Trump Trilogy Part 2 – Rabbi Miriam Berger
Sermon – 21 January 2017 – Shabbat Sh’mot 5777
Last Shabbat was a week of emotional endings. Obama made his final speech as he stepped back into civilian life again and the biblical patriarch Jacob bade his farewell and was buried back in Canaan reminding his children and grandchildren of their destiny.
Yet this week is one of new beginnings, where new leadership heralds the dawn of a very different day and perhaps a whole new world.
The Torah tells us very simply
|ח וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.||8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph|
Jacob had died in an Egypt in which his Israelite descendants felt so prosperous and comfortable that he had made them bury him in Canaan to try and entice them away from the security of Egypt, to continue the journey of their forefathers to realise the promises made by God. Yet this new leader in Egypt shows a very different sense of the world he has stepped up to lead. Perhaps he had a total lack of understanding of how the land had come to be this way? He had no knowledge of Egypt’s past, when its social responsibility had led its famine ravaged neighbours to come seeking aid. He asked no questions of what brought these two peoples to live side by side; he simply stirs up fear among the Egyptians pointing out how numerous the Israelites were. First he sets oppressive restrictions on their lives and then begins to cull their numbers.
I imagine war to be declared with cannons and cavalry but this simple observation of how numerous the Israelites had become was Pharaoh’s declaration of war.
It is a similar warped image of the world that yesterday led Donald Trump to paint a rather different picture of the America of today than Obama had said goodbye to. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Trump said. “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
We’ve certainly heard where we stand: the drawbridge being pulled up, the walls being built. We understand this populist message can only be peddled once the fires of injustice and fear have been stoked in the country to build support for an isolationist message which can then be proclaimed globally. The new message, “America First” may as well be, “America at the expense of the world”: it tells us it’s now each man for himself, put your own needs first and if that means letting others suffer or starve….
Well I suppose it is less alarming than the Pharaoh’s bill for ethnic cleansing but it does feel a huge step back for society, for humanity to revert to an archaic mentality of each man for himself, it’s taking us back to a yet to be evolved animal kingdom.
I imagine war to be declared with the movement of troops and the firing of weapons but in this speech unity was destroyed, alliances torn up and Trump’s “hour of action” sounds like it could have devastating effects across the globe. Whose lives don’t matter, who is dispensable, who will he leave to rot because they are no longer a priority in his grand scheme? When the game show “need to win” at the expense of any other contestant becomes foreign policy for the world’s most powerful, it becomes less the need to fear being fired and more the plea to say “get me out of here”.
But the Torah portion also gives us the models of leadership that rise up in response to tyranny. Through the vehicle of the burning bush God springs the role of leader on to a reluctant Moses, who asks the question we would all be asking:
|יא , מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.||11 ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’|
Mi anochi? Who am I? Why me? (Exodus 3:11)
One could assume the question has been answered by the opening of the parasha. What makes Moses the perfect leader in this moment? Surely the combination of being both the product of the circumstances of his birth and the product of his upbringing. Being born to an Israelite woman when that should have resulted in his death and being the child of Pharaoh’s daughter, growing up in Pharaoh’s palace. He is the only person since Joseph to have been part of both camps and therefore must be able to mediate between the two. It feels if this is the only answer, we have to hope the Mormon choir who sung yesterday have got the direct line as it will take a miraculous event and the finding of a true prophet to bring society back from the brink.
This isn’t the answer we are given however, we are rather told, “Who are you Moses? You will be the product of the role you are about to be thrown into.” Who are you? A nobody, but you will be supported and guided and it will be ok. As the new America which dawned yesterday sees its most senior leadership team struggling to answer the most basic questions in their confirmation hearings, revealing their absolute lack of knowledge or prior experience in the areas they are now responsible for, perhaps we should take a little comfort in the idea that we don’t need to know everything before we take on a role, we need to be open to learning and using complimentary skills to bring the successes in one area of life into others. Perhaps that’s why we make B’nei Mitzvah so young so that you have time to learn the position on the job enabling the strong, skilled adult to emerge long after you have been thrust into the role. This answer sets my mind at ease no more effectively than hoping for God’s own appointed official to step up. How much damage can be done when people learning on the job are given that much global responsibility? The US senate doesn’t normally do these high level apprenticeships.
So perhaps the answer lies with the much less well known characters, those that didn’t get the historical recognition for all time but perhaps we are being told that the most inspirational leaders are the ones who were neither born into it or gained it by the virtue of their upbringing, that they were neither thrust into it nor grew into it but those who continued to go about their daily life righting the smallest injustices as they saw them. The midwives Shifra and Puah are the leaders who became leaders the moment they stood up for injustice. One small act, one personal risk, one bold statement, that’s where we find the real inspiration.
So who do I pray are the true leaders who are going to emerge this week? Is it those born into prosperity who built an empire and then tried to preserve it at the detriment of everyone else? Or the one that said, if I can change the world for one person then perhaps I will change society forever as all it may take is one brave act of kindness? The act itself won’t be seen or appreciated but the ripples will be felt throughout history.
We can’t wait for burning bushes to call us to change the world but at this time of a Pharaoh who does not know the importance of bringing people together across borders and ethnic divisions – even if he was able to quote Hinei ma tov, we need to look for the moments we can be Shifra and through simple acts in daily life which stem the tide, history could be changed though any one of us and we will never know.
 When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”