Here Comes That Loser Dreamin’ Joe #letsthrowhiminapit

There is a lot with which I do not agree with our current President. We have different approaches to policy and leadership. He has taken many actions, in his personal life and as our President, that I find highly problematic, most recently the move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which turns against decades of foreign policy and will only inflame tensions in the area and serve as an obstacle for peace.

But the one thing that bothers me the most, that gets into my gut and makes me emotionally upset in addition to intellectually repulsed, is the name calling.

Crooked Hillary. Lyin’ Ted. Rocket Man. Pocahontas. Little Marco. Crazy Bernie.

Add to this to the general insults: “failing,” “loser,” “goofy,” “phony,” “lightweight.” Too many to name here. (The New York Times has cataloged them all.)

These get to me because they are not governance philosophies nor are they differences of opinion. They are, simply, the words of a bully. Donald Trump engages in bullying behavior, those who support him condone it, and we as a society are seeing the normalization of it.

The bullying behavior affects me on two levels. I still remember the name of my bully in summer camp. I went away for eight weeks over the summer for several years growing up, and while I had friends and a good time, I did have for a few years a bully who targeted me. I don’t even remember the basis for the abuse. I dealt with him, confronted him at times, had support from adults, and eventually moved to a different camp (for totally unrelated reasons).

But it also affects me for the simple reason that it is hurtful and unkind, and as someone who values compassion, lovingkindness, and respect, this behavior violates my core values and my view of what it means to be a human being.

This week in our Torah reading we begin the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was the favored of the twelve sons of Jacob, who doted on him and gave him a special coat. This did not endear him to his brothers. Neither did the fact that Joseph had dreams that appeared to foretell that he would rise above the rest of his family, and he would relate these dreams to his brothers.

The brothers grew to hate Joseph, and one day as they were out pasturing their flocks, Jacob sent Joseph to check on them. When they say him coming, they conspired to kill him, and said, “Here comes that dreamer (ba’al hachalomot)! Come now, let’s throw him into one of the pits, and we can say ‘a savage beast devoured him.'” (Genesis 37:19-20)

When I read this story these days, I can’t help but read this phrase “ba’al hachalomot” as an epithet along the lines of a Trump insult tweet. The eleven don’t refer to their brother by his name, but a name. “That dreamer” they said. They might as well have said, “Dreamin’ Joe!” What they didn’t say was “Joseph.”

What follows after calling him by this name is the plan to first kill him, and then eventually sell him into slavery. Indeed, perhaps the brothers are able to go through with their plan because they had already dehumanized him by calling him names. Simple lack of kindness can grow and fester and feeds upon itself. Small hurts can lead to large hurts.

Our task is to fight that normalization of bullying behavior that we are seeing in the  contemporary public square. Our task is to remember the simple acts of kindness that humanize each other. Our task is to use each other’s names.

Moses and Aaron: Allies for Justice

The Inauguration is upon us. The peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of our American democracy goes into effect on Friday. Yet this time power is being transferred to a man who enters the office with the lowest approval rating in recent history, who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, whose entry into office will be marked by protests across the country of unprecedented scale.

There is an intriguing juxtaposition of these events and our Torah reading this week, parashat Shemot. This week we read in the Torah the beginning of the Exodus. As we move from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, we make the transition to a book of a family’s saga to the book of a national epic. Jacob and his sons have settled in Egypt and have become a people.

This people, however, is seen as a threat to the new Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh who, the text says, did not know Joseph. In other words, he did not know his history, he did not know of the relationship and bond between the majority Egyptians and the minority Israelites. Seeing them as his enemies, as those who could even overthrow him, he enslaves them.

We are introduced to the character of Moses, who will dominate the rest of the Torah. Born a slave, but sent off by his mother, he is raised an Egyptian in the house of the Pharaoh. When as a young man he sees an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave, something stirs in him and he kills the guard, then flees to Midian to escape punishment.

It is there in Midian he makes a new life, a new family. And it is there in Midian that he gets the call that will change the course of his life and of the world.

Tending sheep one day he notices a bush on fire, but the fire is not consuming the bush. From the bush comes a voice, the voice of God, who tells Moses that he is to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. After some argument—Moses is a reluctant hero—and assurances that God will support him and he will have his brother Aaron as a helper, Moses answers the call and heads back to Egypt.

As the story continues, a story that we know from retelling, from the Passover celebration, or even popular imagination, Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelites. Pharaoh continues to refuse, and Moses exhortations get stronger, more strident and when accompanied by the plagues, more perilous to the Egyptian society.

It is a powerful story of telling truth to power, of standing up to despotism, of making the plea for equality, liberation and justice. It is a story that we know resonated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we celebrated this past week. And it is a powerful story that will hopefully resonate with us as new leadership takes over at the highest levels of our government.

There is, as our Torah teaches in this story, the opportunity and obligation to call out that which we know to be wrong. That we do not need to be nor should we be silent in the face of oppression. And that we have the power to confront our rulers when we seek change.

But in addition to reaching up, we also must reach across. We must reach across to our neighbor, our fellow community members. For what is most important, what forms the strongest society, what allows us to be successful in what we hope to accomplish, are the relationships that we are able to forge.

The Torah models this for us as well. For Moses knows that he can not go it alone. Standing in front of the bush he says in the text that he is “slow of speech,” and asks God for someone else to be the divine emissary. But God insists, and tells him the Aaron his brother will be by his side. We can say that “slow of speech” is up for interpretation, so while it can be interpreted as a speech impediment, or as lack of eloquence, we can also say that Moses understands that one person’s words by themselves may not be that effective. That what is needed is not a soloist, but a chorus.

Aaron’s presence symbolizes the strength in numbers. Aaron’s presence represents the need for allies in the fight for justice.

And how does one be an ally? Aaron and Moses meet for the first time shortly after the episode of the burning bush. Moses returns to his family in Midian, and prepares to return to Egypt. We read in the text, “God said to Aaron, ‘go to meet Moses in the wilderness.’ He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.” (Exodus 4:27)

Aaron doesn’t wait for Moses to return to Egypt. Aaron goes out to meet Moses where he is. And that is how we become allies, how we form strong relationships: we meet people where they are. We go out of our way to connect with them. We recognize that it isn’t about the “I” it is about the “we.” We support each other, we give of ourselves, we uplift each other’s tactics even when they differ. We make sure that challenging external threats is not compromised by needless division and infighting.

We turn towards, and not against each other.

It is through these relationships that we can overthrow the Pharaoh, free the oppressed, envision a better world and climb the mountain of God.

Trump and Haman and Ahasuerus..and Mordechai

Today was Purim, the annual celebration of the events of the biblical book of Esther.

The story goes like this:  the Persian King Ahasuerus dismisses his queen Vashti for not appearing at his summons. He invites all the women of the kingdom to appear to see who would become the new queen, and a Jewish woman named Esther is selected. Meanwhile, Ahasuerus appoints a minister Haman, who, angry with Esther’s cousin Mordechai for not bowing down to him, sets out a plot to exterminate the Jews. He convinces the king to issue a decree that on a particular day (chosen by lot) the Jews are to be killed. Learning of the plot, Mordechai persuades Esther to use her position to save the Jews, which she does. A counter decree is issued, Haman is executed and a new holiday is established to mark the occasion.

The observance of Purim has a decidedly non-solemn tone: we sing and dance, dress in costume, share jokes and parody, eat and celebrate and make a lot of noise. We do so because of the happiness which comes from a disaster averted and evil foiled. We are happy because we survived, because we won, because a miracle occurred on our behalf.

As part of the celebration we read the megillah (scroll) which contains the book of Esther. A simple story, yet complex at the same time. Like many texts of scripture, the story of Esther can be understood in many different ways. It is a human drama, a story of redemption and at times even a farce.

This year, however, it is hard to not read the book of Esther as a political drama, complete with jockeying for position, manipulation and power plays.

Haman is the main villain of the story. He is hungry for power and influence, he manipulates the king and hatches and implements the plan to exterminate the Jews. And he does so because he is angered by one Jew, Mordechai. Thus he does not hesitate to stir up hatred and blame and punish an entire people for the supposed slight of one person. And he, along with his own Lady Macbeth Zeresh, seeks to kill Mordechai personally.

Ahasuerus the king is also a villain. He is a tyrant, who holds a beauty pageant (read: sexual contest) to find a new queen, is ready to carry out a plan for genocide. He unwilling to rescind his extermination decree in order to save face, and instead issues another decree permitting killing and looting. While he is the one who issued the decree, he blames Haman and executes him. He is easily manipulated because he is eager to please and hold onto power.

And Mordechai, one of the traditional heroes of the story, also is a political manipulator. He positions Esther to gain power, telling her to hide her Jewish background. He informed on two eunuchs who were angry at the king and got them killed. He then uses Esther’s position to not only save the Jews (which is, of course, a good thing) but for political gain–at the end of the story, he winds up with a plum political appointment, second only to the king.

It is hard not to think of the political overtones in this story as we read it during this Presidential election season. For as the primaries and caucuses continue, we will continue to write the narrative with its heroes and villains.

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Donald Trump at AIPAC. Photo from Tablet Magazine.
While each contest has its heated moments , the emergent “villain” during this election has been Donald Trump. Popular among voters, but disdained by his own party, Trump has also consistently raised the ire of opponents and pundits alike. His anti-Muslim comments, negativity toward immigrants and ad hominem attacks on his opponents have cast Trump as “the one to stop.”  His appearance at AIPAC last week even brought protests and walk outs.

At the same time, he is developing a great following. At AIPAC, while some protested and walked out on Trump, many, many more stood and cheered when he spoke, willing to either tacitly accept or outright ignore his problematic stances in exchange for his support of Israel. And he is the Republican frontrunner for the simple reason that he is winning the most elections and the most delegates. If he eventually loses, we will still have his followers who will potentially be a political force to contend with.

In reading the Purim story in light of the election, it would be easy to cast Trump as Haman, the demagogue who cast aspersions on his enemies, condemning whole peoples for the sake of political gain. But Trump is also King Ahasuerus, who is desirous of power and therefore seeks to please all.

And, Trump is also Mordechai, who elevates his own self-interest above all, making decisions based on personal gain at the expense of others.

And Trump is us. We got him to where he is now.

As we move through the primary season, it is not my place to endorse a particular candidate. I simply share that I believe Trump’s rhetoric to be dangerous and hurtful. I have serious concerns about the lasting effects of what he says, and what impact it will have on our civil society.

And while the Book of Esther can be read as a reflection of the political manipulations we see at work today, there is another angle to the story. One of the reasons we dress up on Purim is to enact the idea that things aren’t always what they seem. A theme of the Purim story is that what was planned could fail to materialize, that what was once thought inevitable was not to be. Things are turned around, events unfold in a way that was not intended.

Here too, perhaps things will turn out differently than they seem. Perhaps the hateful speech and the demagoguery will fail to have staying power. It will if we drown it out like we do Haman’s name on Purim. And when harmful rhetoric gives way to words of love and compassion, that, too, will be worthy of celebration.