The first teaching of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, may also be the most powerful. This tractate of Mishnah, offering the ethics and values of our tradition, begins with the following teaching:
Moses received the Torah from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Great Assembly.
This mishnah attempts to link us, the members of the Great Assembly, the People, directly to revelation at Mount Sinai, as if God gave the Torah directly to each of us. The mishnah also suggests that the power of Torah, the responsibility and obligation to walk in God’s ways and create communities based on Middot, on Jewish morals, is no longer in the hands of Moses, or Joshua, or the elders, or the prophets. The Torah is now in the hands of the People.
While the Great Assembly was surely some sort of authoritative body in the postexilic period, it is easy for us to define the Great Assembly today as us – all of us. We are the modern day Great Assembly. We are the People. Thus, the Torah is in our hands and the responsibility to turn the ethical vision of Torah into a reality is in our hands as well.
There is no greater opportunity in this country, in which we constantly walk the line as Jewish Americans and American Jews, to act as part of the People of the Great Assembly, then by voting. To vote is to act. To complain about the political process without voting is useless. Voting is the naaseh, the action that goes along with the nishmah, the understanding. Voting is a responsibility and those who choose to be irresponsible remove themselves from the People of the Great Assembly. After all, the United States Constitution, the sacred core of our country, was ordained and established by WE THE PEOPLE, a reminder of the honor and obligation that we the people, the Great Assembly have. So go and vote. Do not say that one vote does not matter for every voice of the Great Assembly matters and must be heard.
As a rabbi, I will never endorse a specific candidate. However, I encourage you to vote with your values. Do not vote for a candidate because of commercials, or misquotes, or political pundits’ perspectives, or YouTube clips. Vote for the candidate that best represents your values and remember that as you walk into the voting booth, you enter a sacred space, performing a sacred act, as a member of the Great Assembly, doing your part – doing our part – to make the vision of peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom, present in our Torah a reality for all.
It is clear that whichever candidate wins this election, will have done so by a narrow margin of victory. On Wednesday November 7th, half of this country will be disappointed and angry, while the other half will be ecstatic and relieved. My hope and prayer is that the schism created in this country as a result of partisan politics will be no more and we will again work together, regardless of the outcome of the election and despite our differences, towards a more perfect union. The great rabbis Hillel and Shammai would often disagree. In fact, their houses of study are the prime examples of polar opposites and opposing viewpoints in rabbinic literature. However, regardless of disagreements, Hillel and Shammai were good friends and chevrutah, study partners. May we all, the People of the Great Assembly of this great nation vote on November 6th based on our values, but look past our differences on November 7th for the betterment of the entire community. Amen.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky