Divrei Torah Blogs

Toldot – Yakov & Obama ?

This week’s Torah reading opens with an epic struggle – even in the womb, Jacob (Yakov) is struggling with his twin brother Esau.  Esau is born first, but Jacob hangs on – and eventually supplants him in winning the birthright blessing from their father.

Jacob, the younger brother, was something of scholar, at least according to the Midrash.  He hung around the tent and studied the as yet to be revealed Torah (one interpretation is he studied the abstract spiritual Torah, not the Torah with the detailed stories and rules and regulations).  His older brother Esau was a warrior – a hunter, who brought home tasty meals that his father enjoyed.

So this week’s Torah portion has a parallel to the recent US elections – a younger scholar prevailed over an older warrior.  But that’s probably about as far as I would take the analogy.  Barack Obama is certainly not Jacob – he can’t be one of the founders of the Jewish people, he’s not even Jewish!  And John McCain is no Esau – Esau, w are told, despised his birthright, and John McCain is certainly very proud of his birthright as American.  Describing being American as a birthright seems fitting – the traditional right of the first born was a "double portion" of the inheritance, and certainly being born in America gives one a "double portion" of sorts, as your chances of living a materially comfortable life are certainly far greater than if you are born most other places.

The biblical character that Barack Obama gets compared to these days is not Jacob, but it’s Joshua.  The November 17 New Yorker has a fascinating article called "The Joshua Generation" which compares the earlier generation of civil rights leaders – people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. – to Moses, the leadership that led the people through the desert, but who didn’t get to enter the Promised Land.  Obama, this reasoning goes, is therefore like the prophet Joshua – the one who actually gets to lead the people into the Promised Land.

Of course, Obama’s Promised Land is not perfect – despite electing an African-American president, I don’t think anyone would say that racism in America is dead and gone.  Yet he is surely living a dream that the civil rights leaders of the 60’s would have loved to see.

I am glad to see that our "Joshua," president-elect Obama, has been following (knowingly or not) the advice of the Torah in his selection of top management in his government.  In Exodus 18:21, the first management consultant in history, Jethro, gives Moses the following advice: "And you shall choose out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens;"

Rashi tells us that when the Torah says "able men" it means rich men – men who don’t need the money and won’t be influenced by bribes.  Jethro is telling Moses he needs to pick men who are independent thinkers, who will tell him the truth, who won’t just be sycophantic "yes men."

Barack Obama would appear to have been following that advice.  Despite his very deep differences with Hillary Clinton, he apparently has chosen her to be Secretary of State.  He wants the best person for the job – and Mrs. Clinton clearly has a strong will, and will not hesitate to make her opinion known.  The same can be said for many of the rest of Obama’s early staff picks.  Smart, independent people. The kind of people who will contribute to making better decisions.

The president elect is going to have many major challenges – but probably the biggest challenge is high expectations.  There is so much hope wrapped up in this president after the despair of the last few years of President Bush, that it will be almost impossible for any mere mortal to live up to those expectations.

For his sake, and for our sakes, I hope and pray that he does manage to live up to our giant-sized expectations.  He may not be moshiach, but with the economy in the toilet, war in Iraq dragging on, unemployment rising, fear and uncertainty on the increase – we certainly live in times when the Messiah would be a very welcome figure!

But I suppose every generation always thinks they are the ones who are going through the suffering that should entitle them to witness the coming of the Messiah.  Personally, I think I’d rather live in more placid times than the time that will live through the birth pangs of the Messiah!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

2 thoughts on “Toldot – Yakov & Obama ?

  • Jennifer Williams

    But we need to bear in mind that while the Joshua/Moses Generation imagery may be a helpful metaphor in the context of civil rights and religious leadership, that these religious labels/concepts certainly don’t replace the actual cultural generations like Boomers, WWII Generation, etc.
    As you may have noticed, many influential experts have been saying recently that Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. If Obama’s generational identity is of interest to you, you should definitely click this link…it goes to a page filled with lots of articles and videos of famous people discussing Obama’s identity as a GenJoneser, and the importance of this to his Presidency: http://www.generationjones.com/2008election.html

  • Interesting comment about Generation Jones…I’m part of it, yet never really heard of it. But it makes sense, there really is a difference between those of us who really came of age in the 70s and the earlier boomers who came of age in the 60s. My formative years were kind of the early 70s, and I always felt I had missed out on something–I was envious of those five years older than me, who were 18 in ’68, it seemed a cooler time than ’73.


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