After the Flood: What Happens When Election Day Is Over?

November 7, 2016Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

The cover of the current issue of TIME magazine depicts the two presidential candidates standing together, smiling congenially, holding a sign saying “THE END IS NEAR.” The same week, we read Parashat Noach, in which God warns Noah that the world has become so full of violence and lawlessness that it will be destroyed by flood. The end indeed was near.

The TIME cover captures perhaps the one thing all Americans can agree on: We’re sick of this election and can’t wait for it to end. It also captures an important dynamic of this election, and perhaps the state of American politics: The outcome is framed as having apocalyptic consequences.

Throughout history, rabbis have debated about Noah’s righteousness. As we contemplate the U.S. election and the state of American politics, I turn once again to Noah – less in evaluating candidates and more to challenge ourselves.

In the face of a profoundly polarized political environment, what is our role? Informed by our historic commitment to rodeph tezdek (pursuing justice), how do we hear God’s call? And how ought we respond?

Torah tells us Noach ish tzedek tamim hayah be-dorotav – Noah was a righteous man, in his generation above reproach. Though God chose him to build the ark and survive the flood because of his righteousness, the rabbis pick up on the qualifying word be-dorotav, “in his generation.” Some argued that Noah was only relatively righteous, as compared to the context of wickedness during which he lived; others dissented, arguing Noah would have excelled in any era.

As a proof text, the rabbis juxtapose Noah with Abraham. Noah did exactly as God commanded, building an ark to save himself, his family, and the animal kingdom, in the context of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Abraham fought back in the name of justice, asking, “Would you destroy the righteous along with the wicked?” Abraham’s defiance in the face of the coming destruction is a radical affirmation that resistance is possible and that leaders have capacity to imagine a better reality. It provides a model of leadership that ought to inspire us.

Such biblical models of leadership are not limited to men. We can also learn from the courageous acts of resistance by Shifra and Puah, who refused to carry out Pharaoh’s order against the ancient Hebrews, and of Miriam, Yocheved, and Pharaoh’s own daughter, who conspired to defy the order and preserve life. We can only imagine the risk these heroic women took to act for justice.

This election has challenged many of us to appropriately lift up the moral voice, to act in dissent, in the face of bigotry, hateful rhetoric, and demagoguery that is unprecedented in our lifetimes.

But I bring you good news: The end is near. When we wake up on November 9th, it will be over.

And what happens then? We get up and go to work. We do so knowing that whatever the result, our mission will begin again. We will continue to harness the power of our tradition to create a world of justice, wholeness, and peace – and the work will be more urgent than ever. The hatred, anger, and fear this election has exposed is more deeply rooted than the bigoted rhetoric that simmers at the surface. 

We didn’t need this election to tell us that racism persists in deep, corrosive, systemic, and cultural ways across society.

We didn’t need this election to remind us that society permits ongoing acceptance of sexual assault and the unjust treatment of women and LGBT people.

We didn’t need this election to wake us up to the reality that anti-Semitism continues to fester and is dangerously aligned with xenophobia that could threaten the security of Jews and other minorities.

So what will we do? What would Abraham do? What would Shifra, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, and Pharoah’s daughter do?

They would organize. They would lift up their voices and act in public defiance of hate. They would articulate a clear, compelling case for another vision, a vision for justice in our world. A world where all people are free from fear, poverty, and suffering. A world in which all people can live with dignity.

And so will we.

We will be a religious movement of resistance. We will resist hatred against women, minorities, and even Jews that this election has exposed. We will resist the politics of division, bigotry and hate.

In the face of demonization of the immigrant, we will welcome the stranger.

In the face of Islamophobia, we will welcome the refugee.

In the face of anti-Semitic demagoguery, we will defend the Jewish people.

Though Noah is satisfied to simply survive the destruction, God is not, providing a symbol of what redemption looks like: Let the rainbow after the flood guide us.

Yes, the end is near. I pray the flooding waters of bigotry and hate are now cresting. And when the waters recede, we will be the rainbow; the covenant of love that appears in the sky, restoring hope for the world and all her inhabitants.

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