The country took a collective gasp and shed a shared tear on January 2, when a relatively unknown defensive player for the Buffalo Bills collapsed on the field. What became evident to the sports enthusiasts who were watching, or the voyeurs who tuned in to see the drama, was that this was no ordinary injury. The fear on the faces of players and the sincerity of prayer witnessed from afar spoke to the seriousness and solemnity of the moment.
When sportscasters told us that CPR was being administered, many bent a figurative knee in prayer on behalf of Buffalo Bills number 3, Damar Hamlin.
Bengals players, who were hosting the game along with Cincinnati fans, were solemn in their empathy. Ironically, football, which is known as a physical, trash-talking, and often violent game, with fierce competition, was now a game of unity, shared worry, and collective prayer.
After the traumatic injury, the game was suspended and then postponed. No other play took place. Spectators went home. Players cried. All of America prayed for Damar.
I did not learn of one report of beers thrown in frustration because the consequential match would not be played. I did not read of fans demanding refunds for their tickets. I did not see on my social media feed any accounts of celebration that a starting player was out of the lineup, which would pave the way for the Bengals to triumph.
I did see acts of empathy, where Bengals fans donated millions of dollars toward charities near and dear to Damar Hamlin. I did see vigils held at the hospital where Hamlin was being treated, from all fan bases. I did witness an entire nation of different faiths and diverse opinions unified in prayers for a player most had never heard of before the ball was kicked off that fateful Monday night.
To me, while saddened and pained by the episode Damar Hamlin has suffered and his teammates have gone through, my spirits have been buoyed and my hope in humanity fortified to see our shared desire for this young man’s recovery.
Juxtapose that to the second most watched event on television this week — the election of the speaker of the 118th Congress of the United States House of Representatives.
Regardless of whether you wear a donkey or an elephant on your lapel, to see the rudeness, derisiveness, and mean-spirited behavior amongst people duly elected to represent America has made me heartsick. One group displayed utter dysfunction while another gloated in their uncoordinated efforts. Even intraparty, it felt like many were gunning against the other, to the point where there was no way to move forward. Nothing seemed to allow any sense of humanity, hope, empathy, or kindness to be able to transcend the moment.
So I saw two Americas: one that rallied around Damar Hamlin and rose above team and city affiliation. And another that was petty, divided, and celebrating the pains and failures of another.
Our political theater has become so fractured that this week, at a congressional memorial and remembrance for the events of January 6, 2021, all Democrats attended and only one Republican had the temerity to show up. The rest worried what their attendance could convey. This was not a vote, mind you, on abortion rights or taxations rules or budget spending. It was an event to memorialize those who lost their lives and others who were traumatized on January 6, 2021.
As a former speaker of the House, John Boehner, famously said, Democrats and Republicans should disagree but they should not be disagreeable. That is not a particularly sophisticated nuance, or a thin line to walk. Why has it been so difficult, as of late?
George W. Bush (43) recently spoke about his father, George H.W. Bush’s (41) special relationship with Bill Clinton (42). Bush 41 and Clinton were political rivals who faced off in a close election in 1992. But what G.W. Bush explains is that Clinton never gloated in his success over G.H.W. Bush. In fact, Clinton sought out Bush 41’s counsel and advice regularly, which led to a deep friendship and shared admiration.
When Richard Nixon earned the Republican nomination (not the presidency) in 1968, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson hosted him at his Texas ranch to prime him on domestic and foreign affairs, should he indeed win the White House. Bear in mind that John F. Kennedy and LBJ beat out Nixon in 1960 for the presidency. Still, they both had the grace to overcome political differences and the ability to rise up over partisanship for the best interests of the country.
I am old enough to remember Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, as well as Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, expressing deep differences and contradictory political and judicial opinions, yet sharing a deep respect, kindness and even friendship.
Fast-forward to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bro-hugging President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, or more recently, President Biden standing shoulder to shoulder with Florida Governor DeSantis in the wake of Hurricane Ian. These events should be innocuous and commonplace. Our president — Republican or Democrat — should stand with any people or places hurt by tragedy. Instead, and quite sadly, they are used as a cudgel to weaponize and demonize the embrace of the enemy.
Political difference is a good thing, and our country should continue to have vigorous and passionate debate. We should be vocal about issues that we are passionately for or against. We should be unwavering in our views and be vibrant in our display of ideals and values. But we still need to display empathy to hear and appreciate another side, even if it is not our side. We can still hear and act with compassion and be kind in our work for the people we represent.
We have learned the hard way that the political climate today — name calling, State-of-the-Union tearing and mean-spirited labeling, along with disparaging accusations, will yield further divide and demonization. We do not need to wait until an elected official needs CPR on the House floor for us to meld our blue and red to a single color of purple.
When having to decide which country I want my kids to inherit, undoubtedly, I want the Damar Hamlin America, the one that rallied around hope and believes in something greater for our collective whole. What I want my elected officials, ranging from the town council all the way to those inhabiting the abode on Pennsylvania Avenue, to realize is that we do not need to have either/or. Indeed, all of America can and should be the Damar Hamlin America — filled with love, empathy, support, hope, and understanding, even if we are not all Buffalo Bills fans.
David-Seth Kirshner is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Closter and immediate past president of both the New York Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.