Friday, April 8, 2022
First, the seder next week. When it comes to construction projects, I think the “garrison cities” are the most famous building project of the Passover story. Let’s recap a little: we know that the Israelites were forced to lay bricks and mortar to build these cities for Pharaoh. We also know that when Moses and Aaron first approach Pharoah in defense of the Israelites, Pharaoh spitefully makes the work even harder: no more straw will be provided to hold the bricks together, he declares. The Israelites have to take the time to go gather it, but the same number of bricks are demanded on a daily basis. It’s an impossible task that multiplies the labor and hardship.
The text is clear: the hard labor is one thing, but the malicious, devious intent of Pharaoh's decree is what cuts deep. He knows well the pain he is inflicting. There’s almost a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face as he imposes an impossible task. There’s no regard here for the laborers or the resources.
But nothing about this should surprise us. Torah tells us that these cities being built are “mis-ko-not” - translated as either garrison cities, storehouses, or treasuries for the king. The rabbis explain that the word miskonot indicates that these cities are pretty frivolous. They’re just warehouses, built to pile up weapons and the Pharoah’s loot. They’re his treasury where he hoards his own wealth, not meant for the betterment of his people, let alone the Israelites. They’re storehouses of vanity, built on the broken lives of the oppressed.
We could juxtapose this with a different sort of construction project, one that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Metzora. What we see this week is more of a demolition project, if you will. Leviticus tells us that if someone discovers tza-ra’at - a sort of fungus or affliction - growing on a house, they call the priest in to inspect it. Thus begins a multi-stage process of saving the house. First, the house is boarded up for a few days. If that doesn’t do the trick, if the plague has still spread after the quarantine, then they take out the afflicted bricks and scrape out the fungus. They replace the bricks and replaster. If, after the patch job, the plague continues to spread, only then is the house condemned and torn down.
We can understand this process pragmatically. Ancient Jews didn’t exactly have a ton of house building materials around. This was an economic way to address the houses’ plague and to try to preserve the structure before ripping it down.
But I also see a deeper value here - one that flies in the face of Pharaoh’s decree from back in Exodus. There is such care here to preserve time, resources and energy. A sense that one should do no more harm than needs to be done. Afterall, this is a person’s home we’re talking about, where they care for their family. It is treated with dignity, respect and care. Pharaoh, of course, has no idea what those things are.
If you’re of the construction mind, the Torah is filled with construction projects like this and they have similar juxtapositions. For example, the Israelites build the Golden calf - the gross epitome of vapid idol worship - which then gets replaced with the Tabernacle - a beautiful home for the 10 commandments where one does not see God, but rather where our hearts commune with the Divine.
Or think of the Tower of Babel - a highly successful construction project that, like Pharaoh’s cities, was a large-scale project with no holy purpose other than to feed egos. That building too is condemned…physically and metaphorically.
This week we ask ourselves: what are we Jews supposed to build? Well, the answer is easy: lives of virtue. Relationships full of decency. The physical spaces we construct are there to house the friendships, nurture the relationships. Hence our humble sanctuary. Or the seder tables we will finally sit around again. Why did we miss them so much these last 2 years? Maybe it’s because you love your uncle’s matzah ball soup, but I bet it's more because of the relationships formed around the table while passing the charoset.
One more building project from the seder that is worth noting. It’s a small project, one that you might miss if you don’t look hard enough.
When Yocheved gives birth to Moses, she hides him until his cries become too loud. So she builds a small ark caulked with reeds and pitch. The word used is “teva,” an ark, like the one back in Genesis. Like Noah adrift during the great Flood, Moses is set to float on the Nile - representing the last hope for his people.
Yocheved’s construction project, like Noah’s before her, is born of love and devotion. Her’s though, is small, quiet and unassuming. We Jews will build many things in our lives - physically and spiritually. We learn tonight that we are meant to build with humble purpose and always with hope. We build for what the future may hold, not just to hoard what we have now.
Monday, April 4, 2022
The prayer translates as: My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.
The prayer helps to accomplish what it prays for: it sort of trips up your tongue, ties it up for a while in a tongue twister, in order to keep the focus on God and humility, rather than the many other things our tongues say and do.
It has been a week where we have been hypertuned to the power of words and how they do or do not reflect our own humility. There’s the Chris Rock/Will Smith controversy at the Oscars where a joke led to much more. And there’s President Biden’s comment that Putin “cannot remain in power” which was either just an expression of his moral outrage, or a provocation with impact on policy. In both of these controversies, we see that words affect not just the speaker, but those who hear the words as well.
When not tied up properly the tongue can be vicious, petty and impulsive. The Talmud argues that God knew this and designed the human body to remind us of it. To the tongue, God says: “I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (the teeth) and one of flesh (the lips). What more can be done to prevent you from speaking in a deceitful manner?”
But our tongues can’t help themselves, can they? Even when we think our words are innocent, or even when we think what we’re saying is for the greater good, we often find ourselves insulting, demeaning and hurting people around us.
There’s an old Hasidic story about this:
The Baal Shem Tov once instructed several of his disciples to embark on a journey. The BeSHt did not tell them where to go, nor did they ask; they allowed divine providence to direct their wagon where it may, confident that the destination and purpose of their trip would be revealed in due time.
After traveling for several hours, they stopped at a wayside inn to eat and rest. Now, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were pious Jews who insisted on the highest standards of keeping kosher. When they learned that their host planned to serve them meat in their meal, they asked to see the shokhet (ritual slaughterer) of the house and they interrogated him vigorously as to his knowledge and piety. They examined his knife for any possible blemishes. Their discussion of the kashrut standard of the food continued throughout the meal, as they inquired after the source of every ingredient in each dish set before them. As they spoke and ate, a voice emerged from behind the oven, where an old beggar was resting amidst his bundles. "Dear students," she called out, "are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?"
The party of Hassidim concluded their meal in silence, climbed onto their wagon and turned it back toward their hometown. They now understood the purpose for which their Rebbe had dispatched them on their journey that morning. What public shame they had brought to the innkeeper and the shochet! Their arrogance was on full display. Thinking they were asking holy questions, they were really sowing mistrust and humiliating their hosts. A humble nature and a compassionate tongue, the Baal Shem Tov teaches, is the the most holy act of all.
This week’s Torah portion is Tazria. It contains many regulations and rituals for dealing with various skin afflictions, including a serious one called ‘tzara’at.’
The commentators reach below the text to understand why the rules around the affliction take up so much real estate in the Torah’s text. In the text, we learn that one purification ritual includes bringing birds for sacrifice. The great commentator Rashi explains why birds are offered: “Because the plague of tzara'at comes as a punishment for slander, which is done by chattering. Therefore birds are compulsory for the purification, because birds chatter, as it were, continuously with a twittering sound.”
The Baal Shem Tov’s story and Rashi’s comment warn us of the danger of “idle chatter” - of talking just because you can, or speaking over another person, not making enough room for dissent. This is chatter in the way of speaking without thinking about the consequences. And we know that gossip in Jewish tradition is one of the worst things we can engage in.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Leprous marks come and afflict a person for seven sinful matters: For malicious speech, for bloodshed, for an oath taken in vain, for licentiousness, for arrogance, for theft, and for stinginess.
It seems to me that the way we chatter and talk can lead to all of these things. We are mean. We tell lies or spread rumors that can injure a person’s livelihood and relationships. We put ourselves above others or abuse them verbally, humiliating their spirit.
Proverbs says that “a soothing tongue is a tree of life, but its perverseness is a broken spirit” (5:4).
And here, like so many times in our tradition, we get the other side of the coin. Yes, our tongues, our speech, are prone to sin. And yet the opposite is also true - our mouths have the ability to bring healing and life as well. Otherwise, we would not have been created with the ability to speak as we do!
In order to bring that life-giving speech, we must heed the Buddhist wisdom, articulated by the poet Rumi: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
These gates are not too unlike the walls our tradition speaks of. Yet it adds a third layer - what we say doesn’t just go through the teeth or the mouth, but the heart as well.
This week, let us all commit to issuing words that sustain and inspire those around us, fulfilling the prayer we sang tonight:
Elohai n’tzor l’shoni meh-ra, us-fatai midabeir mirmah
My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit
Let my soul be silent to those who curse me,
And let my soul be at peace.
In my quiet, may I feel your presence
And join with the great Unity of your creation
Tongue guarded from hate and judgment
Only tasting the sweet date honey of your Torah and your love.
And when I know it enough
When its sticky syrup has dissolved deep into my soul,
When the golden sweetness illumines my thoughts,
Then let me open my mouth to speak
For the sake of your name
For the sake of your right hand
For the sake of your Torah and for your holiness
So that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
May be acceptable to you, Oh God,
The rock of my life and the redeemer of my days.
Friday, March 18, 2022
2022 is a major milestone year for Jewish women.
Two names must be mentioned: Sally Priesand and Judith Kaplan.
Let’s start with Sally. On June 3, we will celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate. Sally Priesand is the first woman to be ordained publicly as a rabbi by a Jewish seminary. There were learned women before her: Regina Jonas who was ordained privately in Germany, Ray Frank, and Asenath Barzani, as well as others who held positions of moral power. But Sally is the one who broke the glass ceiling for women like me.
Rabbi Jennifer Clayman wrote this moving tribute to Sally:
Because of you, Sally, and those who came after you, I was never told that a woman can’t be a rabbi. Because of you and those who came after you, my rabbi was able to stand up on teh bimah at the Bat Mitzvah and tell me he thought I should be a rabbi…today, I wouldn’t say that I take women rabbis for granted, because I don’t. And I won’t say that we’re accepted everywhere, because we’re not. But we’re not so unusual either. I was the fourth woman rabbi hired by my congregation, and we’ve since been joined by the fifth. The congregation is accustomed to women’s voices from the pulpit, women’s ideas about God, Torah and Israel, and women’s authority in difficult times. We owe you a great deal. Your chesed has changed our lives and changed a world that has missed women rabbis for far too long.
But before this golden anniversary of the first woman rabbi, we will celebrate Judith Kaplan. On March 18, 1922, Judith became the first American girl to have a bat mitzvah ceremony. That is 100 years of women approaching the bimah to take their rightful place as full participants in Jewish life, learning and ritual. 50 years of women leading these communities.
I’m struck by this. On the one hand, 100 years ago feels like a long time ago. There are now generations of women and non-binary folks who have been called to the Torah and are finding inclusion in Jewish life.
But if you think about it, it took 50 years for the first bat mitzvah to transform into acceptance for the first woman rabbi. Change is slow. Only after battering down the door of one barrier can you move forward and prepare yourself to take down the next.
This timeline demonstrates how important it is to take public, courageous steps into the future.
We should never underestimate the power of example - the power of representation and public inclusion. Only after a generation of young women saw themselves standing at the Torah could they then begin to dream of leading the Torah service and their community.
So let’s apply the same logic to today. For 50 years, we have seen the benefit of fully including women in Jewish leadership. Our community has more insights, a wider array of experiences to learn from. We have made incredible strides in areas of parental leave and we’ve called out abuse of power that existed for too long. Women have brought this to the table.
But now is not the time to stop and rest. It is again the time for transformation. And it begins again with visibility.
A prayer of thanks to today’s trailblazers and iconoclasts - the LGBTQ+ leaders of our community. To the Jews of Color. These are folks who have been ignored or simply tolerated. Now they are to be celebrated.
Just dream of what we’ll be celebrating 50 years from now. Too often we Jews believe ourselves to be a dying people. We question if we will fade into the fabric of America and lose our way. But if history has taught us ANYTHING, it’s that we are an evolving people. I can not even begin to predict what today’s youth will bring us. But I know that if they continue to hear from as many voices as possible - if they have the opportunity to see their most authentic selves represented in positions of power - not just on the bimah but in our schools and in the halls of congress - then we will see some incredible transformations of our society. So here’s to the next 50 years. Or, if we work hard enough, it won’t take that long.
Friday, January 28, 2022
I came across this Torah from Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“Basic to human existence is a sense of indebtedness — of indebtedness to society, of indebtedness to God. What is emerging in our age is a strange inversion. Modern people believe that the world is indebted to them; that society is charged with duties toward them. Their standard preoccupation is: What will I get out of life? Suppressed is the question: What will life — what will society — get out of me?”
For those that know Heschel’s writing, this is a common sentiment of his. He offers a lot of perspective when it comes to gratitude and awe, seeing these as a pathway to experiencing God. The experience of the individual is important. Yet he often cautions about centering ourselves in the universe. As he sees it, God places a tremendous amount of trust and responsibility in us and our community. Yes, we have to acknowledge our blessings, but we will find our worth in how much we can give them too.
I agree with Heschel’s sense of inversion. We act as if everything is due to us but we don’t stop to ask what we must give in return. I see so much of this around us today: the current public health crisis, for example. If we had more of a “we” mentality, we’d take action as a society to protect one another. Unfortunately, we keep butting up against some very stubborn American individualism, in which we poo-poo and even distrust the recommendations for how we can keep one another safe. I believe we’ve hit a stage of the pandemic where the guidance is so obscure and has been made so political that we’ve been turned loose into “every person for themselves.”
I want to be clear: I’m not dismissing the need for people to make decisions for themselves. Each human, as an expression of their value and integrity, should be given final jurisdiction over their own body and family. I’m highlighting, though, how Jewish tradition would want us to make choices for ourselves while also understanding how they impact others. It is Hillel who said it best: “Im ein ani mi, mi li? U’keshani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am not for myself who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim. It contains a long list of civil laws, which, while articulated in the language of an ancient agrarian society, are rooted in some clear cut values. There’s the theme of fairness: when people or their property cause injury to other people and/or their property, they should make appropriate restitution and the punishment varies in degree of the crime. The laws understand acting with malicious intent versus accidents. It stresses the need to take proper precautions in order to protect yourself and others. If you neglect to take those precautions, there are consequences.
My favorite example of this in the portion is the goring ox. I know goring oxen are not exactly a big threat to most of us, and I don’t want to minimize how terribly destructive a goring ox could be, but I do have a soft spot for the goring ox. Torah says that if an ox gets out of control and gores a person, the ox is put down but the owner is not punished. If, however, the ox is “in the habit of goring,” and gores a person, then the owner is punished. The owner should have known better and taken the proper precautions to control their ox!
Or there’s the example of a person who digs a pit and neglects to cover it up. If an ox falls into the pit, the pit-owner must repay the ox owner for the loss of the ox, because they should’ve known better to look out for others in this way.
Torah is clear: we have to take the proper precautions - personally and civically - to protect life, property and general well-being of one another.
Enter Repro Shabbat - a national movement to celebrate the critical importance of reproductive health access, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice. It’s this Shabbat.
At first blush, you could argue that the fight for reproductive rights is all about the “me.” We warriors of reproductive rights chant “my body, my choice.” Heck, anti-choice advocates could use my own argument against me tonight: shouldn’t someone be looking out for the unborn?
But to understand the Jewish approach to reproductive rights is to understand the balance between the “me” and the “we.”
Firstly, our tradition points to this week’s Torah portion as a prooftext for why the existing, established life of the mother takes precedence over the potential life of the fetus. Protection is extended first and foremost to the living human.
There is a strong Jewish assertion that every woman not only deserves autonomy over her body, but that as a society we are obligated to take precautions that protect her autonomy and her life. This means access to the wide array of health-related medicines, procedures and general care that protects her mentally and physically: birth control, preventative OBGYN care, and abortion access.
Today in America, we are walking precariously close to the open pit of not just curtailing a woman’s right to choose but acting as a society to knowingly cause harm to the health of 50% of the population. We are goring at the basic human rights of others, which flies in the face of the Torah’s injunction to protect one another.
Which brings us back to Heschel:
“Basic to human existence is a sense of indebtedness — of indebtedness to society, of indebtedness to God.”
We are grateful to God for the gifts of our bodies and minds, each one of which is powerful and capable and full of dignity. We show our gratitude through self-care and making healthy, life-affirming decisions for ourselves. And our tradition calls upon us to show gratitude to God by asserting the right for other living humans to feel safe. This means standing up for members of our society who have historically been ignored or made disadvantaged in our public health system. We have been given the responsibility of looking out for one another - making choices as a society that enable each of us to experience the Godliness within us. The more we can activate eachother’s potential, help one another live life fully, the stronger our society and the stronger we, individually, will be.
Friday, January 21, 2022
The hostage situation this week hit a lot of us hard. While we’re so grateful that none of the hostages died, we’re still understandably shook. One week ago, our hearts beat with the hearts of those who were held for hours. We sat in the pit with our Jewish family, able to do nothing but hold space and connect with them through our people’s Oneness. If ever we understood the phrase “kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh” - all of the Jewish people are responsible and connected to one another - it was in those tense moments of waiting.
This event hit the Reform Jewish community particularly hard. It was impossible not to see ourselves in that situation, to imagine the scenario in our own building with our own congregants and clergy. I don’t know Rabbi Charlie personally, but many of my clergy friends do. We’re peers. Reform clergy are having a particularly raw week.
It’s hard to disconnect this incident from what we are all craving most at this moment: a basic sense of safety. All we want is to just feel secure from disease; to embrace people without fear of the aerosols they may emit. We just want to go to work or out to dinner without having to run an “exposure risk algorithm.” And when we do re-enter the public sphere, we want to attend sports games and concerts without fear that some crazy person will disrupt it with violence. We just want to be carefree for a minute. This is what every American is feeling right now.
So then add on top of that the experience of being LGBTQ+, BIPOC, poor or otherwise marginalized.
Tonight, though, we have to talk about Jewish Americans - our collective trauma, the aggression our people experience in large and small ways every day in America.
We deserve to enter Jewish spaces without feeling like there’s a target on our backs and the backs of our children. We are exhausted by constantly mustering the gall to be “proudly Jewish” everytime a madman threatens a synagogue, or mobs with tiki torches chant “Jews will not replace us” or a member of congress makes reference to Jewish money and influence.
Not only am I feeling vulnerable this week, but I’m also angry. I preach against racism, I preach against bigotry - diseases that weaken and desecrate our society.
But why am I starting to feel like anti-semitism is a chronic disease that our nation has decided it can just live with? Why have we Jews been left to our own devices to fundraise and rearrange temple budgets, taking money away from program and ritual fund just to funnel it into security guards and security cameras?
How can it possibly be that FBI and national leaders could initially look at Colleyville and determine that anti-semitism was not the motive? Just because the perpetrator wasn’t yelling slurs doesn’t mean it is any less present. He’s actually part of a long, twisted tradition - going back to the 8th century, of using Jews as bait and exploiting Jewish familial ties to extract money or other outcomes. From then to today, the anti-semitic assumption is that BECAUSE there is some sort of Jewish power conspiracy, they can take us hostage to get what they want.
Bret Stephens put it perfectly in today’s NYTimes:
In the days since the attack, the F.B.I.’s head-in-sand approach, along with so much of the media’s strange pattern of omission, has been the chief topic of discussion in every Jewish circle to which I belong. How can it be, we ask ourselves, that Jews should be victimized twice? First, by being physically targeted for being Jewish; second, by being begrudged the universal recognition that we were morally targeted, too? And how can it be that in this era of heightened sensitivity to every kind of hatred, bias, stereotype, -ism and -phobia, both conscious and unconscious, there’s so much caviling, caveating and outright denying when it comes to calling out bias aimed at Jews?
We Jews feel alone again. If it is not classic Jew hatred, then we’re weathering the assertions that because Jews have power and privilege that we can’t be victims as well.
I’m not in the business of comparing the oppressions. Each oppression has its own causes and symptoms and challenges. All I am asking for is that we not deny the oppression that exists for Jews in America. Please just see it and decide that it too is not okay.
Dara Horn just received the National Jewish Book Award for her recent publication about anti-semitism: People Love Dead Jews. It is eerily relevant in the wake of Colleyville. But that’s her point, actually. In the book, she tackles the ambivalence to anti-semitism, which is anti-semitism in and of itself.
As she tours Holocaust Museums and exhibits, she questions what effect the Holocaust has on our modern reactions to anti-semitism. She writes:
“The last few generations of American non-Jews had been chagrined by the enormity of the Holocaust - which had been perpetrated by America’s enemy, and which was grotesque enough to make anti-semitism socially unacceptable, even shameful. Now that people who remembered the shock of those events [are] dying off, the public shame associated with expressing anti-semitism [is] dying too…”
But more than expressing regret that the “shock factor” has worn off, Horn is concerned that our current display of Holocaust artifacts and our harping on the enormity of the situation, has the adverse affect to what we want to achieve: “yes, everyone must learn about the Holocaust so as to not repeat it. But this has come to mean that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.”
What happened in Colleyville is not the Holocaust. Fliers linking Jewish people to the COVID pandemic is not the Holocaust. Swastika gratifi on a middle school is not the Holocaust.
But it shouldn’t have to be the Holocaust for Americans to speak out. We shouldn’t rationalize the catcalling or shoving that happens to ultra-orthodox Jews on the streets of New York and Jersey City as justified protest to “gentrification” or qualms with Israel.
It’s wrong to victimize Jews. Period. End of sentence. I await the outrage.
And despite this, I welcome the heartfelt notes I’ve received from local Christian and Muslim groups. I most especially welcome the Jewish pride that this evokes in myself and others.
Because, the most important thing we can assert is that being Jewish is NEVER a burden. A heavy responsibility, sure, but never a burden.
As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “to be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serial threatened by despair. Every ritual, every element of Jewish law is a protest against escapism, resignation of the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known…[all] in the name of a world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”
I pray that in our fear, exhaustion and anger, we can find that voice of protest. The still, small voice within that refuses to despair. That voice that in its more tenuous moments, grabs hold of the ancient song of our people and rides a while on its current until its strength is restored and it can begin to sing along.
Friday, January 7, 2022
My family watched the Harry Potter reunion special earlier this week. If you want to feel old, you’ll consider that the first Harry Potter film came out 20 years ago. As an elder millennial, I had the distinct pleasure of living from book to book, film to film as they started to come out, waiting with baited breath and anticipation for the next chapter in the chronicle.
You better believe that in the early days of internet quizzes, I was always trying to figure out what Hogwarts house I belonged in. (For those who don’t know, that’s which subdivision of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry one belongs to). A magical sorting hat assigns the students to a house based on their personality and instincts. Are you brave, playful and honest like a Gryffindor or bold, ambitious and determined like a Slytherin? Loyal, dependable and compassionate like a Hufflepuff? Or clever, independent and wise like a Ravenclaw?
All signs and online quizzes seem to point to me being a Gryffindor, but I’ve always questioned the distinction. I often wonder how brave and bold I really am. If I were to step into Harry Potter’s world, and a terrifying villain like Voldemort came to power, would I have elected to fight or to flee?
This question eats at me. I so I wonder further - if I had lived in Europe during the rise of the Nazis, would I have joined the underground? Would I have risked my life to save that of my neighbors?
I’ll be honest with you - I have my moments of doubt. I doubt that I could be so selfless. I doubt my resolve and courage. Some people seem to be naturally built that way and I’m just not sure I’m one of them. I ask myself often: would I have been righteous, a tzadik, in my generation?
I’m not sure. But you know who is? Eugene Goodman. He’s righteous in his generation.
Eugene Goodman is the Capitol police offer, a black man, who looked the Jan 6 insurrectionist terrorist mob right in the eyes, risked his own life, and in doing so saved the lives of our government officials and our democracy.
Washington Post Op-Ed writer Eugene Robinson makes a case for why Eugene Goodman should not just be Time’s Person of the Year, but why he deserves the distinction of “tzadik.”
“[On Jan 6] the insurrectionists injured scores of police officers and trashed the hallowed building revered as the citadel of our democracy. Chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” they threatened the sitting vice president’s life. They bashed police officers with poles bearing the American flag. They carried the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol rotunda. They despoiled the building with their urine and feces.
Police trying to defend the Capitol were hopelessly outnumbered as the rioters smashed their way inside. For the first time, the most important act in our democracy — the peaceful transfer of power — hung in the balance.
Goodman, a veteran officer with the U.S. Capitol Police, saw a mob ascending a staircase toward an entrance to the Senate chamber where senators were sheltering; Pence had been hustled out only minutes earlier. Goodman coolly drew the rioters’ attention, inviting them to focus their rage on him, as he led them away from the chamber. I have no doubt that by risking his own life, he potentially saved the lives of those senators hunkered down just yards away.
At another point, Goodman encountered Sen. Mitt Romney, who was unknowingly walking toward the danger zone. Goodman turned Romney around and sent him toward relative safety.”
Eugene Goodman is a hero, who’s instincts bring goodness and virtue into our world. I have no doubt the sorting hat would put Eugene Goodman in Gryffindor - heck, it would probably make him head of school.
I’m no Harry Potter. I’m no Eugene Goodman.
But, wait…hold on a second. Before I get too despondent, I realize I am really inspired by these stories. So inspired that my heart swells and my resolve boosts after hearing them. They speak to values I treasure, choices I’d want to make. You know what, now that I’ve heard their stories, I find I’m more inspired to fight for these values, even if it is not my initial inclination.
And this, it turns out, is the Jewish approach to being a tzadik, a righteous person. Judaism is not so concerned with our natural tendencies. It cares about the choices we make. And how do we inspire righteous choices? We tell righteous stories. We Jews tell bold stories so we will be bolder people.
Cue this week’s Torah portion, parshat Bo. The Torah does a really strange thing in its storytelling. Up to this point, it’s been a detailed narrative of Moses approaching Pharaoh - declaring “Let my people go” and God sending plagues to hammer in the point. The story hits a climax with God declaring the last plague - the death of the firstborn son. But just before we get an account of this most dramatic event, as the Angel of Death is preparing for its gruesome night ride, the Torah hits pause on the story. With the plague declared but not yet carried out, Torah then instructs: every year in the month of Nisan, you will commemorate these events with the Festival of Passover. You’ll eat matzah. When you’re in the Land of Israel, you’ll offer the pascal offering. And when your children ask you, “why are we doing this?” you’ll answer, “because God passed over the homes of the Israelites when smiting the Egyptians, saving us in the process.”
This digression is an example of Torah’s amazing self-awareness. This isn’t a story being told just so we can save it in the history books. This is a story told with a purpose - a story that should inspire our actions for generations to come. Because we know the bravery of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, because we know the way our enslaved ancestors handed themselves over to hope, we can be the heroes and dreamers of our own time.
And so it is with Harry Potter’s story too. In the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter recognizes there are many similarities between him and Voldemort, who is basically evil incarnate. The sorting hat had wanted to put Harry in Slytherin, but it acquiesces to his request and puts Harry in Gryffindor. Harry wonders if this was a mistake, if he broke the system somehow. If he’s actually evil inside.
Dumbldore says, “why do you think the sorting hat put you in Gryffindor?”
Harry replies, “Because I asked it to.”
“Exactly Harry,” Dumbledore replies, “That is exactly what makes you different from Voldemort. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
And just to bring it home: one more story that inspires us to action. It is the story of Le Chambon, the town that saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. The entire town protected their hidden refugees and protected one another even when its leaders came under suspicion. Pastor Andre Trocme and his wife Magda were among the most righteous, inspiring the whole town to put their lives in danger in order to do the honorable thing.
In one of our Woodlands siddurim, we have a quote from philosopher Philip Hallie, where he wonders if he would have acted similarly:
“I, who share Trocme’s and the Chambonnais’ beliefs in the preciousness of human life, may never have the moral strength to be much like the Chambonnais or like Trocme. But I know what I want to have the power to be.
I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from those depths, ‘Naturally. Come in, and come in.’”
In hearing these inspiring stories - from fiction to scripture and from the past to today, we unlock those righteous doors in our hearts and open ourselves to the possibility that we too can be righteous in our generation. Our stories teach us that it is our choices, far more than our abilities, that determine our legacy. Perhaps one day we too can be the story someone tells in order to unlock that potential within themselves.