Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message: January 2, 2023.


            Part of our common experience of turning the calendar page…. 2022 to 2023…. is a feature that we call “transitions”. We read about significant people who have finished their earthly course of life. We also hear about the passing of the baton, from one leader to the next.
            Just now, there are several transitions commanding public attention. Consider the following two moments, one in the religious, and the other in the political, sphere: The death of the former pope, Benedict XVI, on December 31, and the inauguration of the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known mononymously as Lula), on January 1. 
            What intrigues me, among other aspects of these transitions, is the response to those transitions by the other figures at the top of the Roman Catholic and Brazilian establishments. These responses were diametrically opposed.


Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2016

            On the positive side, we see the response of the current Pope, Francis. The current pontiff gave thanks for the good works and sacrifices of his predecessor. He expressed gratitude to God for the life and work of the deceased pontiff emeritus. 
            As a Jew, I was not pleased with all of Pope Benedict’s record, in particular, by the assistance he gave to the rehabilitation of the reputation of the Nazi-accommodating Pope Pius XII. But I certainly appreciated his stance on the historic ecumenical statement, Nostra Aetate (1965), which “rejected the false teaching that the Jewish people are responsible for the death of Christ and affirmed the positive role that Christ’s Jewish religion played in his life.” (Statement, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Office of Media Relations, 2013). Pope Benedict rebuffed the attempt of the more traditionalist--- and anti-ecumenical—"Society of St. Pius X” to depart from the pro-Jewish line of Nostra Aetate. The then-pope also rejected the Holocaust denial of traditionalist Catholic Bishop, Richard Williamson.
            It is no secret that Pope Francis has struck a very different tone in his church leadership than that of his predecessor.  Benedict was more conservative, Francis more progressive, and the fundamental differences between those world views have accounted for many differences in the policies of these two leaders.  And yet, at a moment of transition, Francis was able to eulogize his predecessor. He was not a Marc Antony, who came “to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” No, Pope Francis spoke from a place of graciousness.
            What a contrast to this was the response of the outgoing Brazilian president, Yair Bolsonaro, to the inauguration of his predecessor, his bitter rival, and now his successor, Lula! Bolsonaro left the country, taking refuge in Orlando, Florida.
            Lula is indeed no saint, and Jews have their own special concerns regarding his policies. He was jailed for corruption, and although his conviction was annulled in 2021, lingering doubts about his integrity endure. Yet here, I am focused on the symbolism of transitions and its implications.


Illustration: Lula wearing his presidential sash.  Note his missing little finger, lost in an industrial accident when he was a factory worker, at the beginning of his career.

            The green and yellow sash seen in the accompanying photograph is the regalia of the Brazilian president.  By Brazilian tradition, the outgoing president drapes his successor in that ceremonial symbol of legitimate political authority.  Bolsonaro refused to do that. His refusal is not surprising, seeing that he has rejected the results of the October 2022 election in which Lula defeated him.  Claiming election fraud, Bolsonaro refused to concede defeat. Skipping the ceremony is part and parcel of that. Of course, his arrival in Florida ahead of the inauguration may also help him avoid imprisonment, since he is now under investigation for corruption.
            As an American, I can think of two parallels to Bolsonaro’s flight: In 2021, Donald Trump boycotted Joe Biden’s inauguration.


Illustration: Marine-One leaving the White House, taking the Trumps on the first leg of their journey to Mar- a-Lago prior to President Biden’s inauguration
            As is well known, Donald Trump left for Florida before the inauguration of his successor, Joe Biden.  The parallels between Trump and Bolsonaro are extensive. In fact, Trump’s behavior was probably the inspiration for Bolsonaro’s rejection of the legitimacy of the election. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s no-holds barred stances on social issues, his nationalism, anti-environmentalism, and suspicious financial record, but also his enduring popularity with a large minority of the voting public in Brazil, are all explicable as a repeat of the Trump phenomenon in a South American context.

Illustration: Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

            While much was unprecedented in Trump’s presidency, the boycott of his successor’s inauguration was not: One hundred twenty years earlier, John Adams pointedly missed Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration.

Illustration: a typical early-19th century stagecoach scene.

            On the morning of Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams took the 4:30 AM coach for Baltimore, bouncing on poor roads for 10 hours. From there, he needed two more weeks—in that pre-railroad age-- to get to his home in Quincy, Mass, arriving only on March 18.
            The precedent only goes but so far. A closer examination, however, reveals that the Adams departure is not a good parallel to Trump’s behavior, for the crucial reason that Adams did not dispute the legitimacy of Jefferson’s ultimate certification by Congress as the nation’s third president.
            With all this contemporary and recent history in mind, let us look at the most important Jewish parallels.
            First, we have the conclusion of the age of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, narrated at the end of the Book of Genesis. We read this week of the deaths of Jacob and later, of his favorite son, Joseph. It signals the end of the age where there was no people Israel, only a family. The next book, Exodus, is the start of the saga of Israel as a people.
            The Bible handles this transition with subtlety and narrative brilliance.  Genesis ends with the following notice: “Joseph was placed in a sarcophagus in Egypt.” The transition tells us that the body of Joseph was handled in accordance with Egyptian practice, not Semitic—a telling sign that the last word has not been spoken. In a sarcophagus, rather than the earth, the body of Joseph still awaited its final journey.  Joseph’s last instructions to his brothers was that when God would take note of the people, and allow them to leave Egypt, the Israelites were to carry the sarcophagus to the Holy Land. The Bible eventually completes that story.  On the eve of the Exodus, when the Hebrews were collecting their considerable back wages in the form of Egyptian finery, the Bible tells us that Moses busied himself with preparing the bones of Joseph for respectful transport. (Exodus 13:19). A generation later, with the work of Joshua complete and the Israelites at home in their ancestral land, the book of Joshua concludes with the report that the bones of Joseph found their final rest in Shechem (i.e., near modern-day Nablus), the territory that Jacob had purchased from Hamor, the father of Shechem.
            The focus of the Bible in narrating this transition, from Genesis to Exodus, is to let the Jewish reader know that with the conclusion of the Patriarchal Age, worse things were in store for the Jewish people, but that ultimately the good would triumph.
            Still, the story of Joseph does not exhaust what needs to be learned about transitions. That is because Joseph does not single out any future leader for blessing.  That important aspect of transitions happens in biblical history most famously with Moses and his lieutenant, Joshua. When God punishes Moses at the rock of Meribah, decreeing that Moses will not live to enter the Promised Land, Moses responds with the self-effacing request: that God not leave the Israelites without a shepherd, but appoint someone else to lead them. God selects Joshua, and Moses blesses his former subordinate in generous terms (Deut. 31:7-8).
            The Rabbis pick up on that theme and present a remarkable midrash about the death Moses. In their free literary creation, Moses obtains a conditional release from God’s sentence: the opportunity to live on as Joshua’s humble attendant. But when Moses foresaw that he would at some point give in to jealousy of how his successor was honored more than he, Moses stopped pleading for additional years. He understood that a true leader prepares his community for the transition to his successor.
            As we go through the transition from 2022 to 2023, it is my prayer that our leaders, in all the spheres of society, political and social and cultural, escape the prison of ego, and serve the community rather than their narrow personal interest. They would do well to learn from Moses, the Bible’s model leader. He never sought a monopoly on greatness. Quite the contrary. He knew that for a leader to be truly great, the community as a whole had to rise. Would that this could happen in our country and our world! Amen.