Something strange has happened this election year. Instead of focusing on how uniquely qualified, informed, compassionate, and passionate the candidates are, both Republican and Democratic parties have been hoping people will vote for their candidate as a vote “against” the other.
This is not what any of us want.
We want to hear about the candidates gifts, about their visions, about the work they are already doing on behalf of the American people. We want to be inspired, uplifted, and above all else we want to feel proud of our nominee.
It reminds me of Noah. The Torah tells us three things about Noah: he “walked with God”, he was “blameless in his generation”, and that God found that Noah “alone has been found righteous before Me in this generation.”
Over the years, many rabbis have noticed the qualifier in that statement “in this generation,” and have asked, “If Noah lived in a different generation, would he still have been considered righteous?” In other words – was God’s choice to save Noah a vote for him, or just a vote against the other guys? Was Noah truly a righteous person, or did he merely look good in comparison to the corrupt, violent and lawless community he was living amongst? Noah is often compared to Abraham. When Abraham learned that God was going to destroy the corrupt towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham fought for them, even saying to God “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to wipe away the righteous along with the wicked!” Noah is not depicted as arguing with God, as warning the people to repent, or as Rabbi Berechia questions, Noah did not even pray for his generation to be saved and repent.
As Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (Levush he-Ora) put it so bluntly, “His righteousness bore the stamp of mediocrity.”
Moreover, while there is something to say for someone who remains “blameless” in a time of corruption, is being “blameless” all it takes to be righteous? Or do we expect a righteous person to do more? Be proactive?
Peter Singer, professor at Princeton University, author, and utilitarian philosopher argues that to be truly righteous, we must be actively seeking opportunities to do good. For Singer, it is not enough to “do no harm,” we have to do good.
Many in our country are voting for a candidate because they did not do something the other candidate is accused of doing.
How about what they have done? Pirke Avot teaches us that a truly wise person, someone who truly loves Torah, their deeds will be greater than their wisdom (3:9). This teaches us that if you really want to know who someone is, don’t listen to their wisdom. We can all be taught to give the polished answer, the one that will impress – but that answer doesn’t mean anything unless it is backed up by deeds. You want to know who to vote for? Our rabbinic masters are saying – look at their deeds – what have they done to back up the wisdom they are spouting?
18th century Chasidic master Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk tells a beautiful story that illustrates two kinds of righteous people. Imagine a freezing winter. In this freezing winter, one righteous person is compared to someone who wraps themselves in a fur coat, therefore keeping themselves warm and protected from the harmful elements. This is the person who does no harm. They are not hurting anyone else, they are doing the right thing for themselves, and they are kept warm and protected. But there is a second righteous person. This individual collects wood and builds a fire. They warm themselves and invite others to gather round. This is the person who seeks to do good. This is a person who is not only concerned with their own righteousness, but with that of others.
Noah had a chance to warn the people, but didn’t. He still did what he was told to do, he still built an arc, gathered either 2 or 7 of all living creatures, and he is still a righteous man. But we have had better leaders, leaders like Abraham who fought for Sodom and Gomorrah, leaders like Moses who plead to save the Jewish people from both Pharaoh and from God’s wrath.
And so, who are you voting for? Are you voting for someone simply because of what they did not do? Is your vote a begrudging vote? Or are you voting for someone because of the good they have already done, because their deeds are at least as great, if not greater, than their words?
Either way, I pray that you vote. I voted early this year. I voted for a candidate that I am incredibly proud of, and would be proud to call my president. As I left the voting booth, I said a shechechianu: Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this election season.
Rabbi Rachel G. Greengrass serves Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida