Many, if not most Americans will remember these days as those of President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry. Or perhaps, for some, as the days the nation had to come to terms with President Trump’s use of the presidency to ask a foreign government to assist in his personal political gain.
For Jewish Americans, the impeachment inquiry has arisen during the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of repentance (observed Tuesday night and Wednesday this week), a time known as the Days of Awe. These days strip away the distractions of the everyday and evoke a sense of standing directly before God, spurring one to feel “awe” and to re-examine one’s ethical choices. Thus, the overlap of this season and the President’s impeachment inquiry could not be more pertinent.
In this political climate Americans are being forced to make choices about what we ultimately stand for, and to consider how to talk to one another about divisive issues, often amid rancor and mistrust. The Days of Awe’s wisdom offers a guide for how to do so. Our nation’s diverse, enduring traditions can illuminate dark times.
One purpose of the Days of Awe is to proclaim the idea in Judaism that the ultimate sovereign is no human: it is God. The shofar — the ram’s horn, which is blown trumpet-like in primal, rousing blasts during this season — was an ancient instrument for coronation. It punctuates prayers about the divine as the source and underlying rightful possessor of power.
Per this view, all humans are equal, even rulers and those ruled. Either you’re God or you’re not. The most powerful person is still a person. If you exercise power, it was delegated to you; you do not own it.
And these ideas generate concretely-applicable political principles. A leader must be in service to others, not himself or herself. Laws and ethics apply equally to all. A leader is no exception to the premise that no person can investigate or judge himself or herself. When revealing truth would serve the public, it must be revealed; the facts of what a leader does with office are not his or her private possession.
No person should be treated as a god. Impunity is a form of sacrilege.
Many of the Hebrew Bible’s most widely-retold stories express these convictions. King David manipulates his bureaucracy to send for Bathsheba and sleep with her, then to contrive her husband Uriah’s death on the battlefield. The prophet Nathan comes as an independent authority to reproach David and punish him.
Even heroic David was to be judged by his deeds, not his status. As for Nathan, his ultimate allegiance was not to David, but to the people, to law and to right over wrong.
America’s founders enshrined these principles, combined with separation of church and state, in a system of government in which the people, not the leader, are sovereign. Hence the Declaration of Independence’s focus on “the People,” who are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Amid the “abuses and usurpations” of King George III, in the Declaration’s phrase, the founders’ great fear was that a leader would again render the state “dependent on his Will alone.”
The call of the shofar, of Nathan and the Declaration of Independence, can guide us in this time of political uncertainty, too.
This call reminds us: Acting on right and wrong, even simply stating what is right and wrong, matters. It determines who we are as a country. This call signals the moral necessity of naming Trump’s wrongs as wrongs, uncovering the full truth, taking action to respond to these wrongs justly, and stopping Trump from committing more.
Equally significant in our bitterly-riven country, this call provides a language for talking about what to do, how to reach out to those who disagree and to be populist in the best sense — putting the people first.
And since Trump has advertised himself in similarly people-focused terms, billing himself as a champion of “the American people” and not “politicians,” one form of such language is to look back at Trump’s promises to the voters, and to contrast those promises with Trump’s record.
Trump promised to replace “a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people.” His Ukraine dealings illustrate that he has concentrated power not in the people, but in himself.
Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” Yet he lets himself play by completely different rules than everyone else. And he has allegedly sought foreign interference in, of all things, elections — democracy’s ultimate cleanser. (The President has denied any wrongdoing.)
We are seeing the kind of leader that Nathan confronted and our founders feared: one who bends country, law, and truth to serve himself, not vice versa.
Framing Trump’s actions as breaching presidential norms will not be enough. For many Trump supporters, disruption is an acceptable price — or evidence of success.
Nor will it be enough to discuss the situation primarily in legal terms, no matter how many legal maneuvers proliferate as the inquiry proceeds. Trump, a salesman, is falsely marketing the story and emotion of the cornered righteous gunslinger. You need a story to beat a story, an emotion to beat an emotion.
Yom Kippur centers around prayer, fasting and haunting melodies; around self-examination, acknowledging wrongs and changing for the better. The day concludes with a single, long shofar blast — reminding worshippers that ultimate sovereignty is never owned by any one person. In the months and years to come, we must remember this principle, and act on it.