Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Believe in the (Flawed) Promised Land: Springsteen, the Exodus and Faith in Politics

“We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form: First; that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”
In “Exodus and Revolution”, whose closing paragraph is quoted above, Michael Walzer shows how the idea of the Exodus was the rousing symbolic framework through which many of the political movements of the modern era have found meaning: from the Huguenots through the Puritans and the Founding Fathers, to MLK and the civil rights movement. Thanks to those movements, the ideas of Egypt and Promised Land are sewn deeply into the tapestry of the American narrative. For Walzer, the “meaning and possibility of politics” in the West will always turn on the belief in the basic categories of Egypt/Promised Land.
It is rousing to see how the narratives of the Torah continue to provide categories through which people make sense of their reality. This year, in which so many stood up to demonstrate against the Egypt that their countries had turned into (in Tunisia, Syria, Israel, the US, and – of course – Egypt itself), and as the Torah portions cycle back to the story of the Exodus, we should revisit the role that the concepts of Egypt and the Promised Land play in our own quest for change.
In this week’s Torah portion, VaEra, God gives one of the most rousing speeches of the Torah, naming Egypt, Exodus and Promised Land:
“Say to the Children of Israel: I am Adonai,
I will bring you out
From beneath the burdens of Egypt
I will rescue you
From servitude to them,
I will redeem you
With an outstretched arm, with great acts of judgement;
I will take you for me
As a people
And I will be for you
As a God;
And you shall know
That I am Adonai your God,
Who brings you out
From beneath the burdens of Egypt.
I will bring you into the land
I will give it to you as a possession, I Adonai.”

לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי ה’.
וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם,
וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם;
וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים.
וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם,
וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים;
וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם,
הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם.
וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל-הָאָרֶץ
אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת-יָדִי
לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב;
וְנָתַתִּי אֹתָהּ לָכֶם מוֹרָשָׁה, אֲנִי ה’.

The belief in the Promised Land creates the possibility of revolution, of being taken out of our current reality, of redemption. Its greatest enemy is cynicism: disbelief in the possibility of change. And indeed, the cynical Israelites shrug their shoulders:

“Moshe spoke thus to the Children of Israel.
But they did not hearken to Moshe,
Out of shortness of spirit and out of hard servitude.”
(Exodus 6:6-9)
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה,
מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
(שמות ו:ו-ט)

The Israelites were not wrong to be wary of the possibility of change. We know the Promised Land isn’t really all that it is made up to be, and Egypt has its benefits too... We’ve read our history books and we know that the Promised Land often promises war, discord, corruption, idolatry and immorality. Too often yesterday’s Promised Land turns out to be todays Egypt. No one is clearer about this danger than Moshe’s successors, the prophets of the later books of the Bible. There is perhaps no greater Egypt than the work of politics itself. Indeed, the very Egypt/Promised Land dichotomy is a dangerous one, for a messianic Promised Land can be seen as an end that justifies all means, and a community disillusioned with the notion of a Promised Land can become alienated and apathetic.
These realizations makes many of us avoid politics or social change, and avoid great visions of Promised Lands, focusing instead on our personal spiritual redemption, our 401(k), or on local acts of charity.
What is needed to mediate this tension is a more nuanced vision of the Promised Land: not an end to all problems, but an opportunity to play out the old problems on a new playing field. That would allow us to be a bit more forgiving to the Promised Lands that have let us down – alongside galvanizing us to fight for their identity and not write them off.
In this more nuanced vision, however, we must not lose sight of the power of the Egypt/Promised Land dichotomy. Rather, a “second naiveté” must be embraced, a return to simple dichotomies which despite their unrealistic nature allow us to shout out revolutionary cries and wax poetic about a “New World”, a “Redemptive Homeland” or a “City on the Hill”.

Judaism has embedded the story of the Exodus into its collective memory and identity for exactly that purpose, if at times without the nuance: at the Passover Seder, in daily prayers, in learning and icons, we retell the story of breaking out of Egypt and journeying towards the Promised Land, refreshing our political imagination and prompting us to jump to action in fighting against our contemporary Egypts.
Judaism did it first, but America’s optimistic culture is where the naïve belief in the Exodus reached a peak of influence as a category of political and social change. One American in particular epitomizes both the Promise and the nuance: The Boss, the singer whose tours President Obama described  as “Not so much concerts, but communions”. The dichotomy is prevalent throughout his work, but Bruce Springsteen is nowhere more explicit than in his 1978 song, “The Promised Land” (from Darkness on the Edge of Town). It’s second verse reads (you should really watch it here )

I've done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start

The dogs on Main Street howl
'cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land

Springsteen describes a young man working in his “daddy’s garage” in a Utah desert, trying to do the right thing, when reality suddenly reveals itself to be an Egypt – eyes go blind, blood runs cold. There is a (violent) desire to break free, to do what “men do”, and head out for the Promised Land. In his performances, that last line gets repeated again and again, becoming a mantra, a battle cry, a prayer: I believe in a promised land. He knows he is just “chasing some mirage” – that the dichotomy ain’t so simple, that the Promised Land is flawed, and yet he can’t allow himself to stop believing in it.
Listening to the song, the listener regains belief in the message of the Exodus, as summarized by Walzer’s closing words: “We still believe… First; that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

Thanks to my friend Stephen Hazan Arnoff, who taught me how to listen to The Boss - and so much more. Check out Stephen's Blog post on Springsteen's recent single or his article on the topic in "Reading The Boss".

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | VaEra 2012 | Text and the City