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!

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