Tuesday morning I spoke up. I had to wake up extra early, and cross the street, and then walk past Fairyland to the Lake Merritt park botanical garden building. Once inside, they checked my identity, and then I was given a pen, some paper, and most importantly, permission to speak candidly. And so, I cast my vote.
Days like Tuesday can feel small, but elections are one of the few moments when each and every one of us can touch our hands to democracy and take hold of that great responsibility to shape our future.
What is democracy? The Merriam-Webster definition is in two parts: 1 : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority; and 2 : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.
Some think democracy is a nice idea, but mostly a fiction. That no matter what we do, the real decisions are out of our hands.
Some think democracy is just a fact, the way of America. So why bother with elections, I’ve got important things to do!
Democracy is neither fact nor fiction, but a choice we make every day. Democracy is for me, the wilderness, in the grand story of the Jewish people. Let me tell you what I mean when I say democracy is the wilderness.
Our book Bamidbar places us in the wilderness with our ancestors, the Israelites. This week, in parshat Sh’lach L’cha, the pivotal event of the wandering occurs. Moses and Aaron send twelve scouts to peer into the land of Canaan and bring back word of what bounty they can expect to find and what challenges they will need to face in inhabiting that Promised Land.
Ten of the twelve spies come back full of fear and lacking faith, and they convince nearly the whole community, the 600,000 souls of Israel, that the whole journey has been a disaster and they can’t possibly reach their destination.
The community says, “Let us appoint a [new] head and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4). And Rashi, the great medieval commentator, clarifies that what they mean is: let us set a king over us. The aren’t just shying away from their potential, the land of freedom and responsibility, they want to go back to Egypt, where Pharaoh made their decisions for them. And so, that entire generation is doomed.
I think this story can serve as a helpful metaphor. At stake is the relationship between individuals and the collective society, between your average Israelites, activists such as the scouts, both for and against entering the Promised Land, and the visionary leaders such as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The relationships and conversations in this week’s Torah portion changed the course of Israelite history.
In today’s terms, the relationship between individual and the collective government is known as civic engagement. And here’s what I mean when I say democracy is the wilderness, the in-between place. Civic engagement, which includes such simple acts as voting, is the practice of participating in the conversation about where we are headed – the Promised Land, or back to Egypt.
Going back to Egypt means going back to the non-democracy that preexisted our current form of government. The Promised Land is the community or nation or world we dream of. Our dreams differ. That is the nature of democracy. But we cannot let fear or anger or overwhelm, or apathy keep us from sharing our dreams, vocalizing our dreams, acting in ways that might, just might, bring our dreams closer to reality.
We will never reach the Promised Land. This is the nature of dreams. But our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will inherit a world that is different depending on how we acted for our dreams.
And how did we act on Tuesday? I hope that this room does not correspond to how Contra Costa County voted. Out of approximately 600,000 registered voters, barely 20% voted a few days ago. Only 1 out of 5 people who could vote chose to speak up, chose to dream responsibly, chose to hold the future of our neighborhoods in their hands before they submitted their ballots. I’m not even talking about the roughly half of this county who aren’t even registered. [Edit: After late counting of mail-in ballots, the percentage of those who voted has risen to 29%. Official statistics here.]
At Temple Isaiah, and within the Reform Movement nationally and statewide, we are committing to improving our civic engagement this year. We have a team formed that is preparing to help educate our congregation on issues, encourage everyone to register to vote so that we can be a beacon of the best of American citizenry, and partnering with organizations such as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the MultiFaith Action Coalition here, and the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley, to increase voter registration in communities near us.
Democracy is a wilderness. Civic engagement is a practice and a conversation. Voting is how we stay on course to the Promised Land, and don’t slide back into slavery. This Shabbat, may we all reconnect to our dreams of the world we want, and this year, may we participate in the conversation of how to get there.