Like Abraham, We Must Be the Change We Seek
This week, I did some research on the history of US presidential campaign slogans. There is a website dedicated to this exact subject, and numerous other resources offering insights into the historical circumstances and politics that influenced each particular slogan. Some of them are very obscure.
In 1844, James K. Polk ran under the slogan “54-40 or fight” — apparently referencing a longstanding dispute with Great Britain over a piece of territory in Oregon. Yet it was not just Polk’s slogan that confounded people –- apparently Polk was such an unknown quantity that his opponent, Henry Clay, ran under the catchphrase, “Who is James K. Polk?”
In 1884, Grover Cleveland ran with this unlikely tag: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the Continental Liar from the State of Maine.” I guess it worked, because Blaine lost the election. Blaine’s own slogan — “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa” — was a reference to Cleveland’s alleged fathering of an illegitimate child. How either of these two slogans projected any useful information about the candidates’ policies is a moot point.
But sometimes policy does matter.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran under the slogan, “He kept us out of war” — namely the First World War, then raging in Europe and the Middle East. Then, within four months of beginning his second term, Wilson announced that American neutrality was no longer tenable. He spent the rest of his presidency vigorously advocating for an active American foreign policy. Republican president Herbert Hoover promised his voters that he would put “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Then his presidency was hit by the stock market crash of 1929, which in turn precipitated the Great Depression and twenty years of Democratic presidents.
In case you’re wondering, my interest in slogans and promises was ignited by the dawning realization that many of Donald Trump’s election promises were nothing more than dramatic hyperbole designed to get our attention, rather than policy commitments backed by well-considered strategies to see them implemented. And yet, while I understand the desire to scrutinize the president-elect, and hold him accountable, I think that doing so actually misses the point.
The description in this week’s Torah portion of Abraham’s purchase of the ‘Cave of Machpela’ as the burial site for his wife Sarah seems overly long and detailed. Abraham clearly wants to buy this piece of real estate, and is willing to pay any price for it, which is odd, as everyone he engages with makes it abundantly clear he can bury Sarah there at no cost. Abraham’s single-minded persistence prevails, and he ultimately takes possession of the land before burying his wife.
Why was Abraham so determined to buy this land, and why was he willing to pay any price for it? The Midrash reveals that Adam and Eve were buried there, but although this explains why Abraham was so fixated on the location, it does not explain why he had to buy it.
This passage is immediately followed by another one describing the search for a suitable wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Abraham seems less avuncular and less gentle. He is assertive, even anxious, demanding that his servant does exactly as he is told to – find a wife who is not a Canaanite girl, from the country of Abraham’s origin. Why the sudden panic? God had promised Abraham on numerous occasions that his family would develop into a populous nation. What suddenly prompted Abraham to get into gear and ensure that it happened now, without delay, and in the way it needed to happen?
Sarah’s death came as a terrible shock to Abraham. Although he had lived in Canaan for 60 years, and had heard God promise him the most wonderful things, he suddenly realized he was in the same position he had been in when he first arrived — with no land of his own, and no tribe beyond his one unmarried son. Everything about his life had always been so intertwined with Divine involvement that he thought God’s promises would simply materialize without his intervention. It took Sarah’s death for him to see it. He realized that knowing something will happen in the future is not meaningful if we have no role in doing something about it. God may have promised, but those promises amounted to nothing if Abraham didn’t act.
God had promised Abraham the land; now Abraham would have to buy the first field. God promised Abraham a great nation made up of his progeny; now Abraham would have to ensure his son was married, and to a woman who was a suitable wife. God’s promises are a mirage of possibilities; only we can turn those mirages into reality by taking the necessary steps to make them happen.
We must stop looking to presidents and politicians to make the difference so that the promise of a better future becomes the reality we all desire. The president-elect and his opponent may have painted a picture of some version of a future we all yearn for, but each of us has to make the first move in the direction of those promises to actually make it happen — and a vote on election day doesn’t count!