(Indianapolis Star, October 6, 2016)
Earlier this week we welcomed the Jewish New Year, 5777. In Hebrew the letters of the alphabet have numerical value. The two letters that denote this year (77) spell the Hebrew word oz, which means “strength.”
The word also calls to mind the 1939 film based on the story of the “Wizard of Oz.” That play and ephemeral place have been celebrated in the beautiful lullaby “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” the most popular American song of the 20th century.
The song is much more than a children’s lullaby. It was composed and written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, two sons of Eastern European Jewish descent who immigrated to the Unites States. The tune embodies history and hope and is filled with Jewish imagery and symbolism.
The reference to “above the chimney tops” eerily alludes to the impending Holocaust and the “land over the rainbow that I once heard in a lullaby” is the yearning for the land of Israel. The land of dreams, of course, also resonates with images of an America of promise and hope.
It became apparent to us that the film spoke over the decades directly to us, warning us that what we need is “oz,” strength, and not the Wizard of Oz.
The Wizard was thirsty for power. Unqualified, he was called “The Great Oz.” He made others believe that he possessed magic. He promised things that everyone wished for but could not accomplish. He managed to trick others because, in part, they were ready to be misled. Requiring the citizens of Oz to put on green colored glasses to make the place appear as an emerald city, he convinced them that he could perform spectacular feats.
Those who felt lost and hopeless went to seek his advice and ask for his help, believing that only he could solve their malaise, save them from their desperation. The scarecrow, the lion, the tin man and Dorothy sought a brain, courage, a heart and a home. And off they went “to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz” because they “hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was.”
The Wizard insults the supplicants and frightens them with his pronouncements. He speaks forcefully, but what he says has little factual basis. Instead he uses intimidation and allows no disagreement, as he shouts, “Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz?”
In L. Frank Baum’s novel, the Wizard appears in different forms to each visitor: a giant green head, a lovely fairy, a big ball of fire and a monstrous beast with horns. In truth, he is none of these, but just a man who uses props and tricks to make himself a commanding presence. Once the curtain is drawn away, he is shown to be just a little man, a “humbug.”
As we approach the elections, let us not to be deceived as those who once sought Oz as the answer to their problems. It is wise to pull aside the curtain to see what is behind all the blustery rhetoric and the insults and to remind ourselves what it is that really makes someone capable of leading the United States of America.
As we anticipate the year ahead, one of challenge and possibilities, of fears and opportunities, let us not pray for a Wizard of Oz but for oz, the strength to make wise decisions so that “the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true.”
Sandy Sasso is senior rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University. Dennis Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.