I have been committed to holding a neutral line in terms of politics. I do not bring them up in conversation, and when they do arise, I politely acknowledge the viewpoints of those sharing with me. Our nation just wrapped up its second week of political conventions. Both major parties shared their visions of and for our country moving forward. And whether or not you agreed with either party’s view, they both shared why they have the fortitude to lead our society.
In preparing for this week’s message I came across a wonderful teaching from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks compares American monuments found in Washington DC to British monuments found in London. The monuments in Washington all have texts or quotes displayed. The Lincoln memorial displays the Gettysburg Address along with Lincoln’s second inaugural address. The Roosevelt memorial is emblazoned with FDR’s famous quote, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” The Jefferson memorial features quotes from the Declaration of Independence. The list goes on and on. In London however, a city which has no shortage of monuments, you cannot find quotations on monuments. Rabbi Sacks, specifically, notes the Churchill memorial. Churchill is easily one of the most quotable leaders in British history, yet only his name, Churchill, is found on the monument.
Rabbi Sacks writes the following explanation:
It’s a striking difference. One society – the United States of America – tells a story on its monuments, a story woven out of the speeches of its greatest leaders. The other, England, does not. It builds memorials but it doesn’t tell a story. This is one of the deep differences between a covenant society and a tradition-based society.
In a tradition-based society like England, things are as they are because that is how they were. England, writes Roger Scruton, “was not a nation or a creed or a language or a state but a home. Things at home don’t need an explanation. They are there because they are there.”
Covenant societies are different. They don’t worship tradition for tradition’s sake. They do not value the past because it’s old. They remember the past because it was events in the past that led to the collective determination that moved people to create the society in the first place. The Pilgrim Fathers of America were fleeing religious persecution in search of religious freedom.
Their society was born in an act of moral commitment, handed on to successive generations. Covenant societies exist, not because they have been there a long time, nor because of some act of conquest, nor for the sake of some economic or military advantage. They exist to honor a pledge, a moral bond, an ethical undertaking. That is why telling the story is essential to a covenant society. It reminds all citizens of why they are there.
In this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, we continue to read about the Israelites’ preparation to enter the promised land. The people are instructed to express their gratitude for the harvest and freedom they have received by bringing an offering. The priests are to take the offerings and place them at the altar for God, and recite the following: “my father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous . . . . So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me” (Deut. 26: 4-10.)
The passage is something we are accustomed to reading on an annual basis during our Passover seder. As Rabbi Sacks points out it remains remarkable that this nation is expected to know the story and make it part of its personal memory and identity. Covenant societies, like Israel and the United States, are moral societies, meaning that their members are not more righteous than others, but that they see themselves responsible for the standards that are part of their national identity. We are upholding the obligations imposed upon us by our founding parents. If we don’t uphold these obligations, we will surely see our last days. It’s important to note Covenant societies are not ethnic nations bound by common racial origin. They make room for outsiders–immigrants, asylum seekers, resident aliens–who become part of the society by taking its story and making it their own, as successive waves of immigrants did when they came to the United States.
It is utterly astonishing that the mere act of retelling the story regularly, even in the absence of all the normal accompaniments of nationhood–land, geographical proximity, independence, self-determination–and never allowed the people to forget its ideals, its aspirations, its collective project of building a society that would be the opposite of Egypt, a place of freedom, justice, human dignity, in which no human being is sovereign; in which God alone is king.
One of the most profound truths about the politics of our covenant is the message of the firstfruits’ declaration in this week’s parsha: “If you want to sustain freedom never stop telling the story.”