A Sermon on the Inauguration of Barack Obama

On Tuesday morning, Barack Obama will become the forty-fourth President of the United States of America. In a peaceful transition of power, he will assume the presidency and begin to govern.  Whatever one’s philosophy of government, whatever one’s feeling about the outcome of November’s election, the orderly democratic process is something to celebrate.  For Jews, who’ve spent so much of their history disempowered, marginalized, persecuted and disenfranchized, every Election Day and every Inauguration Day ought to be very nearly yuntef.

Tuesday’s peaceful transition, like those before it, will be carried out with much pomp and circumstance: a parade, a series of inaugural balls, and a high-minded address. Central to the day will be the administration of the oath of office, when President-Elect Obama will place his hand on the Bible and say: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This oath, enshrined in the Constitution, is often appended by the new President with the words, “so help me God,” in a custom going all the way back – according to folk tradition, at least – to George Washington.

The Bible’s place in the Inauguration has made the news this year, as it often does. What copy of the Bible will the president-elect choose? To what page will it be opened, if it is opened? Historians, journalists, pundits, and now bloggers look to the answers to these questions to divine meaning about the new president’s worldview or self-understanding.

The Library of Congress, which maintains a record of such things, tells us that George Washington took the oath with his hand on Jacob’s blessing to his sons – but that it was a more-or-less a random choice, made in haste. For much of the nineteenth century, no one paid much attention to whether the Bible was open or closed, or to which passage. Recent presidents have chosen Micah’s admonition to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (President Carter), a prayer for God to hear our voice and heal our land (President Reagan), and the beatitudes (George H.W. Bush). Bill Clinton, at his second inauguration, chose Isaiah 58 – known to us as the Haftarah for Yom Kippur, with its call to be “repairer of the breach” – and then worked the passage into his address. (The second President Bush, both times, placed his hand on the front cover of a Bible that was closed.)

To what passage might Barack Obama open the Lincoln Bible when he is sworn in on Tuesday? I think he could do worse than to take a verse from the weekly parashah, or any of the parshiot Jews read in the coming weeks. For this is the season when we read the story of Exodus.

The story of the Exodus is the right choice for President-Elect Obama for a number of reasons:

In the first instance, it is the right choice because it offers a dignified but forceful answer to those who spent part of the campaign deriding the work of community organizers. In early September we heard it implied that organizers lacked actual responsibilities, and we saw belittling air-quotes and mock bewilderment that there even is such a thing as a community organizer. Well, community organizers, among their many actual responsibilities, teach ordinary people to build transformational power. And one of the ways they do it is by teaching from the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus. Barack Obama has no doubt opened those very chapters for ordinary folks on Chicago’s South Side, perhaps drawing stick-figures labeled “Pharaoh” and “Moses” and analyzing their power and their potential, their interests and their allies. How fitting and poignant it would be for our first Organizer-in-Chief to take the oath on a Bible opened to Exodus, perhaps before offering an inaugural address replete with references to the story it tells. Take that, you scoffers!

But Exodus is the right passage to lift up, and the right story to tell for more substantive reasons as well. On Tuesday, we will celebrate the fact that two hundred years after a “skinny kid with a Jewish name” was born in a log cabin in Kentucky (and seven score and six years after he proclaimed slavery illegal in the South) our country actually set down the stain of slavery long enough to elect a black man as its president. On Tuesday, our country will cross a sea of sorts, and many of us will feel in our hearts what Moses, Miriam and all Israel must have felt in theirs: Ashira ladonai ki ga’oh ga’ah – “I will sing to the Lord, who is greatly exalted!” What story better reflects the victory over chattel slavery than ours, the story of a band of slaves, redeemed?

But President-Elect Obama’s hand on the Lincoln Bible, open to Exodus, is not only a reminder of how far we’ve come; it also reminds of just how far we still have to go. For while Egypt the country was behind us, once and for all, when we crossed the sea, Egypt the idea was hardly put to rest. As a community organizer, Barack Obama taught that Egypt – representing “the world as it is” – and the Promised Land – representing “the world as it should be” – are not geographical designations, but spiritual ones.

Earlier tonight we sang about “marching hand in hand to the Promised Land.” The words on which that song is based are from the end of Michael Walzer’s book, Exodus and Revolution, a book which I imagine is dog-eared and underlined in Barack Obama’s library.

The full and proper quote is this:

“So pharaonic oppression, deliverance, Sinai and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the political world. The ‘door of hope’ is still open; things are not what they might be—even when what they might be isn’t totally different from what they are . . . . We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form:
—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
—and third, that the ‘the way to the land is through the wilderness.’ There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

We climb, fall, and climb again. We diminish one form of hatred and discover another hiding in the dark, ugly places of our hearts. We at long last welcome in one group of people and find another left exposed. We are always becoming “a more perfect Union;” we are never all the way there. But again and again, we can come back to Exodus, and we can dream of what is possible. I thought about the long and tortuous journey last week, sitting with my colleagues in California — many of whom had worked their hearts out fighting Proposition Eight — as Julie Silver led us in song: “Though we may derail, and we may fail, we will not get off this train.” Amen, sister.

Still skeptical about our capacity for redemption? Listen to this: in the days after November 4, a member of our congregation said these words to me. I was moved by them, so much so that I think I can quote them verbatim:

My first election, I was a young, redneck kid, and I voted for George Wallace. On Tuesday, I voted for Barack Obama…and he won.  That’s a hell of a life, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. And in that story is the redemption which our Exodus story teaches and models. Our capacity to overcome adversity, and to overcome our own self-imposed limitations, is great, even infinite. Thank God for that, since we’ll need every bit of it in the years ahead. We face great challenges, of national and global scope:

  • We must make access to health care a right and not a privilege.
  • We must bring millions of immigrants out of the shadows of our economy and our communities, so they can put themselves and their children on the paths we took just a few generations ago.
  • We must defend ourselves against an ideology that cannot abide our existence, while freeing ourselves of dependence on their oil.
  • And we must do it all while we’re saving our skies and our coastlines from a rapidly approaching tipping point.

This is no time for timidity; we need what this week’s parashah promises: the yad chazakah, the z’roa netuyah, the “mighty hand” and the “outstretched arm.” And we need them in abundance.

For its resonance with the noble calling of community organizing, its celebration of hope over fear, and its call to continued action in the face of monumental challenges, the Book of Exodus, in all its audacity and all its power, is the one to invoke on Tuesday. May it be so.

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