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Rousing Our Better Angels

by Rabbi Dev Noily

Better angels of our nature, stay awake now.  You’re in danger.                           — Storyhill, Better Angels

The thing that concerns me the most about Donald Trump’s ascent to political power is that the better angels of his nature seem to have fallen into the deepest imaginable slumber. And he seems bent on leading our country to follow his example. For those of us for whom Judaism is a spiritual practice, we are called to engage in processes of teshuvah, of turning, to face the truth of our lives and our impact on those around us—not just during the High Holy Days, but all year long.

We do this year by year, slowly over time trying to smooth the rough edges of our humanity, to soften the hardness of our hearts, and to thin the thicknesses that separate us from one another.  We lift up compassion as our highest aspiration, as we address the mysterious creative force in the universe as el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet, as the God of compassion, unconditional love, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and truth.  And now we face a world where the U.S. president-elect has shown little sign of respect for any of these qualities.

Mr. Trump has played on the suffering and the frustration of many good people, stoking their fears, sowing hatred, and focusing their anger against the most vulnerable and historically-targeted people in our society: people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and women and girls.

We need to reject this targeting in every way. I believe this is where our power and our responsibility now lie: in cultivating the better angels of our nature, and in resisting the exhaustion, fear and anger that will lure them again and again toward sleep.

When I ask myself the question, “What will Mr. Trump do to our planet and to our country?” I’m filled with fear, anger and anxiety.  But when I ask myself the question, “Who do I want to be in this time?” I feel called to reach inward toward my deepest spiritual resources.  And I feel called to reach out to the millions of people, in widening concentric circles, with whom I share a fundamental aspiration to treat my neighbor, and the stranger, with love and compassion.

Here are five things we can do to resist the fear and hate in Mr. Trump’s vision:

1) We need to keep our hearts open to people who voted for Mr. Trump.  Let’s not mistake winning the election for winning the hearts and minds of the people of our country.  About 25% of eligible voters voted for Mr. Trump, and of those, many—we don’t know how many—did so in spite of his hateful rhetoric, not because of it.  Let’s not give up on everyone.

2) We need to take Mr. Trump’s and his closest advisors’ threats against vulnerable groups seriously.  Even though it’s a small minority of people in our country who may be angling for a militaristic white supremacist agenda, and even though their demographic time is running out, let’s not underestimate the dangers of the authoritarian threat. We need to vigilantly defend what remains of democratic institutions and the mechanisms of a free society.

3) We need to stick together.  Historically targeted groups and progressive institutions and organizations need to have each other’s backs, building cross-community networks that can communicate and mobilize effectively. We need to stay focused on the big picture—standing with the most vulnerable and targeted groups, even when our differences make it difficult to do so.

4) We need to consciously develop our moral courage.  All of us will be called on to make small choices that have big consequences, to takes risks, to be generous, and to make sacrifices.  Moral courage is something we all hope we have, but none of us knows in advance what we’ll do when faced with hard choices.  We can practice, prepare ourselves, and work together in small groups and communities to build our capacity for individual and communal moral courage.

5) We need to interrogate our fears, listening to them without allowing them to rule us, and we need to cultivate openness and trust. Our collective history of trauma as Jews exerts a gravity-like force that can pull us into a spiraling orbit of fear.  We need to rethink our practice of locking our doors and beefing up security. We need to invite more people in, making Jewish communal spaces and practices more accessible to visitors. We need to be Jewish in public and to offer our hospitality to the people and communities around us.

In Psalm 27 we read the words kaveh el HaShem chazak v’ya’ametz libechaHope in God, be strong and embolden your heart.  Hope by itself isn’t sufficient.  We’re called to partner with God by cultivating the strength of our hearts, by rousing the better angels of our nature.  As we enter this long, all-night vigil we need to commit ourselves to keeping our own, and each other’s, better angels wide awake.


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