My rabbi took a big risk with his sermon last week, and I think more people deserve to see it
Friday, January 27, 2017
I begin by acknowledging that the concept for this sermon and much of its content comes from or was inspired by a piece written by my colleague Rabbi Amy Scheinerman of Baltimore.
In a commentary from earlier this week, she describes “Rhinoceros,” a play written by Eugene Ionesco. In the play, a rhinoceros charges down a street in a small French town one Sunday afternoon. People are naturally frightened. Soon, another rhinoceros barrels down the street. People are startled, but begin to argue whether the second rhino was the first one making a second pass, and whether the beasts are Asian or African.
As rhino appearances increase, the level of shock decreases and people in the town actually metamorphose into rhinos. Eventually, the only one not to change is an apathetic alcoholic, who saves the town by refusing to become a rhinoceros. The playwright’s allegory is an attempt to explore the mentality of those who cooperated with and, ultimately, capitulated to fascism and naziism. The question he seeks to answer is: how do horrific ideas become “normal”?
Last week we began reading the Book of Exodus and were introduced to Pharaoh, a thin-skinned autocrat who wields vast power to feed his narcissistic sense of entitlement. Pharaoh lacks empathy and concern for the welfare of others. He is paranoid about the Hebrew immigrants.
One generation earlier, his predecessor welcomed the Hebrews and saw them as a positive influence. Though unsupported by any evidence, the new Pharaoh believes that the Hebrews could become a threat to the nation. Rather than expel them, Pharaoh makes them his slaves. He calls the people to action, ordering the Egyptian midwives to murder every newborn Hebrew boy.
One needs to wonder if the people of Egypt were perplexed by this change in how the Hebrews were viewed. Surely they remembered Joseph and how he saved the entire country! Surely, they were aware that Joseph’s family had done nothing to harm Egypt since they arrived! Surely they were aware that murdering baby boys was neither normal nor right, regardless of what the Pharaoh said!
The truth is that we don’t know. The Torah says nothing about the policies of the Pharaoh being challenged or opposed by most of the people. We do know, however, that there were individuals who refused to go along; they refused to become rhinos.
It began with the midwives Shifra and Puah, who conspired to save the very infants they were commanded to kill. The resistance continued with Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister, who risked their lives to save that of Moses. They swaddled him and placed him securely in a water-proof basket. Miriam then followed her brother’s basket on its journey to the Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucked him out of the water and adopted Moses as her own son.
These women banded together to undermine Pharaoh’s authority and to reject the new normal. The most powerful man in Egypt was challenged by women who refused to normalize his conspiracy theories and policies.
In its first full week, the Trump administration raced to reverse the social and political progress made by America in the past half century and more in the fields of women’s rights, voting rights, concern for the poor, diversity, tolerance and racial relations . . . as promised! Those who support these changes have every right to do so and those who oppose them have every right to protest.
What is galling, however, is how the first week of the Trump administration strongly promoted ignorance and ineptitude as patriotism. Many of those who had previously challenged Trump, including much of the national Republican leadership, now support him. The question for each of us is will we become a rhinoceros and fall in line? Or, will we challenge the attempt to affirm ignorance, ineptitude and hatred as “normal?”
In language right out of George Orwell’s “1984,” we learned a new term this week “alternative facts.” Many of us still refer to them as “falsehoods” and “lies”. All of us share different perspectives on a wide range of matters. However, when a person with no military experience and no intelligence experience berates our nation’s best in those and other fields, saying he knows more than all of them, we have a problem. When the mainstream of the president’s political party supports his alternative facts and alternative reality, our nation has an existential crisis.
For Moses, growing up in the royal court, Pharaoh’s brutal oppression of the Hebrews seemed normal, until the day Moses went out among the slaves and observed, first-hand, the suffering his adoptive father, the Pharaoh, had caused. Moses came to understand that the behavior which he had accepted as “normal” was, in fact, immoral. Moses refused to become a rhinoceros and challenged the actions of Pharaoh.
In this week’s Torah portion, God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and tells him to challenge the Pharaoh, to utter those immortal words “let my people go.” One would think that the Hebrew slaves would have been ecstatic to hear this message of freedom and liberation. However, their spirits had been crushed by generations of bondage. Slavery had been normalized in the minds of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews.
Even Moses didn’t want to make waves. Twice he cites his speech impediment as a reason not to challenge Pharaoh. However, once Moses stood up to Pharaoh, like the President of Mexico just stood up to President Trump, he discovered that his words had power. Pharaoh, like President Trump and like Real Estate Tycoon Trump, was not used to dissent.
The demonstrations around the country this past Saturday echoed the resistance of the midwives and of Moses’ mother, sister and adoptive mother. Those demonstrations, in numbers larger than those of the inauguration, were a resounding rejection not of the presidency, but of
the normalization of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.
Those demonstrations were a resounding rejection of the politics of pugilism.
Huge crowds gathered in Washington and around the nation to protest the new normal which the Trump administration was seeking to create. These men and women, many from our congregation, loudly and clearly rejected the message of the character in “Rhinoceros” who said, before changing into a rhinoceros, “We must move with the times!”
The response of the Torah to this is a vehement “no.” Do not normalize that which is cruel and unjust, immoral and unconscionable. “Do not follow a majority to do evil.”
We must take our cues from Yocheved and Miriam, from the midwives, from Pharaoh’s daughter — and resist hatred, resist ignorance, resist ineptitude, resist offering some of the highest positions in our nation to those whose only qualification is giving lots of money to Donald Trump.
Trump was right to criticize “pay to play” in the election, but now he is its champion. Trump was right to criticize Hillary Clinton’s unsecured email server, but now he has his own unsecured phone. Trump wants to investigate voter fraud, while conveniently ignoring that his own staff and family members are registered to vote in multiple states. Trump wants “America First,” yet the products he and his family produce are almost all produced overseas, including his “Make America Great” hats.
The key to understanding this clinically insecure and narcissistic bully it to realize that he is a hypocrite. He always attacks others for the traits and the actions which are part of his own way of life.
Trump’s values and actions are not those which we would accept in anyone in a position of responsibility in our own lives. We dare not accept them as normal, regardless of how many rhinos we see charging down the street.
My friends, I understand that the election is over. Donald Trump won the majority of the electoral votes. We can discuss Putin, Comey and more, but Hillary Clinton accepted the results, just as Al Gore did after the contentious election of 2000. Yet while the election is over and Hillary is history, the gross betrayal of American values being displayed by the Trump Administration must be protested strongly and consistently.
This is not to say that we will never agree with the policies of the Trump Administration. I expect to support many of his policies with regard to Israel and the Middle East. President Trump may well succeed in bullying and intimidating companies and even other nations into taking actions which benefit the American economy. However, supporting some of his policies does not relieve us of the obligation to speak up when his words and actions are founded upon “alternative facts.”
So many of the Republican Party leaders who lambasted Trump at every turn during the primaries and beyond are now falling into line. They haven’t forgotten what they said before; they see the monumental effort to keep the President from veering off too erratically. Still, they have decided to become rhinos. They have accepted the new normal. The rest of us dare not allow this narcissistic, immature and reckless boor to tear down America and American values.
Americans have always had and will always have a healthy exchange of ideas. However, the vastness of the lies, the vulgarity, the shallowness, the impulsive, ego-driven rants, the reversal of progress in so many areas of basic human rights, cannot become the new normal.
The election is over. This is no longer about Democrat vs Republican, Hillary vs Trump. This is about our vision of America. One short week has given us a glimpse into the abyss into which this man will lead our nation.
We must protest, as Moses protested the actions of Pharaoh. We must not continue to feed the ego of the beast who, like Audrey 2 in “Little Shop of Horrors,” has an appetite which grows more and more voracious.
As much as I love politics, for the past forty years since beginning rabbinic training, I have largely stayed out of it in public. At this point, however, my getting involved is not about being partisan . . . it is about being patriotic.
One short week is all that it has taken to have America question who it is becoming. I urge you to join with me in protesting Donald Trump’s vision of America, his vision of women, of those with challenges, of those who are not white, privileged billionaires who feed his insatiable ego and chronic insecurities. I urge you to protest often and loudly, in the non-violent spirit of the men and women who demonstrated in massive numbers last Shabbat.
For all who are horrified at what is happening to our great country, there is an obligation to point out this emperor has no clothes, certainly none made in America. We cannot allow his big lies, his irresponsible and reckless rants and his vindictive vision to become the new normal.
We may not change him significantly, but we can minimize his impact by keeping others from buying into Donald Trump’s alternative reality, based on alternative facts. This is not healthy debate; this is TV wrestling.
Our Torah commands: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Guided by the highest ideals of our Jewish heritage and of our American heritage, we can refuse to become a rhinoceros. It begins by rejecting the new normal of our new American Pharaoh. AMEN