Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. Many of us in the Jewish community are still grappling with how to engage with this new, uncharted, reality. Never in my memory has a major American political figure routinely championed such xenophobic and Islamophobic policies, possessed such a rich documented history of misogyny and racism, delighted in his own ignorance, disdained democratic norms, and forged such unsettling relationships with hostile foreign powers. So, as we approach inauguration day, I’ve been thinking about what wisdom the Jewish tradition might offer us in this abnormal moment.
“You shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). That is the charge God gives to the biblical Abraham as he is called to be the father of the Jewish people. That charge, to advance God’s agenda in the world and, in so doing, to bestow bounty on others, colors the trajectory of Abraham’s life, and is understood in Jewish tradition to be an imperative incumbent upon all of Abraham’s children in perpetuity.
It is therefore surprising that immediately after God gives Abraham that charge to be a blessing, the biblical narrative transitions to some rather mundane business that seems to have nothing at all to do with Abraham fulfilling that charge of being a blessing. First, Abraham goes down to Egypt to escape famine. Then, he has a quarrel with his nephew, Lot, over grazing rights. Finally, he becomes embroiled in what is sometimes called “The War of the Four Kings Against the Five Kings” or “The War of the Nine Kings” (Genesis 14). I’ve always been strangely drawn to this story, but it has only recently occurred to me, as I reflect on this moment in American history, why the Torah bothers recounting it as a crucial moment in the story of Abraham.
Here’s the synopsis of the narrative: Four kings forge an alliance and rebel against another alliance of kings. They march upon each other and engage in a brutal and bloody battle.
In the course of the battle, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who had been living in Sodom after having a falling out with Abraham, is taken captive. Abraham hears that Lot has been captured and musters his retinue, about 300 men. At great personal risk, he chases down the forces who have taken Lot captive and rescues him.
After risking his life to rescue his nephew, Abraham encounters a man named Melchizedek, the king of a place called Salem, who greets Abraham with offerings of bread and wine. Melchizedek, a “priest of God Most High” blesses Abraham, saying, “Blessed is Abraham of God Most High, Creator of Heaven and earth. And blessed is God Most High who has delivered your foes into your hand!” (Genesis 14:18-20).
Consider what this narrative teaches: Lot is taken captive, collateral damage of a brutal and bloody conflict between powerful forces on both sides. Captivity means no longer having control over one’s own life, being totally subject to others’ control, having one’s life constantly endangered. That is why in the Jewish tradition there are few commandments more important than the mandate to redeem captives.
Abraham risks his life to march into battle against these powerful forces in order to rescue Lot, a man who was in harm’s way in the first place because he quarreled with Abraham.
In turn, Abraham receives the praise of Melchizedek. The language of Melchizedek’s prayer evokes God’s original promise and charge to Abraham in Genesis 12, indicating that Abraham’s heroism in Genesis 14 may be the precise moment he fulfills God’s command to “be a blessing.” Perhaps “being a blessing” means, in the end, showing up for and taking care of anybody who is at risk or in danger; anybody who has lost power, who is crushed by the system; anybody who doesn’t have control over their own destiny or who has suffered as a part of being caught up in forces that are beyond their control. Abraham is a blessing because he rides into battle to protect the vulnerable. He is a blessing because he does so selflessly. And, all the more so, he is a blessing because he is willing to do this even for somebody who was, in a sense, his adversary.
The election of Donald Trump awakened many of us to the fact that a substantial portion of our country’s voters have felt very much like Lot, captives of forces beyond their control, victims of powers to whom they could not appeal. Many millions reported that Trump received their votes because they were suffering and traditional politicians of both parties refused to hear their cries and repeatedly offered no relief.
For Jewish Americans, then, perhaps being a blessing in the Trump era means that regardless of how we feel about Trump, we have a responsibility to listen to those peoples’ voices and champion their needs. Heeding Abraham’s example means doing what we can to ensure that even those people on the other side of the political equation from us are cared for and and helped.
However – and this is a gargantuan “however” – that responsibility also works in the other direction. Trump and his supporters must recognize that many of us on the other side of the divide also justifiably feel like Lot. Therefore Trump and his supporters also have a responsibility to support and care for the needs of their political opponents. Arguably, their responsibility is a greater one. The moral imperative for the powerful to care for the powerless is necessarily stronger than the opposite.
“The general welfare,” as the Constitution’s preamble calls it, is not a zero sum game. Abraham rode into battle to rescue a person who was in need. It didn’t matter whether the captive was a friend or a foe. He recognized his responsibility to come to the aid of those who are most vulnerable, who need the most care, who have been abandoned and ignored by the system.
We all likewise have a responsibility to the working class in the Rust Belt who have felt crushed by the rise of globalization. But we also have the same responsibility to the working class in the tomato farms of Florida and the classrooms of Virginia. We have the same responsibility to women who make less than a man for the same work and who are struggling for the ability to control their own bodies. We have the same responsibility to Black Americans, Muslims, refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ people, and everybody else who feels challenged and threatened by the administration coming to power.
We are all of us charged to partner with our leaders, wherever they are on the political spectrum, insofar as they are working to advance the cause of everyone’s liberation and dignity. And we similarly have a duty to resist our leaders, wherever they are on the political spectrum, when they do not work to advance the value and dignity of all. That is what is meant by God’s command to “be a blessing.” And that is the sacred Jewish challenge before, during, and after the presidency of Donald Trump.
As we stand at the precipice of this new political era, I pray that God will awaken within all of us an Abrahamic passion for redeeming others, even our adversaries. I pray that our circle of compassion will widen enough to include the vast and diverse American family: One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.