Rash Promises by Peter Eisenstadt

Over the weekend, through the magic of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Series, I saw a performance of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo. It is Mozart’s first great opera (as opposed to the 10 or 12 very good operas) he had previously written. Premiered in Munich in 1781—the original theater is still standing—it found Mozart at a crossroads in his career. He was a young man of about 25, his days as a dazzling young prodigy days far behind him, and was now just another scuffling musician, albeit one of needing to prove that he could build on his early success and earn the big pricey commissions befitting his talent. (He had his share of successes, but, as perhaps the original member of the “gig economy” he continued to scuffle.)

Idomeneo is about fathers and sons, about generational disputes, how the foolishness of old men imperils the future of the young. The story in brief. Idomeneo, king of Crete, coming back from the Trojan War, found himself caught up in a terrible tempest. He vows to Neptune that if his ship is spared, he will sacrifice the first person he sees, once back on terra firma. Well, wouldn’t you know, the first person he sees is his son and heir Idamante. (Bummer!) Well, Idomeneo tries to get out of the vow, gravely angering Neptune. (One of the lessons of the opera; don’t mess with Neptune!) Well, eventually Neptune relents, various love triangles are resolved. At the end of the opera, Idomeneo abdicates, and his son Idamante becomes the new king, as the joyous Cretans rejoice.

Parents sacrificing or almost sacrificing their children is a familiar theme in world literature. There is the Akedah, of course. There is the story of Jephthah, in the Book of Judges, chapters 11 and 12, who makes an almost identical vow to Idomeneoto kill the first person he sees after winning a battle, and—wouldn’t you know it?—first person he sees is his daughter, though unlike the Akedah or Idomeneo (probably because his unnamed daughter is, you know, a woman) God lets Jephthah go through with the act. (Handel, about 30 years before Idomeneo, wrote a sturdy oratorio on the Jephthah theme.) The Torah has a lot to say about vows, and basically says you make a vow, you had better keep it. The rabbis had even more to say about vows, and devoted an entire tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, to considering the intricacies of how and when to vow, and what to vow about. And one of the most famous of all Jewish prayers, Kol Nidre, is about a general cancelling of all vows for the High Holy days, which is always a bit mystifying, but everyone loves the melody.

The general lesson to be learned from Idomeneo and from Jephthah is that “make a stupid vow, get a stupid result.” Usually, there is a penalty for reckless vowing.   And then there is Donald Trump. His presidential campaign was a string of stupid vows, on the wall, on Muslim immigrants, on health care, on his rivals, each uglier and rasher than the last, and until last week, he seemed to pay no penalty for his lies. No vow was more insistently repeated during the campaign—68 times by one account—that the first thing he would do, once his carcass was parked in the Oval Office, would be to appeal, abolish, and incinerate the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. And I think everyone thought, after last November 9, whatever their politics, that that is just what would happen. But though the Republicans placed Obamacare on the altar, in a deus ex machina worthy of Neptune or Abraham finding the ram in the thicket, the hand of the Republicans was stayed, and they had to put their daggers back in their belts. Obamacare not only survived, it’s hard for me to see how it can ever be killed.

What gives the Akedah and the stories of Jephthah and Idomeneo their power is that they are acts of parents sacrificing their children, killing their future. Of course, nowadays, when we speak of people making sacrifices, we usually don’t mean petitioning and propitiating the gods. We mean people giving up something for someone else. It is how society works, making sacrifices for the common good, making sacrifices to those who are in need of help. Health insurance is a system of sacrifices; parents, planning ahead, make a financial sacrifice for their children; children, planning ahead, make a financial sacrifice for their parents.

Trump’s dominant philosophy seems to have been, from the beginning of his career, that making sacrifices is for suckers. His “art of the deal” is not reaching an equal accommodation between two parties, but winning, defeating the other person.. And this is the way he is approaching governing; he wants to make Americans and America, as selfish, as grasping, as indifferent to the plight of others, as he is.   This received a setback on Friday, but the battle is far from over. Let us vow to fight this until we win. We must live again in an America willing to make sacrifices for the common good, or, as we learned today with new executive order undoing much of Obama’s climate change regulation—be prepared to deal with Neptune’s wrath.