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The Governor and Jacob and Laban

Shabbat morning sermon
Vayishlach, December 2008

  • A man who wheels and deals at every opportunity, selling and acquiring sacred and honored positions as if they were commodities.
  • Conflict with a father-in-law who is a major power broker and manipulator in his own right.
  • A wife caught between her father and her husband and is aware of his machinations and says some off‑color or untrue things.
  • A major day of reckoning when one must face former opponents and try to protect one’s family, friends and supporters.

These are some scenarios from last week’s and this week’s Torah readings, and some from this week’s headlines regarding Governor Blagojevich’s arrest.

There are comparisons to be made between the allegations against a governor and Jacob.

How do we understand Jacob?  His deceptions seem guided or at least prompted by others—his mother, Rebeccah’s, plan for the future of her family; his father-in-law, Laban, constantly exploiting and misleading him.

The Torah tells us that God had revealed to Rebeccah that Jacob was destined to bear the Sacred Covenant; God appears to Jacob along the way, in dreams and visions, to escort him to greatness and to confirm his status and significance.  Yet the Torah also suggests that Jacob got into a vicious cycle of deceit by first going after his brother’s birthright in a totally inappropriate way; that he was, as it were, typecast to his mother’s scheme of tricking the blind Isaac so as to take the blessing from his elder brother, Esau.

After all, the Torah suggests that Jacob—and Rebeccah, and Rachel, too—could have found another way, besides deceit and chicanery, to realize their goals.  The Torah reading leaves us uneasy with the politics of the Covenant itself—the family politics, the scheming, even the wheeling and dealing to support the family.  We get the impression that everybody chose the hard way, the least graceful way, the most hurtful way, to realize a Divine vision.  It is not a case of "All’s well that ends well," but of "All is disturbed that was pursued and realized in disturbing ways."

We are left uneasy, sad, discomfited, by events in Illinois this past week.  How do we understand our governor?   he talking heads on cable TV and the late night comedians keep repeating the phrase, “Chicago politics,” “Illinois politics,” as an easily recognizable joke and put down.  God knows we have had individuals of all political parties and agendas who have been corrupt.  We’re not shocked by such “politics.”  Our society has a healthy distrust of politicians and an equally healthy hope in them.  This is expressed in our classic jokes.  One of the oldest is the story of a young politician who was campaigning in a rural area.  He comes to a fence and sees a farmer, and makes his pitch to the farmer for a campaign contribution.  The latter decides to give the young man a coin or two, and asks him to help milk the cows while he gets the money.  That way, he could get a sense of the politician’s familiarity with farm chores and also get a little service for the coins.  When he goes into his house, his wife asks him why he is looking for coins and he tells her about the young politician.  She scolds him: “There’s a politician outside and you didn’t bring the cows inside with you?”

God knows that this is not a danger to politicians alone.  Our Torah and Sages teach us over and over again that the human being has a strong yetzer, a strong impulse to evil, strong from the day of birth.  But we can resist greed and hunger for power by listening to the still small voice of our good impulse, by doing the mitzvoth and studying Torah and praying for guidance and, perhaps most important sometimes, by opting to do nothing, to not do evil, when the opportunity arises.

The week before the Governor’s arrest, Dr. André Lacoque suggested to our congregation that the biblical account of Cain’s murder of Abel reminds us that we all know when we are falling short and that we have a strong impulse to lash out at others.  God tells Cain that sin crouches at the door but he can overcome it.  God wants us to take preventive measures not to do what is selfish, exploitative, dangerous to ourselves and others.  The test is whether we can stop ourselves in our tracks.

The story carried by the press is of a politician who continued to say and do things that were ugly and greedy and cynical even while under added scrutiny.  If this is so, it is the story of every person who pushes the envelope, the limits, to see what one can get away with.  If we don’t like the language and the context—How do I profit from this or that, how do I get people to do what is profitable to my career or my bankbook—then we need to realize that such considerations dominate so much of our culture today and have always been a challenge to each and every individual, from time immemorial.

While not unique to Illinois, the stain of political corruption is more associated with our state now than ever before.  Our Sages taught, “The greater the man, the greater the yetzer ha ra [evil inclination].”  As one of the investigators observed last week, if Illinois is not the most corrupt state, it is certainly a strong contender.  We know, however, that we dare not dismiss such corruption as a tribute to the greatness of our city or state.

Our Sages taught that, within each of us, the yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination, is at first a passer‑by, and then, if we allow it, a guest, and then the owner of the house.  If it now owns our State House, we need to overcome it.

In order to overcome corruption, we have to recognize its slogan.  That slogan was provided for us by Jacob’s troubling father-in-law, Laban, who says:  “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.”  He says this after he has broken an agreement with Jacob, substituting one daughter for another on the wedding day, and trapped Jacob into working for him for seven more years.  In the name of social convention, Laban holds up the worst possible deceit and declares that he is an upholder of what everyone should know to be the rule, the decent thing to do.  He therefore makes a mockery of social convention, rules, deals, even decency itself.

Maimonides regarded such invocation of convention as the most insidious kind of wickedness—“the flight from personal responsibility for the deed…and its placing on someone else’s shoulders.”  If the media or anyone persists in blaming “Chicago politics,” they do not help us to understand that individual human beings, in their everyday choices, craft a culture, determine their courses in life and influence others.  The woman who was offered the vacant Senate seat, but refused it, and expressed her uneasiness with the conversations, advanced the yetzer ha tov, the good inclination, not only in her life but in society.

That bit of good news should direct our attention to the good thing that happens to Jacob.  As Jacob is about to confront his past, which is not pretty, but can certainly be regarded as a tit for tat encouraged by a dysfunctional family and even by Divine visions, Jacob learns first hand what it means to contend with the Divine.  He learns that Divine visions may be encouraging, but that if we each had the experience of being pushed back by God, after going on and on about how noble we have been and how we don’t deserve our troubles or our detractors, we would realize that what is important is not our fear or our anger or our self-preservation, but those times when we have tried to be just and kind and understood that we can never be just or kind too much or too often.

It no longer matters to Jacob that he was not as bad as Laban or that he lived through terrible years with Laban.  What matters is that he is glad just to be alive after encountering the Divine.  True, he did the old Jacob thing and wrested an extra blessing and a nice name from the angel.  But he had learned to be so grateful for his life and for the possibilities to do good.  He no longer counted his lumps, nor did he notice his limp.

Many of our political leaders will come to a similar, rude awakening, and some will be prosecuted without getting it.  Hopefully, future leaders and all of us will learn from this.  God grant that, as individuals and as citizens of a state, a society a world, we embrace Jacob’s perspective after wrestling with the Divine so that we act wisely, justly, kindly, and with integrity, and know when not to act foolishly—that is greedily, selfishly, and out of vanity.  Amen.

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