Parashat Vayera opens with two scenes in chapter 18 of Bereshit. First, Avraham and Sarah open their homes to three travelers whom Avraham notices in the distance. Immediately after, Avraham and God engage in a discussion about the fate of the evil city of Sodom and the other cities around it, and whether the overall injustice of those communities justifies destroying all the people who live in them.
I have been looking for a way to frame a spiritual perspective on the upcoming elections. Parashat Vayera, and the figure of Avraham, hold an important key for us. Disclaimer: No candidate or party endorsements here. I'm instead thinking about this: How do we orient ourselves to the act of making a choice when we go to vote.
There is no spiritual formula that can tell you whom to vote for. What I'm calling a spiritual approach to voting is instead a way of preparing, so that the vote each of us casts is grounded in something deeper than self-interest, cynicism, or even ideology.
If you are eligible, you must vote. Out of gratitude, after centuries upon centuries when Jews (and most human beings) lived under tyranny. To live out fully the meaning of freedom. As I posted the day of the primary, I say a bracha (blessing) in the booth: Baruch...she-asani ben (bat) chorin. Blessed is God, who has made me a free person.
What does Avraham teach us that we can apply to the election? The two scenes represent two types of connection to other people.
First connection: up close. Avraham pays attention to three figures moving on the horizon, and he goes to them. They are strangers, and they are brought into the home.
So the first spiritual discipline before deciding who to vote for is to bring individuals up close, into your mind. Consider all the people who are affected by your decision -- and I mean consider them, bring each into the mind's eye. Assess who will be affected and how by the attitudes and policies a particular candidate has articulated. Businesspeople, students, sick people, parents, those who work more than one job, those without a job or a good job, senior citizens, people with disabilities, those who are losing a home, and more.
In the desert, Avraham's decision to welcome the distant hikers was not simply an act of warmth. It was a decision about life and death. To leave the travelers alone and far off would have meant exposing them to thirst, or to bandits. Tax rates, deficit levels, and budgets are not numbers, but decisions that translate into life or death, health or illness, suffering or sufficiency.
Second connection: a view from on high. When Avraham and God talk about Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham is on a hill overlooking the plain where the five cities are located. They talk about individuals, but they are not looking at individuals. It is the character of the communities that sets the stage for their conversation. So the second spiritual discipline is to think about the kind of community that would flow from your choice, if everyone were to vote as you do.
There is one view that a city, state, or country is made up of individuals. We deal with each other for our own needs, and make the rules we need for basic fairness and safety. This is the modern view, from thinkers like John Locke onward. In the midrash, though, this attitude is associated with the city of Sodom. In Sodom, according to one view, each person lived in his own home and viewed his own property as an absolute.
Spiritually, I view any community living in an area as a brit, a covenantal community. Our ties include our economic ties and our safety, to be sure. But we share in each other beyond the favors we trade. We share the water, air, and energy that only briefly pass through our privately-owned pipes, lungs, and wires. We share ideas and identity. We share the possibility of banding together to solve problems that affect us all. We share the need to believe that we are living in a world of justice. We need the flourishing of as many people as possible, or else our own flourishings will seem incomplete and perhaps selfish.
So the second spiritual discipline before you vote is to stand on the hilltop and consider the kind of society that could flow from the election. Does a candidate see us as one group, facing common problems -- or does she or he say things that pit one group against another? Does he or she measure our individual economic wellbeing only, or also count our solidarity for something?
It's hard to answer these questions. No single person is enough of an economist or sociologist to arrive at a certain answer. The issues and problems before us are complex, and we are most of us laypeople when it comes to public policy. Still, the vote is a decision with vast consequences, for individuals and for society. Any decision that big requires a spiritual preparation.
You can go through the thought process I'm outlining and vote Democrat or Republican. You may ask yourselves these questions, and end up with the same vote you originally thought, or the same party or ideology that you supported the last time. Or, you might reach a new conclusion this time.
Either way, it makes a difference if you vote a certain way out of habit or frustration, of if you vote out of spiritual concern for yourself, others, and society as a whole. Our votes together will be much better and lead to much better citizenship if we can follow Avraham, to the horizon and the hilltop. To see everyone who is affected by our vote up close, and to consider as well the character of our society as a whole.