Commonplace and Miraculous

This past Wednesday was a momentous day on many levels. Probably the greatest feeling was that the chaos, hatred, and fear that had been sown for the past four years being lifted. The sunlight that shone down on Washington was both real and symbolic.

One of the framings of Inauguration Day that I found meaningful was when Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the chair of the Inauguration Committee, harkened back to former President Ronald Reagan and how he characterized that day as both commonplace and miraculous. Reagan had said in his address, “The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”

Or as Sen. Blunt put it, “Commonplace because we have done it every four years since 1798, and miraculous because we have done it every four years since 1798.” This is the power of ritual: something that is repeated over and over again carries with it spectacle, power, and beauty each time it is performed.

It was almost not to be. The ritual already had to be modified for the pandemic: crowds kept away, guests sitting socially distanced, faces covered in masks. And then just two weeks prior a traitorous mob, egged on by our outgoing President, stormed the Capitol, causing the death of five people, damage to property, and deep wounds to the soul of our nation.

We are a nation of laws, it is said, but that is not entirely true. We are also a nation of norms, of customs, of unwritten rules of ethics. We rely on institutions, but in order for those institutions to work we need to respect and honor them. Each of us in our social contract not only carries responsibilities for each other, but also expectations. We expect each other to behave in particular ways, ways that serve not only our self-interest, but the interest of all.

There was a very brief moment in the pageantry of the day that stood out to me. Yes, I was inspired by President Biden’s speech, awestruck by our inaugural poet, uplifted by the music, and moved by the sight of our first female Vice President. But prior to all of that, I watched as the dignitaries walked down that long staircase in the Capitol crypt, through the doors and onto the stage, flanked by military personnel and staffers. When former President George W. Bush walked down, he paused for a moment in front of one of the staffers standing there with with her clipboard, and gave her an elbow bump in greeting and acknowledgement.

It was a sweet moment because it was a small, discrete, and “private” demonstration of the larger message of the day: character matters. Policy differences and political opinions exist, but you can not legislate decency.

The fact that Donald Trump did not attend the inauguration, choosing instead to leave Washington early, even holding his own self-congratulatory ceremony, the fact that he never acknowledged his electoral loss nor recognized Biden on his win, the fact that he did not invite Biden to the White House as is customary, (nor did Melania Trump extend any sort of courtesy to Jill Biden), proves one final time that not only was he an ineffective President, but also he was a terrible human being. He was, and is, a person who chooses self over others, surface over depth, shortcuts over the long road. He is, like Pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion, a person whose “heart his hardened,” who would prefer to see things as he wants to, or thinks they should be, rather than how they are.

This year, this commonplace ritual has done something miraculous: it has restored our expectations of hope and goodness. Whether or not you agree with him on whatever policy position is center stage at the moment, one must admit that Joe Biden is a kind and decent person, compelled by empathy and concern.

A classic teaching of Jewish tradition says: “The world stands on three things: Torah, divine service, and acts of lovingkindness.” (Pirke Avot 1:2) Another teaching says that those three things are “justice, truth, and peace.” (Pirke Avot 1:18) During his Inaugural Address, Biden raised up another triad: “history, faith, and reason.” This felt just as compelling to me as a recognition about this current moment of time, and what we are being asked to do: know where we have been, have a vision of where we are going, and figure out what it will take to get there.

As with most ritual, we have moved from one period to another, one state of being to another. Let us move into this new historic moment, with honesty and compassion for all.

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