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"Our Freedoms" - Yom Kippur Daytime Sermon 5779

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

G’mar tov, and may you have a sweet and good year ahead.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we read directions about what to do when we find lost objects. The rationale given for returning such a lost object to its owner is: “Lo tuchal l’hit’aleim, you will not be able to shrink from this responsibility.”[1] Almost sounds like a compulsion, or like almost nothing should deter you from fulfilling this commandment.

The word “l’hit’aleim”, a verb here which means “to ignore, back away from, deny, be indifferent to” and so forth, has—as its root—the word “elem” or “child”. So with this translation, we might hear the text saying, “When you come upon lost objects, you can’t react like a child; young people don’t understand the value of returning lost objects”. In other words, the mature way to deal with lost items is to return them properly.

The Torah underscores—in many places—the expected civic responsibilities of those defined as members of a community. Restoring lost animals to their owners, ensuring that waste water runoff does not affect a neighbor, participating in joint security measures to protect their town: All these and more were the concerns of ancient communities, and were covered by discussions in the Talmud.

The strongest implication of “lo tuchal l’hit’aleim” is that ‘no one should hide behind the ignorance of youth when engaging in these important community matters’.

My friends:

In our day, we also have many civic responsibilities. From paying our property taxes to answering that summons to jury duty, from obeying traffic laws to putting out the refuse and recycling in an orderly fashion: Each of us supports our community by fulfilling these basic civic commitments. Not only do our individual actions benefit everyone, but we actually preserve the many freedoms we enjoy by performing our civic duties properly.

And even in extraordinary or difficult moments, our civic responsibilities continue. We might be witnesses to a traffic accident or a crime, and we need to offer testimony as to what happened. We might be called upon to perform CPR—if we have been certified—in a life-and-death situation.

In other words, our duties to one another reach beyond the usual and everyday activities of life, and compel us to embrace the difficult and problematic situations we confront. In these special instances, we follow the lead of the Torah when it talks about paying compensation when we cause damage, or how a town goes about accepting responsibility if there is an unsolved murder within its boundaries.

These sacred words, lo tuchal lhit’aleim, direct our public behavior at both easy and difficult times. They also refer to our engagement at the ballot box whenever an election takes place. Voting strengthens and enhances the freedoms we cherish in this land. Our Jewish American ethos, supported by ancient-but-ever-relevant values, is resilient because these Torah values still address human needs today.

 This year, especially, we are concerned about overcoming voter apathy. Frankly, I can think of no better Yom Kippur undertaking than a commitment to assist in getting as many people as possible to go to the polls six weeks from now, and encouraging them to exercise their right to vote. This is how we change society for the better...and our lives, as well.

*   *   *   *

I would like you to bear in mind for a moment the following number.


Got it? 87,810.

Ready? Okay, here goes:

There were, in the state of Michigan at the time of its November 2016 election, 87,810 special ballots cast by Michigan voters. Why were these ballots special? Some of you likely know. For those who don’t, these ballots were special because: On those 87,810 ballots, along with their votes for national, state, county, municipal offices, and referenda, these ballots had no votes for president.[2]

None at all! None of these almost 90,000 voters selected even one of the presidential candidates.

Now here is another number for you to think about: The margin of victory in Michigan between the two major political party candidates was 13,097 votes.

The number of people who did not cast any vote for president was more than six times the margin of victory.

Unfathomable! Unbelievable! I was shocked when I recently learned of these facts. And yet, that was the reality.

And what caused this voter unresponsiveness?

Voters who acknowledged they voted this way related that neither major party candidate was the right choice for our nation, so they did not feel compelled to vote, even for the perceived lesser of two evils.[3]

Similar attitudes were expressed across the nation, when analyzing voter turnout results.

According to George Pillsbury, author of a report by Nonprofit VOTE and the US Elections Project, Wisconsin’s overall turnout was lower than in past years due in part to a reported “distaste for both [major] presidential candidates.[4]

Overall, in 2016, Wisconsin had a turnout of 70.5%, which is not bad when you consider the national turnout rate was around 60%[5], and that we were the fifth highest turnout rate in the country; Minnesota was highest at 74.8%, by the way[6].

Still: Nationally, four out of ten eligible voters did not bother going to the polls. The main reasons cited by these non-voters were these:

  • 25% of non-voters reported that their vote probably wouldn’t make a difference;
  • 15% said they thought the outcome of the election, at least in their state, was a foregone conclusion, so their vote—their voice—would not have made a difference;
  • eight million voters cited problems such as a voter registration issue or getting to the polls;
  • and still others feel little confidence in the fairness and integrity of U.S. elections[7].

Some of us have likely felt these same things. Nonetheless, we went to the polls to fulfill our civic duty in that election.

These attitudes among the millions of apathetic voting or non-voting citizens indicate a low confidence level in the integrity of our election system.

And in addition to the apathy, we have seen barriers to voting that officials and non-officials alike have erected in our way:

  • obstacles to voter registration, such as complicated processes and the difficulty of obtaining photo IDs in those places—like Wisconsin—that require them;
  • the flood of secret money pouring into races from outside groups and individuals who wish to manipulate us and our local communities’ needs;
  • limiting absentee and advance voting opportunities;
  • reducing the number of polling places in minority counties, and—in some places—not supplying polling places with an adequate number of ballots;
  • false and misleading social media posts that are created and manipulated not only by foreign nations but also by domestic campaigns or their supporters:

All these realities—intentionally manipulative—and more suppress the normal and expected fulfillment of our civic responsibilities as voters. These are nefarious efforts to thwart the process for some set of non-democratic ends.

And it is this last point that should concern us all. Our democracy is in peril, and we have not taken this danger as seriously as we should. About this we should say, “chatanu”, we have sinned.

To correct this situation, let us employ one of our Jewish values, to come to the aid of those in peril. We members of Temple Beth El, along with other religious communities, need to engage our community and one another in the tasks of raising our fellow citizens’ confidence in our election system and increasing their active and engaged participation.

Even the Talmud supports this view: In the book of B‘rachot, Rabbi Yitzak asserts that “One may appoint a leader over a community only if he consults with the community and they agree to the appointment.[8]” This amazingly democratic affirmation set forth in our basic legal text underscores the needs of the governed to select those who govern. It is as simple as that.

Some of you may have noticed in the High Holy Day program the note that Temple Beth El is joining together with other local and national Jewish organizations to promote 100% participation in the November 6th election. Locally this is a joint project of our Sisterhood and the Social Action Committee. Please consider becoming part of this effort. You should come to Food-a-Rama at some point that day, but you also need to vote!

The Reform movement’s plan includes three major components to increase civic engagement:

  • to achieve 100% voter participation;
  •  to engage the candidates by building upon relationships and creating new ones with the candidates, and hosting non-partisan candidate forums;
  • and, in five specific instances, to promote, create, and, when necessary, defeat ballot initiatives on issues that affect our religious community.

For us at Beth El, we will engage in voter registration of us and others in Madison, and reminding our voters to go to the polls. Future projects could entail sponsoring candidate forums (which we are legally permitted to do when we ensure equal access to all candidates) and bringing people to their polling places.

And one additional area for long-term development: amending the Wisconsin constitution to allow for binding voter initiatives and referenda. We currently lack this ability, and I wonder whether it is time that we consider this for our state, along with the 24 states that currently permit it.

If you are interested in helping with this effort; if you need to register to vote and have not yet gotten around to it; if you are simply curious about this effort of our synagogue movement, please stop by the tables in the Weinstein Community Court at the conclusion of these morning services, and there will be volunteers to help and speak to you.

The main thrust of our efforts is to increase the participation of eligible voters to vote…in each election!...every time. For when there exist those in our society who wish to sabotage our precious voting process, the best defense comes from “We, the people”.

If it is true, that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, are we not willing to watch carefully over our precious voting rights to ensure that we have the most reliable form of democracy that we can acquire?!

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught this parable: While sailors were on a journey, one of them took an auger and started drilling directly underneath his seat. The other sailors began to worry, and they said to him: ‘What do you think you are doing?!’ He replied: ‘Why do you care? I am drilling only underneath my seat.’ They said to him, ‘Yes, but the water will rise and flood all of us on this ship. We're all on the same boat. Your transgression will endanger us all’[9].

I told this story to our family service last Monday morning, reminding the kids and adults in attendance that if one person causes a problem, then everyone might suffer. And they got it! So, let us hear the words of Torah, “lo tuchal l’hit’aleim”, and let us not back away from; let us not defer; rather, let us act like the adult and responsible members of society that we are, and vow to restore the confidence we would like to feel in engaging civically with one another.

Let the light of civic engagement that we kindle this year, continue its warming glow far into the future.

Ken y’hi lratzon.

April 18, 2019 13 Nisan 5779