Tradition Today: Yes we can

Never underestimate the power of the spoken word.

Obama great 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama great 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Never underestimate the power of the spoken word. The Torah teaches that the world was created by the word spoken by God. It was through the spoken word that we received the Ten Commandments. The words of the prophets and the words of the Torah, uttered week in and week out, are the very basis of Jewish belief and Jewish life. Indeed the spoken word can have a tremendous impact, as we have recently seen in the American elections. The election was won because of issues, situations and organization, but to no small measure it was won because of the inspiring speeches of the candidate. Whatever one may think of Barack Obama, no one can deny his talent as an orator. His speeches, both in style and delivery, were riveting and inspiring. One must go back to Kennedy, Roosevelt and Lincoln to find presidents who had similar powers of oratory. Obama learned much from preachers like Martin Luther King, such as the device of repetition of a key phrase which punctuates a speech like a refrain. In his victory speech he constantly repeated the phrase "yes we can," which has echoes of "we shall overcome" and "I have a dream." All of these are phrases which give hope and are intended to lift people from despair into a mode of positive action and optimism for the future. It would be nice to hear such phrases from our own politicians. The only such phrase I can recall is that of Theodor Herzl - Im tirtzu ein zo aggada - poorly translated as "If you will it, it is not an illusion." In actuality all of these phrases have an ancient biblical antecedent in God's words to the first human born of woman, Cain, "Sin crouches at the door but you can overcome it" (Genesis 4:7). These words were spoken when Cain was angry and distressed. Things had not gone well for him. His offering to God had not been accepted. God, acting here like a patient parent, attempts to lift the child from petulance and despair. He does not chide Cain but teaches him that it is within his power to overcome the urges within him that lead to misconduct. You can master those urges; you can overcome the enemy that is within you. Yes you can. With this simple story and those few words, the Torah instilled in us the belief in the power of the human will to choose between good and evil. We are not doomed to sin; we have free will. We are not subject to unalterable fate. We make our own fate. Indeed we can. The story of Jacob's struggle with a divine being which results in his acquisition of the name Israel also teaches that human beings have the ability to overcome difficulties, not from within, as in the case of Cain, but from without. "He said, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel [Yisrael] for you have struggled [sarita] with divine beings and humans and you have prevailed" (Genesis 32:29). You faced many enemies, many who sought to overcome you and do you harm and you will face many more - he would soon confront Esau - but you have and you can overcome them. Yes you can. Since Jacob-Israel is also a symbol of the people that bears him name, this story implies the nature of Israel. The people of Israel is not doomed to defeat. Although it would be enslaved, it would emerge from slavery. Although defeated, in the end it would prevail. Indeed we can. In one of the most exalted and optimistic of his prophecies predicting the victory and vindication of Zion against its enemies, the prophet Zechariah coined the intriguing phrase "prisoners of hope" (Zechariah 9:12). It is as if hope, the possibility of prevailing, of overcoming, is implanted so deeply within us that we cannot free ourselves from it. There is eternal optimism within us as Jews and as human beings, unlimited belief in the power of the human spirit to overcome all obstacles if only we have the determination to do so. It is not accidental that the State of Israel chose as its anthem a composition named "Hatikva" - the hope. Without hope we would never have survived to recreate our national independence. It is very easy to be discouraged both as individuals and as members of the Jewish people. Life in general is not simple. It is composed of challenge after challenge in which we are asked to overcome our own faults and problems and to struggle against outward forces that often seem overwhelming. To quote the famous words of Rabbi Nahman, "All the world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is never to be afraid." That certainly applies to our situation as a state today as well. The challenges from within and certainly from without are so complex and difficult that it is all too easy to despair. This is a time when we need inspiring leadership, political, intellectual and religious leadership that can use the spoken word to lift us up and give us the confidence we need, reminding us of the basic teachings of the Torah, that we do have the power to overcome. Yes we can. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.