Op-Ed: The Chessed that Americans Need Right Now


Rebecca Klempner

This week’s parshah, Vayera, begins when three angels visit Avraham Avinu. Avraham does not immediately discern their angelic nature; based on their appearance, he assumes they are simple Bedouin. Nonetheless, he rushes to alert Sarah and Ishmael to the presence of these guests, and together they take care of their needs, washing the dust from their feet, preparing fresh foods, offering shade from the hot desert sun.

Avraham’s actions in this incident exemplify why he is associated with the quality of chessed.

The United States is often called, a “medina shel chessed,” a country of lovingkindness. Why? Because it has welcomed immigrants from around the world, most of whom were escaping oppression or economic hardship. It has allowed people to practice their religions freely and to express their political beliefs without fear. Despite episodes in which this country has failed to live up to this goal, it remains a cornerstone of our national identity.

It seems to me that right now, our medina shel chessed needs a little ­chessed itself.

During the campaign, we heard from a lot of voices who were afraid:

Trump voters chose their candidate in part because they feared losing jobs or not finding one that paid enough to support their families. They feared losing their homes, as the price of housing has outpaced income growth. They feared cultural changes being foisted on them from what they viewed as “liberal elites.” They feared terrorism. These are all genuine fears.

Those who supported Clinton often shared fears about losing rights they have become accustomed to. They worried that friends, relatives, and colleagues would be deported. They feared the executive branch in the hands of someone who expresses misogyny and distaste for the disabled. And yes, they feared hate speech that suddenly proliferated. These too are genuine fears.

Following last week’s election, our national landscape looks more fractured than ever. Clinton supporters mourn and panic. Triumphant Trump voters taunt them in person and on social media, despite leaving a trail of tweets, memes, articles, and radio talk show segments proving that they struggled to cope with the Republican candidate’s loss after the last election.

In yet another demonstration of his abundant chessed, Avraham Avinu pled with Hashem in an attempt to save the people of Sodom. Avraham Avinu knew the people of Sodom were depraved! Yet he hoped to find enough righteous citizens to spare the city.

Even when Avraham had to accept the destruction of Sodom, he did not cackle in delight. He did not relish their fate, even though he knew that G-d was doing what was good and just. Likewise, at the Pesach seder, we pour off a little of our wine to show we do not take pleasure in the destruction of the Egyptians, but only in our salvation at the Hands of Hashem.

While I understand concerns of rioting – although most of the protests since the election have in fact been non-violent – what person ever said, “You know, you’re right,” after being humiliated by someone telling them to just “Suck it up?”

The biggest chessed Americans can do right now is to empathize with the fears of their political opponents.

Imagine if Trump supporters listened to the fears of Clinton supporters without judgment. Imagine if they said, “We’re sorry you are afraid,” and meant it. Imagine if said to the protesters in the streets, “We want you in our America. Let’s find some common ground.”

If Trump supporters stopped their insults, more Clinton supporters might be willing to listen to them as they express their own concerns. Isn’t that what they wanted all along? Wasn’t that the goal of this election – to force those in power to listen to them? Trump supporters are right: they have been ignored by policy-makers in Washington. This election is a wake-up call. Politicians can ignore them no longer.

Listening to each other with open hearts instead of criticism doesn’t mean that everyone will get what they want and sing “Kumbaya.” It doesn’t remedy the fact that Americans simply don’t agree about a lot of things. It doesn’t even mean people won’t protest in the future, peacefully, should policies provoke their ire.

Empathy doesn’t mean we have to agree…but it allows us to repair relationships with our neighbors, relatives, colleagues, and friends.

As President-Elect Trump builds his team and heads for the White House, there will be other opportunities to delve into chessed. For example, it’s hard for me not to think about refugees – political ones fleeing ISIS and economic ones fleeing poverty in Latin America and elsewhere – when reading the story of Avraham Avinu and the three Bedouins who turned out to be messengers from G-d. But the chief chessed we need now is simply to embrace our fellow Americans even when we can’t embrace each other’s ideas.

Empathy is both the easiest chessed – for it requires no money and no physical effort – and the hardest – because it means setting aside our egos. But it’s what this country needs right now, on both sides of the aisle.

Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles. Her stories and articles have appeared in a wide variety of venues, including Tablet MagazineBinahHamodiaThe Jewish Home – LAJew in the City, and The Jewish Press. She is also the copyeditor of The Jewish Home – LA.