David Bowie's 1972 classic touched a national nerve. Change is inevitable: we can only "turn and face the strain." (Others quote Bowie's refrain as "turn and face the strange," to similar effect.)
Soon the 45th President of the United States will take office amidst social and political upheaval. Many either acclaim or fear this changing of the guard. Most see this moment as an inflection point: with an unknown future, the American nation turns to face the strain.
This week, our Torah portion (Vayechi) concludes the Book of Genesis: Jacob and Joseph die in Egypt, setting the stage for the Children of Israel to become slaves to a new Pharaoh "who knew not Joseph." Spiritual historians see this moment as an inflection point: with an unknown future, the Israelite nation turns to face the strain.
For the Israelite journey, this moment recalls the divine promise that Abraham (then Abram) heard long before: his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years, then liberated to establish a new covenant with a people redeemed from bondage (Gen. 15:13). Abraham's early descendants couldn't imagine slavery, and their progeny couldn't imagine an end to it even as their liberation began.
For the American journey, we have no prognosticating Bible on which all agree: ours is a nation of laws, rights, freedoms and aspirations. What we have is a Constitution, a social fabric and a people capable of strength, ingenuity and renewal. Like the Israelite journey, perhaps Americans can't imagine what their future might be, what opportunities and suffering it may entail, and what ultimate good may emerge.
We can't fully know the future, so we must "turn to face the strain" all the more. Ch- ch- ch- changes are inevitable: we can't avoid them or pretend them away, so we must face them head-on, with all our fullness whether hope or despair, joy or anxiety. The page will turn and only hindsight will depict the journey; in hindsight, perhaps we'll see this moment to recall promises long ago renewed in our own day.
Rabbi David Evan Markus