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England. Labeled for noncommercial reuse.

Korach and his followers swallowed by the earth.
From the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England. Labeled for noncommercial reuse.

While in some respects the past week has been an incredible display of American democracy, this transfer of power that we’ve all witnessed has been ugly. President Trump’s first week has been filled with pomp, circumstance, several executive orders, oaths of office and lots of protests, outrage and noise. Tempers are running high. Lines have been drawn. And plans have been made to obliterate those on the other side of these lines.

Immigration, border security, healthcare, abortion, pipelines, freedom of the press, fake news, crowd sizes, Palestinian aid, the capital of Israel, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice – these are just a few of the issues that the first week of the Trump presidency have thrust into the national spotlight. While we should be talking about these issues, I’m becoming more and more disheartened by our inability to do so. We’re either too angry, too boastful or too fearful to engage in a productive conversation about politics. This, sadly, will do nothing to help strengthen our divided nation.

I’ve heard and read too many stories over the past few days which capture not just how divided we are as a country, but how determined we are to silence those who feel differently than we do about the President and his new administration. A good friend of mine left her home the other morning to find that the “Hate Has No Home Here” sign that she and her children put up in their front yard had been covered over with a Trump campaign sign. Someone else I know was turned away from the Women’s March in D.C. by an organizer who, after asking her about her position on abortion, told her that “this protest is not for you.” If you’ve had the guts to keep on top of the news this week, you know that these stories are not in any way unique and are tame in comparison to other incidents. The attempts to push aside, shame and threaten those with different opinions are a national plague that flies in the face of our democratic values – values that ironically made last week’s transfer of power possible.

This divisive plague is nothing new. For centuries, it’s reared its ugly head. It appears in one of the more troubling stories of the Torah, the story of Korach. A rebel who stood up to Moses, Korach questions Moses’ right to rule over the Israelites and leads a mutiny against him. As Judaism encourages us to challenge authority and take a stand when we perceive that justice is not being pursued, one might think that Korach and his willingness to confront Moses would be praised. Those who are familiar with the story, however, know that this is anything but the case. God intervenes and ensures that Korach and his supporters are not only defeated, but swallowed up by the earth, never to be seen again.

Why would the Torah, which teaches us to pursue justice with all of our heart and soul, include a story that depicts the horrid demise of one who challenges Moses? The answer lies in the words that Korach uses to accuse Moses and his brother Aaron of being poor leaders: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire community are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst.”

Nechama Leibowitz, the late renowned Torah commentator and scholar, draws our attention to what appears to be Korach’s grammatically incorrect accusation: “the entire community are all holy.” Leibowitz states that this is no grammatical error. It’s deliberate and the reason Korach was obliterated. He doesn’t see the Israelite community as a single entity, but rather as a group of individuals – each one being driven by their own concerns and needs. The well-being of the community as a whole doesn’t matter to him. Central to Judaism is the teaching that we can’t “separate ourselves from the community.” Without our community, we’re nothing. But Korach and his fellow rebels, they see themselves as separate and distinct from the community. All that matters to them is what they deem to be important, not what will be best for all people. Because of this, Leibowitz calls Korach and his cohorts:

a band of malcontents, each harboring his own personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron and hoping thereby to attain their individual desires…

Wherever we call home, whether it be in South Florida, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else in America, many of us are unfortunately part of at least one “band of malcontents” these days. And within our respective bands, we’re harboring our “own personal grievances” against President Trump and his supporters or against those who don’t support the President. We’re “animated by individual pride and ambition” and hope to overthrow those who don’t agree with us and attain our own “individual desires.”

But the Torah, our Judaism, is asking us to take a different approach – an approach that challenges us to take the focus off of ourselves and put it on our nation. While it certainly doesn’t feel like it right now, we’re part of one national community. Korach wasn’t swallowed up by the earth because he challenged Moses. He wasn’t swallowed up by the earth because he questioned Moses’ ability to lead the people. He was swallowed up by the earth because he forgot that he had a responsibility to act in a way that supports the best interests of all people, the entire community, the whole nation. He forgot that he did not live in isolation and his concerns were not necessarily the concerns of his neighbor. And so, as he pursued power, he made it all about himself. He failed to appreciate that he was part of something much bigger, much more complicated than just himself. He failed to appreciate that he was part of a community. And to highlight his failure, the Torah dramatically removes him from the community that he overlooked.

Korach’s shocking departure is a reminder that we don’t live in isolation. As Jews, it’s imperative that, despite our differences, we strive to be part of klal yisrael – a united people. As Americans, it’s just as imperative that we strive to be part of a unified, albeit diverse, country. Given that we’re part of a pluralistic nation, this is a tremendous challenge. But the story of Korach pushes us to meet this challenge – to act in a way that preserves community. This doesn’t mean that we can’t protest or disagree with each other. It does mean, however, that when we do so, we act with the best interests of our country in mind. This requires us to make room in the public arena for dissenting voices. It means that in this arena we don’t attempt to silence, shut out, shame or threaten others simply because they see the world differently than we do. It demands that we boldly stand up for what we believe in without tossing aside integrity, dignity, respect and poise. It obligates us to rise above Korach and those like him who are motivated purely by what will be best for them and not what will bring about national healing and strength. It calls upon each of us to be what our tradition calls a mensch, a descent, honorable human being. From the ancient book of teachings, Pirke Avot, we’re taught: “in a place where there are no mensches (or menschen), strive to be a mensch.” This is not easy. But within our national community today, mensches are seriously lacking. Within our respective bands of malcontents, we want to continue raging, gloating, shaming and silencing. Within these bands, we feel safe. But a few of us need to find the courage to look beyond the safety of our bands, strive to discover the bonds that link us together, band to band, citizen to citizen, and empower us to come together as a united nation. It will take some mensches to do just this. Will you be one of them?

 

5 thoughts on “Whether You’re Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump, Strive to be a Mensch

  1. I’m reading your words, but the little hamster cage in my head keeps spinning.. I was at the National Holocaust Museum on Monday, after reading again about Hitler’s rise to power ,it terrifies me with the comparisons to some of the things that are about to happen, and some that already have… once he shuts down the media, I feel like it will be time to move on, maybe Aliyah, maybe Australia…I just don’t want to sit back , keep my big mouth shut and witness our country lose all that’s it’s stood for … I’m not an Ivy League graduate, political science major or a historian, but I do wonder how long Democracies hold up before they fall.. I’m hoping it’s at least 300 years.. one things for certain.. I made vows after I cried myself to sleep on election night, and now with time, I see I’ve accepted things I swore I wouldn’t.. it’s funny how time makes subtle changes… you could tell me right now what will be in 2 years and I will disagree 100%, but damn if I won’t be living that nightmare and not even realized it crept up on me..
    Being a mensche is not in my future I’m more of a treat everyone you meet the way you would like to be treated…

    • Ah but that is being a mensch – treating everyone you meet the way you would like to be treated. The Torah says to treat our neighbors like we ourselves would like to be treated! There is nothing wrong with being extremely cautious, even suspicious. There is nothing wrong with being vigilant and aware. To not be so would be foolish. My issue is the eye for eye mentality. Resorting to behaviors we don’t approve of in others simply because it feels good to lash out. It doesn’t help the cause.

  2. No Rabbi, no. With the utmost of resoect, this is not “machloket l’shem shamayim.” This is not a dispute for the sake of heaven, or a matter for Jews of goodwill to brush aside their differences for the unity of “klal yisrael.”

    Not when a few miles away in my own community, Lawful Permanent Residents who have lived here for decades are facing arrest, detention and exile upon their return home simply because they went to visit for a wedding or a funeral or to see an elderly parent for the last time. Not when multitudes of my neighbors are cowering in fear at an impending knock on the door, or an attack by a mob emboldened by the new regime’s dog-whistled messages. Not when we see at the highest levels of government, and on a daily basis, pronouncements and policies grounded in unabashed hatred toward “the strangers” whom the Torah repeatedly commands us to honor. A normalization of hatred toward “the others”: other races, other nationalities, other religions, other sexual orientations, other gender identities.

    No Rabbi. We are this very moment facing a generational defining challenge: Our generation’s Gettysburg, our Edmund Pettus Bridge, our AIDS epidemic, our Kristallnacht. A stance of moral fence sitting in the name of “klal yisrael” is no more justifiable for american Jews of this moment than we would view it looks looking backward at germans of the 1930’s who chose complacency for the sake of “christian unity.”

    A Judaism that will not confront the utter evil that has taken hold of our cherished democratic republic, is one that has turned its historical ethical grounding on its head. And an american jewish leadership that will not take a clear moral stance in this crises is one that has forfeited its moral authority to lead.

    • Thank you for your response.

      Let me make myself as clear as I can: I am not advocating for Jews or anyone else to “brush aside their differences” for unity. I am not advocating for “a normalization of hatred toward ‘the others'”. I am not advocating for “moral fence sitting”.

      On the contrary, I am advocating that we educate ourselves, learn how talk to each other and take a stand to pursue justice – a justice that reflects American values and honors our national diversity.

      Unfortunately, too many of us (understandably) are caught up in our own emotions, fear and rage and incapable of taking a stand in a productive way. As such, we’re no better than Korach. As I wrote:

      “Korach wasn’t swallowed up by the earth because he challenged Moses. He wasn’t swallowed up by the earth because he questioned Moses’ ability to lead the people. He was swallowed up by the earth because he forgot that he had a responsibility to act in a way that supports the best interests of all people, the entire community, the whole nation. He forgot that he did not live in isolation and his concerns were not necessarily the concerns of his neighbor. And so, as he pursued power, he made it all about himself. He failed to appreciate that he was part of something much bigger, much more complicated than just himself.”

      We want to rage. But rage alone won’t solve our problems. Organization, plans, education, dialogue, dignity, class and poise – without these things we won’t change society for the better. If we can’t speak kindly, but still boldly, to those who think differently than us, our community will continue to divide. We won’t build coalitions. And we won’t succeed at pursuing justice.

      I am advocating for civility as we pursue justice. I am advocating for respect as we pursue pluralism. I am advocating for insight as we stand up for what we believe to be right. To me, this is how we take a clear moral stance.

      Thanks again for your response.

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