I have a friend, an underground playwright, who hates Obama. He’s convinced that, six months after Inauguration, nobody’s going to notice anything different from the past eight years of George W. Bush’s administration — we’ll be paying just as many taxes, our troops will still be mired in war, and everything will be much the same. Nothing will have changed.
But he was one of the first Philadelphians in the poll booths.
Why? “Hope,” he said. “The man’s all about hope. He believes in something. It’s a nice change from all the politicians who believe in nothing.”
Even my most cynical friends couldn’t escape the lure of Obama’s one-word platitudes. Hope. Change. All written out in a neat, sans-serif font, the kind with no points and no fancy curlicues. It might refer to the hope that we win the war, or the hope that we get out of it as fast as we can….but right now we’re in the wake of one of the most well-attended elections in history, and people are still glowing. On Fifth Avenue in New York, home of the street-vendor industry where salesman will pretty much print anything in order to sell a t-shirt, rude innuendos about people’s mothers and WELCOME TO NEW YORK – NOW GO HOME shirts have all but disappeared — replaced by pictures of a smiling Obama, American flags, and, yes, the buttons that say nothing but HOPE.
The Pope’s visit to New York didn’t sell this much merchandise. Hey, Madonna’s last tour didn’t sell this much merchandise.
After 9/11, people started to talk about the death of irony. Patriotism, after a break of decades, started coming back into fashion, and it was no longer (for lack of a better word) geeky to wave an American flag. But there was an underlying fear behind it, or a timidness — as though it was still unfashionable, but somehow necessary. Since the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, however, irony has made an about-face. People are waving the flag again, but it’s not because of fear of a terrorist attack. It’s because, for the first time in a long time, they’re genuinely excited about being American.
Humanity wasn’t supposed to have kings. The Book of Prophets talks about how the fledgling nation of Israel, still unsure of itself, had no human ruler. The other nations of the world had kings — some who fancied themselves as gods; some who were merely effective tacticians, generals, or politicians — and Israel, not wanting to rely solely on God and the words of a bunch of prophets, asked for a king, too.
So God said okay. Samuel, the prophet of the time, found Saul, a boy who’d been looking for his father’s donkeys and stumbled upon Samuel. Samuel recognized his face from his prophecies, and so he anointed Saul as king. It wasn’t the most successful inauguration in the world — Saul, after all, was only human, and was killed after he disobeyed God’s orders. But Israel asked for a king, and they received a king.
The strange part of the story is, when the Jews demanded a king, God didn’t say no. God had every excuse to turn them down, but instead, they were allowed to have a human ruler — although, when God agreed to it, it was less in the form of a commandment, and more like giving us permission. What really happened was, God granted a concession to make the Children of Israel feel better about their vestigial nationhood. It’s not like having a Prophet come around, point out that we’ve been mistreating each other, and encourage us to repent. It was almost an aspect of human vanity and chutzpah that permits us to choose one person and say, You’re the one, you can order us around and tell us to do things, and we’ll follow you.
By far the most remarkable part of President Obama’s inaugural speech was the part in which he addressed (albeit implicitly) the countries of OPEC: “Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries” — a swipe at the recent exorbitant price of a gallon of gas, as well as a swipe at the nations who set the prices of gas. America waited. Was he making a harsh declaration to our enemies? Accusing certain nations of being our adversaries, effectively encouraging a war?
Almost immediately, Obama followed it with a caveat: “America is a friend of each nation — and every man, woman, and child — who seeks a future of peace and dignity,” he said. Or, effectively: You are not our enemy unless you declare yourself to be our enemy.
As a king, Saul was quick to make enemies, and almost as quick to confuse the value of enemies and friends. When word reached him that David had been named his successor, Saul called it a mutiny and organized his armies to hunt David down. David himself had no quarrel against the king, but it made no difference to Saul. When God told Saul to annihilate Amalek, however, he hesitated, sparing the tyrant at the last minute — an action which, eventually, would precipitate Saul’s own ruin.
On the other hand, David took the latter approach. His closest friend in the world was Saul’s son, Jonathan — and when his father tried to kill David, Jonathan didn’t hesitate. He didn’t have to think about where his loyalties lay, or whether or not he’d help his friend. He just did.
Barack Obama has come under fire — perhaps deservedly, perhaps as a matter of precaution — for his refusal to rule out talks with Iran. As a candidate, he rode a wave of hope that was as ambiguous as it was positive, buoyed by equal parts enthusiasm and blind faith, people who trusted in his character as much as his policy.
But it is exactly this ambiguity that gives people faith in President Obama. Most of his constituency disagrees with him about at least one of his major platforms, whether it’s abortion or funding religious institutions for children’s services. Despite that, this call to hope mobilized the country to vote for him.
It’s that call to hope that, ultimately, will be remembered about the election, I think: not President Obama himself, but about people’s willingness to believe. Yes, human rulers are an artificial construct — one that God granted as a concession. But it’s the collective faith that people put in a human leader, part chutzpah and part dream, which should really give us strength, that single-minded devotion to hope. Human leaders can be fallible, such as the king who failed to defeat Amalek…but it was also a human king who built the first Temple, who took his country’s hope in him and gave that hope right back to his country.
Matthue Roth is the author, most recently, of Losers. He is also the educational director of G-dcast.com, and an editor at MyJewishLearning.com. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter, and keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.