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Don’t Tell Me. Show Me.

Sharon BrousFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

A good story is told not only to relay history, but to convey critical ideas. A really good story articulates what it means to be human, helps make sense of loss and devastation, and calls us to yearn for and work toward something better than the status quo. Sharon Brous tells of how for thousands of years, the Jewish people have stubbornly held one sacred narrative at its heart – yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. This story is a redemption story, obsessively told and retold, generation to generation as part of Jewish history. It has sustained us and given us hope through times of catastrophe and powerlessness; it has animated and reminded us of our mission and purpose during times of privilege and power. If we take this story - the core operating narrative of our people – seriously, it ought to change us in profound and recognisable ways.

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a thriving Jewish community that stands at the intersection of soulful, inventive spiritual and religious practice and a deep commitment to social justice. Brous has been recognized as one of the nation’s leading rabbis by Newsweek/ The Daily Beast and among the 50 most influential American Jews by the Forward. In 2013 she topped the Daily Beast list, which credited her with reanimating Jewish community and reenergizing prayer at a time of growing disaffection and declining affiliation. In 2013 she blessed President Obama and Vice President Biden at the Inaugural National Prayer Service. She sits on the faculty of the Hartman Institute-North America, Wexner Heritage and REBOOT, and is a Senior Fellow at Auburn Theological Seminary. She serves on the International Council of the New Israel Fund and rabbinic advisory to American Jewish World Service. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three children.

Here’s my Jewish autobiography in 6 short chapters.

Chapter 1 – Humiliation

It wasn’t actually one incident, it was probably more like a dozen incidents, one of them involving a bottle of salad dressing which I naively brought to a Shabbas dinner that I was invited to my first year of college.

I was so excited to be invited to a Shabbas dinner, and I brought it in and I put it down on the countertop and the host shrieked in horror, grabbed the dishtowel, wrapped it around her hand, picked up my salad bottle and threw it into the hallway of our dorm room, saying “you just totally treifed up my kitchen!”

And I just stared at her and said, Oh my God, what does treifed up mean? What are you talking about? And she said, “that bottle, it’s not hechshered.”And I said, “what does hechsher mean?”

And then later realized, of course, many years later, that putting an unopened bottle of salad dressing on someone’s countertop does not, in fact, treif up their kitchen even if it is “unhechshered”, it doesn’t make the kitchen unkosher.

But I determined in Chapter 1 that the Jewish community was no longer a place for me, even though I had grown up in and strongly identified as a Jew my whole life, that maybe this judgmental sect of people who had their own rules and rituals and didn’t care to share them with the rest of us wasn’t the group of people I wanted to spend my time with in college.

Chapter 2 – Devastation

It was after a terrorist attack it was the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and I sat as a total universalist, up in my dorm room, with my heart broken as I was reading the news, deeply distressed not only by what had happened but by my own reaction to it. Why was I, a universalist, more distressed by this news than any other news that I read in the paper?

And I went downstairs and outside and it was cold and it was windy and a group of students had come together to just share their grief over this terrorist attack and I thought, ah! I’m a cultural Jew. I live in New York, I drink coffee, I eat bagels, I read the New York Times, that’s my identity, I don’t need to be religious and I don’t need to know from hechshers and treif.

And then everybody in the group started to sing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, and I realized I don’t even have the cultural literacy to be good at this tiny piece of the Jewish puzzle.

Chapter 3 – Alienation

So I decided to knock on the door of the cute redhead who lived across the hall from me, who seemed to know a lot from his USY and Ramah days, and ask him if he would venture out into the cold mean streets of New York City with me, to see if I might be able to find a synagogue that would feel like a home, a place where I could start to learn a little bit of something so I wouldn’t be humiliated or tormented anymore by my lack of connection to the community.

And, said redhead who, 18 years later and 3 kids later is now my husband, has the tremendous patience to go with me to 35 synagogues up and down Broadway in Manhattan, each one of them worse than the previous one. I was alienated, I was marginalized and I used to sit with him at fancy restaurants afterwards, weeping over why it was that when a Jew walks into a synagogue looking to learn something, nobody says hello and nobody says what page we’re on, but everybody expects that you know the very code you’re there to try to learn.

The only positive thing that came out of Chapter 3 was that now, in retrospect, this does appear to be the love montage for our coming together story.

Chapter 4 – Inspiration

So I ask said redhead if he’ll go with me to Israel because our 36th stop on our synagogue journey in new york led me to a place where I felt alive, and welcomed and accepted, where the rabbis preached about justice and about love, and I thought that’s a Judaism that I CAN ACTUALLY IDENTIFY WITH AND associate myself with but I need to know how to read the book that’s in my hands.

And so we took our Junior Year at Hebrew uniersity in jeerusalem
and when I was there I was inspired by so many different pieces of the community.

One of them was an Orthodox outreach centre, that brought me in like so many young, American, wandering, disconnected Jews, to try to convince me to see the light, and I saw the light. And as the lights went on – it was a slide presentation in fact – several of the organisers came running over to me and said, “so what do you think what do you think I said words that I never thought I would hear myself say – I said “I’m going to be a rabbi.”

And these men, if I say they were horrified I am understating the point
and the first words that were spoken in response to my first uttering of those words were “why don’t you become a rebbetzin?” And I said, “I don’t want to marry a rabbi, I want to be a rabbi.”

Chapter 5 – Integration

Cut to several years later, I’m now a 4th year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, studying Talmud 14 or 15 hours a day, absolutely falling in love with and wrestling with and struggling with my tradition, with our rabbis and with our stories.

I read in the New York Times one morning about a series of floods that have hit Mozambique around the year 2000. A country that had been devastated by civil war, about 19 years of war, ravaged and impoverished, and now there were horrible floods just as the country is starting to recover.

And on the front page of the Times there are these pictures of enormous trees, and women in the top of those trees holding bundles in their arms, their babies, with gushing water below, waiting for rescue helicopters to come and save their lives. But the problem is there were no rescue helicopters in Mozambique in 2000, because the country had been so ravaged by war.

I went to the seminary later that morning and looked around in dismay, thinking how disconnected is the work that I’m doing from what’s happening in the world and where the need really is. And I stormed out of rabbinical school, I climbed up to the 11th floor at Columbia University and went to the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and said, “I demand to see your director, there’s an international emergency.”

And he said, “come on in, my door’s open.” And I walked in, and I said, “there are women in trees with their babies in Mozambique. We have to get rescue helicopters to them, this is happening now. When we get the news in real time we’re left with a real obligation.” And he said, “let me tell you something. You’re not leaving rabbinical school. You can do a whole lot more good for the world as a rabbi who gives a damn about the women and babies in Mozambique than you can if you try to abandon this path and find some other way to help.”

Chapter 6 – Reverberation

So the Redhead and I move out to Los Angeles, two New Yorkers trying to find our way in a weather-pleasant and traffic-dreadful environment, with an openness to imagination and creativity and real grit where we build a community. A place that would welcome the wanderer that I was so many years before, the edgers as we call them, the people who dwell on the margins. And we try to build an integrated message that the depth of your learning and your ritual engagement should be reflected in the way that you live in the world.

I share these stories because I am a person who believes very strongly that our stories actually really matter.

In the 90s, there were a couple of psychologists at Emory University in the States who were working on children’s emotional health – Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush – and they created the ‘Do You Know’ scale which asked basic questions about family history.

So we’re going to play a little bit right now.

I want to ask you: do you know where your parents met?

If you do, just stand up for a moment. OK, very good. You can sit down. This is going to feel like High Holy Days.

Do you know where your grandparents grew up? If you do, stand up for a sec. Alright good, good. Sit down please. Please be seated, I should say.

Do you know about any illnesses or broken bones that your parents had in their childhood? Please stand, ok good, have a seat.

Do you know about any jobs that your parents had or awards that they received when they were young? Great, OK, please have a seat.

What these psychologists found was that there was a consistent correlation
– though not necessarily a causation – a correlation between knowledge of our family’s stories and high self-esteem, happiness, resilience and family cohesion. They found that a child is more likely to develop a sense of purpose, of worth and optimism if that child is connected to a narrative arc, if that child feels that she is connected to something bigger than she is. And when I read that it was an epiphany for me, because it occurred to me that this is true not only about the stories that we tell within our own families, but this is also true about the stories that we tell within religious communities.

Religious communities also need at their heart, a narrative, a raison d’etre, something beyond historical obligations and communal commitments and demographic fear and parental guilt. We need a story, a story that ultimately helps us articulate what it means to be alive in the world, what it means to be a human being, how to make sense of the devastation and the loneliness and the brokenness and the loss that is all around us in this room and so far beyond.
We need a story that helps remind us what it means to actually dream of something that’s bigger than us. And Jews have so many stories. We tell these stories all the time, and we tell them not to relay historical events, but we tell them to convey critical ideas, to instill values, to offer a sense of purpose in a chaotic world.

One of these stories is told and retold obsessively, over the course of thousands of years, some of us retell this story at least 3 times every single day. You know what story I’m talking about. This is the story that’s arguably the core of our tradition, the central operating narrative of our people, which has animated and sustained us for thousands of years and inspired everything from how we eat to how we pray to how we read the newspaper in the world.

This is the story of our redemption, the Exodus from Egypt, yetziat mitzrayim. Yetziat mitzrayim – coming out from a narrow place, the triumph of freedom over slavery, of dignity over degradation, the movement from darkness into light, from paralysis into possibility, to self determination from systematized oppression. The exodus is a story of plagues and wonders, but the central feature of this story that we tell and retell is actually an extraction process, it is a Yetziya, a story of people going on a journey, leaving behind tyranny and persecution,
reclaiming their humanity.

The Exodus story is a testament to the inextinguishable yearning both human and divine for freedom. And it’s timeless because it speaks to all people. It speaks to the powerless, telling those who are vulnerable, you matter, your struggle matters.

I don’t know if you recognize this kid, he’s a student named Vidal Chastanet who lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which is the neighbourhood that has the highest crime rate in all of NY. He was asked by a journalist who created a site called Humans of NY, who is the person who has influenced you most? And he said, my principal, because one day my principal made everybody stand up in the assembly and one at a time said to each and every one of us “you matter, you matter, you matter, you matter.”

And if you think about all of these movements that have emerged in the past couple of years – in the States, Black Lives Matter, here in Europe, Je Suis Charlie, Je Suis Juif – in the past year. What is actually at the core of all of this? A collective aching for a kind of visibility.

And just as God saw suffering of the Israelites under Egyptian bondage, this story relays a message to all people who struggle to find hope in their powerlessness and in their persecution: you matter, your struggle matters, your life matters, you are not alone and things can change.
This story is playing off of our muscle memory, that trajectory from darkness to light, it happened before and it can happen again.

So what’s my story?

My story is: I was a slave. I became free and I will be free again. I walk now through a narrow and dark passage, but my story does not end in darkness, it ends in triumph and in light.

That’s why, facing liquidation the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, prepared for Seder. That’s why prisoners in death camps stole flour in order to try to make matzah to celebrate Passover, and they stayed up late in the bunkers in Auschwitz, and whispered memorized verses from the Haggadah. Because they told themselves again and again, we’ve been here before, and the Jewish story doesn’t end in this kind of darkness.

And as Michael Walzer, the political theorist points out it’s not only Jews who found strength in our story, but wherever people know the bible and wherever people know pain, they have their spirits lifted by this story. This is the closest thing we have to the genetic transmission of hope from one generation to the next.

But this isn’t only a story for the powerless, this is also a story for the powerful The most critical moment in the Israelite journey from darkness to light and slavery to freedom, is the moment that occurs just after the Torah ends, when they step over border, because after hundreds of years of oppression, and 40 years of wandering they are now put in the position where they have to create a sovereign state. And the operative question shifts from, ‘how do I hold hope when I am powerless’, to ‘how do I hold humility and compassion and a sense of purpose, when I am very powerful?

The single most important commandment in the Torah, by weight of verse alone, would clearly be the central obsession that our text has with the ger, with the stranger, the other, the vulnerable, mentioned 36 times throughout the Torah. Why is this stranger the centerpiece of Biblical legislation and imagination? Because the treatment of the vulnerable offers a newly freed slave the chance to create a counter-culture, a counter-Egypt, to build a society that honours dignity, and recognizes humanity, and entrusts us with caring for one another.

The work of leaving Egypt is ongoing, it doesn’t end once the Egyptian armies drown in that sea. It’s an extraction process, it’s ongoing, which is why one very powerful young Jewish woman once wrote the following words: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

That later became the bedrock of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, when Martin Luther King wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So what then is my story? I was a slave. I became free. But I will be truly free only when you are free with me.

This is the radical nature of our story: because I was slave and became free, your suffering is my business.

Some people believe that the past is dead. But those who came out of Egypt know and understand that the past is very much alive. Our story informs us every single day. When we live in darkness, do not ignore the possibility of light. And when we sit in the light, do not ignore those who still suffer in the darkness.

We make a great mistake when we believe that storytelling is about entertainment. This story is not to entertain it is to transform, to transform us and to transform the world. So we don’t just read this story and repeat it, we actually live it.

I want to close by reading the very powerful words of a Senator in the United States named Cory Booker in 2013. He wrote the following:
“Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me how much you love all of God’s children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I am not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and to give.”

So keep telling your family stories, keep telling our collective stories. But let us not only retell, but actually live those stories, let us show those stories through the way that we live. For our sakes, for our children’s sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of all of God’s children.

Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License