See Thy Neighbor

Blessed as I am with friends of many political persuasions and viewpoints, I have been watching as people get more and more upset in the weeks leading up to Election Day. There has always been a touch of caricature — maybe even slander — in our political system. I remember learning in eighth grade history class about that song meant to taunt Grover Cleveland, “Maw, Maw, where’s my Paw? He’s gone to the White House, ha ha ha.” 

An out-of-wedlock pregnancy resulting from sexual assault did not seem to cause Cleveland lasting political harm. Saying harsh things about candidates is just part of the process. Saying harsh things that may or may not be true seems also to be part of the process.

Yet somehow the current social media environment seems to be kicking everything up a notch. It has become impossible to find where the truth actually is. We can read about the same people or events from multiple viewpoints and wind up confused and frustrated. Can one human really be so bad as we are asked to believe? Can the other?

I suppose the success of social media partly rests on everyone being offered a news diet that flatters their preconceived ideas. At this moment, it seems we are being force-fed information that makes the candidates we dislike — and their supporters — into caricatures, into monsters. The vicious cycle escalates as we see more and more stories showing us how awful so-and-so is, and how uncivilized their supporters are. 

I must be clear. I draw the line at violence and hateful speech, at incitement and trampling the rights of others. Yet I do believe that there is room for multiple opinions and approaches, provided those are fueled by conscience and caring. I strive to see the best in people, while firmly condemning the worst.

Will tomorrow’s election bring a clear result, a return to order, a national calming? Will it bring chaos and confusion, violence and misery, militias swarming the polling places to make sure their guy comes out on top? Will it bring riots in the streets? That there are sane people who believe each of these is a genuine possibility puts a chill in my soul.

I think we have lost the capacity to see ourselves as part of a greater whole. I think we have lost the capacity to see one another. 

The sages discuss in Berachot 9b just how much light there needs to be in order to say the morning Sh’ma, a prayer that declares the unity of Gd. Some of the rabbis say we need to be able to tell the difference between blue and white; others say, between blue and green. Then they consider maybe the standard is being able to distinguish a dog from a wolf. Others say it’s when there’s enough light that you can recognize a neighbor from a short distance.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I urge everyone to take a deep breath, stand still for a moment, and see your neighbor. If you believe that we are all created b’tzelem elohim (in the image of Gd) then you must believe that each of us has a right to an opinion, thoughtfully expressed. You must count even that neighbor, the one whose flag or lawn sign or Facebook comments raise your hackles. Even that neighbor is in the image of Gd. See them. 

You will still be able to tell a dog from a wolf. But regardless of which “we” we belong to, we must all stop assuming that they are all wolves.

We share a country.