Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Spirituality of Concession and Acceptance Speeches and the Quality of Chesed

I'll admit it: I cried last night when they announced the winner of the Presidential election, and not just tears of joy.   I felt, well, bad for the other candidate, his staff, his voters - all the people who had put their heart and soul into his campaign, only to come away defeated.  I wasn't upset about the fact they lost in terms of the country's future; I was sad because I put myself in their shoes, and imagined how I would feel if I were them. And that made me feel - sad.  Because all potential presidents, political parties, and even PACs have one thing in common: they are all made up of living, breathing, feeling people.

And then I started thinking about what both candidates had been thinking and feeling over the course of the evening.  I've never been behind the scenes in a presidential campaign, but I imagine that the Tuesday evening of Voting Day, between say 7pm and 11pm, proves a challenging time.  What do they do while they wait? Do they put on sweat pants?  Do they meditate on the number 270 or play games with maps of red and blue puzzle pieces that they move in and out in different hypothetical sequences?

I imagine part of their time is spent reviewing and prepping speeches, two in particular, one of which they'll have to deliver just a few hours later.  I wonder what that feels like for each of them, reading aloud statements which force them to imagine life moving forward as both winner and loser when the reality remains undetermined. And, because they never seem to do it in real-time when actually delivering one of those speeches, I wonder if that is when they cry?  Cries of victory and loss, exhaustion and exhilaration, all wrapped up in one, because for that moment, they each live in both the world of winner and loser, and they each get a taste of their contender's future reality and their own, all at once.

In many ways, if that speech rehearsing actually occurs, it might be the most deeply spiritual part of the campaign for the candidates.  The 18th Century master Chasidic teacher Simcha Bunem of Przysucha's famously taught:

"Each person should designate two pockets.  In one should be the verse from Genesis 18:27, "I am dust and ashes." And in the other, the passage from Sanhedrin 37, "For my sake was the world created."  According to need, the person should draw out the message from either pocket."

And the 19th Century Chasidic teacher Yechiel of Alexander expanded on that saying:

"When the Evil Impulse wants to show a person how great he or she is, or of the greatness of his or her acts of achievements..., in order to bring him or her into the power of arrogance and self-centeredness, the person should draw out the scrap that reads, 'I am dust and ashes."  When the Evil Impulse wants to snare a person in the net of sadness and depression and show his or her failures, the person would draw strength from the scrap that reads, "For my sake was the world created."

What more direct translation of this could there be than the possession and rehearsal of both an acceptance and concession speech?

I wonder if the defeated candidate will hold on to the boost he likely felt when he practiced his acceptance speech?   And if the presidential-elect will hold on to the self-diminution he likely experienced while practicing his concession words?  And just how long does that “emotional after-burn” stay with them, their respective parties, staff members, and with us? 

Like me, many of my friends were delighted at last night's election results, however not all of them were.  Last night, a high-schooler at my congregation who I know and respect posted on Facebook how devastated he felt and how worried he was about the country and his own future moving forward.  I am saddened for him and those who feel as he does. We don't see eye to eye politically, but we share our country and its leadership together.  What matters to him matters to me because he is someone about whom I care.  But if the two pocket teaching calls us to humility internally, then how do we reach across the proverbial line in action?

In Netivot Shalom, 20th Century commentator Rabbi Sholom Noach Berzovsky raises up the importance of the quality of chesed, which means something like: kindness, loving-kindness, or mercy.  In it, he posits that each day a person does not engage in chesed , the day is rendered null and void, as if the day never happened. Put more simply, lack of chesed stops progress or even moves us backwards.  If we are to move forward in the life of our country toward restoration and improvement for us all, it cannot begin with put downs and actions that discredit and debase the perceived opposition.  Instead, it must start for us with acting on the attributes of kindness and mercy,  putting ourselves in the place of the other, broadening our view through adding theirs to our own, and starting the bridge-building conversations that have been put on hold for the past year.  If we do reach out in chesed, we will, as Berzovsky teaches, build our world again, anew, together.

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