The following is the sermon I gave at my synagogue on 4/20/18.
Remember the Virginia Slims cigarette ads, when there was such a thing as cigarette ads? “You’ve come a long way baby!” They showed women in old-fashioned garb, and fast-forwarded to present day women, looking oh-so-modern and sophisticated. And smoking.
As a society that has grown from patriarchy to something resembling an egalitarian democracy, it does feel that we have come a long way. Tammy Duckworth is a perfect example.
The junior senator from Illinois, she was the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress from her state, the first disabled woman to be elected to Congress, the first female double-amputee in the Senate, and the first Senator to give birth while in office.
You probably saw photos of her on the Senate floor with her 10-day-old daughter. There was an important vote, and she wanted to be part of it. So she got Paul Ryan to change the rules, which disallowed children younger than one-year-old onto the Senate floor.
A veteran of the Iraq War, she lost both her legs serving as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot and, a dubious distinction to be sure, she was the first female double-amputee from that war.
And then there is the other Tammy in the news this week, Tammy Jo Shults, the Southwest Airlines pilot who calmly and safely landed a Boeing 737 after an engine exploded.
She served as a U.S. Navy pilot, and was among the first female pilots to fly fighter jets. In the early 1990s, her squadron was highlighted for its avant-garde approach to integrating women and men into all responsibilities. Sad too that it took until the 90’s but at least they got there.
And yet. We still live in a world rife with inequities between women and men, blacks and whites, immigrants and those already settled.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, this week we saw a video of male students at Syracuse University, solemnly swearing in their frat house to hate blacks, Jews, immigrants, and anyone else who doesn’t look like them.
Excluding the Other is nothing new. Our Torah talks about this often, reminding us that we were strangers in a strange land, slaves in Egypt. And because we remember this, we are taught that we must be supportive of the strangers amongst us. Not just kind, because kindness is not always helpful; it’s too easy to be nice and then turn away. We are enjoined to help them when they need help, welcome them when they are alone.
This week’s Torah portion (feared by bar and bat mitzvah students because of the ickiness factor; see Leviticus chapter 13) deals extensively with people who are Other, and with issues of purity and impurity. The Levitical priests are tasked with identifying skin issues, mistakenly called leprosy, and when a person is deemed impure, he or she is sent outside the camp. Later, the priest goes to visit the person to see if they’ve recovered, and to escort them back into the camp when they have.
I want to digress for a moment from the issue of purity and impurity, and talk about language in general. If you have never studied a second language, you might not know how much languages differ from each other. They are constructed differently, with grammatical rules, sentence structures, and exceptions to the rules, that vary widely from language to language.
Idioms can be especially hard for non-native speakers; if American English isn’t your native tongue, how can you possibly understand that “hitting the books” means studying??
Some languages are gendered and others not. And that’s just the beginning. There are shades of meaning in every language, and it can be hard to properly convey just what the original speaker or writer meant when shifting from one language to another.
This is especially true when it comes to Hebrew, which is notoriously parsimonious with words and therefore has many words with multiple meanings.
So – back to the words pure and impure. While we may see them as opposites, one positive, the other negative, the Torah doesn’t. Maurice Harris author of Leviticus: You Have No Idea writes, “There’s an understanding in Leviticus that a certain amount of impurity is simply a natural part of the human experience, and that no one has done anything morally wrong to bring that state about.”
When the ancient priests checked to see if an afflicted person was ready to return to the camp, they were performing much more than a doctor’s check-up. They were ensuring that people, who had been excluded due to a temporary illness, weren’t banished entirely. The priests’ job was to enable them to return to the community with their dignity intact.
This, I believe, is a key element to addressing our modern dilemma with the Other. It is recognizing that all people have an inalienable right to be treated with dignity, humanely.
That the differences between women and men are in fact minor. That the differences between white and black are quite literally only skin deep. That the differences between segments of our society are not insurmountable. That rituals in which young men swear to each other that they will refuse to ever accept the humanity of others are unacceptable.
We have come such a long way. And we have a such a long, long way to go.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote this week that he’s been doing his Thought for the Day BBC broadcast for thirty years, “but I never thought that in 2018, I would still have to speak about antisemitism.”
He noted that at the end of Moses’ life he enjoined the Children of Israel to not hate the Egyptians, even though they had every right to hate a people who had oppressed and enslaved them.
But, Rabbi Sacks wrote:
“If the people continued to hate, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They would still be slaves, not physically but mentally.
“Moses knew that to be free you have to let go of hate. Wherever there is hate, freedom dies. Which is why each of us… has to take a stand against the corrosive power of hate.”
We can begin by understanding that there are incremental steps to take to repair our society’s ills, to repair the world. Perfect cannot be the enemy of the good – if we wait for perfect solutions, we let imperfect ideas and behaviors continue for too long.
The two Tammys proved this week that parochial views of women should be things of the past. The two black men who were wrongly arrested at a Starbucks proved that it is possible to take a terrible situation and turn it into an opportunity for discourse. And the teenagers who were traumatized at their high school on Valentines Day are proving that youth does not preclude maturity.
Or, as Rogers and Hammerstein put it in their musical version of the Cinderella story: “Impossible things are happening every day.”