Early last year, one of America’s greatest writers, one of my favorite authors, Harper Lee, died. She wrote To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960, and it was her only novel, until the sequel, Go Set A Watchman, was released just a few months before her death.
I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird countless times, each time happily traveling back to the 1930s, to the small Alabama town of Maycomb. If I close my eyes, it’s as if I am walking down the street in Maycomb, the homes and the residents familiar and comforting. And I can hear Atticus Finch, the hero of the story, sitting on the porch with his children, Jem and Scout, speaking to them in his quiet and unassuming manner, always so gentle, always so innately good, saying such things I could only wish I was wise enough to say, things like, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Atticus Finch has always embodied an almost biblical aura to me: a graceful man, teaching me through his words and actions how to be even-handed, moral and righteous. Certainly these are the exact traits we expect in our biblical heroes. Indeed, although it has been years since I have read the Bible from cover to cover, but I am still sure that men like Abraham and Issac, Jacob and Joseph are no different than Atticus Finch, that they too are defined by an innate goodness, and a unrelenting need for justice.
Rabbi Sagal, unfortunately, ruined this whole theory for me. I joined the Tuesday morning Bible Class this past October, believing over the course of an hour or so, we’d read that week’s Torah portion together, then Rabbi Sagal would translate the stories into modern day jargon I could actually understand, then finally send us on our way with a condensed lesson that would guide us until we met again.
I don’t know what I was thinking, because this was Rabbi Sagal, after all. He wasn’t giving us the answers – he pushed us to think – to understand that the words and stories of the bible that I have always taken so literally, in fact had many different meanings and that leaders of our people who I always assumed were just like Atticus Finch and completely unblemished – it was far more complicated than I ever imagined. I know that I was supposed to read the stories and learn from these men and women – reflect upon their choices and their actions and understand that in these choices and actions we can learn how to be a better person, how to identify the traits we admire and wish to emulate. Yet, I felt somewhat blindsided - we started at the very beginning, and we read about Abraham blindly offering up his son Issac for sacrifice, unwilling to stand up to God to save his child’s life; Jacob in cahoots with Rebecca, willfully duping his father in order to steal the birth right from his brother Esau; Joseph, upon seeing his brothers for the first time in years, gloating just a bit too much about his wealth and power. Even in the poignant passage between Jacob and Joseph, when they are reunited for the first time in years, I am left with a lingering sadness that even in what should be a joyous occasion, these are two men who are incapable of showing each other their true feelings.
I couldn’t find a single Atticus Finch in the lot – and I began to wonder if perhaps I had been wrong – this gentle, good man was, in fact, not an example of a biblical hero -- he was too good, and no one, even the heroes of the Bible could ever achieve anything close to this.
I wonder if such goodness is unattainable. I’ve a feeling many of us have been thinking about this lately. 2016 wasn’t exactly a stellar year of kindness and grace. I sincerely don’t mean to make any sort of political statement - even though it’d be easy, especially today with the inauguration of Donald Trump as our new president, but there does seem to be a lack of Atticus Finches in this world – too many people who seem unwilling to stand up against hatred, who are far more concerned about personal fame or wealth or power. And when I read the Torah portions each week at class, I couldn’t help but feel a deflated sense that nothing has ever really changed.
But then along comes Moses and this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. I read it, peeling back the layers like Rabbi Sagal would want me to, looking – expecting - that within this beautiful story of the birth of Moses, we’d soon be reminded that the literal words hid something deeper, something far less genuine.
Except it’s not there.
“Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live,” and still Moses’ mother selflessly protected her son by hiding him for 3 months.
And when she could no longer safely hide him and wrapped him in a wicker basket and placed him in the river, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who finds him. “ When she opened the basket she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child”, and yet she saves Moses, despite her father’s orders, despite the fact he is a Hebrew.
And it is Moses himself, years later, after witnessing “an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian,” ignoring his own safety, standing up against hatred.
Nowhere in this portion does anyone question if it is worth it. Nowhere does it say anyone wondered what they would receive in return for their actions. Nowhere does it say they feared repercussions.
These men and women, from different faiths, different backgrounds, different cultures, cared only about doing what was right. It was less a choice than a simple understanding that this was what had to be done, just as Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, ignored the majority and listened to his conscience, defending a black man in a racist, segregated world, because it was right.
What is right, of course, is not always easy, as I learned a few months after Harper Lee died, when my best friend Alissa Berger, offhandedly mentioned to me that she was going to be starting an outreach program for Syrian Refugees, and would I like to get involved. I knew from the start there was no saying no to Alissa, because there never is, but although I said yes, I admit it wasn’t an easy decision. I am Jewish. They are Muslim. I won’t lie, I was afraid. Part of me bought the hype – I feared terrorists were slipping into our country disguised as refugees, so called “Trojan Horses”. I understood the devastation of the Syrian Civil War, but was willing to turn a blind eye, willing to ignore the faces of the children lying motionless on a beach in Greece, the picture of a young boy, bloody and stunned in the back of an ambulance, because somehow I believed if I didn't, my child would soon be the victim of a terror attack. Besides, did it really matter? Couldn’t someone else help? What did it really have to do with me?
And then, Alissa and I were invited to visit a mosque in Elizabeth. Here was a group of men, women and children celebrating the end of Ramadan. One table was covered with traditional celebratory presents for the children; another was piled with sweet cookies, cakes and fruits desserts. We were greeted with smiles, hugs, and kisses.
Our temple adopted a refugee family, and Alissa and I met them that day. We sat across from them and listened as they told us stories about their exodus from Syria. We learned they were from a southern Syrian city, the epicenter of the four and a half year old Civil War. They recounted how they would race down to the basement to escape the daily barrage of bombs. Almost a half million people have already been killed, we were told – and, suddenly, those pictures of stunned and scared children were no longer just photos on my Facebook feed, but children right here. Over the past year, they have become our family: Wael, 10 years old with a dark face and an infectious smile, his unruly hair looping into deep brown eyes. He is a young boy who calls us for help on his homework because he is desperate to learn. A young boy who can add and subtract like his 4th grade peers, but is frustrated he can only read at a 1st grade level. A young boy who jumps at loud noises, and is punched in his face by a classmate.
And his sisters, Hala and Haya, always smiling, always laughing, constantly reaching over for a hug.
And Kholood, the mom, who refuses to let us leave her house without something to eat and sends us almost daily pictures via text messages of roses and sunlite beaches, thanking us. And Hassan, a proud husband and father, who works seasonal jobs, begs us to help him find a better apartment for his family, who has just started ESL and has never seemed more hopeful.
This is our family – and the best part of helping this family? The dozens and dozens and dozen of community members of all faiths stepping up to help as well. Teachers – who after a long day of working with their own students – driving to Elizabeth and spending another hour or two to help the kids complete their homework. A Jewish family inviting a Muslim family on an outing to a farm, and welcoming them into their home for a meal. The constant offer of donations of clothing and furniture – so much they are piled high in our attics and basements and garages waiting to be distributed
These men and women – all the men and women we honor tonight who spend their free time doing volunteering with the social action committee and delivering challahs and visiting the sick and homebound and helping the Syrians refugees and joining the new chavarah group – they embody the inner strength and compassion that I wondered truly existed any longer. They don’t care about public gratitude. They don’t mind when their dinner is interrupted by a Facetime call for homework help. They stand up against growing public fear and anger. They truly serve as reminder that the story of Moses’ birth and his subsequent journey can still be a model for how we must live, and a reminder that indeed there are many people like Moses and like Atticus Finch who still believe “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Indeed, as Jews, we have long learned in our own constant struggle for survival that we cannot turn a blind eye to those in need. As leaders of social action and justice, we must ignore the majority rule, even when it is loud and over powering, and we must stand up for what is right in the face of fear and hatred.
And we must continue to work for change, and make a difference. We must always listen to our conscience.