We Americans are now in an exciting, sacred, fateful, and at times exasperating season.
The presidential primaries are almost over. The two major party conventions will take place this summer. Following Labor Day, the presidential campaign will begin in earnest. Hopefully significant numbers of American citizens will vote.
Abstinence from voting is not an option. I am old enough to remember when my grandparents put on their Shabbat clothing and went to vote. Voting was sacred to them. As a young person, I sat out the 1968 presidential election. I would not vote for Nixon and I took out my anger on the Democratic Party for Vietnam on a good man by the name of Hubert Humphrey. Sadly I am a member of that group of Americans that put Richard Nixon in office. On that Election Day, my grandmother asked me for whom I voted. I told her I didn’t vote and why. She, who never really quite learned the King’s English, said to me in cadences and sentiments that only Yiddish can express, “Your grandfather and I did not survive two Czars and Lenin and Stalin to have a grandson that doesn’t vote in an election.” I have not missed an election since that rebuke.
Shavuot is soon upon us. This election season of ours owes much to Shavuot and the giving and receiving of the Torah. Our people’s arrival at Sinai seven weeks after liberation from Egypt was monumental. The event itself had many facets to it. At Sinai, God gave us the Torah. At Sinai, we the Jewish people received the Torah. At Sinai, both God and Israel made commitments to each other. At Sinai, a romantic relationship between God and Israel, who were in love with each other, was expressed in a covenant. At Sinai, Israel heard the voice of God when God revealed something of God’s Self to Israel. These are the dramatic experiences of Sinai.
There were other experiences at Sinai, nowhere near as dramatic (possibly prosaic), but nevertheless profoundly important. These experiences established some of the foundation principles for what we as an American citizenry are now experiencing in this election year.
At Sinai, we were constituted as a nation. Sinai was our Constitutional Convention of Philadelphia. This moment of becoming a nation established principles upon which the Jewish nation endures to this day. These are principles that the Jewish people have bequeathed to the world. These are principles without which no democracy can function. The most striking feature of our constitutional convention is that everyone participated.
When God presented the Torah to the Jewish people, it was presented to the whole Jewish people without mediation. It is not given to Moses in a private revelation for him to then turn to the Jewish people and declare, “Aha! Look what God just gave to me for you to embrace without question!” It was presented to the whole Jewish people at one time. This experience established the principle that no revelation is possible unless the whole Jewish people are present. Furthermore, the foundation of any decent and civil polity, based on the belief that everyone is created in the image of God, has to be the full and comprehensive consent of the governed. There are other faith communities that believe in a foundation revelation. However, in both of those instances the revelation took place between God and one select chosen individual who then presented the content of that revelation to his faithful. This is not so for Judaism. The whole Torah is presented to the whole Jewish people in convention.
The second principle is that Moses moves up and down the mountain several times. He gets instructions from God. He brings those instructions down the mountain to the Camp of Israel. When he arrives in the Camp of Israel he meets with the Elders. These Elders were already an institution when Israel was in slavery. Israel had a representative body of 70 Elders. These Elders, the representatives of Israel, spoke on behalf of the whole people. When Moses had a question about whether or not the people agreed to this or that notion that God had presented he would go to the Elders. The Elders would then speak to the people to gain their consent. As it is written:
So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” So Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD. (Exodus 19:7, 8)
This is the first recorded democratic moment when a whole society took part in establishing its system of governance. Upon this experience is democracy based.