Cities across the country have been and continue to be occupied by our fellow citizens. Although the Wall Street movement has received the most attention, Occupy D.C. in our own city is still very much with us, and occupiers have organized themselves in cities from coast to coast. Why this? Why now? Is there a religious interpretation of this national phenomenon?
In some ways, at the heart of the Occupy movement is the perceived and real breakdown of what we might call our national civic covenant — a nice biblical term. The terms, meaning and aspirations of this covenant can be found in such foundational texts as the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Gettysburg Address .
When read together, the bold and stirring words really mean something that we claim and even dare to believe is who we are as a nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “We the people ...” “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
This is what we teach in our classrooms. These are the words of our civics books. This is who we say we are, but the feeling for many is that we have fallen short.
The very notion of a national civic covenant can be traced to a biblical teaching that subtly informs so much of what is at the heart contemporary democracy. Deuteronomy, after all, teaches that everyone was gathered to be a partner in the covenant of Sinai — men and women, young and old. Everyone from “wood chopper to water drawer to the stranger in your gates,” was a covenanted partner in the Sinaitic dream of a new vision for what it means to be a human being: Each one of us carries a reflection of God’s holiness; each one of us is made in God’s image.
Today, too many in America see too vast a gap between the elites and the people. This doesn’t challenge the notion that there will always be a 1 percent: It is the steepness of the angle between the 1 percent and the rest that is being questioned. Does the national civic covenant still hold when so little is shared between those at the top and those at the bottom? What sort of covenant is it when it allows us to have so little in common?
The critics of Occupy have argued that the Occupiers are vagabonds, anarchists and a leaderless crew of do-nothings. We might do well to remember that the Bible describes the group that left Egypt as a “crowded multitude” (Exodus 12:38). Later they begin the process of organizing themselves with a leadership structure guided by “men of truth” (Exodus 18:21). Only then are they prepared for Sinai and their covenant for the future, “we will perform and we will adhere” (Exodus 24:7). In other words, an organized program of constructive action takes time to create. True covenants are not made overnight.
Jews begin each day with a prayer that quotes Numbers 24:5. “How goodly are your tents O Jacob ...” Just as our biblical ancestors lived in tents in their wilderness wanderings, across the country the Occupy protesters are likewise living in tents. As noted, those ancient tent dwellers forged an eternal covenant rooted in a higher, lofty vision of humanity that was all inclusive.
Perhaps the overarching message of Occupy is to return us to this very simple, yet noble, aspiration and to remind us of our own sacred texts: “We the people,” “government of the people, by the people.” In other words, Occupy is telling us: “Do something to level the playing field!” We do, after all, have a pledge that proclaims us “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.”
Daniel Zemel is a rabbi at Temple Micah in the District.