As with all of you, I was stunned yesterday when I heard that a mob invaded the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Since that moment I’ve been glued to the media obsessed about this singular moment in my lifetime, a delusional horde urged on by the president of the United States, that sought to tear down a precious institution of our democracy. Before order was restored at the Capitol, a ghastly scene replayed over and over on the news, during which protestors tirelessly ransacked the House and Senate chambers. At least one person was killed. Well likely out of a sense of defiance of those events as well as the mission to complete the day’s work, Congress was ultimately able to reconvene in the evening to confirm Joe Biden as our next president. What should have been a pro forma ritual turned into an unspeakable desecration of our democracy before returning to order.
Back in the late 1800’s, newly immigrant Jews would turn their gaze upon the capital of their newly adopted homeland. They would rhapsodize about the District of Columbia, proclaiming that it possessed messianic qualities. Rabbis would give sermons comparing Washington, D.C. to Jerusalem and the White House to the Temple. Such was the wonder with which they beheld the government of their new home. This talk was surely hyperbole, but nonetheless bespoke a love and respect for the institutions our forebears found on these shores. For they saw in American democracy a means to achieve equality and human unity—little known throughout their European wanderings. To them this was miraculous. They saw something sacred, something worthy of religious veneration.
Yesterday that veneration met with an explosion of paganism. Paganism, the worship of false ideas, included, beyond the violence and anger and delusions about the election, the unfurling of the Confederate flag within the confines of the Capitol. Yesterday we lost a measure of certainty as to the unbreakable power of our democracy. Yesterday we were shocked to see one of our sacred national spaces desecrated by those who lost sight of what the Capitol building stands for, who chose violence over law and order, anarchy over democracy, terror over peace. And who’s to deny that, in some measure at least, these people did not succeed in inflicting lasting damage?
Yesterday was a bad day for America.
There is prayer in Siddur Lev Shalom, the Conservative prayer book I’d like to share:
“Our God and God of our ancestors, with mercy accept our prayer on behalf of our country and its government. Pour out Your blessing upon this land, upon its inhabitants, its leaders, its judges, officers, and officials who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public. Help them understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness, and freedom will never depart from our land.” To which we must say, Amen.
What happened yesterday has to be a warning that the institutions which constitute the democracy we hold so dear are delicate and precious. They need our renewed vigilance as one community among many that constitutes this country we call home.
Yesterday’s events must always be a reminder: democracy isn’t free nor easy. It requires our hard labor and, above all, our continuing vigilance. With the help of God, may we continue at that hard work to make America the land our forebears saw in such glowing terms.
Rabbi Phil Cohen