Congregation B'nai Israel

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Election Days Past

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Parshat Lech Lecha
October 30, 2020

When I was growing up, it was my middle school that would turn into our local polling place every year on Election Day.

The middle school, it just so happened, was situated at the very end of our street – and so, inevitably, we would always drive by it any time we had to go somewhere. From a young age, I have memories of going with my mom to vote, and getting to “pull down the lever” on those old voting machines (or, at least – voting machines that are older than what we have now!) It was clear that my parents raised my sister and me to be civically minded, because for a while, every time we were in the car and passed by the middle school, my sister would excitedly yell, “look, there’s vote!” I think it wasn’t until she was 10 or 11 that she realized that the big blue building at the end of our street had another purpose, and another name.

My first time voting as a parent was in two thousand and sixteen. I was so excited to take one-year old Michaela with me, continuing what I had learned from my parents about the importance and the value of bringing kids the voting booth.

In these final days leading up to this next presidential election, perhaps, you, too, are thinking about, and remembering, Election Days of years past. I know that the memories and the feelings that are associated with Election Day can vary greatly, from person to person. I also have a feeling – regardless of our political perspectives – that this upcoming Election Day is high on everyone’s minds right now. And I also sense that many of us, regardless of who we are voting for, are looking towards the election and all of its unknowns with many strong feelings – feelings ranging from fear, anxiety and dread, to excitement, or exasperation.

I imagine that our biblical ancestors – Abraham and Sarah – felt many of these same things when they contemplated one of the biggest unknowns of their lives. In the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion, life as Abraham and Sarah knew it changed forever, when God told them to Lech Lecha – to go forth – from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

This charge, as they would later learn, was be the very beginning, the very first step, of becoming the founding father and mother of the Jewish people. But it would be a little while, before they would know that. And so as Abraham and Sarah, who were 75 years old at the time, dutifully followed God’s order and packed their bags, I can only imagine what must have been going through their heads. Because literally leaving your life behind, leaving everything you know, and going out, into the unknown, is hardly an easy or a natural thing to do.

In fact, I could easily imagine the story playing out differently – and, instead, going something like this: “Abraham! Sarah!” God’s voice bellowed down to them one morning, just after breakfast. Abraham was still at the kitchen table reading his newspaper and drinking his coffee, and Sarah had already retired to the chair by the fireplace with her book and her knitting. After fifty years of marriage, they had settled into a comfortable, quiet existence in their little house in the biblical land of Haran, with a daily routine that brought them comfort, and stability. And so upon hearing God’s utterly absurd command, I can imagine Abraham looking at Sarah, and Sarah looking at Abraham, and then Abraham saying: “Nah, we’re good. Thanks, but no thanks. In fact, we’re more than good. We’ve reached our golden years! Why leave now? Choose someone younger. Someone less settled. Good luck!”

But, of course, what happens in the story is quite the opposite. God brings the charge to Abraham and Sarah, and they go. No dispute, no discussion. No questions asked – although I can only imagine the anxiety, fear, excitement and anticipation that was running through their minds as they prepared for their journey into the unknown. And not only did they promptly leave their comfortable, settled life, but the text makes it clear – over and over again – just how old and just how settled they were when they began this new chapter of their lives. We read that Abraham was 75 when he and Sarah left their home in Haran.

A few chapters later, we read that Abraham was 99 when God told him that he would have children and become a father to many, and that he was 100 years old when his son, Isaac, was born.

And so despite how settled they already were – and despite how old they already were – life, for Abraham and Sarah, began anew – teaching us, that no matter how old we are or no matter how settled we are, it is never too late to change…and it is never too late to grow, and evolve…it is never too late to discover a new path or a new purpose in life…and it is never too late to make a new and lasting impact on the world.

This week, I heard another remarkable “Lech Lecha” story involving unexpected growth and change.

During a socially-distanced coffee date, a wonderful, long-time member of our congregation told me about how she changed her life course after her husband, who was only 51 at the time, tragically passed away.

In the wake of his passing came letter after letter, story after story, about the profound impact he had made in the lives of everyone he knew. “I read each letter, and listened to each story,” this congregant said to me. And then, she told me, that in the midst of all the letters and all the stories, she thought to herself, “What will others say about me, when I die? What kind of impact am I making in this world, in the time that I have? Am I spending my time on things that bring me fulfillment, meaning, satisfaction, and joy?” Feeling inspired by her husband’s legacy, she felt the call to “Lech Lecha,” to go forth, away from her long-settled career, out towards something entirely new. And that “something new” turned into twenty fulfilling years as a social worker, specializing in mental health services for mostly inner city clients. And she was sure to tell me, that this new beginning wasn’t easy – like when she walked into the library at Columbia school of social work and asked for the card catalogue – only to find, to her dismay, that everything had been replaced by computer systems that she had no idea how to use.

But, in the end, she did it. She learned the computer systems, and so much more. She learned how to lift her clients, the majority of whom were victims of sexual violence, out from endless cycles of trauma and abuse. She learned how to help new parents care for their children. She learned how to support and empower victims of domestic violence. She learned new ways of seeing and believing in her own skills and her own abilities. And she learned that it is never too late to choose new path or find a new purpose; never too late to leave a small but mighty imprint on the world.

Lech Lecha – go forth, out into the unknown, towards the land that I will show you. Much about our country’s future – our future – is still so unknown.

But here is something that we do know. We do know – that no matter who wins and who loses this election, that we will still wake up on Wednesday, November 4, to an unbearably broken world. We do know, that regardless of how everything plays out after Tuesday, that there will still be So. Much. Work. to be done.

Now that I think about it, there is something else that I am remembering from my childhood about elections and voting – something else that my parents taught me and modeled to me before and after every Election Day. And that lesson – was that no matter the outcome, no matter how the votes are counted, we pick up the pieces, and we keep going. We keep working. We keep dreaming. We keep fighting. We keep building, and we keep striving, for the world that our children and our grandchildren so very much deserve.

And so maybe, while we are still in this unknown space between now and Tuesday, maybe, one of the most productive things that we can do, right now, (after we’ve voted, of course) is to starting asking ourselves: When all the dust settles and all the election drama wanes, how am I going to help this country pick up the pieces, and move forward? What new social action project or social justice initiative can I get involved in; how can I help bring more light and more love to the parts of our communities that are in need of my care; what new and lasting impact can I make, in the remaining time that I have?

Because no matter how old we are or how settled we already are – and no matter the final outcome of Election Day – it is never too late to get up from our settled places; it is never too late to choose new path; it is never too late to take up a new cause; it is never too late to turn pain into purpose; it is never too late to plant a new legacy of hope and healing…a new legacy, that will endure, forever.