The following is an imaginary letter from Mo Amramson to President Obama. “Mo,” the son of Amram, is known to most as “Moses,” who led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness for 40 years.
You know I always felt that leading the Israelites was the most difficult public-service job in the world. After all, my experience was that they could be a stiff-necked and obnoxious people who always complained. In my case, I was able to bring them to the edge of the Promised Land, but I myself was unable to take them in.
I am beginning to think that your job is just about as difficult as mine was. I was thinking about you the other day and thought that I would write you with some of the advice that I learned from my experiences. Hopefully, you will find this helpful.
First of all, try to keep your “eyes on the prize,” so to speak. Try to see the bush that is burning but not being consumed. My ability to perceive what was really important helped me quite a bit. I would suggest to you that you need to see that too many people are suffering because they lack a job. Your primary focus now needs to be on solving the problem of unemployment.
Second, be willing to work more closely with those not of your own party. In my case, this meant taking advice from Jethro, who was not only a Midianite, a non-Jew, but also my father-in-law! He gave me some terrific advice. In your case, be open to such advice from Republicans, but at the same time, demand of them real solutions. Do not let them off the hook! The stakes are too high for them to continue to be the party of “No.” They will need to know that their advice will be considered if it is constructive.
Third, I recently heard a story that on the day after the election, a girl who was a Duke graduate and a boy who was an Ivy League graduate took a row boat out on Lake Brandt in Greensboro. After two hours, the girl called her father (a certain rabbi in Greensboro) to come pick her up. It seems that she and her friend were on the other side of the lake and helplessly lost. Here you had two brilliant kids whose parents had spent massive sums of money for their education, yet they could not find their way back to the dock!
Barack, the American people are like those two kids. They are smart and adventurous, but these days, they are lost and need help finding their way. My father-in-law, Jethro, told me to empower the people. I could not do it all by myself. You succeeded in empowering those who elected you, but it seems that on the day after your election or inauguration, they got lost, so to speak.
Nowadays, they are virtually absent from the political process. Perhaps they expected you to do it for them? You will need to help them understand that you need their enthusiasm and commitment now as much as ever. Remember that the greatest line in an inaugural speech in the last century came from John (he sends his regards, by the way) who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Fourth, help them realize that building a strong community and a strong nation, as opposed to the unrestricted desire for personal material gain, is our greatest task at present. You once mentioned to a rabbi in Greensboro that you felt that the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” applied to the entire society, and that we have an obligation to care for the elderly and the vulnerable in our country. The problems of education, the environment, health care, security and others fall into this category. Years ago, God gave those Ten Commandments to the entire society, not just to individuals. I should know; I was there. My advice is that in your upcoming speeches, you should stress the need for collective responsibility.
Finally, you will need to give the people a sense of collective destiny. In my case, the Israelites not only complained, they also wanted to return to Egypt because they missed the cucumbers there. (Oy, my people and their Kosher dill pickles!) My task was to help them to hold fast to a vision of the Promised Land and to help them to understand their hardships were not in vain. With God’s help, I had to say over and over to them, “Yes we can!”
For you, these words were useful as a campaign slogan. They communicated both empowerment and vision. Now you need to transfer the slogan from the campaign to actual governance. People then and people now understand the world as it is. Your task is to give them a sense of the world as it “ought to be.” If you can do this, then the words “Yes we can!” will once again have meaning.
Barack, yours is not an easy task. Good luck, and may God’s blessings go with you.
Rabbi Fred Guttman is rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.