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Something to Aspire to: The City Upon a Hill

Rabbi Jodie Gordon

Va’eira Shabbat

January 27, 2017

Standing in front of city hall this week, Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh,  flanked by black, Latino, and Asian staff members and elected officials at the City Hall event responded to the events of the week in no uncertain terms:

“Washington is advancing the most destructive and un-American threat on America during the campaign,’’ Walsh said. “The latest executive orders and statements by the president are a direct attack on Boston’s people, Boston’s strength and Boston’s values.”

Boston’s people, Boston’s strength, and Boston’s value.

I like to think he was subtly and bravely invoking a history of values-driven governance here in our commonwealth of Massachusetts— perhaps, even hearkening back to the infamous words of a former Massachusetts governor, John Winthrop.

In 1630, Winthrop boarded the Arbella bound from England to Boston with a new and visionary charter. He and his fellow passengers  were to be an example for the rest of the world in rightful living. Winthrop stated their purpose quite clearly: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

This idea of the “city upon the hill” firmly positioned Boston, our state’s capital, as the seat of moral guidance for a burgeoning nation.  This city on the hill was to aspire to the highest ideals of “rightful living”— providing freedom, safety and sanctuary for all. This was 1630, more than 100 years before the Revolutionary War which would claim independence for those newly formed colonies. From the time when the city of Boston was just a point on a map to those who yearned for religious freedom, this country was to be as a “city upon the hill”, a symbol of moral aspiration for generations to come.

The phrase has echoed down the line of American history, lifted up from it’s context and used by politicians across the spectrum. In 1961 President-Elect John F. Kennedy returned the phrase to prominence during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:[2]

… I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required …[3]

Later, the image of the “city upon a hill” became a hallmark of Reagan’s presidency, and for better or worse, representative of a vision of American exceptionalism. President Barack Obama made use of the historical metaphor in a moving commencement address at UMass Boston, when he was still a senator in 2002.  He spoke of this great American experiment: of democracy and freedom, of which we are all the inheritors.

“More than half of you represent the very first member of your family to ever attend college. In the most diverse university in all of New England, I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill—that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of places.”

With those four simple words “city upon a hill”, John WInthrop set forth a vision for life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the city of Boston that was poised to aim higher. It is not solely in the annals of American history that we find this aspirational metaphor.  As a puritan, John Winthrop likely took his inspiration from Jesus, who describes Jerusalem as a “city upon a hill” in the his Sermon on the Mount.  

Biblical scholars agree that he was likely evoking imagery that his Jewish audience would hear in a particular way, drawing on a rich history of metaphor about the city of Jerusalem (aka Zion; aka God’s holy hill). Perhaps best known is the parallel metaphor of Jerusalem as an “Or l’goyim”, as described in the Book of Isaiah, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

What stands out to me here is the issue of gaze: who is looking where, and to whom for moral leadership? The pilgrims coming to settle this new land brought with them the lived experience of religious persecution. In Britain and throughout Europe, they had seen what a future of enforced uniformity looked like, and sought refuge in a new land. They brought with them a conviction that once free themselves, they would uphold those same rights for all inhabitants, and thereby be an example to be looked to: a city upon a hill.

As students of history, we know that the Jewish people have struggled against slavery and persecution as well. Core to our common experience is the belief that having known what it is like to be enslaved— we don’t have to look any further than this week’s Torah portion. Out of that experience, we know what it is like to seek freedom, and our tradition obligates us to ensure freedom and refuge for others.  Jerusalem, both the living breathing city and the Jerusalem of our liturgical and metaphorical imagination, is meant to be a point of ascent: a place to which we lift our eyes and are reminded of what it looks like to pursue justice for one and all. To be a light to the nations.

In these days of uncertainty, many of you have expressed concerns for our future— and asked where we might find hope. To what can we aspire? These are days unlike any others I have lived through. The collective conversation around who we are as a nation has sunk to unimaginably low depths.

So, here’s where I’m finding my point of hope this Shabbat.

As residents of Massachusetts (or, Ohavei Massachusetts, for those of you living over the NY State border, but who find yourselves here tonight)– we inherit a powerful legacy of activism and aspiration.

A few weeks ago, a new coalition, of which Hevreh is a part, called The Four Freedoms Coalition, held a rally in Pittsfield. Evoking President FDR’s Four Freedoms (freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear), thousands of our neighbors, including many of you, came out to find fellowship and energy for the days ahead. Our senator, Ed Markey, directed us to look to our local history, urging Massachusetts residents to remain true to their revolutionary roots by fighting for the values they believe in.

“The revolution began here, in Lexington, in the Berkshires — the American revolution. The abolitionist movement started here in the Berkshires in Massachusetts … the movement against the war in Vietnam started here. That is who we are, that is why we matter,” he said. “We are not just any state, we are the state that begins these revolutions.”

Standing firmly rooted in each of the traditions we inhabit as American Jews, I believe we have a wealth of inspiration to draw upon.

On this Shabbat, I invite us all to shift our gaze eastward: first to the city of Boston here in our own home state, and then further, to the city of Jerusalem.

We know that to be a city upon a hill means to proclaim, as Mayor Walsh did, our commitment to our community, our strength, and our values.

We know that to be a light to the nations means to remember that we too have known what it is like to be a refugee. It means that we are to answer the prophetic call to uphold the rights of the stranger, tending to the orphan and the widow. These words are no longer hypothetical.

Like many of you, I am feeling the “fierce urgency of now”. I hope you’ll consider finding concrete ways to live out these values. Tomorrow afternoon, with just enough time to be here first for Shabbat worship and study, the Four Freedoms Coalition is holding an event at Park Square in Pittsfield. The event, entitled “Stand out for Immigrants” is a peaceful gathering, meant to raise consciousness around the crucial issues facing those most in need of refuge and safety, in this new administration.

I want to encourage you to consider finding out more about the important work that the Four Freedoms Coalition is doing, as they bring together more then 150 Berkshire based organizations, to work from a place of love and strength in the face of rising xenophobia and hatred.

Boston may be the city upon a hill, but here in the Berkshires, I believe we have an opportunity to stand firmly rooted on the mountaintops, living out our mandate to be a light unto the nations.

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