Don’t let the hour go by
I was sitting on our couch, trying to come up with a tidbit to share on Shabbat morning. It had to be short, since I wanted to leave most of the speaking time for our scholar-in-residence, Dr. Susannah Heschel. (Yes, she was amazing. Yes, your shul should bring her.)
I flipped through our copy of Etz Hayim, the Torah and commentary, looking for that week’s portion. The book fell open to the haftarah, the prophetic reading for the week. The words from Jeremiah vaulted off the page:
“They called Pharaoh king of Egypt: ‘Braggart who let the hour go by.’” The note below added that the Hebrew word for “braggart” could also be “understood as ‘loudmouth.’”
I was immediately struck by the notion of a national leader —strident, oppressive, a blowhard — tragically missing the opportunity to finally do right. Oh my God, I thought. It’s Trump.
Except right now, things don’t look so bad for our modern American Pharaoh. He is on the precipice of acquittal in his impeachment “trial” in the United States Senate. (Yes, I put “trial” in quotes; without witnesses or evidence, no objective observer could consider it a genuine trial.) His potential Democratic rivals, befitting their party’s reputation as a circular firing-squad, are fighting amongst themselves. Fivethirtyeight.com calculates Trump’s approval rating at around 44% — far from a great number, but one that shows steady improvement from last autumn.
Perhaps it’s not President Trump who “let the hour go by,” but, instead, his opponents.
I am not alone in this suspicion. There is a deep dread settling in among those of us who are troubled and angered by the president and his actions — and the enabling of that behavior on the part of the Republicans in the Senate. On my news feeds, social media posts are lamenting the “end of democracy,” a “takeover of the nation,” and more than one version of “America: hey, we had a good run, didn’t we?”
The extreme right has ruthlessly maneuvered the levers of power to ensure control of the country by a (mostly white) minority of its citizens. If they need the Russians’ help to do so, so be it.
I’ve seen the resultant anger and anxiety reflected in the eyes of the congregants who’ve crossed the threshold of our suburban Boston shul to make a minyan, or come for Shabbat morning Torah study. Congregants who told me they couldn’t believe what they were seeing on their television screens, who switch off NPR on their car radios in exasperation, who are enraged at what they’ve been hearing from Senators who were supposed to lead with morality — or at least basic decency — and had abdicated that responsibility.
Meanwhile, Iowa’s Democratic party has literally let the hour go by — actually many too many hours — between its first-in-the-nation caucuses and results being reported.
Rumors of faulty apps developed under secretive conditions, reporting errors, and breakdowns in communication are roiling the commentaria. Those of us worried that foreign governments would be emboldened in their efforts to undermine our democracy, and our faith in it, feel a deep sense of dread in our kishkes, a grotesque match to the anxiety felt over the impeachment process.
The president tweeted of the caucus debacle, “Nothing works, just like they ran the Country.” The debasement of simple grammar is an unwitting reflection of the nation’s predicament. We have lost our way, while America’s Pharaoh mangles both our nation’s credibility and the English language with unrepentant boldness.
The Torah has a term for this. As a genocidal Egypt descends into deepening crisis and corruption, we learn that Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened.” The nation he commands suffers under plague upon plague. Pharaoh is unwilling to hear the message underlying those mounting tragedies, but not due to a hearing condition. Pharaoh’s refusal to hear stems from a heart condition. First Pharaoh, and then God, harden the heart of the king of Egypt.
Theologians both Jewish and non-Jewish have been troubled by Divine participation in this process. Doesn’t God give all of us free will? Further, if God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, can we even hold Pharaoh responsible for his evil ways? This is not an academic question for us, here, in this country and this moment. Many of us do indeed feel despair and dread over the degradation of our representative democracy.
Yet, as unsettling as it is to be plagued by such emotions, they don’t represent the greatest threats within our nation. The racist and xenophobic agenda announced by the president at the outset of his first election proceeds apace: deportations of law-abiding immigrants continue unabated; the administration’s “public charge” law seeks to deny entry to all poor immigrants; onerous requirements have been laid upon already beleaguered Food Stamp recipients; Puerto Rican citizens continue to be ignored or mocked by the administration, even in the midst of natural disasters; and the racist travel ban has been extended to a half-dozen more countries.
How do we respond? Yes, dread is a natural response. I feel it as I write this. But what then? Despite his own family tragedy, David Grossman, the Israeli author and peace activist, once declared: “I cannot collaborate with despair, because it humiliates me to do so.”
Despair is so dangerous because it deadens our ability to respond. But, to be sure, this hour calls for a response, clear and principled. Regardless of the outcome of the impeachment trial, or the Iowa caucus, or even the 2020 election, people of principle — Jewish and otherwise — are called to stand for the dignity and honor of all people. To do otherwise is, indeed, a humiliation of self.
We don’t dare wait any longer. We are given this hour, painful as it is, as a gift, an opportunity to enact the values we claim to hold dear. Maybe the reason God kept hardening Pharaoh’s heart was to give “good Egyptians” the opportunity to step forward and demand an end to the cruelty and oppression.
If so, we know what we must do. God forbid we be the ones to let the hour go by.
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum is spiritual leader of Cong. Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass., and a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Maynard, Mass., with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell. Follow him on Twitter @rav_mike.