Sometime last year, leaders in the Jewish community realized that the state primary election fell on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. When approached with the conflict, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea swiftly and enthusiastically went to work to change the date to meet the needs of Rhode Island’s Jewish community. We are fortunate to live in a state, founded on the values of religious freedom and diversity, which cares about making voting accessible to all of its citizens. This is all the more reason to fully embrace our civic duty.
The assertion that it is a sacred obligation to vote finds its basis in Jewish texts across time. In the Talmud, we read that Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Talmud, Brakhot 55a). He gives an example from Exodus 35:30, when God appoints Betzalel in the construction of the Tabernacle, imagining this conversation, “The Lord said to Moses: Moses, is Betzalel a suitable appointment in your eyes? Moses said to Him: Master of the universe, if he is a suitable appointment in Your eyes, then all the more so in my eyes. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Nevertheless, go and tell Israel and ask their opinion.”
The construction of the Tabernacle required engagement from the people. It is a potent reminder to us: to build the world as we hope it should be, we must participate in its construction. Casting our vote is one step in our partnership with the Divine to work toward tikkun olam.
Jewish tradition teaches that we must engage in civic life and raise our voices to engage as partners with God in repairing the world, knowing that tzedek or justice is often fulfilled through public policy.
Rabbi Jane Kanarek, in her essay on “Citizenship” in “The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews,” writes that voting “is one of many ways that we can individually follow the injunction ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue.’ ” (Deut. 16:20).
In fact, she adds, “our responsibility toward ethical construction of society is tied to the larger Jewish ideal of covenantal community bound to God, including firm commitment to the fulfillment of this ideal of justice.” As Jews and American citizens, we do have an obligation to participate in elections to ensure that policies at the local, state and national levels bring us closer to achieving a world where all people experience justice and equality.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote in 1984, “A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov – recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent on each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote. Therefore, I urge all members of the Jewish community to fulfill their obligations by registering as soon as possible, and by voting. By this, we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.”
Our tradition teaches that the ability to vote is a gift for which we should be grateful. While not explicitly one of the 613 mitzvot counted in the Torah, voting is indeed a sacred responsibility for which we offer our gratitude. Rabbi Laura Novak Winer wrote these words to frame and sanctify our essential and holy task and civic duty as we go to the polls this year:
“Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam,
shemetzapeh me’itanu l’asok b’avodat
“Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the
Universe who expects us to engage as citizens
in our country.”
RABBI SARAH MACK is a rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Providence and president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.