Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It Takes My Breath Away

What is the distance between a charismatic leader and his followers? What does it take to close the gap between them? These are questions that come up when we read the Torah portion Va'era, as Jews all over the world did last Saturday.

6 Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. 7 And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord." 9 But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

My friend Phil Weiss, the darshan at Temple B'nai Brith in Somerville, calls our attention to the last line of this passage. Moses has one experience. He grows up in Pharaoh's court, a pampered prince, dimly aware of his Israelite heritage. Even when he has to flee the country, he marries the daughter of a local religious leader and chieftain in Midian. Moses sometimes doubts his own abilities--he has a temper, and he stutters--but once he gets his prophetic mission, he never doubts that God is behind him. How can he? He heard a divine voice speaking from a bush that burned and burned and was not consumed. What a tremendous privilege, to know for sure that your cause is just!

Contrast this with the condition of the people Moses returns to liberate. They came to Egypt hundreds of years ago, escaping a famine. Initially welcomed, they were later enslaved. Their rulers tried gradually to wipe them out, commanding that every Israelite boy baby be thrown into the Nile (a command that two clever midwives figured out how to circumvent). They survived, but they did backbreaking manual labor for hundreds of years, building whole cities at Pharaoh's behest. This is "cruel bondage," or as the Hebrew says more literally, "hard work" indeed. And the expression for "their spirits crushed," b'kotzer ruach, can refer to the narrowing and truncating of their outlook on life--or it can mean "shortness of breath." What a definition of oppression: working so hard you don't have room to breathe, much less hope for the future.

Is it any wonder that it took someone from a different class entirely to hear God's project of liberation? Is it any wonder that the enslaved people have trouble believing that things can ever be better than they are?

I've been rehearsing Phil's interpretation in my own words, and it is not putting words in his mouth to say that we can look at the new American president in the same light. He is quite literally the son of a stranger in the land. He is in some senses an outsider to the African American community. He has enough distance from both white and black and all other shades of America to get a perspective on what we need to liberate this country from the "shortness of breath" we have experienced at least for the last eight years. But how will he be received? Will we (as I have suggested in previous posts) welcome him and push him to be a more transformational leader than even he knows he can be? Or will we refuse to listen to the word of liberation that comes, not from Obama, but through him, from beyond him?

All Moses' life, I said to Phil, he had trouble making people listen to him--and trouble listening to them, too. Let's hope that a community organizer has better skills in this area than a prophet!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Interpreting the Dream Today: Joseph in Egypt and Obama in the White House

The leader of a great and powerful nation looks ahead and sees economic disaster looming. He searches for an adviser who can help him create sweeping change and provide hope to the land. The qualifications of the person he elects are 1) that he has shown good judgment before in interpreting visions of life and death, and 2) that he comes from a group that was previously denigrated and despised in his country--to the point that the majority would not even sit down and eat with them at the same table.

This is the story of Joseph in Egypt, too.

In Parshat Miketz, which we read in synagogue a few weeks ago, the Pharaoh (or king) has a dream that seven fat cows are feeding by the great river of Egypt--and seven lean, emaciated cows come and swallow them up. He has the same dream again, only with ears of corn instead of cattle. The only one who can make sense of his dreams is Joseph, the enslaved Hebrew being held prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeon. Pharaoh's butler had met Joseph in prison, when he had been sent there in political disgrace, and Joseph had correctly predicted his return to a position of influence.

On the butler's recommendation, Pharaoh listened to Joseph's dream interpretation: that seven years of prosperity would be swallowed up by seven years of famine, and that it was time to begin preparing now. Pharaoh makes Joseph his famine czar: "Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than thou."

Barack Hussein Obama is the Joseph who has become the Pharaoh. After the eight relatively fat years of the Clinton administration, we have seen eight lean years, all of which were recession years for the poor of this country (and disasters for our rights and liberties). Obama famously showed good judgment in denouncing the Iraq war. Since his father was from Kenya and his wife's family includes the descendants of slaves, he is also associated with African Americans, who have not had such influence in Washington since the days of Reconstruction. Joseph (for good and for ill) centralized control at the national level. Obama promises to move in that direction too.

As an American Pharaoh who has been treated as a god by many of his followers to date, will Obama choose his own advisers as well as the Egyptian Pharaoh did? His appointments do not look promising. On foreign policy, many of them are the same people who helped George W. Bush get us into Iraq in the first place. On economic policy, they are the same people who helped Bill Clinton fritter away America's "social contract with its citizens," leading us to the awful state we're in.

The best we can hope for is that Obama will challenge his inner butler. He must remember where he came from--a community organizer who spent time with average people in the prison of poverty--and listen to the voices that tell him, "Make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house."

The best we can do is to organize, pressure him, and make it so. Pharaoh cannot be Moses, and Obama cannot be a movement leader from the White House. We need to lead from here.