08 January 2021
The poet Adrienne Rich described the power of language as the power to define “our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe.” She might agree that when it comes to leadership, language matters. The way in which leaders choose to communicate can shape the ideas of a nation and have monumental impact on the course of history. Words have the power to unite us, bring forth our better angels, and reignite our commitment to a common cause. But just as easily, words can divide us, stoke baseless fear and hatred, and spur chaos and conspiracy.
Wednesday afternoon’s events at the U.S. Capitol will go down in history as a prime example of the latter. The violence and intimidation, and all of the rhetoric leading up to it, will be remembered with shame and disgust. Later that same day, however, another critical event occurred. In a rebuke of the words that stoked the riots, Congress resumed counting the Electoral College vote and throughout the process articulated ideas and sentiments about who we are.
In that moment, lawmakers chose to stand up for basic American tenets, including the democratic rule of law. Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY) noted how a begrudging John Adams, who lost the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson, shocked the world by stepping aside despite his disappointment. His peaceful and uneventful departure was one of the greatest gifts our country has received. And several senators, including Ben Sasse (R-NE), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), spoke about the dangers of lying to the public and, as Senator Booker described, the “incalculable thing of value, which is to speak truth to our nation.
As it stands, I cannot yet tell which scene—Wednesday afternoon or Wednesday evening—will have the bigger impact on our country’s future. Will January 6, 2021 simply be another entry in a complicated era for America? What story will we be able to tell our children and grandchildren?
If nothing else, this week underscored the fragility of the American democratic system. Free and fair elections, civic participation, open and intelligent discourse, and peaceful transition of power are all components of our society that are more delicate than many of us realized. Our democratic norms are upheld only by the conscious efforts of citizens and leaders alike. I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it will take all of our efforts to bend that arc in the direction we envision. Just as our representatives had to wade through broken glass to resume the work of the nation, we too must do our part to pick up the pieces of a broken electorate and move forward.
At The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, we are committed to pursuing this work wholeheartedly. We are focused on promoting civil discourse in our community and bringing people together to consider and live up to the responsibilities we have as Jews. As Richard Just discussed in The Washington Post Magazine, we have long believed the Jewish community, guided by sacred values and teachings, has the potential to be a unifying force in our society and a champion for democracy. After a week like this, we are more eager than ever to take inspiring words to heart and strengthen a vibrant Jewish community that helps our country, and our world, realize its highest ideals.
Shabbat Shalom and with hope for better days ahead,
P.S. The conversation continues. Join us and the Shalom Hartman Institute on January 14 for a special and timely discussion about Jewish identity and civic responsibility during this transitory moment in our country. We are excited to host Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Dr. Donniel Hartman, and Dr. Kenneth Weinstein as featured guests, and we welcome your questions and participation. Learn more and register.