I watched Wednesday’s inauguration with a great deal of emotion. I was struck by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt’s quote from President Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration: “We come to this place once again,” Blunt said. “Commonplace and miraculous, a national moment of celebration — but not a celebration of victory. A celebration of democracy.” The continuity of the peaceful transition of power and the democratic process felt miraculous.
The ceremony was a celebration of America, its ideals and highest aspirations: The swearing-in of our first female, first Black person, first person of South Asian descent to serve as Vice President; the firefighter from Atlanta who delivered the Pledge of Allegiance in both spoken word and American Sign Language; the awe-inspiring Amanda Gorman, who has overcome a speech impediment and become the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.
I have no illusions about how challenging the days ahead will be, how divided our country is, and how many Americans were disappointed in the outcome of the election. But — at least for one day — the inauguration felt like a moment of unity and radical inclusivity. In Amanda Gorman’s words: “We are striving to forge a union with purpose; To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man; And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us.”
Perhaps the most powerful moment for me was when Jennifer Lopez walked out onto the stage and the Latinx icon sweetly sang these words: “This land is your land, this land is my land.” The symbolism could not have been more poignant, nor the message clearer: This country, this American story, the promise of our future — they are yours, mine, ours. In a time of such division and despair, when so many Americans feel on the margins, left behind, unwelcome, or unsure whether the American dream applies to them, the medium of the inauguration was the message: Our Union is an expansive one, we are strengthened by our diversity, you belong here. Later in the song, she proudly recited, in Spanish, words from the Pledge of Allegiance: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Only as I watched Lopez’s performance did I really understand the power of the phrase, “This land is my land.” It speaks to a universal human longing for connection, belonging, and home. It speaks to the covenantal idea behind America’s democracy and citizenship: We are in this together, with equal rights, and equal responsibility to this imperfect union that we must continually strive to build and improve. When you think about the course of human history, this idea remains revolutionary, radical, and, as Senator Blunt said, miraculous.
I am reminded of Moses’ words to the Israelites as they stood on the banks of the Jordan River preparing to cross into the Land of Israel. There, they would build a new society based on the revolutionary ideas of the Torah: “You stand this day before the Lord your God, all of you; your tribal captains, your elders, your officers, every person of Israel... to enter into this covenant...” (Deuteronomy 29) This was and continues to be the anti-hierarchical, democratizing idea of Judaism: radical inclusion in a shared story and collective responsibility for our shared future.
We need look no further than these very lines of Deuteronomy to see that inclusion has meant different things throughout Jewish history and that ours, too, is an imperfect union. We have tremendous work to do.
But, the story of our Jewish community is also expanding, as we recognize the beauty of our diversity, create and celebrate new forms of Jewish expression, expand access to Jewish life and learning, and strive for greater equity that is rooted in our moral and spiritual obligation to see and understand that every human being is created in the Divine Image.
What a privilege, a responsibility, a blessing to be part of these two great stories — the American and the Jewish — and this extraordinary moment in history.
Rabbi Marc Baker
About the Author
CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.