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Monday, January 16, 2017
From Out of the Pit - Martin Luther King Day 2017 (Parshat Vayechi)
A few years ago, I was at a performance of “Al Jolson at the Winter Garden” by the noted Israeli and Yiddish theater star, Mike Burstyn. At the very end of the musical, there is a scene of Al Jolson climbing magical stairs on his way to heaven as a voice sounds, in the background, “ A Jewish boy made good.”
Certainly Joseph is the paramount Jewish boy made good, as we read in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, the grand finale of the book of Genesis. Joseph is in his position of power, the brothers are united; we have the death bed farewell of Jacob and ,finally, of Joseph.
Joseph serves as a paradigm for future generations—the Jew who has come as a stranger to a strange land, has gone through trials and tribulations, and, in the end, rises to high position.
A common Rabbinic phrase is Maaseh avot-siman lebanim. The adventures of the patriarchs serve as a prototype for the future generations.
It’s a very strong theme, certainly. Joseph is one example: From the pit into which his brothers threw him, then up, then down again to the pit, then up once again.
A recurring themes of the Bible is that of the individual, in the pit, facing despair, who finds himself or herself lifted up out of the dung-hill.
This is our reading of the Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah, first day. Hannah, who has been childless, now has a son, Samuel, and she sings:
She who was barren has borne seven children,
but she who has had many sons pines away.
6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive;
he brings down to the grave and raises up.
7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
8 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.”( I Samuel 2)
It is repeated almost word for word in the Psalm which is part of our Hallel:
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
8 he seats them with princes,
with the princes of his people.
9 He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the LORD. ( Ps 113)
The motif appears in another verse of the Hallel:
From out of the straights, I called upon God ; he answered and set me in a broad and open space. (Ps 118)
It is rephrased again, in Ps 130:
From out of the depths I called unto you.” The Hebrew , Min hamaamakim karaticha, is translated in Latin as De Profundis. That became the title of a letter written by the English writer, Oscar Wilde, when he was imprisoned by his enemies because of his sexual orientation. It has meaning for me as my father used to point out many times that Wilde relied on this theme as his call for help. Years later, I came to realize that my father had been in the depths himself, in Nazi prison twice, once in Berlin and again in Brno, and then a third time as a refugee in Soviet exile.
Archaeologists looking at synagogues of 2000 years ago noted that at the center of some of the synagogues, built like a small colosseum, was a low spot . A phrase in Rabbinic sources makes sense, because the leader of the service would go down, yored lifnei hateivah, go down in front of the ark, not oleh “go up” to a bimah, or raised platform ( as in aliyah latorah, going up to the Torah). The explanation of this practice is based on our verse of Psalms, "From out of the depths". The representative, the shaliach tzibur, would embody this sense of being at the bottom of things, and look for help from God in getting up and out.
But it is not just a Jewish theme; it is a universal theme, and certainly very much an America theme. Just the one who is at the very bottom may rise up to be at the top.It is our Horatio Alger ethos. There is that image of a boy born in a log cabin who grows up to become a President Jackson or Lincoln. More recently, we have had an orphan raised by an abusive alcoholic father (Clinton) and a mixed race child abandoned by his father (Obama) who became Presidents.
As we used to say," Only in America."
But if we are young college students, as we are taught today and as we were taught in my day, in the social sciences, there is no real move up. It is an illusion. It is an oddity as much as winning the California billion dollar lottery. Just check any text book on social science, social psychology, sociology. Gone is our glimmer of hope. We are doomed to our position in life; we are trapped in some mysterious twilight zone of "intersectionality", victims of some oppressive other.
There are two possible approaches to the modern intellectual ethos.
One is to get used to it. After all, it was the way the world was run for many centuries . There was the old aristocratic system-peasants- petit bourgeoisie, clergy, nobility. That was the way things were in America's pre-Civil Rights south- plantation gentry, local merchants, white “crackers” or “rednecks” and the feudal serfs , the African-Americans,(Indeed, that part of America remained mired in its past for a good century after the Civil War.)
Where you are born is where you are stuck.
One of my mother’s favorite books was Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley in the 1930’s. In this future world, we are all born by genetic design and raised by behavioral conditioning. All years are dated AF- After Ford. We are pre-engineered as alpha’s , beta’s, and so one and we are kept in our place by drugs, a literal opiate of the masses. Of course, my mother lived through that future world in the past, in 2nd World War Europe, under the Nazis, who shed countless buckets of blood of Jews and of other conquered peoples in order to guarantee the position of the alpha race.
The other approach, since the game is fixed at birth, and all property is theft (as early anarchists claimed) is to seize it all by force. All is equal, until some amass power again over others, and all are equal except that some are more equal than others and countless buckets of blood are spilled. My mother lived under that, under the Soviets, as well.
Can we live, as human beings without that hope that we can move up out of the pit. Are we doomed to stay, either mired at the bottom or aloft on the top. Do we burst out in infantile rage at our powerlessness?
This is not the answer of the Bible, which has been at the core of liberal thought of the past three centuries, especially in the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant lands, wherein the Jewish sense of the Bible took root. We Jews may poke fun at what we call WASP's, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but we cannot deny their “Judaizing heresy” (as the Inquisition deemed it). We have the freedom to move up and government dares not seek to crush our freedom and dignity. The Bible is dynamically opposed to both Fascism and Marxism, wherein we are doomed by our race and blood lines or our class.
Monday is Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
I recall our guest speaker last year, Rev Mansfield Collins, who had worked hand in hand with the Rev. King. There is no question but that the imagery of the slave coming up out of the pits, especially in the story of the Exodus, was a dynamic source for his energetic preaching .Joseph’s dreams, too, have been frequently referred to in King commemorations in connection with Dr King’s dream. Certainly at the core of his preaching was the possibility of the “White” to redeem himself from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
With this thought, I hope that you have had the chance to see the movie” Hidden Figures”. You know I don’t often speak about movies, but I have to speak about this one.
Three woman work as mathematicians for NASA.
This is at a time when women, especially in the south, in the 50’s and 60’s, were supposed to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.
Three African-American women, in a time of inferior segregated schools, wash rooms and work rooms for “coloreds”. These three, and their fellow workers, break out of the mold. They take hold of the reigns of fate, they prove their worth, and they make possible America’s entry into manned--and womanned—space.
It is a magnificent story. It is a must viewing for every youngster and young adult, whether it is the underprivileged black and Hispanic, or the underprivileged white of Appalachia. It is must viewing for the youngster, of middle or upper incomes, who feels, as youngsters feel, that the deck is stacked against him or her.
It is Joseph out of the pit, in a modern, feminine version.
The film struck home to me even more so, as I served as Rabbi in that same community of Hampton and Newport News, Virginia, just 15 years later.( The Rabbi’s house in Hampton, the synagogue over the line in Newport News.) I never met these three women, but we car pooled our daughter with the daughter of a NASA scientist, an African American who worked on the heat shields for space craft re-entry. Our daughter, you see, was going to the best nursery school in that same benighted town, operated by Hampton Institute ( alma mater of Booker T Washington). It was an all-black college, and it did not accept white children to its nursery, with the exception of mine and of the synagogue president. I discovered that there was an African-American middle and upper class that had made it despite the old south racist regime.
That thought brought me back to yet another film, and with it, another memory, that is the movie “Fences”. Here is a story of an African-American family managing its way in a poor neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s, in Pittsburg, struggling to hold together, to hold on to dignity. I could only describe the characters and acting as Shakespearean in their drama and forcefulness.
I was struck by the realization that this slum differed greatly from our modern slum in one thing—there was neither fear of gangs shooting children on their front porches nor the sound of police sirens. This was a financially poorer world than ours, but one in which the inhabitants refused to give in to their misfortunes but instead raised themselves above it.
While media has us focused on the troubles of those stuck in the ghettoes, we fail to see those many who were able to rise up, above the ghetto or the plantation.
During those years, I lived only an hour away, in a small town, where my father was the Rabbi. I was the only Jewish child in the class, and there was only one black child in the class—and we were the two of us, the top students. We had, in those years, exceptionally understanding teachers, who made us both know that we belonged, Jew or black, in an overwhelmingly Christian and white town.
I get back to my theme from Joseph.
What holds us up? What keeps us from falling apart at the cracks? We don’t have to fear the knock of police at night, taking us to the concentration camps, nor Siberia. But we all have burdens that weigh on us—financial, social, emotional-- real burdens and imagined burdens.
What keeps us afloat, what keeps us holding our heads high, if not our faith?. Just as Joseph comes up from the pit, just as the woeful singer of the Psalms is pulled out of the depths, just so we have our faith, that with our efforts, and with our character, we too, shall come up out of whatever put we are in.
It is not a reliance on miracles. We are told by our sages, Ain Somchin al Hanes, don’t count on miracles. Joseph may have been pulled out of the pit, but he made his way up by his efforts at excellence. The Israelites may have been slaves, but we are told by our sages that the exodus could begin only at the moment we struck the blood of the lamb, the symbol of Egypt, on our doorposts and the Israelites could cross the Red Sea only when the first brave soul jumped into the waves.
Live righteously, take action, and hope for redemption. Any Christian preacher could echo these words with me.
It was that faith that sustained my father and my mother through horrendous persecution. Otherwise, I would not be here today.
We need one things, one thing only, and that is the courage, driven by our faith in God, to take the step that gets us out of the pit and on to the high places.