The Sancho Question
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First, the emergent landscape of our country. While the analytics of our synagogue’s virtual viewership does not specify party affiliation, what I can tell you and what you already know is that whoever you voted for, some seventy million of your fellow citizens voted for the other guy. It is a humbling thought: The realization that what seems self-evident to you is not self-evident to the other half of the electorate. We live in a democracy, which means that our leaders are but reflections of ourselves. As with our friend Sancho Panza, the decision we and our compatriots made to vote for this guy or that guy says as much, if not more, about us than it does about anyone on the ballot. The election results, presidential and otherwise, make it unequivocally clear that our country is deeply divided, that we live in separate worlds, with our own news sources, websites, and world views. And while there are undoubtedly extremist elements on both sides, it is an intellectual cop-out to dismiss every Biden vote as some socialist/antifa/defund-the-police plot against America, just as it is a cop-out to dismiss every Trump vote as some nefarious and backward expression of misogynistic, anti-immigrant, white supremacist ideology. Indeed, to label everyone who voted differently than you as some sort of extremist ideologue is to engage in the dangerously short-sighted mudslinging that that has brought our country to this toxic place. You may not like the candidate your fellow citizen voted for; you may not even like your fellow citizen, but that citizen is as much a citizen of this country as you are. All of which means that if we care about the strength of our shared civic future, which I hope we all do, then we need to find a common language in which to communicate with the nearly equal number of Americans who think differently. We need to cultivate a sense of inquiry and curiosity, a willingness to engage with ideas contrary to our own, a commitment to be generous in our judgments, and the humility to know that while we must never waver in fighting for what we believe in, we dare not presume that we are in possession of absolute truth – certainly not when the health of our democracy is at stake.
And now we come to the next stage of the Sancho question, a question which has grown in urgency these past few days as the election results came into focus.
Democracy has spoken. Joe Biden has been elected President; Kamala Harris will be our Vice President. These are not opinions, but facts. Facts given an exclamation point with Arizona turning blue the other night. And while it is beyond the purview of my pulpit either to endorse any particular election result or to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the electoral process, there is an emerging moral question with which we must grapple. That question, for lack of rabbinic formulation, is the Sancho question: the too-many-to-count public figures who have failed to signal acceptance of the election results. No different than Don Quixote’s journey was contingent on the enabling behavior of his faithful squire, so too that of President Trump. To be clear: the question is not who you voted for. The stakes are greater than the agenda of any one political party or the fate of any one political figure. At stake is the health of our country and the present and future security of our democracy. By refusing to acknowledge the results of the election, by sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the election, not only is a smooth transition between administrations being hindered during a critical juncture in the health of our nation – literally the health, with staggering daily COVID numbers – but the earth is being salted with regard to America’s trust in our foundational democratic processes. To be clear, President Trump’s behavior is as uninteresting as it is consistent. He has never indicated that he would accept an electoral loss, and it is on us if we expect him to do so now or ever. The moral question of the moment is not about him but about those who are enabling him by their silence and their tacit or actual support, those who have yet to step forward and speak up. I have heard the arguments: that it is a tactical decision with an eye to the Senate run-off in Georgia. That it is a matter of certain individuals positioning themselves in Trump’s good graces for a future election. That to stay silent somehow reflects some honor code, which even when breached by others must nevertheless be maintained by oneself. I hear each argument; I understand them intellectually and individually. But in their aggregate they collectively enable a narrative of a stolen election; in their aggregate they undermine our democracy; and in their aggregate they are a damning statement upon all those who could show leadership but have chosen to do otherwise. The deafening silence and shocking timidity of those who claim leadership positions in our democracy and then fail to protect the very laws and structures that make that democracy possible, will be at best, I believe, a moral stain on their legacies and at worst, God forbid, a cause for loss of life and irreparable damage to our nation that we love so dearly.
Of all peoples, ours is a people who know the consequences of that deadliest sin of omission, the failure to speak out. Remember, according to the Midrash, our founding father Abraham received the name Ha-Ivri from the Hebrew root meaning “other,” because he was willing to stand on one side while the rest of the world stood on the other. To be a Jew is to be willing to take a stand, popular or not. From Moses stepping forward as his Israelite brother was being beaten to Queen Esther putting her political stature and personal well-being at risk in defense of her people, the heroes of our people have been those willing to speak out. We know firsthand what happens when people don’t speak up. We know that, as the Talmud teaches, sh’tikah k’hoda·ah domya, silence is akin to consent. (Yevamot 87b) This is the standard to which we must hold ourselves and this is the standard to which we must hold our leaders. The moral reckoning of our moment is about the Sanchos of the world who will forever be remembered as having stood by silently when the health – the literal health – of our country was at stake.
Transitions are hard. They always have been – political, generational, and otherwise – from the Bible – case in point, the disastrous story of King David in today’s haftarah – up until today. But think about Abraham, a man who seven times has been promised land and who, at the end of his life, does not have a sliver of real estate to his name. Abraham, a man who four times has been promised progeny as numerous as the sands of the earth and the stars of the sky and who, at the end of his life, has but one heir bearing his name. Abraham was not ready to transition: He still had unfinished business; he didn’t want to concede; but his final deeds indicate a readiness do so. He purchases of a parcel of land and he finds a match for his son Isaac – two acts that signal an acceptance of reality and an awareness of his role and responsibility in facilitating the transition at hand. Because Abraham took these steps, our people endured, and his legacy was assured. Abraham understood, as must we all, that our legacies are ultimately located beyond ourselves. Our impact will be measured by the degree to which our values extend beyond our lifetimes. It is how life works, and it is how democracy should work. Some leaders see this clearly; some do not; but we all have an obligation to ourselves and to our future in making it so. The stakes are just too high to stay silent in this hour.