That’s it. That’s the message.
This week, President Biden delivered what is, to my mind, the best and most important inaugural speech we’ve heard in generations. It didn’t have the poetry of a Reagan or Obama speech, but it had, at its core, an urgent faithfulness to the “American Idea,” and a deep sensitivity to the fragility of our national project. It was a call to action for every patriotic American to commit ourselves to the work of achieving one central goal: “Unity.”
It only took hours for some to question whether our new President was committed to this work, to challenge the notion that it is even possible, and to, of course, knock one another around on social media.
On Wednesday the President said: “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
This week, as we prepare to mark International Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I’m reminded of the work of survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl. He taught us that even in the darkest times we can survive; that no matter what challenges we face, we have a freedom, via our choice of how to respond to the most daunting circumstances. We can persevere by nurturing a hope for the future within ourselves.
It bears repeating that comparisons of present-day circumstances to the Holocaust, a uniquely horrific chapter of history, are never wise or warranted. But what wisdom can we draw from Frankl, who survived the unimaginable with a sense of hope and purpose?
It struck me while listening on Wednesday, that this week we will continue to read the Exodus story in synagogue. In the Torah it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. In America in 2021, our President – a man of deep personal faith – is reminding us that our future and our hopes for our nation obligate each individual American to choose not to harden our own hearts.
We all need to make a choice now. Are we each, as individuals, on the side of renewal and commitment to the very idea of a shared national project as Americans, or are we not?
For me, the answer is a most enthusiastic “yes!”
At the same time, I reject the misguided notion that unity demands conformity. I am well aware of the danger inherent in that premise.
Unity has, in the past, been to the detriment of freedom and diversity. We know this as Jews who have experienced, far too often, a demand for national unity that included “one church”, a so called “unity” that excludes us. I can also recall this exclusion as someone who understands the history of my LGBTQ ancestors who were forced into the closet for the sake of conformity. Today, it can be rightly observed that there is, at times, an unhealthy and unproductive demand within some communities and movements that require conformity in all matters.
The goal of our unity is not to suppress debate and differences. It is, as the President put it so clearly, to bring to an “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal.” It is vigorous debate over policy, but with civility built on “tolerance and humility.”
Unity requires the hard work of a shared national idea, a story we tell about who we are and a project to which we dedicate ourselves, as one. That’s no easy task, in no small part because within our shared national story, we need to make space for experiences that differ from how we personally perceive the world.
On a panel last week, I talked about “the American Creed,” which in some ways can be summed up as a promise: “In this country, if I work hard and follow the rules, I can give my children a better life than the one I know.”
The challenge of that promise is that for more and more Americans in these times of expanding economic gaps, it is not the reality they experience. At the same time, for many Americans - in particular those experiencing our nation through the fractures of caste or racism - it is a promise that they have never known.
Unity requires that we listen to those stories and attempt to understand the differing experiences of our shared national narrative. We need to have the humility to know that ours is not the only interpretation of this great nation, and commit to debate policies, with civility, that can renew the promise of America, for every American.
This shabbat, as we read the words to “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt” I’m remembering the call to action we heard from our President this week, and renewing my commitment to my personal responsibility as an American, to the freedom and unity of all Americans.
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it