Learning the lessons of equality and democracy


When I prepare a speech lately, or sit down to write a column such as this, I can’t help but think about a particular set of political principles. The principles I ponder are the principles of democracy. The lessons of the equality of all human beings and the concepts of freedom and tolerance have been demanding my attention.

Why now? Why at this time of year?

One possible reason comes to mind. The anniversary of the tragedies of September 11, 2001, falls during this time of year. It’s a day of grief and mourning for all the victims and their families, but for me, especially for several victims I knew personally. One of them, Abe Zelmanowitz, will be remembered by the world for his heroic attempts to rescue handicapped coworkers. Another, Nancy Morgenstern, was one of the most creative and vivacious women I ever knew. A third, Shimmy Biegeleisen, grew up just a few houses away from my childhood home.

But beyond the grief and the mourning is the recognition that this tragedy affected all kinds of people — old and young, great and not so great, Jew and non-Jew. It is almost as if our enemies knew that if they were to strike at the heart of our great democracy, they would have to aim at a target that would symbolize democracy because of the diversity and ultimate equality of the victims.

It was only natural that as an immediate aftereffect of the events of that horrific day, so many of us came to a new appreciation of the great gifts of democracy in general, and of the privilege to live in these United States in particular. Thus, thoughts about democracy fill my mind at this particular time of year.

But as I introspected further, I realized that there is more going on around me during this particular time which stimulates these thoughts.

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For one thing, there is this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim. If there is one parsha  which conveys the principles of democracy most eloquently, it is this one.

You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your G-d; the chieftains of your tribes, your elders, your leaders — every person in Israel. Your little children, your women, and the stranger who is within your camp; from your wood choppers to your water fetchers. (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)

I first became aware of the fundamental principles of democracy when I learned these words in the early grades of the Jewish school I attended.

There is another factor that evokes in my mind the fundamental values of democracy at this time of year. As we approach the end of the Jewish year, it is natural that our memories reflect upon its beginning, indeed upon all beginnings. Thinking about beginnings means thinking about the lessons that my parents, may they rest in peace, taught me.

My parents, one born in America, and one an immigrant from Poland, were both proud Americans and proud Jews. And they both inculcated in me and my sisters a profound appreciation for the values that our country and our religion had in common. They taught by example that we were not to discriminate between the extremely powerful and the lowly, between the rich and the poor, between the Jew and the stranger, between the doctor or lawyer and the wood chopper and water fetcher.

My father in particular, would explicitly teach me these lessons at this time of year.

“The Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, are approaching,” he would say. “It is time to learn what some of the melodies are these days.” And he would sing them to me. “It is time to learn some of the lessons of these days.” And he would teach them to me.

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The lessons he taught were basically religious lessons, but in a deeper sense were also political ones. For he stressed to me, and this is obvious to anyone who but glances at the words of the liturgy of the High Holidays, that G-d judges all of mankind on Rosh Hashana. He put it quite bluntly: “Rosh Hashana may only be celebrated by Jews. But it is not only a Jewish holiday. It is the birthday of the world, and the Master of the world judges us all, with no discrimination.”

These words of the prayer book, quoted below, anticipated the source works of American democracy by many centuries:

And therefore, cast Your awe, L-rd our G-d, upon all your handiwork, and your fear upon all whom you have created. ... Let all creatures bow before you, and may they all together form one united group.

Indeed, in the words of the Mishnah, which have been incorporated into the High Holiday prayer book:

Kol ba’ei olam ya’avrun lefanecha kivnei maron (all the inhabitants of the world pass before you like a flock of sheep).

Very shortly, the L-rd will sit in judgment over all of us, whatever our nation, whatever our race, whatever our gender, whatever our faith.

May He judge us with mercy and compassion and guide us in His ways so that we find peace.