As votes continue to be counted and our 2020 anxiety shifts from worrying about the election to worrying about the results of the election, thoughts turn to the interpretation of what these (early) returns might mean. I suspect that that most people are feeling disappointed right now, regardless of political affiliation. Republicans are upset that it appears the president has lost the possibility of a second term while Democrats are crushed that there wasn’t a landslide in favor of Biden in addition to the realization that there is a diminishing chance that they win the Senate, not to mention losing seats in the House.
Our crazy pandemic election may contribute a bit to this overall feeling that no one actually won the election. It is much more exciting to celebrate victory right after the votes are cast than to finally be declared a winner days later. The ballots that are counted in the next few days and weeks might change the characterization of the election as candidates who squeaked by learn that their victories were actually quite substantial, but by that time the nation may have moved on after forming an initial narrative.
During this indeterminate period when it seems everyone feels like a loser, it might help to look back to a Jewish story from the Talmud for a little solace. In the tractate Bava Metzia, a group of rabbis debate a question of law. On one side is a large group of rabbis who share the same opinion. On the other side is only one voice, Rabbi Eliezer, who is outnumbered, but uses miracles to prove his point. The other rabbis are unimpressed so Rabbi Eliezer pulls out the big guns. A voice from heaven supports his argument.
What happens next is fascinating. The rabbis respond that “[the Torah] is not in heaven” and anyway Jewish law follows the majority of rabbis. Up in heaven, God smiles and says “My children have defeated me.” The story is an affirmation of the Jewish value of democracy, but it also should provide some comfort to the loser of the debate. Rabbi Eliezer really does hold the right opinion; God is on his side, but that does not mean he will win the earthly contest.
Elections are not arbiters of the truth with a capital T. Instead they allow communities to function and figure out questions of governance and policy. If you were on the losing side of election or are disappointed that so many people in the country hold positions you find objectionable, that doesn’t mean you are wrong about what you believe. Like Rabbi Eliezer, you may be right, with God on your side, but the key to our system is to accept the outcome and move on, even if you are not convinced by the other side.
I pray that once we have a full picture of this election that everyone, from the highest offices in government to the average citizen, will accept the results, but that does not mean it is time to stop working or caring about the ideas you believe in. The ancient rabbis may have defeated God, but they didn’t stop arguing or trying to convince each other of the rightness of their position. American civilization, like Jewish civilization, is a long, sometimes heated and contentious, conversation. We have no choice but to keep talking to each other.