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Peter J. Rubinstein
On a Presidential Inauguration and Parashat Va-ayra

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  January 24, 2009

With the inauguration of President Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, this has been a momentous week in this nation’s history. And, as it was clear from the photos and news reports of many citizens during that inauguration, this event had a profoundly reflective and personal impact different from many other past inaugurations, certainly in our recent past.

The election of this President said something about us, the people of this nation. It spoke of our nation’s social evolution. It minced no words about the possibilities available to all people. It signaled the frightening challenges we are facing along with the abundant and firm belief that we can overcome a decrepit erosion of principles, a nagging notion of incipient weakness and the real and dramatic problems we face in the spheres of economics and finance, international relations, moral capital, environment, and the dozen other items each of us might place on the “to do” list of our nation and this new Administration.

What President Obama did in his inaugural address was to begin the discussion and to be honest about the craggy and exhausting climb ahead of us. And while the “talking heads” parsed and critiqued every word of his speech, many of us found it inspiring. It was inspiring not necessarily because of the brilliance of the rhetoric, which I personally thought was pretty darn good, but because this President’s words felt honest and authentic. This President did not promise easy solutions, or place blame on the few or divide this nation between those who were the problem and those who would be the solution. No, when speaking about those who have served and died in far away places, this President said, “We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves…it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.”

Thus we have been raised to the fullest scope of reality, to know once more that each of us is an instrument in forming the future of this nation. Each of us takes personal responsibility for the world in which our children will grow.

And it is not easy work because change is never easy or immediate. But then, isn’t that exactly what this morning’s Torah portion is about. Parashat va-ayra narrates the brutal battle for freedom of the Israelites. It emphasizes that even when we are humble enough to wonder whether God is on our side, even then the struggle for justice and decency is both excruciating and long.

It took ten plagues before the suffocating forces of slavery and cruelty were defeated. It took Moses’ constant, if not stuttering indictment of Pharaoh to finally be recognized as truth and power.

Even with God on the side of creative goodness Pharaoh remained tenaciously manacled to his certainty that the enfeebled Israelites deserved to be enslaved, that the weak should serve the mighty and that Egypt was timeless and the people of Israel were frivolous intruders into history.

The freedom of the Israelites was neither immediate nor easy and the Divine campaign on their behalf suffered set-backs by a maniacal despot who was inebriated by his own power.

Let us remember that in today’s portion Pharaoh spoke duplicitously to Moses, “I stand guilty this time. I and my people are in the wrong. I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” Those were his words. But his behavior was quite another story for we are told, “When the rain, hail and thunder had ceased Pharaoh reverted to his guilty ways. He would not let the Israelites go….”

Moses’ words were always to the point but the reality envisioned for Moses and our people depended on hard work, a tenacious vision of the best of human behavior and an undying commitment to embody that vision into proper conduct, decency, and life in service of the best and most creative impulses that stir within each of us.

So, while what our President said, and indeed what we say, is important because words count. Words express that for which we hope and that for which we will labor, but ultimately our legacy will be in the facts on the ground. Our legacy will be not what we have dreamed, but what we have created. Our legacy will not be our visions but the world we leave to our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.

We should measure ourselves by our mutual responsibility and our common aspirations; but even more so by the kindness to take in a stranger not only when the levees break but when they are hungry and hurting. We should measure ourselves by the “selflessness to make willing sacrifice not only when we prevent the loss of jobs but when we provide access to all who need medical care and a roof over their heads.”  And we should measure ourselves by the courage not only when we “storm a stairway filled with smoke” but also when we speak out for the disenfranchised, the immigrant and the powerless. It is by our willingness to nurture others that our fate will be decided.

So we have much to do and what we do will be the measure of our nation and the gauge of our worth.

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