A Letter To Our Children

This post is adapted from a sermon given by Shir Tikvah Senior Rabbi Michael Adam Latz on Friday, November 9, 2012. It has been reposted here with permission.
Dear Noa and Liat:
Two months ago, as summer faded into fall, Dadda and I sat you down to talk about the two proposed amendments to the Minnesota constitution. One was an assault on our freedom and right to vote; the other sought to enshrine discrimination into the constitution and deny families like ours the responsibility to marry each other.
We spoke with you, on the eve of beginning kindergarten and third grade, about how proud we were to work to defeat these terrible amendments; but that even if we lost, our family would be ok, that we would always take care of you, that we and all our friends and family and good people of faith in our state would keep working to make our world more fair and whole and just.
It was, without question, our hardest and most painful moment of parenting: telling you that people wanted to deny others the right to vote and that, in fact, a majority of the people in the state might very well vote against our family. Feminism taught us that the personal is political; there was no way to experience this vote as anything other than personal, and anyone who says otherwise is in denial.
We told you to prepare you, to prepare ourselves; 17 states had already enacted laws on voter restriction in the past two years and 30 had passed laws limiting the freedom to marry. The odds were against us. And as parents, we wanted to prepare you to hear ugly lies about our family and other people we love; somehow, we thought, if hearing those things came from us, it would somehow be a balm against the sting of hatred; We told you to reassure that even if we lost the vote, nothing would ever change our love and our family.
In truth, despite all the extraordinary work by so many smart people we know and respect who worked so hard to defeat these amendments, despite the courage of great leaders and amazing volunteers, despite my own commitment to Tikkun Olam—repairing our broken world—I was weary and deeply afraid.
I somehow forgot the verse from Shir HaMa-a lot: Hazorim b’dima b’rinah yichtzoru: Those who sow in tears reap in joy.
Those who sow in tears reap in joy.
I knew I would cry on election night… I didn’t know how… would it be sorrow and aching grief… or would it be ecstatic joy?
Bill Cooper, our friend and fellow Shir Tikvah member, shared that this is the very purpose of weeping: “Because our first instinct is to go up to the person (who is crying) and see if we can help them…” First flow the tears, then comes the embrace.
And wow, did it feel good to weep tears of effervescent joy! The moment that Dan McGrath of Take Action Minnesota announced the defeat of the Voter Restriction amendment at 1:25am, tears flowed like the Nile. Tears shed for our great grandparents, who came to the shores of America because they dreamed of a better life for their children and grandchildren; and for our mothers and grandmothers, born in a moment when women first got the right to vote; and tears for all those in the world who still hunger for the right to express their opinion at the ballot box. By the waters of Babylon, we lay down. And we wept.
And then, a mere 20 minutes later, when the exquisite Richard Carlbom stood on the bimah and announced that we defeated the marriage amendment, that we won, the cheers of glee and tears of exhaustion and relief and grief and joy all came pouring forth. Sometimes we cry when there are no words. First come the tears, then comes the embrace.
It turns out, sometimes, like our ancestors, when you work faithfully, and tell the truth, sometimes, you find blessings in remarkable places. And sometimes, sometimes, you win an election.
Look at what we did: together, we built remarkable coalitions of diverse people of faith who did so much more than defeat two fear-filled amendments: we looked deep into the souls of people and offered an expansive vision of love, of mutual respect, of dignity. We lived up to our ancient name—Ivrim—boundary crossers, people who intimately understood the rigidity of slavery and oppression and realized we need to break away and chart a new course for humanity.
Here’s some advice, beautiful children, about going forward, about how to make our world more whole, and pursue our holy responsibility of redemption:
1. The campaigns were brilliant—strategic in design, relentless in fundraising, inspiring in messaging, organized in managing volunteers. But perhaps the greatest thing they did—and hey, I’m a rabbi—was that they fully and absolutely integrated religious leaders and people of faith into the fabric of their campaigns, and into the stories they told. They understood that every single progressive movement for social change in the United States during the past 200 years—abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the climate change movement, to name a few—every single one of them had people of faith front and center. Why? Because human progress is soul work, it is more than polls and pundits; it is about our individual and collective potential and it is inherently theological. We can argue about policy but we all understand that the nature of the conversation changes profoundly when we state that it is our very belief in God and our observance of Jewish tradition that calls us to rise for justice and embrace equality.
2. Savor winning, when it is righteous and just; celebrate that we lifted up the best of humanity and dignity. When you are faced with something difficult, follow the model of Minnesotans United for All Families and Our Vote, Our Future campaigns: surround yourselves with really smart people, devote yourself to a worthy cause, and organize like hell. But in your winning, do not forget to empathize with those who lose, not just because we know what it’s like to lose; because, most often, people will open their hearts when they are heard, when they are empathized with, with they believe someone takes them seriously. Always, always, always think of creative ways to reach out and seek common ground. Savor winning, but do so with great humility.
3. Jewish tradition teaches you from a very early age to question. At the Passover seder each year, we privilege the youngest children, the most vulnerable ones at the table, to ask the four questions. (It’s probably the reason there are so many Jewish lawyers!) Why? Why do we do this? Because we believe that authority—even the authority telling the sacred story of our people’s exodus from slavery and the birth of our liberation—should be questioned. Questioning is an act of defiance, an important skill to cultivate—never take anything for granted. Never be afraid to challenge the way other people think, even when it is unpopular. Eighteen months ago, a small handful of people believed that we could defeat these two amendments. It was an improbable task. But they believed when others doubted. And they worked. They worked hard. And they offered a new way of doing politics: they built an enterprise of diverse faith, conversations, and mutual respect. And they made manifest a politics that spoke to our hope and our dignity, an ethic of mutuality and love, kindness and compassion.
4. Look to Judaism for insight and wisdom. We know a little something about being trapped in narrow places: Eve defied the rules and ate fruit from the tree of knowledge—and thank God she did—and despite getting banished from Gan Eden, we got some wisdom along the way and an insatiable appetite for learning; Abraham argued with God, and Moses confronted Pharaoh’s tyranny; Talmud sages debated over the finest points in order to sharpen their intellectual acumen and rabbis of the middle ages called forth a theology of spiritual intimacy and demand for universal justice and dignity. Our history venerates the prophet Elijah, harbinger of redemption, and envisions a world where the lion will lie down with the lamb and no one ever again goes to bed afraid. And our Torah puts forth laws—laws of great moral courage—which demand we treat the stranger with dignity, and honor the inherent spark of the Divine in all of God’s creation. We fought these amendments, not despite of our religious tradition, but precisely because our morality compels us to give voice to the voiceless and stand up for the most vulnerable. Wherever there is suffering, we Jews are called to respond. That’s why we’re here, this is what we’re chosen for: to redeem the enslaved, to shine light where there is darkness, to speak out for the weak and the vulnerable and the lonely. It’s a reason to be very proud of who we are.
6. Look outside our tradition, too, for guidance. In the 19th century, Harriet Tubman, a remarkable African American woman, a former slave, organized the Underground Railroad and is credited with liberating more than 300 slaves. Ms. Tubman was known as Grandma Moses. This woman who risked her life every day had some advice for each slave as they escaped their masters and made their way to freedom.
“If you hear the dogs, keep going.
If you see the torches in the woods, keep going.
If they’re shouting after you, keep going.
Don’t ever stop. Keep going.
If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
Keep going!”
The road to achieving human dignity is long, dear children. It’s why we believe that we are God’s partners in the work of creation. Torah is revealed in each and every generation. We’re always discovering new possibility, new ways of understanding ourselves and our world. This human project is exhilarating and holy and exasperating and frustrating and completely and utterly magical!
7. Finally, my last words of advice dear children: Spend your life in service of something grand, for an ideal you believe in passionately, for the greater good of humanity and our planet. It is really hard work. At times, you will weep in frustration and exasperation. But remember this, remember this: Hazorim b’dima b’rinah yichtzoru: Those who sow in tears reap in joy. When you have moments like Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning, when you’ve given everything possible, when you’ve put your soul forth, there is simply no more fulfilling way to live. Those are Hallelujah tears and they roll mighty fine.
Tony Kushner, in the final words of his epic play, Angels in America, closes with a prayer. “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More life. The Great Work Begins.”
I bless you.
More life!
Our great work begins.
All My Love, Daddy the rabbi
Find the full text of this sermon, plus others on Shir Tikvah’s website.
(Photo: Shir Tikvah)