The Exodus:5 Project
Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine Exodus 19:5
It is a lot easier to embrace the notion of American exceptionalism when there is something truly exceptional about America. I am not talking about ideals or legacies – I mean right now. I mean living up to the higher aspirations of those who came before. Chanting “USA! USA!” is cheerleading. Battering the man-child who is President is sport, not wisdom. Demanding the protection of some rights and the diminution of others lacks a coherent American logic.
We have long believed ourselves to be a chosen people. We have laid claim to a manifest destiny and named a century after ourselves. Our right and might triumphed (with our allies) in the armed conflicts that engulfed the world twice. Our way of life outlasted the communist experiment. Our culture of self-expression (and sometimes self-absorption) is often imitated, never replicated. And while every other country and culture can claim to exceed our record of accomplishment in one or another way, taken as a whole, the reputation of the United States provokes more admiration around the world than any other country.
And that is despite our incredible failures. Small wars conducted by implacable enemies flummox our military. We can’t seem to address and overcome the staying power of our prejudices. Our wealth should make it possible for us to eradicate poverty, hunger, under-education, health care costs and pollution, but we steadfastly refuse. Until very recently, we have shaken off our missteps and gone back to work on our challenges. Our self-confidence (or, if you prefer, arrogance) was justified by our desire to live into a better tomorrow.
But today seems different in both form and substance. Back when America was allegedly great, it was only the bad guys who wanted to deny the American dream to those who had not yet achieved it. My generation – the one that has no choice but to claim our current circumstances – marched for rights and peace and clean air but threw forward too many leaders who normalized scandal and brand-building over morals and vision. Leaders in our industries and governments have encouraged the cannibalizing of our dreams: free love has become sexual harassment; religious liberty has become license to discriminate; cultural diversity has been slapped with a quota. And most important, the free marketplace of ideas now has a permitting fee and a fenced-off area for dissent.
It is easy to blame our worst examples for our collective catastrophes. President Trump is the result, not the cause, of our shortcomings. The National Rifle Association did not hand out AR-15 semi-automatic rifles to mass murderers. Harvey Weinstein, it seems, is not an outlier. They are all reflections in the national mirror.
If you are still reading at this point, I have reached the end of my screed. Still proud to be an American and still filled with hope for the future, I hope that the experience of the Jews, my people, which extends a dozen or more times farther back in history than the United States’, will prove instructive. We, too, carry the dubious moniker of “chosen.” When we were barely a people, weeks out of four hundred years of slavery, we were told that we were “treasured” among all others – a nation of priests and a holy people (which was the gold standard back then).
But there was an “if,” right from the beginning. There was a mission and an accompanying set of responsibilities that came with chosenness. We had to live into that designation, not claim it as a right. Our entire history – from the Torah, through the Bible, through the Temples, through our wide dispersion – has been populated by our most admired leaders who urged us to live into our greatness. And, more important, they refused to validate our chosenness when we chose against it.
We never lost the blessing of election, but it has never been ours except by our reciprocal choice. Indeed, making the Jewish people great again was never a matter of nostalgia, but of gleaning the best of our past and improving on our future with it. When we rely on the reputations of our forebears, it is not for chasing away strangers in our midst, manipulating wealth, deceiving family and friends or misbehaving sexually. Instead, we improve on their emulable qualities by setting a standard of welcoming, generosity, integrity and fidelity.
When we decide to be worthy of our chosenness, then Jews – like everyone else – are chosen. When we aim to be exceptional, then Americans are exceptional. But it comes with a perpetual “if,” and only those who strive to earn rather than to claim will be great today, tomorrow and in tomorrow’s yesterday.