THE FORWARD – Our new president, Donald Trump, used his inaugural address to enunciate his particular view of American patriotism — dark, assertive, exclusionary, exceptional, supremely populist. “And this, the United States of America, is your country,” he said, pointing his finger at the throngs assembled on the mall in Washington but clearly speaking to the Americans who elected him.
In this patriotic vision, Americans are safe and wealthy and strong and nice to each other because America fiercely protects its borders and serves its own people before welcoming in or caring about anyone else. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” he promised. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. America First!”
To those who are struggling in an unforgiving economy, who have been left behind by lousy schools and rapacious corporations, who haven’t benefited from surging employment or appreciate safer cities, that patriotic promise surely must resonate. It acknowledges their resentments and insecurities and confusion by wrapping the solution in an ever-tightening red-white-and-blue flag.
But it’s a patriotism devoid of a key element: sacrifice.
Judaism is all about sacrifice — not burning animals anymore, thankfully, but about the ways in which we sacrifice our individual needs and desires on behalf of the larger community. The Talmud contains one discussion after another about how a powerless people sought to balance the rights of individuals with the exigencies of the whole — be it a family, a synagogue, a village, a country. We live life in the plural.
Other presidents facing challenges even more momentous than Trump’s have famously called upon Americans to recognize that with rights come responsibilities, that our patriotism compels us to do a little less for ourselves and a little more for others. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln pleaded with a nation divided by years of bloodshed to forgo vengeance and retribution and instead show “malice toward none [and] charity for all.”
John F. Kennedy directed us to ask what we could do for our country. Even Ronald Reagan, hero to the Republicans that now stand in a circle of power behind Trump, used his first inaugural address to extol the selflessness of an American soldier who died on the battlefield of World War I, sacrificing on behalf of the common good.
It took Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — the only Jewish political leader to speak from the podium — to invoke another battlefield hero, Sullivan Ballou, who died in the early days of the Civil War, and whose love of his country even overpowered his love for his wife.