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This election shook many of us. Like others, I have spent days anxiously refreshing the page to see every update in the vote count. In doing so, I noticed something in the way I looked at the electoral map. I look at the United States as divided between blue and red states, as if some states contain one type of person and other states another. Two colors, two identities, separate and perhaps irreconcilable.
However, examining the distribution of the vote in one state after another has forced me to realize that this is an illusion. Most states, and the country as a whole, are actually one shade or another of purple. This means that the people we imagine to be so different on the basis of ideology and party membership do not live in another universe but right next to us.
The fact that Democratic and Republican voters were so surprised that they didn’t see a popular landslide in their favor reveals how little we know each other. We hardly recognize the existence of the other. We are strangers.
The Torah is full of encounters with strangers in which the identity of “the other” is completely unknown. We project without any awareness that we are doing it. Of course, stereotypes do very real damage to those who are stereotypical, but the illusion of knowing someone who is genuinely foreign to us also undermines the sacred task of building community out of the encounters between us.
To stand in front of each other in humility and openness is to confront the little knowledge that we know and how we are uncontrollable. It makes democracy scary. Democracy is not just a requirement of our elected officials to hear and respect the will of the people, even though we cannot be a free society if our leaders do not at least do so. For democracy to truly work, we must build a culture based on an open and compassionate encounter with our fellow Americans. This means that we have to want to know each other desperately enough to admit that we don’t know each other at all yet.
Rabbi Yehoshua Zehavi joined Adath Yeshurun Temple in Syracuse in 2019. He is passionate about the power to enable millennia of tradition to be expressed today.