As the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump draws inexorably closer, those of us who continue to feel that his election represents a very sad statement about the America we thought we knew continue to struggle. The inchoate news conference that he held yesterday, along with his relentless, infantile tweeting and overt hostility towards the press, the intelligence community, and anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him or challenge him, have done nothing to assuage our concerns. I, along with countless others, am seriously concerned about the next four years, in a way that I wasn’t even in the worst of the Great Recession. I am worried about America in a way that I have never been…
In the midst of these “real world” concerns, I I teach a weekly Parshat Hashavua (weekly Torah portion) class to our Hebrew High School students here at Forest Hills Jewish Center. This past Monday, our focus was on Parashat Vayehi, the concluding portion of the Book of Genesis. In addition to the rich content of Vayehi‘s chapters, the occasion of concluding this first, remarkable book of the Torah afforded us an opportunity to reflect on what we were/are intended to learn from its often difficult narratives.
Aside from the opening chapters dealing with what I consider to be Judaism’s version of “pre-history,” our understanding of the origins of the world and its earliest generations, Genesis is the chronicle of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Given that Genesis is far from a happy or easy book, what themes, I asked them, are common to all of these generations?
Together we discussed how all four generations in that story– Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, and the twelve sons of Jacob (and Dinah) had difficult lives for all kinds of reasons: Infertility, famine, jealousy, family strife, violence and loss, and more. But what I had to point out to them was that, again and again, the stories of Genesis subvert the convention of the oldest son being the automatic heir of both a special, first-born’s share of physical assets, as well as of the spiritual blessing of the father that carries with it the responsibility to carry the family traditions on. Isaac receives that blessing over first-born Yishmael, and Jacob receives that blessing over first-born Esau. In both instances, with Yishmael and Hagar being forced into the desert and Jacob forced to flee for his life from his brother, their families suffer greatly from the hurt that accompanies these deviations from the norm.
And just this week, in Parashat Vayehi, it happens one last time. When Joseph brings his sons Menashe and Ephraim to be blessed by Jacob before his death, he lines them up so that the first-born, Menashe, will be opposite Jacob’s right (stronger) hand, and Ephraim will be under his left hand. By convention, that is the correct way for them to be lined up. But Jacob knowingly and intentionally crosses his hands, laying his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and his left on Menashe’s. Joseph protests, but Jacob assures him that he knows exactly what he’s doing. The younger child will receive the dominant blessing.
What I taught my students was that, in each of these generations, the Torah was making the same point. Your destiny is not going to be determined exclusively by birth order. It will, rather, be based also on merit– have you earned the blessing and the trust that goes with it, or not? That is the question that is being answered in each and every generation of Genesis. It’s not merely about who was born first. The real question, in essence the only question, is who is the right person to transmit the preeminent importance of fidelity to the fledgeling covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham?
Fast forward a few thousand years to our own times, and superimpose the insight of Genesis onto contemporary American politics. In our time, of course, there is no question of birth order, although there is, often, a question of “whose turn it is” when it comes to candidates from the major parties. But now we find ourselves with a President-elect who has defied all conventions of traditional presidential politics as we know them, and essentially forced both the Democratic and Republican parties to completely re-think what exactly they stand for, and who makes up their constituencies.
None of this is, in and of itself, a bad thing. American presidential politics, and the parties that have long dominated that process, have been overdue for a cleansing breath of new thinking. But what we are left with in light of the election of Donald Trump and all that we have witnessed of him so far, both during the campaign and afterwards, is one nagging question as old as the Book of Genesis.
Is he worthy?
Obviously some people think so, but I am not among them, nor were nearly three million more American voters than the number who thought he was. The covenant that President-elect Trump is charged with carrying forward is the sacred trust between the American people and its government, and the relationship between America and the rest of the civilized world.
Is he worthy?
All thinking people should be asking this question, as it will only become increasingly important in the weeks and months ahead. As I said, to me, the answer is uncomfortably clear. And I am, indeed, very worried.