According to the author Gene Healy, as quoted in The Economist, there is a new cult in America, and as the oil from BP’s disastrous spill spreads over the Gulf and possibly beyond, it is spreading across America. That cult is the Cult of the Presidency, the title of Healy’s recent book. He notes, “Over and over again we begin by looking to the president as the solution to all our problems, and we end up believing he’s the source of all our problems.”
This got me thinking about other figures in power in the past, their reactions to disasters, and the consequences of their actions. One was the biblical King David. In the portion of Rabbinic tradition called the Gemara, or Rabbinic teaching, the story is told (Succah 53a) that King David was excavating the hollowed-out conduits through which the libations flowed after being poured on the sacrificial altar, which extended down to the very depths of the earth. Apparently, tinkering with the depths had the effect of stirring up the water table of the deep, which surged upward and threatened to engulf the entire world.
Now, King David knew of a method to contain the threatening upsurge: through the use of God’s Holy Name. By tossing a piece of clay bearing the Name of God into the stream, the waters would recede. The snag in this plan was that it entailed a grave transgression: dissolving God’s Name. With time running out, King David was unsure of how to proceed. His famously ingenious advisor, Achitophel, ruled that this method was permissible, basing his ruling on a precedent in the Torah. King David accepted Achitophel’s ruling and cast the clay upon the waters.
The effort was successful—too successful, in fact. The waters receded so deeply that a new concern was raised. With the water table so far beneath the surface at this point (the waters rested at 16,000 cubits below the earth’s surface), the soil now lacked sufficient moisture, which would adversely affect the crops.
To remedy the situation King David recited the “Songs of Ascents” in order to now bring the waters up to the proper level. He recited fifteen of them, which brought the waters up by fifteen thousand cubits to their final resting place of one thousand cubits beneath the surface. This was the perfect level: far enough below so as not to present a flood-danger, yet close enough to the soil to provide sufficient saturation.
According to legend, the famous descendant of King David, Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, the chief Rabbi of Prague in the sixteenth century, did not fare quite as well. During his time, the Jewish community of Prague was besieged by persons bent on killing all the Jews and destroying their community. Rabbi Yehuda decided to build a Golem, a magical creature of immense strength and power, to defend them. He prepared a large figure from clay, and with the help of others, combined the four elements, air, earth, wind and water, into this creation. Finally, Rabbi Yehuda wrote the secret name of God on a piece of paper and placed it in the Golem’s mouth, at which point it came alive.
Now it was a sin to create life in this manner, for only God was empowered to create life outside of regular procreation, but the Golem defended the people. Each night, Rabbi Yehuda would take out the slip of paper containing God’s name, rendering the Golem powerless. One night, in haste to get to synagogue, Rabbi Yehuda forgot to take out the slip of paper, and the Golem went mad, destroying everything in sight.
Of course, neither President Obama nor the officials at British Petroleum can command God’s powers, but we now all see that the great good of more energy from drilling in the Gulf brings the power of great destruction. And, even when we use our best resources to contain the damage, we seem to do more. Jacques Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel, reported that the use of the dispersants that were meant to lessen the impact of the oil have only made things worse. They have changed the specific gravity of the oil so that it no longer floats on the surface but lurks beneath, destroying plants and animals into the depths of the waters.
So what are we to do, and how are we to react to President Obama in this circumstance. I am reminded of one more story, the story of the Viking King Canute whose courtiers asked him to stem the seas’ tide. He placed his throne at the edge of the sea when the tide was coming in and commanded, according to legend, that the sea stop. Of course, it did not, and the throne and the royal robes got wet. King Canute, as a further demonstration, removed his crown and placed it on a cross, symbolizing that only God has powers to stop the sea. So much for the cult of those in power. We will have to rely on our imperfect human capabilities and not hope that presidential anger or presidential magic will make our man-made mess go away.