Last Wednesday, around 1:00 p.m., I was almost literally on Cloud 9. My daughter Hannah had just finished leading the Yizkor (Memorial) service on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. The service was so incredible that I found myself fighting off tears more often than not. The highlight was Hannah’s singing of Psalm 23, the one that Christians and Jews have turned into a staple at funerals. She was performing a version written by an Orthodox Jewish singer. Enjoy it for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YBa9AoSveI
Hannah’s congregation is on Capitol Hill, and their services were on East Capital Street. So when I left the sanctuary, walked onto the sidewalk and headed west, I found myself facing some pretty momentous buildings. My wife and I had a fair amount of time before services resumed, so we went into the U.S. Supreme Court Building, toured the facilities, and heard a lecture. It’s an inspiring place for any lawyer to visit, but it’s especially inspiring on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when you’ve been listening to so many people speak about justice. In fact, earlier in the day in the sanctuary, we heard the Associated Press’s Supreme Court reporter give a lecture about justice. As I sat in the Great American Courtroom and admired the friezes on each side, I felt truly in awe.
What happened after leaving the courtroom wasn’t awe-inspiring so much as surprising. We went downstairs, to the halls that display portraits of the Court’s alumni, and I found myself staring at the painting of Justice Scalia. To say that he’s hardly my favorite Justice is an understatement. But on that day, I was strangely moved to see his face. I felt more compassion and love for him at that moment than ever before, including the day that he died. I understood neither the cause of my reaction nor how to feel about it – except to make note of it. Little did I realize that the explanation for my feeling would soon be brought to my attention very clearly, and I’m not merely talking about the obvious explanation – that the Jewish soul is never as loving and beautiful as it is on Yom Kippur afternoon.
After leaving the Supreme Court Building, my wife and I continued to head down East Capitol Street toward that other famous office building, the one associated with the legislature rather than the judiciary. It’s a majestic structure, but I couldn’t help lamenting the fall from grace of the individuals associated with it. Congress’s public approval rating is the highest it has been in four years – but it’s still only 20 percent. When I looked up that number, I was surprised it wasn’t even lower.
Walking toward the Capitol Building, I was reminded of my most recent tour of that building, which was maybe four or five years ago. I recalled seeing a statue of President Reagan, another statesman who I strongly opposed while he was in office, but on that tour, I had a reaction to the statue similar to the one that I had to the portrait of Scalia, only stronger. Reagan’s statue literally brought me to tears. And no, despite what this blogpost might suggest, I’m not a man who sheds tears easily.
Suddenly, I realized why it is that I’ve been having these reactions on Capitol Hill to seeing memorials to powerful right-leaning Republicans when I’m a left-leaning Democrat. My tears, you see, were tears of joy. And my joy was based on the recognition that what separates us ideologically is not nearly as important as what unites us. The fact is that shortly before I saw the Reagan statue I had been contemplating the phrase that until 1956 had been the unofficial motto of the United States -- e pluribus unum (out of many, one). We all know that phrase from the Great Seal of the United States, but when you tour the Capitol, you are reminded of the importance of the phrase and what it signifies. Thousands upon thousands of people have given their lives for that idea. The unity of the American people, whose power rests not in the hands of a monarch or small group of oligarchs but rather in the collective, in “we the people,” is a blessed notion. It truly should be what Capitol Hill is all about.
You might be wondering, though, why I would be having my epiphanies while looking at memorials to a couple of powerful individuals if what I was really thinking about is the unity of the American people and the greatness of democratic, republican government. It’s because, in their own respective eras, Reagan and Scalia had become lightning rods, and people of my political persuasion were trained to dislike or even despise them. Yet during these moments of clarity, I was refusing to play that game. I was refusing to buy into the nonsense that “My Party’s public figures are good, whereas the other Party’s public figures are evil.” I hear that on TV all the time – it might not be said in as many words, but it’s implied. And it drives me crazy.
When I was reveling in the memory of a Reagan or a Scalia, I was not so much embracing these two figures themselves but the tens of millions of Americans who support them. I was honoring their supporters and feeling kinship with them. And it felt good.
Out of many, one. If that is to have meaning, I need to feel compassion for right-wing Republicans no less than liberal Democrats. And Republicans need to feel the same way about progressives like me. We can’t demonize each other’s leaders. We can’t assume that our own political philosophy has been objectively verified like it was some sort of solvable math equation; we need to recognize, in other words, that our fellow citizens who support the folks on the other side of the aisle may conceivably be aware of profound truths that we’re not.
Recognition of uncertainty and nuance breeds humility. Humility breeds reverence and respect. And they, in turn, bring love for all of our fellow human beings, whether or not they have memorials associated with them or don’t even know how to spell the word “memorial.”
When I saw the portrait of Scalia or the statue of Reagan, I was proud of myself for recognizing these truths, and for removing myself from the toxic, political polarization that has been engulfing our nation since at least the early 1990s. Touring the Capitol or the Supreme Court Buildings can do that for you, especially on days like Yom Kippur.
Especially given today’s ugly political environment, I felt compelled to remind everyone that there really is more to America than Fox News, Conservative Talk Radio, CNN or MSNBC. We don’t always need to put on our boxing gloves. Sometimes, we can just think about phrases like “e pluribus unum,” and remember that what separates us as human beings is of little importance compared to what unites us. At bottom you see, this blogpost isn’t about America or any form of nationalistic patriotism, it’s about what it means to be a human being. It’s about recognizing that we’re all in this together.
Never forget that whenever we see a human face, liberal or conservative, we’re looking at family.