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Deep-sea diving for hope

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell: about who we are, and how we became the way that we are. Like many of you, I spent the week glued to coverage of the Inauguration, fascinated once again by the majesty and meaning behind the pomp and circumstance. This week, I was acutely aware, once more- of how much we inherit. The stories and the pictures, but perhaps also the bravery, the courage and sturdiness to “walk out of the pain which is known, into the pain which is unknown”, to quote Marge Piercy. The past four years have been marked by a cruelty and disregard for human dignity, the likes of which many of us could not have imagined seeing in our own life. And then—as a country, we stopped, and listened, as a new story was told.

What was Inauguration Day if not a ritual of transformation?

As someone who loves ritual--- I couldn’t help but notice all of the elements of this elaborate national ritual of transformation. Rituals rely on repetition: on creating a structure to hold the space between then, and what’s next. So much of what we witnessed this week was about reenacting the story of who we say we want to be as a people. And I couldn’t help but notice, just how Jewish that felt to me.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, speaks to this moment beautifully. In these early chapters of the book of Exodus, we, as a people, are living in a suspended state of “not yet”: we are still enslaved. We are still fearful. We don’t know God in a meaningful way, and we sure don’t take much stock in what Moses has to say quite yet. This week, our story continues to unfold with the last of the plagues, as God and Moses work in nascent partnership to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. It’s curious then, that in this moment--- when we are not yet free, and we are not yet convinced, that God gives the Israelites detailed instructions for how they will celebrate Passover.

The Eternal speaks to Moses, telling him to tell the people that each year, on the tenth of the month of Nisan they will observe this festival--- and that:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֞ם אֶת־הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶ֖ם חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָֽם׃…

This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. (Exodus 12:14)

Here, we are given this festival of freedom, in perpetuity, long before we are actually free.

We haven’t gotten where we’re going- in fact, we haven’t even left yet—and we’re already told, “this is a story you’re going to want to remember”.

Putting ourselves in the Israelites sandals, it is hard to imagine --- *this* is the story we’ll want to remember? Right now all I see is enslavement and narrowness and suffering, and you want me to believe there’s a story here that I’ll tell future generations?

I am thinking about those Ancient Israelites tonight—who couldn’t’ quite see the future, didn’t yet have proof that redemption was possible, and still- were told: this is a story you’re going to remember. This a story you are going to tell your children, and your children’s children.

I think we are not so dissimilar from those Israelites right now: not yet there, and yet, reminded that there will be a story of redemption to tell.

Of all of the words, ideas, images and stories that have emerged this week, there is one in particular that drew me in.

Minutes after he was sworn in as a senator, Senator Jon Ossoff posted an image of 2 ship manifestos from Ellis Island with the caption: “Today, as I was sworn in, I held in my jacket pocket copies of the ships’ manifests recorded at Ellis Island when my Great Grandfather Israel arrived in 1911 and my Great Grandmother Annie arrived in 1913. A century later, their great grandson was elected to the U.S. Senate.”

To be sure: I, along with many of you, found this extraordinarily moving---dayenu that Senator Ossoff so proudly identifies as a Jew, but that he would identify himself in that moment as the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants? Dayenu that he would use his public platform to remember the story of Israel and Annie, but that he also chose to be sworn in on the bible that once belonged to Rabbi Jacob Rothchild, rabbi of the Temple in Atlanta, which in 1958 was bombed by white supremacists in response to Rothchild’s civil rights work.

It was a beautiful and affirming moment of representation and hope. But as we begin to move forward into this new chapter, I think there is something deeper than that.

Perhaps, like the Israelites, it is now our job to begin to believe that redemption is possible--- even as we are not yet across the Red Sea.

With each story, with each act that affirms human dignity, and the broad array of human expression and experience, we begin to stitch together the torn fabric of our people.

Perhaps, as the transcendent Amanda Gorman reminded us on Wednesday, "...being American is more than a pride we inherit, it's the past we step into and how we repair it"

We are living through extraordinary time, of that there is no doubt.

But when we step into our own past, and look to the future with our feet planted there: what stories of liberation, bravery, freedom, and justice will we be able to tell one day?

I want to suggest tonight that there is something undeniably “religious” about this moment--- and I for one am compelled to lean into that with the weight of our beautiful, forward-looking tradition behind me.

We are not so different from our bedraggled ancestors: I know that the kind of change that we want to see in the world feels damn near impossible, and one day of decency and dignity does not change that. I also know that the comforting promises of this new administration could well lull us into a complacency that brought us to the brink of the downfall of democracy to begin with.

As I watched the ritual of inauguration play out this week, I found myself taken by the beauty of what faith in action could look like. I found comfort, hope, and solace, in the profound service of national mourning that for the first time, allowed us as a nation to grieve the more than 400,000 lost to covid-19. As a religious person, I found hope in seeing the new leaders of our country swear oaths to us and to the democratic ideals of our Constitution, and to speak in their own language of faith.

A final story: this one part apocryphal, part urban legend, and of course—based on truth. The story goes that beneath the surface of the water in New York harbor, is a pile of tefillin. As the ships, like the ones that carried Jon Ossoff’s great grandparents to Ellis Island, came into the harbor, the Jews would clambor onto the deck, and in one final act of prepapration for their new lives in America-- they would throw their tefillin overboard.

The Bintel Brief, a famous column in the Jewish Daily Forward references this story, describing those Jews who, leaving The Old Country, declared: "goodbye, God-- I'm going to America."

This story feeds into the narrative that American Jews have wrestled with for years: much like the stories of changing our names at the gateway into this Goldeneh Medinah, the narrative tells us that our faith is ancillary to being American.

Dara Horn writes about this famous pile of tefillin in the bottom of NY Harbor in an essay called “The Myth of Ellis Island and Other Tales of Origin”

According to the story, a Jewish immigrant to the United States arrives in New York Harbor. While the ship is docking, he goes up to the deck to see the Statue of Liberty, and notices his fellow Jewish immigrants throwing things overboard. When he approaches the deck’s edge, he sees that the cast-off items are their tefillin—something from their life in the Old World, for which they will no longer have any use. Years later, the immigrant who witnessed this tells his grandchildren, “I would like you to become deep-sea divers: Go down to the bottom of New York Harbor and bring those tefillin back up to dry land.”
Like Amanda Gorman who reminded us on Wednesday that she is her ancestors’ wildest dreams come true--- perhaps that is our call now: to become a people who our ”immigrant ancestors could never have imagined, to be those “deep-sea divers, bringing the remnants of Jewish life back from the depths of the sea” and using what we find there to fuel our pursuit of life, liberty, and justice for all.

I like to think that we will be the generation of American Jews who reclaims a different story about who we are. That with each day that we continue the work of repairing our world, fueled by the poetry of our tradition, which also reminds us that though “weeping may tarry in the night, joy does come in the morning”.

On this Shabbat, may we all call upon those ancestors, who in their wildest dreams, could not yet imagine their own freedom, much less the story they would tell about it. Like them, we haven’t gotten where we’re going- in fact, we haven’t even left yet; but may this new era in our history be a story worthy of passing down.

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