The Change We Seek

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

11:00 PM November 4, 2008 and Fox and MSNBC have both projected Barack Obama the winner of Ohio. A son of Kenya and of Europe, two great streams of humanity, united in the first African American president of the Unites States. Tears are streaming down my face.

I am an eighth generation rabbi, whose father came here with his parents from Poland when he was nine years old to escape the Nazis. I was raised to love America because it was a land of unprecedented freedom and opportunity and yet I was also taught that it was a country built on the back of slaves and as a Jew commanded to remember that we were once slaves I had a special responsibility to fight for civil rights. But, while as a Jew I always felt in the minority in this country I also knew I could easily hide behind my whiteness.

Tonight there has been a quantum healing in America. No, we are not post-race nor have we transcended racism but tonight any American parent or grandparent of any minority be it race or color or religion can tell their child and grandchild with complete honesty, you can be president one day. Tonight, in a park where the Chicago riots took place and where the Lolapalooza festival is held, just a few decades after people could not, because of the color of their skin, order a burger and sit where they wanted to in a diner, could not ride in the front of a bus or drink from a water fountain, we have ushered in a new era. Old and young, black, white, men and women of every possible background and orientation, people who have voted every year since they could vote and people who voted for the very first time, chose to trust, to hope, and to believe that change is possible - the very qualities of a spiritual life.

I feel we have been invited to stretch ourselves to become a great nation. Great not in ability to impose our will on others but to inspire, great not to coerce but to care, great not in our selfishness and narcissism but in our connection and interdependence. We have voted, in the greatest numbers ever to vote for any president, to be united rather than be divided and for equality and the generosity, of which we are each capable, that is implicit in our yearning for equality. Tonight, the mud slinging politics that appeals to our fears and insecurities did not win. Instead we chose a new sort of politics that will challenge us in the months ahead to engage those on the other side of the political divide.

When Barack Obama ran for President of the Harvard Law Review he was elected by conservatives who supported him because they felt he, of all the candidates, would listen to them most seriously. So we have elected a President who will challenge us to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree and by really listening will earn their support, embrace their wisdom, and include the partial truth of their ideas so as to develop better, wiser, and more effective policy to address the serious challenges facing us in every area.

And there will be a new role for religion in the public discourse. Barack Obama is person of deep faith who does not use God as a trump card to simply legitimate and affirm his views or as a self-righteous club to beat up people with whom he disagrees. Rather he uses his faith as a source of wisdom and inspiration that invites the audacity of hope, the virtue of humility, and the quality of compassion. It is religion and faith as a corrective to arrogance and insularity and an ever reminder of our finitude and our responsibility to others.

In the weeks to come, I hope we will begin the process of realizing the transformation of this moment. Whether our candidate won or lost we need to guard ourselves against our worst impulses. Those of us whose candidate won need to guard against any triumphalism, arrogance and pride that hardens the very partisanship we voted with such optimism to transcend. Solutions to our problems will only emerge from genuine conversation and new integrations of opposing and even contradictory views. Those of us whose candidate lost, need to guard against anger, resentment, and aggression that marginalize us and keep us from taking stock as to why our views did not resonate with our fellow citizens and limit us from contributing our thinking in new ways that can be heard.

All of us, whomever we voted for, voted for change as 85% of us feel the country is heading in the wrong direction. But change will not come simply because we elected a new leader no matter how brilliant, talented, and eloquent he is. As President elect Obama told us throughout the campaign: as much as we were voting for him we were voting for ourselves and our own abilities and hopes. We need to be careful not to idealize the man we just elected nor make him a vessel of all our aspirations or our frustrations. Yes, change has come to America and yes it is good to have a President who embodies the diversity of this country, who is gifted in intelligence, emotionally centered, compassionate, committed to community, and who can inspire us with his words. But the change we seek will only come because we the people will have patience, will make sacrifices, will hold ourselves and each other accountable, will worry about those more vulnerable, and will keep the faith in our dream of a United States and the passion in our yearning for a more just and peaceful global community.