Friday, 7 November 2008

elect yourself Lech Lecha 5769

It’s a very old joke. Let me update it a little.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visiting Washington.

The president is showing him around the Oval office.

And there on the desk are three phones – a red phone, blue phone, silver phone decorated with a lightening bolt.

The red phone is for calling the President of Russia, says the president.

The blue phone is for calling the president of China,

And the silver phone – the one with the lightening bolt, is for when things get really complicated and I need to reach God.


And then, some months later, President Bush visited Jerusalem

And so Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was showing President Bush around his office and there, on the desk was the very same model of a silver phone decorated with a lightening bolt.


The American president was outraged.

‘We Americans make up a country of some 300,000,000 citizens. Of course I need a phone to get hold of God.

You are a population of some 7,000,000, what do you need the silver phone for.


Mr President, we may be only 7,000,000, but while your 300,000,000 million citizens are merely citizens. In Israel we have 7,000,000 citizens who all think they should be prime ministers. Of course I need a phone


Insight into a Jewish sense about how a person gets elected.

It is of course a good week to talk about getting elected.

Aside from the elections you might have heard something about on the other side of the Atlantic we read, this week, of the election of Abraham.

Vayomer Avram el Avram Lech Lecha,

It’s election week in torah terms too.


My question is this, how does Abraham know he got elected?

Image of the Bible is of a man heading to shops when suddenly  a great big hand comes down from the heaven and says – I want you.

To the Biblical mind God is upfront, in your face.

I’ve never had that kind of interaction with God.

I’ve never been called that way.

I don’t suppose any of us have. I don’t suppose any of us have been elected that way.


If all we were to have was the Bible

If all we knew about was election by Big Pointing Finger we would all know our place and that place would not be at the front leading a people, being the source and the inspiration behind a great and glorious nation.

If someone was to ask us if we were in charge our response would be, no.

No-one elected us official, no-one told us we were in charge.

You want to know who is in charge – Abraham, well he was definitely elected and since then, it’s gone a bit quiet, to be honest.


But, as Rabbinical Jews don’t just have the Bible.

Rabbis create a different narrative of Abraham’s election.


One Rabbinic comment, alive in the third century compares Abraham to a man wandering from place to place when he sees a building aflame. This sight strikes him wrong. How can it be that this building has no-one to look over it?’

At this point the owner leans out and said, ‘I am the owner of the building.’

And so too, Rabbi Isaac goes on to say, Abraham wandered through the ancient world asking himself, ‘How can it be that the world has no-one to look after it.’ And it was only at this point that God was able to call out to him, I am the one to look after the world. Walk with me.[1]


Different kind of election.

What makes the election possible is Abrahams wander - wondering, looking at the world and trying to work out how this world can be.

Abraham proves himself worthy. He steps up first. Then God comes to meet him.

The big had that says, ‘I want you,’ only comes down on those who have shown their desire to stand apart from the crowd.


700 hundred years later, around the year 1000 we have another retelling of the story of how Abraham gets elected. It’s from the teaching of Rambam, the arch-rationalist, the man who disliked miracles and would be have hated the notion of anyone suggesting God had an out-sretched arm, let along pointing finger.


According to the Rambam, from the moment of his weaning Avraham is roaming in his own mind, trying to work out the way of the world. - shotet b'dato – his wandering is an attempt to understand more.

The contemporary American Bible commentator Aviva Zorn berg describes Rambam’s Abraham as suffering from ‘vagabondary of the spirit.’

‘He had no teacher or source of knowledge,’ says Rambam, ‘he was sunk among the idol worshipers … but his mind roamed in search of understanding until hi achieve the true way and understood out of his own natural intelligence.’


It’s a powerful tale, but the single most remarkable piece is that it God puts in no appearance at all.

In the story of the Rambam God doesn’t come down and say anything and there is certainly no pointing hand.

In the story of the Rambam Abraham knows that he is elected because he believes he is elected, because he comes to  understand that he has a role to play in the history of the world, in the great narrative of his people.

He gets it himself.


So while from reading the Bible might think that get elected by a God who comes down from the heavens with a big pointy finger and says, I want you.

To the Rabbis you have to work it out yourself. No-one’s going to say to you, I want you.

You have to be ready to step up yourself.
This, of course explains why you get so many people in the State of Israel who think  they ought to be Prime Minster – which takes us back to the phone.


But there is something else.

The world desp needs people who are prepared to elect themselves.

Too many people duck their responsibilities, wait for someone else to put their head above the parapet.

Hard work being a leader.

Can’t always make the right decisions and if you are a person of profile you;ll find that people will look at the decisions you take and might criticise.

Just, Jake, as you did in your dvar torah today.

Abraham’s a leader, so his actions are open for investigation.

You are after learning something – that’s important too.


The most important thing is not to leave the future, the leadership – of anything, but certainly of Judaism, to anyone else.

You didn’t grow up here, you’re a new member, and now BM is going you could think of disappearing again and we might not know.

But I want to offer something different – be a leader.

You are smart enough, skilled enough, thoughtful enough, kind enough to make a great leader of the Jewish people.

You should give it a try.

And more than, that if you don’t step up, maybe no-one will.

Or more to the point.

If all the smart, skilled, thoughtful and kind people who could be leaders of the future of the Jewish people ducked it,

Waited for someone else to say that they wanted to lead, we would be in a real mess.

For the big pointing hand isn’t how Jewish elections go.

Jewish elections don’t even work the same way American elections go.

Jewish elections work like this – a person stops, thinks, realises that the future depends on them.
And decides to act, to lead, to commit.


And while the Jewish kind of elections might result in more Prime Ministers and Presidents than the United States Constitution would know what to do with, it is still, I think, a preferable system.


One last story.

A wise Rabbi is faced with a dilemma.

He is being taunted by a couple of troublemakers.

They come to him with a question with no right answer.

I have, one of them says, a bird in my hand. If you are so clever, you have to tell me if the bird is alive or dead.


The Rabbi can hear the bird chirping, so he knows if he says the bird is dead the boy will open his hand and the bird will fly away, proving him wrong.

But if he says the bird is alive, the boy will squeeze his hand shut, killing the bird, and again the Rabbi will be wrong.


The Rabbi responds with wise words,

‘I do not know, but the future is in your hands.’


Jacob, I offer this story to you, and I offer it to all of us.

Don’t wait for the big  pointing hand.

Elect yourself, be the difference yourself.

For the future is indeed in your hands.

Shabbat shalom,

[1] BR 39:1

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