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Prayer, Not Politics

on Thursday, September 13 2012. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
This past Sunday, BRS hosted Ambassador John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and consultant to the Romney campaign.   As a non-profit organization, BRS does not endorse any candidate or political party nor do we contribute to any campaign.    As I have written previously – what we strongly endorse is being informed and educated on the issues of the day, particularly those that matter to us as a passionate, pro-Israel community.  We have always invited and hosted candidates or theirsurrogates from both parties and we will continue to do so.  Indeed, an invitation has been extended to the Obama campaign and we will be honored to host the President or his surrogate should he accept.

While I do believe politics has a place in a Synagogue, it is a narrow and carefully defined place.  Programs should be held in a place and at a time that people can choose whether or not to attend.  Steps must be taken to ensure that both the speaker and the audience will speak respectfully, civilly, and with the dignity appropriate to their forum, particularly in a Sanctuary.

Dialogue and debate, whether in an official forum or at the Shabbos table, must be about issues and policies, never ad hominem attacks, name calling, or derisive comments.  As we are all acutely aware, there is currently no shortage of critical issues facing us as Americans and confronting our beloved Israel.  The safety and security of our brothers and sisters in Israel, the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided and eternal capital, the question of drawing a red line for Iran, the horrible murder of the US Ambassador to Libya, and more, should be on all of our minds and part of our conversations.

As a private citizen, I have very strong feelings on all of the above and I am happy to share them with you personally.  In my opinion, this is a defining moment for our generation and an urgent time to advocate, lobby, and persuade our fellow voters and elected officials.  

If our goal is to influence policy or sway a voter in either direction, I assure you we will have no impact whatsoever if we are bombastic, disrespectful, and dismissive.  As our mothers taught us when we were children, onlythose who are not intelligent or articulate enough to express an idea or position resort to calling people names.   It may make the name caller feel better, but there will be no meaningful impact on the issue he or she claims to care about.

There is no better time than Rosh Hashana to revisit how we communicate with others.  Contrary to what many believe, Rosh Hashana does not mark the date of the creation of the world. Rather, Rosh Hashana, the first of Tishrei, celebrates the anniversary of the creation of man.   What makes us different from that which was created before us?  Onkelus and others explain it is the power of speech and the depth of our thoughts that differentiate us from the animal world.  When we articulate thoughts with dignity, we affirm our very humanity.  When we express ourselves inappropriately, harshly, aggressively, and disrespectfully, we forfeit our humanity and resemble the animal creatures that preceded us.

Affirming our humanity includes recognizing that no two of us look or think exactly alike.  The gemara comments that just as our appearances are not identical, so too our personalities, perspectives, and priorities differ.   To impose your opinion on others, and have no regard for them if they disagree, is to deny their basic humanity.  People are entitled to their opinions.

I recently heard from someone who is identified with a particular political orientation that he was confronted in Shul during davening and told he is aself-hating Jew.  Such cruel accusations are intolerable and unacceptable anywhere, but especially in Shul.  The Synagogue must remain a safe space; it must be neutral territory for people of all political opinions and ideas to connect to Torah, to the Jewish people, and most of all to Hashem.   As I mentioned, everyone can choose to attend an event at his or her discretion.  But when we come together to daven, study or learn, politics has no place.  Nobody should have to fear that his conversation with the Almighty will be interrupted by someone seeking to condemn or belittle him.  

I would even go one step further.  The gemara in Rosh Hashana (17b) describes the Chazzan as being nis’ateif, standing with the Tallis over his head.  The Maharal of Prague makes an incredible comment:

ומה שאמר שנתעטף כש”ץ, מפני כי העטוף של ש”ץ הוא שלא יהי’ לו נטיה ימין ושמאל לשום צד כלל וזהו העטוף, ואז הקריאה בכוונה לגמרי מתוך עומק הלב ואמתתו, ולא כך כאשר אינו מעוטף שאז אפשר כי הוא פונה לדברים אחרים ואין הקריאה מאמתתו ודבר זה מבואר. אמנם אין הדבר תולה בעטוף הטלית, רק כאשר הקריאה מאמתתו בכונה, דבר זה נקרא עטוף בעבור שהוא מסולק משאר דבר ואין לו נטיה ימין ושמאל, וזהו מהות העטוף לא זולת זה. ולפיכך נאמר בכתוב לשון זה כאשר הוא קורא אל ה’ מאמתות מחשבתו שכך כתיב (תהלים ק”ב) תפלה לעני כי יעטוף ולפני ה’ ישפוך שיחו

“The wrapping or covering of the Chazzan is so that he is not drawn to the right or the left or to any side. Only then can he lead the davening from the depth of his heart.”  When the Chazzan wears a tallis over his head, he cannot see anything around him, and he focuses exclusively on what is before and above him, namely Hashem.

While the Maharal is speaking of physical stimuli that may distract us, I would like to homiletically apply his words to the “right” and “left” that characterize our conversations.   When we are not davening, we can think about and argue about political issues and the merits of those who seek to lead our government.  However, when we are in Shul, our hope, faith and trust should not be in any politician or any party.  We must be focused exclusively and solely on Hashem with the recognition that it is His policies and His judgment that will determine our fate and that of the United States, Israel and the world.  

As we prepare to enter the holiest period of the year, coinciding with this time of great uncertainty, let’s remember the old adage – “Work as if everything depends on you, but pray as if everything depends on God.”

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