29 January 2017
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
A ‘Reality TV’ star has become President of the United States. Is it a joke? When ‘President Trump’ was featured on ‘The Simpsons’ in the year 2000 the spectre was supposed to make us laugh – and perhaps also, to make us think… In an episode, entitled, ‘Bart to the Future’, Bart Simpson is subjected to a scary vision of his life 30 years on, when he is a failed musician, no one wants to hear, and Donald Trump has become President of the United States. Can we ever know what the future holds? Sometimes, absurdities can become realities. CBS News reminded everyone about the episode the morning after Donald Trump declared victory in the Presidential election. So now, we are not laughing – perhaps because we know that ‘Reality TV’ is for the most part, ‘Fantasy TV’, and Donald Trump is a fantasist, who is now occupying the most powerful political office on the planet. ‘America first’? Donald Trump first. The question is, what will it take for him to feel he has satisfied his megalomania? Is a megalomaniac ever satisfied?
Trump does not appear to be an ideologue, he is far too self-centred to have a vision that is more than a reflection of his own vanity. But he has tapped into the discontent and real suffering of millions of Americans, left behind by globalisation, and managed to persuade them that he is their champion, their saviour. Whether or not he does fulfil any of his promises to the people of the discarded ‘rustbelt’ and to the rural poor, Trump has achieved in their adulation exactly what his ego requires: to be the star of the greatest show on earth – which is probably why he was so determined to promote ‘alternative facts’ about the turnout at his inauguration. Of course, despite the pictures to the contrary, despite the empty viewing stands, as he and his hapless wife, Melania, processed through the streets, in Trump’s view, his inauguration attracted the highest number of attendees in US history.
If this was really all there was to the election of Donald J Trump as 45th President of the United States, perhaps it would simply provide a nauseating comment on the dire state of political discourse that such a narcissist, with no experience of public service, could assume the Presidency. But, of course, President Trump is not alone. He has surrounded himself with people of strong convictions, who seem to be committed to a very narrow vision of America – not least, Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, who would re-impose the hetero-normative family ideal on the nation, repeal hard-won LGBT rights, and make abortion a crime once again. And then, let us not forget that the narcissist fantasist is also a successful billionaire businessman, a wheeler-dealer, who is used to getting his own way, and make no mistake, he means business. He has already issued several executive orders to demonstrate his determination to put his campaign promises into practice – which have included an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees entering the country.
So, although a gift to comedians and cartoonists and late-night TV show hosts, President Trump also poses a threat to the people of the United States, and possibly to the entire world. Perhaps, ‘America first’ nationalism is just a game to Donald Trump, a way of keeping his supporters happy – after all, he only got to be a billionaire by engaging in global capitalism; a crucial ‘fact’ that they seem to have missed. But whether or not he means it, Trump has incited and aroused nationalistic and racist sentiments amongst those who need someone to blame, and boosted the nationalist and racist elements that already exist in American society – like the Ku Klux Klan.
Sounds familiar? Yesterday, was National Holocaust Memorial Day, first instituted by the Labour government in 2001. The date was carefully chosen: the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on 27 January 1945. One of the main purposes of the day is, of course, remembrance of the Sho’ah, so that we never forget the Nazi programme to annihilate the Jews of Europe, and in order that we also remember the other groups targeted by Nazi Aryan policy, in particular, the Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, and political opponents. But just as important, the commemoration of the Holocaust each year also highlights genocides perpetrated since 1945, and is supposed to remind us of the need to be vigilant to ensure that we do everything we can to prevent further incarnations of Nazism in the future. Of course, Trump is not a new Hitler, and it is doubtful that his xenophobia will be translated into genocide – although he relishes the prospect of torturing terrorist suspects and often speaks of ‘annihilating’ ISIS. Moreover, the circumstances in which Hitler rose to power, won a democratic election and became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 are not the same circumstances that led to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Nevertheless, there is a striking parallel. Ultimately, as was the case with Hitler in Germany, Trump’s ability to woo those who felt marginalised and left behind, determined the outcome of the election. Without the electoral college votes of former Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, where as Trump put it in his inaugural address, there are ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape’, he would not have been elected to the office of President. That millions of people in the richest and most powerful nation on earth do not benefit from that prosperity and have been abandoned is a shocking indictment on that society and the much professed ‘American dream’.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, we find the second instalment in the saga of the Exodus, in which Moses’ encounter with the Eternal at the burning bush in the wilderness is concluded and he returns to Egypt with his mission to persuade Pharaoh to free the Israelites from their bondage. A Shabbat sermon would not be complete without a connection being made with the parashah. And so, it is tempting to portray Trump as cast in the same mould as the Pharaoh, who ‘did not know Joseph’ – and indeed, like Pharaoh, who saw the Israelites as a threat, Trump has demonised minorities, in particular, Mexicans, Hispanics in general, and Muslims, and is determined to execute policies to keep them out. But there is an important difference. Pharaoh did not have to make appeals for public support when he decided to kill all the firstborn Hebrew baby boys. Pharaoh was an autocrat, with absolute power, presiding over an autocracy. Like it or not, Trump has become President of the United States because he won a democratic election – and he won that election against the odds, even winning states that had previously voted Democrat, because he spoke directly to those who felt they had been ignored by previous administrations, Democrat and Republican. A special Channel 4 report the day before Trump’s inauguration was very telling. Matt Frei spoke to a miner in West Virginia, who voted for Trump although he had always voted Democrat in the past, who told him that Trump had been the first presidential candidate to visit them since JFK.
While linking Trump to Pharaoh may not get us very far in our efforts to make sense of the Trump phenomenon, our parashah has other important lessons to teach us, when we turn from the powerful to the powerless. After all, the message of Moses’ encounter with the Eternal at the burning bush is all about the slaves. At the beginning of this week’s portion, Va-eira, the Divine Revelation concludes with these promises of liberation:
“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements; / And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of Egypt. / And then I will bring you into the land concerning which I lifted up my hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage: I am the Eternal.’”
Trump has also made promises. But the comparison here is not between the Divine and Trump – although, no doubt, Trump sees himself as a messiah-like figure. Moses, who unlike Trump, did not have the gift of the gab, who was modest and self-effacing and full of humility, has the task of conveying a powerful message to Pharaoh and to the slaves: A message that there is a power greater than material power, greater than the mightiest autocrat; a power that ignites and liberates the human spirit.
Immediately after this stunning utterance, at the very next verse, we read: ‘Then Moses spoke thus to the Israelites; but they did not listen to Moses because of shortness of spirit – mi-kotzer ru’ach – and because of hard bondage – mei-avodah kashah.’ Those words say all are that needs to be said about what it feels like to be oppressed. But, of course, that is not the end of the story. Ostensibly, Moses had been charged by the Eternal with the task of persuading Pharaoh to free the slaves: ‘Let My people go that they may serve Me’. However, ultimately, the slaves had to participate in their own liberation if they were to be free. And so, as we read in next week’s parashah, Bo, when it came to the final plague, the death of the firstborn, the only way the Israelites could be saved was by saving themselves – by taking the blood of a lamb and putting it on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, so that the Eternal would pass over their houses and their firstborn would not be killed; hence the inauguration of the Festival of ‘Passover’, Pesach, to celebrate the liberation.
The slaves went on a journey: a journey from kotzer ru’ach, ‘shortness of spirit’ to confidence; from hopelessness to readiness to be free. Only then, could they journey out of Egypt and through the wilderness to a land in which their descendants would serve the Eternal by establishing a just society. In the story of the Exodus, we are confronted with two visions of power: the self- interested, self-aggrandizing power of Pharaoh that is all about domination and control, and the power of the Divine that empowers the powerless. Living in a democracy and not an autocracy, like any demagogue of the modern age, including Hitler, Trump has appealed to the masses and has manipulated them in order to get hold of the reins of power. It looks like he has won. But meanwhile, there have been Moses figures and Miriams at work; ordinary people, inspired by the values of justice and equality, determined to defend and extend human rights, who reject nationalism and racism, sexism and homophobia.
Some people have dismissed the protest marches led by women that took place the day after Trump’s inauguration on the grounds that they had no discernible goals, and that all they could achieve was momentary publicity and a transitory ‘high’. But that response misses the point entirely. Demonstrating solidarity across races, religions and ethnicities, sexualities and genders, those demonstrations in Washington, where 500,000 people gathered, and in towns and cities across the United States and in many parts of the globe, conveyed a compelling message. A narcissistic megalomaniac will not improve the lives of the poor and discarded; only people working together can change the world. Perhaps, then in this sense only, Trump’s election has achieved something. By confounding expectations and challenging the political machinery of business as usual, Trump has sparked a reaction, which has reminded people of their responsibility for the society in which they live. May we yet see that sense of responsibility demonstrated by the American people – and by all peoples in every country across the Earth – in the coming year, so that policies fuelled by xenophobia and bigotry are contested. And may the new month of Sh’vat that begins today with its promise of new life as Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees approaches, inspire us with new hope as we face the challenges that lie ahead. And let us say: Amen.
Click here to see Rabbi Elli’s sermon feature in The Jewish News
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