Executive Orders Based on Fear Won’t Work. Ask Pharaoh.

This week we have seen a flurry of Executive Orders coming from the desk of newly inaugurated President Trump. While Executive Orders are nothing new, and Presidents have routinely used them, the content of the orders and messages coming out of the Oval Office are enough to give one pause.

These include orders to roll back the Affordable Care Act, orders to withdraw from international treaties, and orders to renew construction of disputed pipelines, all of which in one fell swoop undo previous actions and decisions that affect millions of people. And then, most recently, President Trump issued an order to build a border wall along the border with Mexico, take measure against jurisdictions that have declared themselves sanctuary cities, and take measures against those who are deemed to be “removable aliens.” Actions against refugees are also expected.

While all of these orders create their own conflicts, challenges and opposition, it is these last ones that strikes a particularly resonant chord because they label human beings–created in the image of the divine–as the “other” and are rooted in an irrational fear of that “other.”

We need only look in our Torah reading this week to see an ancient echo of modern times. In the beginning of the book of Exodus, the new Pharaoh expresses fear of and disdain for a population that had been living in his country for generations:

Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Le us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground. (Exodus 1:10)

A ruler looks upon a people as undesirable and a threat. So he issues a series of executive orders against them. First he orders that the entire people be put into slavery and forced labor. Then he issues orders to increase the labor. Then, as the population continued to grow, he issues an order to the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill any Israelite males. When this fails due to their defiance, he issues another order to the entire people, that they are to throw all newborn boys into the Nile River.

These actions, however, set into motion an act of resistance. First there is the resistance of Shifrah and Puah. Then Moses, one of the boys cast into the Nile, is eventually saved by Pharaoh’s daughter herself, raised as her son, and as an adult realizes his true calling and serves as the head of the movement for Israelite liberation, a movement that is ultimately successful. Acts based in fear and meant to instill more fear end up being the undoing of Pharaoh and the society that he tried to build.

The journey to Israelite liberation as told in the biblical book of Exodus is brought about through a series of signs and wonders–ten plagues–that are visited upon the entire Egyptian people: water turning to blood, swarms of insects, legions of frogs, widespread cattle disease, locusts destroying crops and culminating in the death of the Egyptian first born. Each plague was visited on Egypt in response to the refusal by its leader to release the Israelites from bondage.

We can understand these plagues in a metaphoric sense: that with each refusal, another malady was visited on the land. With each refusal to give up on fear, with each refusal to recognize the humanity of the other, with each refusal to create connections not barriers, the condition of the country got worse and worse. As fear of the other became more ingrained, the suffering of the whole increased.

At first, the Egyptians were able to accept it and mitigate it. The Torah speaks of how for the first three plagues, the Pharaoh’s magicians and advisers were able to recreate the plague, thus allowing it to be explained away and ignored. After the fourth plague, however, they were overwhelmed, and everything continued to go downhill.

We knew throughout the campaign that these promises–border wall, action against immigration and refugees, registries–would be imminent. Perhaps it is surprising at how fast they are happening, and even how they are happening (Presidential executive orders even when there is a Republican majority in both houses of Congress). But now that they are happening, the time is to act is truly upon us.

Pharaoh discovered that ruling through fear and oppression brought about his downfall. But this was only made possible through effective resistance.

The message must be clear. We can not act (and especially create policy) out of fear. We need to find ways to protect the vulnerable. We must find ways that guarantee safety and security without dehumanizing others. And we must open our hearts and not close our doors.

2 responses to “Executive Orders Based on Fear Won’t Work. Ask Pharaoh.”

  1. Allen Roth Avatar
    Allen Roth

    Hi Seth,

    Thank you for your weekly posts. They enrich me.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rabbi360 Avatar

      Thanks Allen! All the best to you!


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