Throughout the Jewish high holidays this year, I have been thinking about whether and how the lessons of these days could help America emerge from the current depths of division, anger, distrust, and pessimism we have fallen into.
For me the answer was found in the most visible place: the name of the days between the beginning of Rosh Hashana and the end of Yom Kippur. They are called Ten Days of Repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is "teshuva." But it has other meanings which are to return, to come home, or to return to God. That is exactly what America needs to do now – return home to our founding values of faith, freedom, and the rule of law.
During the Ten Days of Repentance, Jews are called to consider their behavior during the preceding year and to repent for the occasions when we have acted wrongly which is to say outside the code of law and values that the Bible requires of us. Repentance must of course lead to a commitment to do better in the year ahead. At the heart of the process of repentance and reform, as individuals and as a community, is returning home to our faith in the God of Creation and the God of History. First, by returning to our appreciation of God who created the world culminating in the creation of humans, we are reminded that God’s creation ties us together in one family as brothers and sisters and that we should treat each other that way. That is not the norm in America today.
We are also called on to return to an appreciation of God who entered history to give us the Ten Commandments and all the values that flowed from them. For Christianity and Islam, the same is true of the coming of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed and the values for living each brought to the world. In these three great monotheistic religions, one of the most effective motivators of good behavior is what Jews call fear of heaven or awe of God. The faithful are moved to behave in a way that serves God, that walks in God’s way. Over the centuries, those ennobling moral standards enabled enormous numbers of people to overcome the natural human temptation to act immorally, and worse.
These ruminations from my High Holiday observance led me to ask: Would not a coming home to our faith convince millions of Americans to overcome the current impulses to division, hatred, distrust, incivility, lawlessness, and violence? The faith that most Americans have in God and the values that faith in God has generated will remind us that we have much more in common as Americans and much better values to live by than the haters, hate hucksters, and the worst of our elected leaders and media personalities want us to remember.
Focusing on faith to get us out of the morass America is now in is thoroughly consistent with our national history and purpose. Remember that the Pilgrims who left England to escape the religious persecution of the King believed their mission was to establish a new Jerusalem in the land they were destined for across the Atlantic. When they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, William Brewster recited a psalm of thanksgiving to God. In the Declaration of Independence, with which American history began, our founders wrote that they were forming their new independent nation to secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which are the endowment of God, our Creator.
In his Farewell Address, President George Washington warned future generations of Americans:
Those words are as wise and compelling today as they were then, maybe more so.
At various times in American history, there have been religious awakenings that have strengthened and driven the American people to overcome big problems, gross inequalities, and severe divisions that had weakened our country and taken it off the course our Declaration and Constitution put us on. That is exactly where we are again now.
America needs a new religious awakening.