To everyone reading this essay, if I had to venture a guess, here’s my hunch about how you’re feeling right now: You’re much angrier, or at least more exhausted, than you thought you’d be after the Nov. 3 election.
If you supported Joe Biden, you’re probably angry that nearly 73 million people supported Donald Trump — someone you consider not just a bad president, but a historically unfit leader who plays fast and loose with racist language.
If you voted for Trump, you’re likely sick and tired of media you perceive don’t care about you, a polling industry you believe hasn’t learned any lessons at all from the last time it ignored you, and a political process that seems almost irreparably broken.
No matter who you are or who you voted for, odds are you just have a bad feeling about where the country is headed.
With apologies for intruding on all this darkness, allow me to share some very good news: The future is very bright. How do I know it? Because as a rabbi with a doctorate in history, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past.
Consider, for example, the following: On Nov. 19, 1863, the president of the United States schlepped to a muddy field in Pennsylvania to give a speech. As he was preparing to ascend the podium, he was aware that the general situation in America was, to use a technical term, really, really bad.
Americans weren’t trading insults on Twitter or sniping at each other on cable TV. They were shooting at each other and piling the corpses on high, as they engaged in a horrific Civil War. With that in mind, the president could’ve talked about policy. He might’ve focused on politics, or military strategy, or empty platitudes about reconciliation. He chose neither.
“Four score and seven years ago,” began Abraham Lincoln’s famous oration, a reference to the time that elapsed since America’s founding in language lifted directly from the Hebrew Bible’s Psalm 90.
The Good Book used this archaic locution to describe things that were, well, archaic; and America, too, Lincoln said in so many words, was old and tired, an experiment on its last legs — unless, of course, it could muster a miraculous rebirth and usher in a second American republic, one more perfectly dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
It’s no accident that Lincoln drew his grand re-articulation of America’s purpose and destiny from the Hebrew Bible. Every great American leader has done the same at moments of great national peril.
The Founding Fathers, according to Harvard historian Eric Nelson, understood their struggle against British tyranny as an attempt to found a “Hebrew Republic” inspired by the ancient Israelites.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led our nation during the dark days of the Great Depression and World War II, consistently framed America’s quest for commercial opportunity and justice in terms of the ancient Israelite quest for the “promised land” and loyalty to its “covenant.”
According to Andrew Young, a close friend and colleague of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., “hardly a day passed when somebody didn’t make a reference to the Moses story” in the battle against racism.
And at the height of the American contest against Soviet communism, President Ronald Reagan said “the Bible and its teachings helped form the basis for the Founding Fathers’ abiding belief in the inalienable rights of the individual, rights which they found implicit in the Bible’s teachings of the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.”
In each one of these cases, Americans faced a far more serious crisis than we do now. And each time, Americans emerged with a key truth: we are all rooted in the values and ideas of the Hebrew Bible, which is America’s moral founding document, just as the Constitution is our political founding document.
So what could the Hebrew Bible teach us today?
I’m not talking about lofty spiritual ideals like “we should all pray more,” although, as a rabbi, I highly recommend it. Instead, if we want the path forward to be uplifting rather than depressing, we would do well to focus on the three foundational principles that have always saved and elevated us in times of great national trouble.
First, it’s time to get back to basics. The Bible isn’t some antiquated relic; it’s a moral masterwork that helps us discuss our most pressing and painful questions — the ones mere policy squabbles cannot address.
To get back to Lincoln for a moment, only once our greatest president framed the Civil War in Biblical terms — a battle for human dignity and the birth of a new republic, not some tiff about states’ rights — did the path forward become clear. The same is true for us. Let’s focus on values, not issues.
Second, read the Bible closely and you know that the future never looks like the past. The Israelites, like we Americans, were called upon to renew their covenant with God in every generation, and in every generation they were presented with new opportunities to tell the national story anew and recommit to foundational principles — even as the times were a-changing.
What we need right now is not a “New” New Deal only Greener, or another Reagan, or an improved coalition just like FDR’s. What we need is to renew our American covenant, retelling our story for a new generation that faces its own unique challenges with its own unique opportunities.
Finally, the Hebrew Bible teaches us one more crucially important lesson: stop talking politics. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have difficult conversations. On the contrary, the Bible has furnished the only shared vocabulary Americans have ever had for discussing our most difficult problems.
But if we truly want to get through to each other, we need to do it in ways that build community, not tear it apart. So less arguing on social media, and more earnest discussions in your church, synagogue, or mosque.
We need fewer censorious crusades against the enemy du jour, and more seeking out people in your own orbit who may be different from you, but from whom you can learn if you only gave it a chance.
And, above all, remember this: We’ve been down steeper, darker paths before, many times, and again and again emerged the better for it. We have a great roadmap in that ancient and useful book we all have lying somewhere around the house. It’s time to put it to good use.