The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yitzhak, taught that "A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted" (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). He further explained that in the Torah, Bezalel could not be chosen to build the Tabernacle without approval of the community. This ethic of participation in communal decision making is embedded in Jewish thought and accounts for the enthusiastic engagement of Jews in the electoral process.
I moved to the U.S. from Canada and voted for the first time in an American presidential election in 2016, after becoming a citizen. Like a convert who chooses a new religion and takes on its obligations with a high degree of commitment, I take a citizen’s responsibility to vote very seriously.
When I stepped into the voting booth, I brought to this sacred rite four ritual objects: my voter registration card, my naturalization certificate, a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and a Hebrew Bible. The first three communicated my right vote, the fourth served as my guide.
Before marking my ballet, I opened the Bible to Leviticus 19, known as The Holiness Code, and took its teachings to heart:
“You shall be holy because I, the Eternal your God am holy.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.
You shall not defraud your fellow.
You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.
You shall not render an unfair decision: Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.
You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, [and] honest weights. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules. I am the Eternal Your God.”
As I marked my ballot, I asked myself: Which of these candidates did I think would best uphold these sacred values? It was a proud moment.
This year, my mail-in ballot arrived during Sukkot, when we eat in a sukkah or booth and the shake the in every direction. Our sages say that shaking the lulav in this way symbolizes God’s omnipresence. An anthropologist might describe this act as symbolically casting seed outward to the winds in the hope that the gods will ensure a a bountiful harvest next year. In the voting booth, I feel that am casting outward my highest hopes, dreams and aspirations, looking to create a world filled with sustenance and bounty for all her inhabitants.
I opened my ballot on October 6th, spread it before me on the kitchen table, kitchen table, and looked at my daughter. She was in hybrid learning mode, her eyes fixed on her laptop screen. As though writing in Hebrew from right to left, I began filling in my ballot with black ink – family court judge, district attorney, member of state assembly, state senator, congressional representative. Before casting my vote for president, I paused. I looked back at my daughter. I looked outside at the natural beauty and thought about who and what I was voting for, about what was at stake.
Absent was the pride I felt four years earlier, tears welled up in my eyes. I thought of our ancestors who came to these shores in search of a life where they would have opportunity, freedom, dignity, and agency. They never took for granted what this country gave them. I don’t either.
Voting is how we determine our future. It is how we fulfill the Talmudic teaching that a leader not be chosen unless the community is consulted. It is our prayer. It is our voice.
As you vote – whether by mail, early in person or on November 3rd – I encourage you to pause, to reflect on the values and traditions that guide you, to consider what’s at stake. I pray that the outcome of this election will lead to the creation of a nation where equality and certain unalienable rights are upheld as the highest ideals, and where everyone can sit under their vine and fig tree and none will be afraid.
Taking Torah into the voting booth also means that, saving human life, is Judaism’s highest , so consider your voting options carefully. If you need to vote by mail, do so. Voting early will allow you to minimize your exposure to crowds. And if you vote in person on November 3rd, please wear a mask, keep a safe distance, and bring along some hand sanitizer. Make your vote a blessing for our country.
For additional information about the Reform Jewish Movement’s civic engagement work and what you can do this year, see “It's Election Season: 7 Key Actions to Take Between Now and Nov. 3rd.”