Shortly after 9/11, I wrote a liturgy for a Hebrew Union College Board of Governors. It ended with the especially passionate singing of “America the Beautiful.”
The Trump passion, by contrast, was to “Make America Great,” a far cry from making it beautiful. “Great” measures power: how we can make things be, even if they ought never to be that way. “Beauty” measures perfection, how things ought to be, even if they are not fully that way yet.
Greatness leans into a zero-sum game: one country’s greatness at the expense of another’s weakness. Beauty has neither winners nor losers: the beauty of Grand Canyon does not diminish the beauty of the Mojave Desert. Greatness crushes our opponents; beauty has no opponents to crush. Greatness is fine, if exercised in the cause of beauty. God is great but God is holy, and we speak of the beauty – not the greatness — of holiness.
Truth be told, to descendants of slaves, as to other perennial have-nots, America hasn’t looked all that beautiful, but millions of people for whom it is beautiful would like to make it so. “The other side,” as it were, the most extreme of the Make America Great stalwarts — racists, misogynists, white supremacists, and their fellow travelers – will not go down in history for making America beautiful for all its citizens. They will be remembered instead for taunting, threatening, and menacing; for inciting hatred, embracing dictatorship, trampling truth and trashing the planet. So much for greatness untethered to beauty.
When I say “the other side,” I carefully exclude those Trump supporters who voted for him because they feared for their livelihoods, suffered the disdain of liberal elites, or were naively taken in by disinformation. I most especially do not include people of good faith, even faith I do not share, fiscal conservatives and evangelical Christians, perhaps, who see things differently than I do but are not on that account “the other side,” a term which the Kabbalah (on one hand) and Star Wars (on the other) reserve for the truly evil.
Still, there was plenty of truly evil in the last four years: not just systemic racism, for example, but the empowerment of people who like that system as it is. Making America More and More Great was making America Less and Less Beautiful: all that vitriol, the regression into barbarity, the war on the most vulnerable among us.
“War on the most vulnerable” deserves special mention, especially for Jews who know that the Rabbis reserve that reproach for Amalek, the biblical arch-enemy who killed off the weakest of the Israelites, the stragglers who fell behind on their trek through the wilderness. This election was not about voting Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative; “left” or “right.” It was a referendum on Amalek, the man who thought good people could belong to a mob shouting “The Jews will not replace us!”; who tacitly condoned an attempted kidnapping of a governor; who wouldn’t denounce white supremacy; who proudly abuses women, and leaves immigrant children to die on our borders. How could half the country willingly vote the Amalekite ticket?
I am Canadian-born, and whenever I alight from a plane on Canadian soil, I feel myself back home. But equally, I identify with my adopted America, and I think, now (with the Trump nightmare [I hope] in the rear-view mirror), I know why. I fell in love with the American dream: not its tawdry defects like militarist manifest destiny, but its Pledge-of-Allegiance ideal of “liberty and justice for all”; its Abraham-Lincoln principle of “malice toward none, charity toward all”; its Emma-Lazarus, Statue-of-Liberty, embrace of the “tired,” the “poor,” the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” All of that resonated so clearly with my Jewish upbringing: the biblical promise of redemption; the rabbinic commitment to truth and to justice. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jews who invented Superman, knew what they were doing when they created a hero whom the 1942 radio version could herald as the guarantor of “truth, justice and the American Way.”
I grant you, the fullness of the American dream is not yet a reality, not for people of color, certainly, but dreams, in Jewish tradition are called the stuff of prophecy (Rashi to Joel 3:1), visions that evoke the godly, the beauty, of what still can be. The Trump years made the American dream a nightmare: boogaloo boyz, QAnon conspirators, assault rifles in record numbers, militias on the ready. And that nightmare is still with us.
When nightmares do not evaporate with the light of day, Jewish tradition (Talmud, Ber. 55b) advises us to acknowledge them publicly. Those before whom they are acknowledged are to assure us that “God transforms lament into dancing” (Ps. 21:12); “mourning into joy” (Jer.31:12). Dancing and joy are measures of beauty not of greatness. Nightmares unacknowledged freeze us in fear. Nightmares acknowledged invite transformation.
So we start by naming our nightmare: the worship of raw power in pursuit of a greatness that cares not one whit for the beautiful. From naming, to hoping; from hoping to action; from the American nightmare back to the American dream. Not marching in the streets with torches and guns; but singing in the streets to the words and sentiment of America the Beautiful.
I do not demonize well-meaning voters who did not see the Amalekite in Trump, but I am not blind to those who did see it and liked it. I will name this nightmare again and again, the way I read about Amalek again and again – to remember what Amalek looks like, whenever he comes again. And meanwhile, I am reigniting my love affair with the American dream and its prophetic capacity to encompass everyone. We can Make America Beautiful Again.
Beautiful, Larry. Just beautiful! (And I am not making a pun. I mean it sincerely.
Do we get hats?
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Someone just wrote a response reminding me of the monarch butterflies who return home in winter just across the Mexican border. Apparently there is an organization called NABA, North American Butterfly Association., So no, Marilyn, no hats. How about gorgeous butterfly wings?
Wise and welcome words. Thank you Larry. Love to you and Gayle, Michael
Thank you for this, Larry!
Sent from my iPhone
Well put. I wonder if there is any connection of MABA to the NABA which is the North American Butterfly Association. https://www.naba.org/
It too is a thing of beauty battling the current administration which has been trying to build a wall across it’s National Butterfly Center situated right along the Mexican boarder since that is where the Monarch Butterflies make their home. https://www.nationalbutterflycenter.org/
Here’s to hope for the USA and the Monarchs which fly!
Quite lovely observation. Thank you.