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How to Reestablish Our Covenant as Citizens - and Why It Matters

How to Reestablish Our Covenant as Citizens - and Why It Matters

I will establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you, for all their generations, an everlasting covenant: to be God to you and to your descendants after you.

Genesis 17:7

In this week’s parashah, Lech L’cha, God establishes the covenant with Abraham, one of the most fundamental moments in Jewish tradition. God promises Abraham he will “be the father of a multitude of peoples” (Genesis 17:4) and though they will experience being strangers in a strange land (Egypt), Abraham’s descendants will be liberated (15:13-15). In exchange, and as a symbol of their acceptance of the covenant, Abram and Sarai change their names to Abraham and Sarah and all his male descendants are to be circumcised.

What is particularly striking about this covenant is that God makes it not only with Abraham (and Sarah), but very explicitly with all their descendants. The symbol of the covenant is renewed in each generation, and it remains an important life cycle ritual across the Jewish world.

Today, Election Day, is an apt time to think about covenants. The United States’ founders wrote a Constitution that promised Americans rights and responsibilities. Although the Constitution was ratified more than 200 years ago, it is incumbent upon each of us, generation after generation, to ensure the healthy functioning of our nation by renewing that “covenant,” including by participating in the most important ritual and symbol of citizenship: voting.

That is one reason why the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder (2013) to gut key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was so deeply troubling and calls us to action. Following the Shelby decision, several states enacted laws – such as voter ID requirements or restrictions on early voting – that have inhibited the right to vote. Worse, these laws have repeatedly been found to be discriminatory toward minority groups.

In late July, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s new voting law after determining that it was created with discriminatory intent. On August 1, a federal judge overturned a North Dakota law that had further restricted the state’s voter ID requirement after finding that it unfairly burdened Native Americans. Most recently, on September 9, a federal appeals court placed a temporary hold on a requirement in Georgia, Kansas, and Alabama that voters would have to send proof of citizenship along with their voter registration form (other restrictions remain on the books in Kansas and Alabama). Come Election Day, 14 states will have new voting restrictions on the books.

Laws that impede access to voting, inhibit, or even prevent eligible Americans from participating in a fundamental national right and ritual do not reflect the values that make our nation a beacon to the world. Instead, these laws send a message to some that they have no role in shaping the country’s present or future.

The covenant is broken.

As Jews and Americans, we have an obligation to register to vote, to educate ourselves about the critical issues, and to cast our ballot. The same is true for every citizen of voting age, which is why the Reform Movement has been partnering with the NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the PICO National Network, and other organizations to protect the right to vote this election year. Our initiative, Nitzavim: Standing up for Voter Protection and Participation has mobilized congregations and individuals across the country to take action by serving as poll monitors, registering people to vote, pledging 100% voting commitment within a congregation, holding candidate forums, and engaging in other efforts, all of which are non-partisan. Tikkun Tikvah, an initiative of Reform California, is doing related work to support  Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, a sentencing reform measure that is on the state ballot.

By voting, every person becomes part of the covenant, no matter where we are from, what we look like, or what we believe. In so doing, we help shape and carry forward the values, rights, and responsibilities that are the envy of the world, and that have allowed the Jewish people to flourish nearly unmatched in history. We owe nothing less to our ancestors, to our descendants, and to ourselves.

Barbara Weinstein is the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she directs legislative policy. She is also the director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.


Barbara Weinstein
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