The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, filed this dispatch following the inauguration:
Greeting the New Day in America
January 20, 2009
Decidedly religious imagery framed today’s inauguration, as it has done in every other inauguration before it. One could not help but note God’s presence, whether standing at the Capitol as I did or watching the turning of history on TV with virtually every other American. God’s blessing was invoked at the beginning of the ceremony and again at its conclusion; at a key point in between, President Barack Obama declared, “This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”
We Americans, regardless of creed, seem united in the recognition that we need God’s blessing if we are to live up to what we wish for ourselves. As President George Washington put it some 220 years ago in the pleasingly indirect and humble language characteristic of our nation’s founders.
“It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to the Almighty Being who rules over the universe . . . Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
Standing in the cold this morning, as the entire country seemed able to see every hopeful breath it collectively exhaled, my thoughts turned to the blessings that religiously observant Jews recite every morning. Those “blessings of the dawn,” like good inaugural addresses, begin with the obvious facts of the situation — opening one’s eyes, putting on clothes, stretching one’s limbs, rising to meet the day — and make of those facts an occasion for both thanksgiving and responsibility. Thanksgiving, because here we are again, alive with a new day’s opportunity before us. Responsibility, because the ability to see the light, stretch out, and stand tall, confers the obligation to join God in helping others do the same.
Barack Obama has been teaching and preaching for close to two years now that blessing obligates one to action and that action itself is an enormous blessing. For right action builds community, makes life worthwhile, and nurtures hope. The new president reiterated that lesson today.
The rhythm of the inaugural rite seemed familiar to me because of the prayers that we Jews say daily. Men, and many women, stand clothed in prescribed head covering, tallit, and tefillin, to thank God again and again that we have lived to see the morning and embrace its responsibilities. Hundreds of thousands of us stood in reflection at the Capitol this morning, fortified against the cold in long underwear, sweaters, and earmuffs. We joined with the new president in considering what it would take to get through the multiple crises that face the country and the world. I reflected too on the idea that the ritual recital of hope and recall of blessing somehow helps us to change things for the better. Remembering past crises survived or overcome assists us in confronting new crises; giving voice to past expression of resolve impels us—in John F. Kennedy’s words—to “go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own."
The reassurance that we are not wasting our breath at such moments of rededication, and will not be wasting our efforts in the years ahead, is utterly crucial to our work for change. It forms no small part of the comfort and empowerment conveyed by the inauguration’s ritual words and images. If God’s work must truly be our own, according to the Scripture we hold sacred, it follows that God’s work can be ours and that our work can be God’s. “We the people” possess the authority to challenge state power in the name of a Higher Power. Our government can claim the highest authority for state action only so long as it secures human rights and does not abuse them.
Finally, the work belongs to all of us. Every single American has the same claim on our country, our president, and one another. This is implicit in the inaugural’s ritual recitation.
Our new president, more than many others, seems to have a pragmatic sense of limitation built into his exultant rhetoric. The master of “Yes, we can!” has read his Reinhold Niebuhr. He knows that “ . . . the challenges we face are real . . . they will not be met easily….” Times such as these are when we need each other (and effective government) the most.
President Obama, we can be sure, knows well the Exodus narrative that Jews are reading in shul this week. God promises deliverance but warns that it will take many plagues to bend the will of Pharoah towards freedom. But the moment will come. It does come.
History is like this, the Rabbis taught: generation after generation and event after event accumulate without apparent recompense for sacrifice. History seems to lack purpose. It appears stalled. Then, “all of a sudden,” something happens: things move. Setbacks follow. There is more work to do, more suffering to bear, more wilderness to slog through; but the fact that redemption happened once gives us hope. We wake up to the blessing of a new day and, free to stretch and stand tall, we accept the privilege to open eyes and push back walls. History seems malleable once again.
It was amazing at today’s inauguration how many Republicans joined Democrats in the determination to rejoice at the election of an African American as president. It was remarkable too how many people in the crowd seemed ready to trust that this time important things will really change. It was as if all Americans joined in the blessing Jews recite daily. Thank God for vigor restored to the weary, the sense that we have all that we need for one more effort to do right. God’s help and one another are all that is needed, along with a little wisdom and a leader who brings out the best in all of us.
Chancellor Arnold Eisen
The Jewish Theological Seminary