01/13/09

FOURTEEN Va’Era DELIVER

Champagne bottles popped open as soon as President Obama removed his hand from Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and completed his oath of office. About twenty of us gathered in a Tel Aviv apartment to watch the inauguration on a giant screen. There were lots of tears (mine), sneers (Rick Warren) and loud cheers – heard from all the surrounding apartments. By the time I got on the 480 bus from Tel Aviv going back to Jerusalem I was a bit drunk. Before falling asleep on the bus I noticed that the bus driver had a digital sign behind his seat – located just behind his head and visible to all passengers. The bright red display rotated between showing the time, the temperature – and the exact speed with which he was driving the bus. It mostly flashed ‘100 KMH’ – kilometers per hour – the legal speed limit. I was impressed by this, mulling over the transparency of leadership and the public display of responsibility which this ‘leader’ was exhibiting – any deviation from the legal speed will be seen by all of us, and will enable us to protest – and defend our lives. I fell asleep with happy thoughts of Obama as the bus driver of the western world, delivering us all to a better place. I woke up in Jerusalem 45 minutes later, thanked the bus driver and hurried home to sleep it off.

‘Deliver’ is a funny word. We talk of ‘delivering’ a speech or a package, we are born in ‘delivery rooms,’ we appeal to the heavens for a safe delivery from harm. The word connotes transit, a handing over of something or someone from one entity or location to another. To be the one doing the delivery is to be the one responsible for the accomplishment of the mission, for the deliverables (and we are often reminded to NOT shoot the messenger – no matter what he or she has delivered to us…).
Delivery – or deliverance – is a big responsibility, as Obama knows and will soon really find out – and as so many of us know too well from our own life experience. And we have a daunting role model for the achievement ‘how to best deliver’: God is the original delivery guy – and the Divine is delivering salvation, not pizza.

Salvation is the main topic of book of Exodus, just as it is the main topic of most (worthwhile) therapy sessions.  ‘Salvation’, like ‘deliverance’, is one of those words that has aquried a lot of extra weight over the years.  Beneath the verbal pomp, not unlike the Inauguration ceremony, is a raw yearning for improvement – for real change – and this is the place where the biblical saga meets our reality. In Exodus, Chapter 6, this weekly Torah tale – Va’Era kicks in the next phase of the “Let My People Go” campaign and it’s about to get bloody, – a violent war for liberty.  But speeches come first. God coaches Moses on what to say – what speech to deliver to the people Israel who are too tired to believe anything will save them, and what speech to deliver to the Pharaoh, who isn’t interested in social reforms. “…I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage” (Ex. 6:6), says the God of the Hebrews, Moses’ chief speechwriter.  Moses, newly chosen leader, reluctantly and with a stammer, delivers the news to his people and to his nemesis.  “Wait, there’s more,” God tells him – remind them that “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments…”
The Hebrew word for “deliver” is ‘ve’hitzlati’ – translated elsewhere as ‘save’, ‘help’ or ‘redeem’. God –via the appointed delivery mechanism – prophet or leader –  is offering the enslaved people a radical paradigm shift. But who’s paying attention? The people Israel are too impatient and overworked, literally ‘out of breath’ (Ex. 6:9) and the Egyptian regime wants cheap labor and no nonsense. So what else is new?

Obama, like Moses, wants to help – and also faces the daunting challenge of successful delivery. The 44th president is not a religious leader and he is not, officially, speaking for God (though the 43rd president seemed to think differently about this issue…), but I do want to believe that Obama truly is driven by deeply ethical and spiritual motivations. Even the choice of biblical quotation in his inauguration speech is telling – “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (New Testament, Corinthians 13:11).   It rings sincere – he is embracing a deeper, more compelling truth and obligation – a true calling. Like Moses, he has a long history with the nation he intends to radically transform, and like Moses, he is a ‘mutt’ – an outsider to some, and now the ultimate insider to many others. Moses grew up as an Egyptian child, and only later joined the Hebrews as their leader. Obama’s ‘childish things’ include all that he has been until this moment of acceptance to be the one responsible for the delivery of change.

Can he deliver? We certainly hope so, and I certainly hope that like my bus driver, Obama’s administration will provide us with ample transparency and a restoration of real checks and balances – real access to democracy and accountability. Every driver goes over the speed limit and all leaders err – but let’s hope that this ride delivers us to our next destination in peace and with continued hope and determination.  A lot of us are sitting on this bus, counting on him. In Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Guantamo Bay and Washington DC – many, like the Hebrew slaves, are too short of breath to listen, but will hopefully be persuaded to listen, and to experience that great deliverance of real change for the better – even at a price.

One more word about the Bible and the Inauguration: There sure was a lot of God-talk and bible-speak– from Warren’s “Lord’s Prayer” to the actual administering of oaths under God (yes, on a Bible – church and state, anyone?) to Aretha’s hat clearly of ‘biblical proportions’. There is much to discuss about the public square in the 21st century and the usage of religious and biblical language, but I want to linger on the biblical quote that caught my ear during the recitation of the poem written in honor of the inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander. It reminds me that what a real leader can deliver is the reminder of the possibility of trust, and of love – that ‘salvation’, ‘deliverance’ and ‘love’ are synonymous – invitations to listen deeper to what’s available to us on the road to happiness, every single day:
“Some live by ‘Love thy neighbor as thy self.’
Others by ‘first do no harm,’ or ‘take no more than you need.’
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.”