At a synagogue service one Shabbat morning, a Torah scroll rolled off the table and fell to the floor. It was an accident, completely unintentional. Nevertheless, there was shocked silence for some moments. The Torah is sacred; the most sacred object of our faith. To see it fall to the floor was a desecration, a violation. It was then that the wise rabbi rose to bring us back together. The scroll, he explained, sacred as it may be, is a symbol. What is truly sacred are the words recorded within it and the community that gathers for learning. An atonement must be offered. And the best atonement, declared the rabbi, is a re-dedication of the community to the word, to the sacred task of learning and living Torah.
I remembered that moment, that lesson, as I watched the news yesterday. Like so many, I watched in shocked silence. The U.S. Capitol is not sacred like a Torah scroll. Although walking about that building one feels a sense of reverence. The Capitol is a symbol of our democracy and the struggles of our ancestors to create and preserve it. Democracy, in turn, is an affirmation of the dignity every human being deserves, the inalienable rights to life and liberty, our drive to shape a just and compassionate society. In that sense, democracy is sacred. As the grandchild of immigrants who fled pogroms and survived a Holocaust, I feel this deeply. That’s why yesterday’s events were so shocking. Yesterday, we witnessed a desecration, a violation, an assault on what we hold sacred.
Democracy is fragile. The ancient Greeks didn’t favor democracy because they believed no democracy could last. Eventually, human passions overwhelm reason and democracy would morph into tyranny. The American founding fathers understood this. They constructed our democracy with safeguards to protect us from our own worst impulses. But even with all our safeguards, democracy depends upon the willing acceptance of a set of values and behaviors on the part of all, citizens and leaders alike. This civic morality is not legislated, not encoded in law or statute, not enforced by authority, It is understood and accepted as the code we all live by. When that civic morality is violated, the pillars of democracy waver. Yesterday, we felt that tremor. And that has left us shaken.
The rabbi was right; an atonement must be offered. An act of rededication is called for. Usually, your rabbi invites you to learn Torah. Today, I ask you to read some American Torah -- the sacred words that have made America great. Words that bring a re-dedication to the civic morality of our democracy. Read these words. Hear their passion. And ask God’s blessings upon this country.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein