Vote with Chesed

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 12 December 2019

Just one month ago, following Rabbi Jonathan Romain’s letter to his community encouraging members to vote tactically against the Labour party, my colleague Rabbi Josh stood here and told you that he will not be telling you how to vote. He expressed that our role as rabbi is not to project a view that will gain more weight simply because we are in positions of trust. Rather our role is to allow the diversity of voice to flourish, to enable everyone in a community to express themselves and to enable them to hear the voices of the other.

We enact this role in many ways, by not sharing our party politics from the bimah, by creating safe space in which all concerns can be shared and through facilitating conversation between all sides of the election, as we did at the hustings this Wednesday. Our hustings did not presume that we are a univocal community, bound by one opinion and all voting the same way. Rather it welcomed all candidates and gave them space to talk passionately about their policies, so that we had the ability to hear the diversity of voice before making up our minds.

So, just like my colleague, I will not be telling you how to vote. But I am urging you today, on the Shabbat before election week to vote. I am urging you to engage in a thoughtful way with this election, although it may feel easy to feel despair, as if no political party express the views that align with ours. I am urging you to make decisions with integrity, although you may feel cynicism towards certain candidates. I am urging you to vote with chesed.

The attribute of chesed is most commonly defined as loving kindness. But chesed can be so much more. Chesed is the attribute of grace. It is the ability to make peace between one human being and another. The word chesed is used exclusively in Tanakh when there is already a recognised link between the parties concerned, not just when there is a general act of kindness. It is used most commonly when it explains the emotions of people on both sides of the interaction, when there is a mutual sense of chesed, when people are trying to maintain a covenant together.

That is why it is so important to vote with chesed – because we are in a mutual covenant with the government of this country. We are invested in our politics, we are concerned with the outcome, we are already part of the relationship.

Yet, chesed is not something we would normally associate with politics. We want our political candidates to be rivals because that makes it more interesting for us. We are used to our politicians engaging in negative attacks against their opposition in an attempt to turn voters towards their campaign. We are surrounded by a society where negative information is a tool used to help people win, and where competition is seen as the norm.

This feeling is deep rooted in us. We can trace it back to our Biblical narrative, where all siblings seem to be in competition with one another. We read in Genesis of Ishmael taunting Isaac, of Jacob tricking Esau. Then we come to this week, to the story of Leah and Rachel. Following all we have read before, we crave their rivalry. And on the surface their story delivers.

Leah and Rachel are competitors for the affection of their husband and for the love of their father. Commentator after commentator dwells on the hatred they have for one another, and the ways in which they barter with each other to gain favour in Jacob’s eyes.

However, under the surface we can see their mutual concern. They act as silent partners, as allies working together for a greater purpose, they are seen to talk together with one voice. Whilst we project onto them competitors, they are actually collaborators.

There is a story in Talmud that demonstrates this side of Rachel and Leah’s interactions. When Jacob asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Rachel advised Jacob that her father was deceitful and would not be defeated. He would not allow his younger daughter to be married before his eldest daughter. Jacob did not believe her, ‘I too am deceitful’ he said, ‘I will not be deceived by him.’

Jacob came up with a plan to not be tricked by Laban, he gave Rachel a secret signal to do in the moment of their marriage, to prove that she was the one marrying him. When Leah was brought up to the wedding canopy, Rachel was worried that her sister would be humiliated when Jacob discovered it was not her. So, she gave her sister the secret signs, so that Leah could act as if she was Rachel and not be embarrassed on her wedding day.

The rabbis state that this act of kindness and of self-sacrifice is the reason that we as Jews will eventually return from exile. Her act of kindness is given so much credence because it was not simple. She had to weigh up her options, choosing between her sister’s happiness and the pain of her husband – an act of chesed.

It is easy to act with chesed when it is clear that the outcome of our actions will benefit many. Bringing food to a friend in need, or volunteering at the refugee drop in or homeless shelter are wonderful acts of chesed with a clear course of action and a known benefit.

Yet, when chesed means making a choice between competing values, it is much more difficult. That is why it becomes difficult to do politics with chesed, because we need to make a choice between values, and continue to act with compassion when the values we see as most important are not the same as someone else.

The hustings on Wednesday showed an example of what it can mean to do politics with chesed. Being in a place driven by religious values and running the event in conjunction with Golders Green Parish Church and Interfaith Matters, meant that it was an evening rooted in faith, and religious values. It was also a characteristically Alyth event, chaired by a rabbi and not a journalist, in order to represent our beliefs, that our Judaism should be fully engaged with the world and community around us and that Judaism is best when shared with a diverse group of people. This grounding meant there was a sense of chesed in the room from the moment the hustings began with an interfaith prayer.

The chesed in the room was our gift to the candidates and their response was to have a conversation that was respectful of one another. The candidates did not speak over one another. There was no aggression. They did not slam each other, or their policies. They were respectful, they acted gracefully. They spoke about what they wish to achieve rather than brandishing negative statements how the other would not be able to make it happen.

By setting the tone in the  room, a tone of chesed, the hustings reflected a belief that not only one concern and one voice mattered in the world. Despite the colours that people were dressed in, subliminal messaging of their party political alignment, everyone acted with chesed and everyone’s voice was represented. We saw true space for diversity of view.

Rabbi Josh ended the evening by stating that he had every confidence in voting for these candidates, who at the root of everything, putting their party politics to the side, are good decent people with integrity.

So I will not tell you who to vote for, but I will tell you how to vote. Vote with chesed. Vote with grace and dignity, not dismissing those whose views do not align with yours. Vote with kindness for the other, allowing everyone to feel heard.

May we feel able to play our part in this election.

May we be protected from the sins of despair and cynicism.

May our faith in You bring us closer to each other as we seek to unite our nation.

May we be strengthened to make politics a noble calling that serves the common good of all.