20 Cheshvan 5778 B’SD

I remember my mother telling me that I could be whatever my heart desired, and that I would be the only impediment to achieving my dreams. I wish I could ask my mom if she still believes what she told me because living through these current polarizing times puts a damper on my mom’s rosy projection for my future.

What exactly did she mean? I don’t imagine she was motivated solely by finances. Nor do I think she really cared what profession I ultimately chose. She wasn’t the typical Jewish mother that craved for her son to be doctor or lawyer. A rabbi, maybe. I knew she wanted something more intrinsically valuable to me than merely material success. I imagine her thought process to be akin to a quote from Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated man to entertain a thought without accepting it.” She wanted me to know that freedom is not limited to your standing in society, but rather it is opening your mind to experience your own unique thought process. She wanted me to know that to have doubts, questions, and difficulties are all part of achieving what your heart truly desires. She wanted me to open my mind and to broadly assess my understanding of God’s creations.

Can I live as a 20th century Orthodox Jew and question the veracity of the biblical story of Isaac’s binding on the altar? Maimonides did. Would he be considered less Orthodox than I? Can I be an Orthodox Jew and question the story of Jonah actually being swallowed by the whale? The Gaon of Vilna (Elijah of Vilna) did. Would he be considered less Orthodox than I? Can I question the piety and sagaciousness of our matriarch Sarah without being deemed as a heretic? The great scholar Nachmanides did. Is he any less Orthodox than I? Can I question whether Ezekiel’s prophecy over the dry bones and his description of the bones coming alive as only metaphorical and still be Orthodox? The scholars in the Talmud did. And certainly, it would be heretical to consider them heretical. Can I really choose to follow my heart’s desires and not be labeled by some as a heretic, leftist, or radical?

Polarization is not limited to religion – it has evolved into sowing the seeds of malignant discontent in our society. Everything seems to be mired with a hidden agenda, furthering the current political and cultural divide. Bipartisanship and mutual respect, which would help foster a harmonious society, seems to be a lost art of a bygone era. Although we may think of the divide between Republican and Democrats in terms of politics, the truth is that right versus left has completely overtaken any rational debate. Even the incomprehensible tragic shootings in a church in Sutherland Springs failed to bring a fractured society together. Pro second amendment advocates used the tragedy to promote their agenda while the gun control advocates lobbied for tighter restrictions. When instead, the focus should have been on bringing consolation to the grieving families and those who were traumatized by the event.

This week’s Torah portion tells of Sara’s untimely death (even though she was 127) and the urgent need of her husband, Avraham, to procure a burial site. After negotiations with Efron for the Cave of Machpelah, a suitable price was agreed upon and Sara was buried. The Cave of Machpelah is located in Hebron, a city just south of Jerusalem and has been on the forefront of the political rift in Israel. The left thinks Hebron should be Judenrein and the 1000 settlers living there should be relocated. The right thinks that Hebron has been in Jewish hands for four millennia and was populated by many Jews before the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929. Neither side can see the moral or legal standing of the other side.

I, however, want to question the status quo. Although my mother intimated that I can be the President of the United States, I assure you I have little interest in changing my profession. All I desire is the opportunity to believe as I believe and not be castigated or maligned for my ethical and moral values. I want to have the option of being a Republican with liberal views or being a Democrat with conservative views. I want to be pro-abortion and pro-life and be comfortable thinking they are not mutually exclusive. I want to believe in the second amendment while feeling (rather strongly) that there are too many guns in this country. I support gay rights and believe that all people should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation, but won’t sanction a same sex wedding as doing so would violate my religious beliefs. I support public education for all Americans but think that all Jews should have a Jewish Day School education.

What I have learned from the biblical stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs is that nothing is concrete and all opinions and thoughts can have validity. Avraham may disagree with his wife but that doesn’t make her right and him wrong (ok, I know it’s a bad example). Lot’s daughters may have behaved immorally in their decision to have incestuous relations with their father, yet the Torah doesn’t criticize their decision. It has become so commonplace to cast aspersions on those with whom you differ and violate the sanctity of personal opinions. Yet, God Himself is both liberal and staunchly conservative. He is pro capital punishment but fervently believes in looking after the widow, orphan, and poor person. God is most certainly a capitalist, but His Torah is rooted in social action.

The truth is that both the radical and pacifist can at times be correct. As King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes: there is a time for everything; even a time when what we believe is right may actually be wrong and vice versa. My mother was right, I can be whatever I want. It is my choice to refrain from subjecting myself to the limitations of my social infrastructure. It is my choice to disavow those with an agenda who coerce the meek to be subjugated to their will. It is I who decides not to cower in fear from those offering opinions and edicts that I disagree with. I can be happy when others are sad and be sad when others delight in joy. I can strongly advocate a pro-Israel line and still find certain positions taken by Israel to be unfathomable and wrong. I strongly believe in the sanctity of the physical body and believe that prompt burial is an absolute, yet fully agree with Israel’s refusal to return the bodies of terrorists to Hamas until they agree to return the Israeli bodies held by Hamas.

My life is full of inconsistencies, and I believe that is the lesson my mother ob”m tried to convey. She wanted me to know that I can be whoever and whatever I want to be, but I should never allow my decisions to be someone else’s choices. She wanted me to be comfortable with the fluidity of life and comprehend that sometime yesterday’s thoughts may be incongruent with today’s. I don’t think she really cared if I had any presidential ambitions nor did she care about me becoming rich. She wanted me to use the talents that God gave me just to be me. And for better or worse I try to heed her lesson. Thus, I know my mother would be proud of me when people say that I don’t fit the mold. I am either too right or too left. I am too liberal or too conservative. I am too Orthodox or not really Orthodox at all.

Thanks, mom, for giving me the courage and fortitude to be me.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack

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