When Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly and unexpectedly, a week ago Saturday, I experienced the same surge of emotion that many Americans felt. Sadness for the life lost and for a person, his family and friends, none of whom I know, was tinged with either sadness and fear about the future of our country without Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court or gratitude at the prospect of the Justice’s being replaced on the Court by a fifth liberal.
In my own Facebook feed, I noticed both responses. One friend in the latter camp, where I also reside, confessed to a guilty conscience about any happiness experienced as the result of a person’s death.
By then, though, we had seen the statement by the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, declaring in the hours after Scalia’s death was announced that the Senate wouldn’t act on any nomination by the current President. That President quickly insisted that he would certainly make a nomination and expect the Senate to act upon it.
I suspect that both Sen. McConnell and President Obama began their statements with words of sadness and sympathy. Still, none can blame the media for leading with their sensational statements about the recently-deceased’s replacement on the Court.
I was appalled. Not at the press but at our national leaders.
When a person dies, Judaism teaches that our obligation is kavod ha-met, honoring the deceased. That priority is so important that we are forbidden even turn to nichum aveilim, comforting the mourners, until after burial. Turning so quickly to discussion of a successor justice, Sen. McConnell immediately changed the national conversation away from kavod ha-met to mundane and political matters. President Obama piled on.
Surely, neither Sen. McConnell or President Obama wished to dishonor Justice Scalia, a”h. Each would argue that his position best honors the deceased Justice — McConnell, by striving for a replacement who would fit Scalia’s own mold; and Obama, by arguing for a process that would adhere to the Constitution that Scalia defended.
Both men failed in a way that’s increasingly common in our modern world, giving in to an urge to act instantly.
I am often guilty: jumping to the phone when I hear that “ding” or feel the vibration, even if it’s just my turn in “Words with Friends.” At the same time, by studying and practicing Mussar, I have learned not to respond instantly when I receive a text or email that I initially deem irritating. Frequently, the simple act of waiting an hour softens my view of the communication I’ve received. At the very least, waiting changes the tone or medium of my response for the better.
How much healthier would we be as a nation, and how much more fittingly would Justice Scalia have been honored in the days after his death, had Sen. McConnell paid tribute to the newly-deceased Justice’s memory, declining to discuss any possible confirmation process until after a nomination were made? How much healthier would we be as a nation, and how much greater the honor to Justice Scalia, a”h, had the President declined to engage Sen. McConnell’s remarks until after the Justice’s funeral. As one who hopes for the confirmation of a successor justice nominated by President Obama, and who agrees with his constitutional argument on the point, I believe he would have carried the day by pointedly refusing to descend into public political discourse about any nomination until after Justice Scalia’s funeral, and certainly not in the hours after his death.
My Mussar teacher, Alan Morinis, reminds us that “sevel,” suffering, and “savlanut,” patience, are formed from the same Hebrew root. Perhaps the Senator would’ve had to struggle mightily, even suffering, to suppress the urge to make his point instantly. Maybe President Obama would’ve been pained by not joining a battle that has been initiated. Each has a “base” that expects no less than instant, repeated, hyper-partisan reaction to every event.
Similarly, we may be uncomfortable sitting with that provocative text or email, but we must suffer patiently in order to reduce the suffering we will cause ourselves and others with the instant, caustic response.
Now, because the Senator and the President lacked patience, the nation suffers.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.