The Exodus:5 Project
He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD. Exodus 24:5
I have been through a lot of changes in my life over the last five years, most of them unexpected, and I cannot help but look backward to try to identify the trajectories that landed me where I am today. I know that I have worked very hard at maintaining a consistency between my personal life and my public life, heeding the admonition of one of my beloved teachers, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, of blessed memory. I remember him asking a group of rabbinical students about a particularly troublesome bit of liturgy that is often sung with gusto. When most of us sheepishly acknowledged we did not subscribe to the theology behind it, Rabbi Rosenberg, generally a most affable man, let a dark look come over his face and said to us, “Never say anything you do not believe. Ever.”
My credibility as a person, never mind as a rabbi, has always had to answer to this internal standard. I am not being glib when I say that what I believe is not always true, nor that what I once believed has evolved in different ways during the course of a lifetime. But it’s pretty rare when I say or do something that does not reflect my principles. The imposing presence of “Yonk” Rosenberg is always asking me if I believe it.
In no realm of my life is this truer than Shabbat. I have been a pretty diligent sabbath-observer since I was in my early twenties, and only slightly less strict before that. The nature of my diligence has changed over the years, but some things are no different than they were in 1974: I don’t write; I don’t drive; I don’t spend money; I don’t cook. The exceptions have been few and far between, mostly involving medical emergencies. I believe in the central importance of Shabbat to Jewish life. I go to a lot of trouble to preserve that commitment, and I pass up a lot of opportunities that ask me to compromise.
This past week was one of those rare moments when what I believe came into conflict with what I believe. I have allowed others to gather without me for rallies, vigils and marches on Saturdays all of my adult life. I support the causes, but others were able to give voice to my concerns. I have sent plenty of messages of solidarity and encouragement to partners and allies while staying home awaiting news of their great success. (Last year, on the day of the Women’s March, I was able to participate in a sister march in San Juan because it took place outside of our vacation hotel; we were among the fifty or so who gathered to hear an earnest speaker exhort us to activism.)
But for the first time, I was asked by children to support them as they pleaded to be guaranteed the very first unalienable human right that forms the foundation of this country: life. And they were gathering too far away from my home for me to walk. At my age, I can’t sleep in a sleeping bag on a floor. And, never mind why, it just was not possible for me to make my way through this long Shabbat in a hotel.
I had two tasks. I was invited by an unlikely friend to bless the leaders of the program before it began. And my organization was participating in giving away 5000 lunches to participants. So, I found a way to rationalize one thing I believe over another. Even though neither of my tasks worked out exactly as I understood, I was satisfied that I decided correctly. I was one of the many hundreds of thousands who sacrificed at least as much as I did to stand in solidarity. I came for the kids.
I came because before my commitments to Shabbat were so well-formed, I was among the children asking for support in a plea to save our lives and others’. I was conscious then of who did not show up. I believed they should have followed the lead of the generation desperate to live a better life than they had been offered. I still believe it. So I had to show it when I stood on the other side of the equation.
The exhortations to uphold the covenant – including Shabbat – were made by Moses who was at least eighty years old at the time. He gathered seventy elders around him to pronounce lofty expectations of justice, compassion and personal integrity. It was all very impressive. But when it came time for the people to make their promise, it was the young people who stood before the people. The gathered Israelites had to look them in the face and guarantee them that the words they spoke were words they believed. They were to be held accountable not only by God and not only by Moses, but also by their children. If they loved those children and the ones who would come after, then they could never say anything they did not believe. Ever.
Without that kind of integrity, promises of diligence in devotion were just self-serving and prideful.
One of the speakers, it turned out, was someone I did bless at the beginning of her young life. I held her in my arms and asked God to bless and keep her and to give her peace. She showed up to demand that we make good on that blessing so joyfully and casually conveyed. Rabbi Rosenberg was not on my mind on that day all her life ago. I was not on her mind when she spoke to as many people as Moses addressed in the wilderness.
If you are reading this not as a Shabbat observer (by whatever definition), you don’t have a sense of what this decision meant to me. If you are indeed a Shabbat-observer who would make a different decision in these circumstances, you also do not know what this decision meant to me. The fact is, I was both of you at different points in my life. And independent of why I decided one way this time and another way a different time, at this particular moment, I am certain that this day itself would not have held the place in my soul had I not been commissioned by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, of blessed memory, never to say anything I didn’t believe. Ever.