As my readers know, the purpose of this blog is to address topics related to the subject of leadership. I’ve tried to achieve that goal through short essays, book reviews, editorials, and general observations about our culture. I’ve also tried to stay away from direct political commentary. There’s already enough of that in the general media and on the internet. However, I’m making an exception with this post because the writer is making an appeal to all of us—as citizens. What follows is a piece written by William A. Galston titled “God, Man and Politics—We Can Do Better.” At the end of the piece, I’ll try to summarize a few important points for your consideration.
At sundown on Tuesday [October 11, 2016] I began the annual fast for Yom Kippur—the Day of Repentance. In the Jewish tradition, true repentance requires an unqualified verbal acknowledgment of wrongdoing, genuine remorse (as distinguished from, say, “I’m sorry if my statement offended anyone”), and the sincere, determined resolve not to repeat the wrong.
In the case of sin against another human being rather than God alone, repentance also requires an effort to appease the wronged party with a direct apology as well as material compensation when appropriate.
I will leave it to my readers to determine how close today’s politicians come to meeting this test.
But the real point of Yom Kippur is not so much to stand in judgment over politics as to remind us of the significance of what lies outside and beyond politics. In fact, it is a critique of the mind-set to which we are prone to succumb when we make politics central to our lives.
Consider two passages from the Yom Kippur liturgy.
The first—an assault on our pride—is the injunction to set aside our daily preoccupations and see our lives from the perspective of the Divine. It reads:
“What are we? What is our life? Our goodness? Our righteousness? Our power? Our victories? What shall we say in Your presence, Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Heroes count as nothing in Your presence, famous people are as if they never existed, the wise seems ignorant, and the clever ones as if they lack reason. The sum of their acts is chaos; in Your presence the days of their lives are futile.”
This is—and I must underscore the point—not a rejection of worldly concerns. Judaism is not an otherworldly religion. How could it be, when so much of its law and theology is devoted to the way Jews conduct their daily lives, when every act is regulated with an eye to the imitation of divine attributes as we are given to understand them?
Nor do the liturgy’s piercing questions and crushing pronouncements endorse an existentialist outlook. Our lives are not meaningless. But they only take on meaning when we are forced—or force ourselves—to remain aware of the limits of our striving.
Only our greatest president—Abraham Lincoln—in his greatest speech—the Second Inaugural—came close to achieving this feat. Lincoln dared to interpret the Civil War as a divine punishment—visited on all Americans—for the sin of slavery. Despite the intensity of this conflict, he insisted, we must strive to act in the spirit of “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” This speech is a standing rebuke to the spiritual myopia of today’s mean-spirited partisanship.
Another passage from the Yom Kippur service attacks our confidence that we are the masters of our fate and that we can plan with confidence for the future. Our lives, rather, are contingent and unpredictable.
“On the Fast of the Day of Repentance it is sealed: Who will live and who will die; who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end.”
The issue is not only whether we will live, but also how. On Yom Kippur, reads the liturgy, it will be determined “Who will be at peace and who will be troubled; who will be serene and who will be disturbed; who will be tranquil and who will be tormented; who will be impoverished and who will be enriched; who will be brought low, and who will be raised up.”
From the divine perspective, these particular judgments are threads in a fabric of justice and mercy. But we are not privy to this standpoint. From our human perspective, which is all we have, these judgments seems chaotic and frightening. No matter how smoothly our lives seem to be proceeding, we and the ones we love are vulnerable to appalling reverses that come suddenly, seemingly from nowhere.
We cannot lead our own lives as though we could die tomorrow. Nor can leaders conduct the affairs of state as though a catastrophe could nullify their best efforts. The task, rather, is to maintain a nearly contradictory duality—passionate immersion in our worldly mission, coupled with the abiding awareness of its fragility and its limits.
Being a member of a congregation is a constant reminder of contingency. I cannot look at certain seats in the sanctuary without remembering their departed occupants, some who wasted away, others struck down without warning. I cannot attend congregational meetings without harking back to bitter quarrels whose destructiveness vastly exceeded their significance. Often I recall the damage these controversies wrought long after I have forgotten their cause.
Surely we can do better—as individuals, as community members, as citizens, as a nation. I will emerge from the Yom Kippur with renewed hope that the better angels of our nature can prevail over the ugliness of the present day.
So what does this mean for those of us engaged in the subject of leadership?
The overarching theme of this editorial is that “…the real point of Yom Kippur is not so much to stand in judgment over politics as to remind us of the significance of what lies outside and beyond politics.”
In other words, the sun will come up after this election and there is profound, meaningful work for all of us to do—as citizens—together. The sun will come up after each election with profound, meaningful work for all of us to do—as citizens—together. Click To Tweet
And two things get in the way of this critical work: pride and human hubris. Galston gently encourages us “…to set aside our daily preoccupations” and to see our lives—and the lives of others—from the perspective of the Divine. Tongue in cheek, God is not an R or a D. And as it relates to human hubris, the liturgy from Yom Kippur “attacks our confidence that we are the masters of our fate… The issue isn’t what we will do or who is in control; rather, the issue is “how” will we live the lives we have been given to live? Our task is “…passionate immersion in our worldly mission, coupled with an abiding awareness of…its limits.”
As someone once said to me as I was preparing for ordained ministry, “Jeffrey. Always understand that nobody wins in a church fight.” Clearly a political election is far more than an ecclesial disagreement among members of a congregation. But we are also citizens of one country—together, which is all the more reason to reflect upon the Yom Kippur liturgy.