Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, January 7, 2022

Would I Have Been Righteous in My Generation?

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.

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