Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org
It’s not that I feel old or unaccomplished at 43 but I was startled by how many of the new members of Knesset are younger than me, or just about my age. Whatever happened to “Elders”? Are leaders getting younger or am I just getting older? Or both?
I watched the official swearing-in of the 19th Knesset on TV with my parents, and was really moved by the ceremony and esp. by the glowing faces of a few friends of mine, standing up to state their commitment to the government and the people and a better future for us all. One by one, each of the 120 members rose in their seats to declare “I commit’ to public service.
48 new members, 27 women, 39 religious Jews, 10 Muslims, 1 Christian, 1 Druze, 13 PhD’s, at least 15 currently single, 1 (out) LGBT rep. I don’t know how many live across the green line, how many are parents, or musicians, or happy. 16 are younger than 40. Or as the official webpage of Israel’s Foreign Ministry puts it: “The 19th Knesset average age is young.“
When Obama (who at 51 is still on the youngish side) visits Israel this coming spring (Wouldn’t it be awesome if he comes for Seder?) he will meet Lapid – who’s a few months younger than him, Bennett who’s 40 and Stav Shafir – at 28 the youngest women to sit at the Knesset. Feels like teen spirit? Not exactly, but it sure feels like fresh energy and a leadership that understands the world as is and as will be through a more contemporary lens, more digital than analogue. It’s mostly a good thing and hopefully can help make new realities happen.
But what about the sages of ages? That whole ‘the older you get -the wiser?’ Where, in our youth-obsessed culture, is there room and respect not just for young sexy and restless but also for the real role of elders? For patience, humility and the wisdom that comes with wrinkles?
Elders, back in the Biblical day meant those who had beards. The word for Elder – Zaken, and the word for beard – Zakan are written the same way in Hebrew, though pronounced a bit differently. It’s a not so subtle statement about gender roles but also, possibly about age and status. And the very first time in which an official gathering of the Seventy Bearded Elders of Israel is convened happens in this week’s Torah text, Mishpatim:
“Moses climbed, with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” Ex 24:9
The scene is auspicious: Yet another rendition of the Revelation at Sinai, but in this version Moses does not arrive alone for the Summit Meeting with God. He has an entourage: The High Priest and his two heirs are followed by the first official public body-politic of the Jewish people – seventy anonymous leaders. No names or stats are available, but we’ll assume no women, and no Ph’ds. Probably beards. Who were these founding fathers? How old were they? How were they chosen? What was their role? And why seventy?
We won’t know the answers to most of these questions. The number of elders, for instance, is a Talmudic debate. During the Second Temple era and right after the destruction there is mention of an assembly of seventy, or seventy two. But there is also talk of 120 members of the Great Assembly – the first Knesset. This was the number that inspired the first Israeli Knesset back in 1948.
There is another direct link between the first gathering of Elders in Exodus and the 19th Knesset. The 120 members, along with family members and guests gathered at the Chagall Lounge after the swearing-in ceremony to raise a glass and enjoy one last friendly moment before the political agenda start stirring the pots. Moses, the Torah, and the Seventy Elders were depicted by Chagall on one of the three tapestries that dominate the room since 1966.
Regardless of age, agenda, gender or faith – let’s hope that this new gathering of state leaders waste no time in making good on the many promises and, like Moses and his elders, bring us one step closer to Divine truth, shared responsibilities, and a better life for all.
(and no, I’m not going to say a word about Sarah’s dress. )
Was Obama, just like Abraham, selected by God?
Hear me out on this one. I’m not assuming that all those who voted Blue are thanking God for the elections just as many pious ones who voted Red are not, I hope, accusing the Almighty of their loss. I definitely don’t know enough about Mormon theology to know what they make of Mitt’s defeat. But I do wonder about the role that this elusive power plays in politics, beyond the dutiful ‘God Bless America’ at the end of the re elected president’s moving victory speech. At some delirious sleepless point this morning, eyes wet with tears and heart full of happiness, with the sun rising over Jerusalem, I found myself praying, and blessing, and feeling the presence of life’s grander Presence in the messy details of this mortal coil.
For the record – I may have still felt this way had Obama lost. Some moments transcend business as usual no matter the result. But one is allowed to have subjective feelings, and I want to believe that if there really is a God – She is on the side of progress, human dignity, social change, and unconditional love – black, white, red, blue, able, disabled, gay, straight, etc. – the President said it better.
what does Abraham have to with it? He may have been our first big leader to fuse politics and faith, recognised by others as a delegate of forces from beyond. In this week’s Torah text, Chayei Sarah, the Elder statesman buries his wife Sarah and then dies himself. But before he does so he is honored by the locals, thus giving us the first Biblical appearance of the Hebrew word NASI – President, or Prince. And in this instance he is not just named a leader – the Hittites, in Genesis 23 name him NASI ELOHIM – Divine President, or as most English Bibles translate it: A mighty prince.
I asked my father for a better translation this morning and he thought for a moment and suggested: God’s Elect.
Mr. president, you are the newly chosen father of a nation badly in need of a competent, courageous and compassionate adult in charge. Like Abraham, and like each and every one of the 33 presidents that came before you, you are recognized as Nasi Elohim, God’s elect. I wish for you – for all of – the humility of living up to this divine inspiration – and for all of this, to support you in the tricky road ahead, fiscal cliffs and all – after all, believing or not – In God We Trust.
When the sun rose over Jerusalem four years ago I sobbed for joy because of the poetic justice of a black man’s triumph. I remember driving on streets named for American icons whose work had led to that triumph—Lincoln Street, then Martin Luther King Rd—as the early morning November fogs lifted, feeling full of praise for Barack Obama’s first presidential victory.
This morning, with the first rays of light, here I was again, as church bells rang out over Zion, driving to the sacred sites in the Old City and crying, this time because of a lesbian’s triumph—Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay woman elected to the US Senate—and because here I was, a gay Jewish man praying hard for four more years of honest human dignity for all. The news of Obama’s re-election broke minutes later.
So much has changed since that hopeful morning in 2008. Back then, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was not yet Israel’s prime minister. The American billionaire Sheldon Adelson was not the owner of Israel’s most popular daily paper, Israel Hayom, a pro-Bibi organ which—thanks to its owner’s deep pockets—is free, and has undercut and undermined the rest of Israel’s print media. The cafes in the German Colony neighborhood were open all night with giant screens and viewing parties. When the news broke, just before dawn, champagne bottles popped open, people were yelling in the streets, and I wasn’t the only one crying with relief. At the American ambassador’s official breakfast at the King David Hotel, strangers hugged. I took home a historic souvenir—an Obama campaign sign with that famous “Hope” logo. There was so much of that then.
Some of it is back today. But last night the German Colony cafes were closed. Israelis—worried about our own upcoming elections that Bibi seems likely to win, fatigued by our internal politics, jaded by the lack of progress with peace and by the prevailing sense, true or not, that Obama hasn’t done enough—just don’t seem to care as much. Americans held house parties through the night, tweets and texts crossing oceans, but the 2008 excitement and follow-up euphoria seemed way more subdued. At 6:17am, the sun just up, I took a picture of the morning sky, cheered with friends on Facebook, then quickly dressed to drive to the ambassadors’ breakfast, yet again, waving on my way to Jerusalem’s ancient walls, which have witnessed so many leaders come and go.
Never mind the silent walls. I drive and cry because this morning it’s about Tammy Baldwin! Elizabeth Warren! and Obama’s second term! I cry knowing that the man who fought for my right to marry a man will care more for the rights of all. I pray—sincerely—to who or whatever is in charge of the winds of history that in this second term he’ll rise up to the challenge of peace in this region, not take no for an answer, and give it all he’s got. The dignity of the Palestinian people and the security of Israel is more at stake then ever.
Four years ago on this day, our oldest daughter, Alice turned two. From Jerusalem I sent her a deliriously happy birthday video. Today, she’s six and proudly wears an Obama T-shirt that says “Forward”. I am hopeful that like so many other children she will go through the first year of elementary school in a country quite divided but heading forward to more days of blazing dawns and hopes for changes, and dignity, and courage. Happy birthday, Alice. And happy new day, Mr. President.