I was in the fourth grade, hiding in the girl’s bathroom with Fran Schneider, when the loudspeaker rang out: “All students are to return to their classrooms immediately.” We looked at each other and giggled nervously, afraid that we would get busted for pretending to use the bathroom when in reality, we were sneaking a Three Musketeers bar in the third stall.
That is where I was on the day that President Kennedy was shot. Like everyone else of my generation, I had no idea that morning that it would be the most historically significant moment of my young life.
Fast forward to November 4, 2008, when I sat on the couch with my husband and friends and watched the election results pour in. Everyone in the room was thoroughly aware that something momentous was happening. America had made a choice that transcended party affiliation and personal choice. Obama said it beautifully in his acceptance speech with these words: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
It is amazing to me that on the very week of the election of the first African-American president in this country, Jews worldwide read Lech Lecha from the Book of Genesis. Lech Lecha is the story about Abraham, who is called upon by God to leave his family, community and homeland forever — and journey to a land that God promises to show him. It is a story, not only about Abraham’s unconditional willingness to follow God’s call, but also about what it means to start over, to take great risks and to abandon fear in lieu of faith.
Lech Lecha heralds new beginnings: Of monotheism, of Judaism with the Jewish family that will one day become the Jewish nation, and of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. It is a dramatic and powerful moment in Biblical history; one of great inspiration and transformation, of great hope for the future, much like the moment we shared on election night in our own country.
Abraham’s story is one of courage, self-sacrifice, and dedication. It is also one which emphasizes the power of acting out of faith in our beliefs and in the future, rather than being trapped by our fears and the realities of the present.
But Abraham’s transformation came with a steep price tag. He had to give up the life he had lived for 75 years, abandon his aging father, and leave the security of a community that he loved and the only country he knew. He had to make sacrifices every step of the way, including placing his wife Sarah at great risk in the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh and fighting four kings to rescue his nephew Lot.
He did these things, not because he lacked fear or was without self-doubt, but because he had total faith in a God who spoke to him of his purpose, who defined for him the mission of his life and who promised him a future in which his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.
The lesson from Lech Lecha was lived out once again on November 4, 2008, when our nation came out in record numbers to vote. We didn’t just vote to elect Barack Obama as first African-American president of the United States. We voted to replace our national fears with faith in America and the worthy principles and values that this country was founded upon. We voted for a mandate for change: Not just to alter the policies of the past eight years, but to replace the fear of what America had become with faith in the possibilities of what America can become.
We have an opportunity to restore the basic values upon which democracy is based — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have an opportunity to look each other in the eye and be proud again to be a part of a country that rejects self interest in lieu of community interest, that uses sound judgment to formulate healthy economic and social policies, and that guards and protects its people, resources, land and principles rather than squanders and abuses them. But, like Abraham, it will come with a price that we all will all have to pay if we are to create a future that we can be proud to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
November 4, 2008 was more than a historical moment: It was a transcendent moment in the history of this country and the world. As we go forth into a new era of change, I think of the words in Genesis 15:1 that inspired Abraham: “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you: And your reward shall be very great.”
We can only hope that, like Abraham, we will continue to set aside our fears in lieu of faith — in each other and the possibilities of what it means to live in this country, as we take the journey to restore our own “promised land.”