May 20, 2013
Passing the Baton
“Who is coming for dinner this week?” My nine-year-old son Jeremy asked.
“Dror and his family and Rachel and her family are coming because they’re becoming rabbis next week, so we’re going to celebrate.”
“Okay,” Jeremy said and walked away.
I was struck by how unremarkable what I had said seemed to my son. He knows that Dror is married to David, and it would never occur to him that this fact could possibly hinder his becoming a rabbi. By contrast, I remember nervously waiting one spring, six years ago to hear whether the Conservative movement’s committee of Jewish Law and Standards would decide to admit homosexual students into the rabbinical school, so that I could write Dror’s letter of recommendation. Dror had given me the form for the letter just in case, and I put it in my desk drawer for months as we waited for the ruling to come. I remember the moment of joy when I got to take the form out of the drawer and write that letter; it felt like a miracle.
To Jeremy, though, the idea of a man married to a man as a rabbi is as natural as the fact that his mother is a rabbi – which was a possible for me but unthinkable for my mother’s generation. Likewise, my kids didn’t understand what a big deal it was when Barak Obama was elected President. They enjoyed the excitement of watching the states being called for each candidate and then hearing the announcement that Obama had won a second term. Yet, they couldn’t comprehend the historical significance of the moment because it never occurred to them that skin color could possibly be an impediment to becoming president.
I remember as a child, my brother once teasing me that he was better than me because he could be President and I couldn’t. I retorted that he couldn’t be President either because he’s Jewish. He agreed, and the conversation moved on. Both of us understood as a given that one had to be male and Christian to be President. Fast forward twenty five years, and I remember crying as I held my infant daughter in my arms and voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary because I never imagined that I would be able to vote for a woman for President. I hope to live to see a woman President and then for my daughter, it will be a given that a woman can lead this nation.
The hard-fought victories of one generation feel natural and normal to the next. With each new child, the world gets a fresh chance at redemption.
This interchange with my son shed light on one of the Torah’s greatest enigmas. In the Torah portion of Hukkat (rules), when the people complained about lacking water, God told Moses to take the rod, assemble the community, and speak to the rock to produce water from the rock. Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation, and Moses said, ‘Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He hit the rock twice, and water flowed from it. God then told Moses and Aaron that since they didn’t trust God enough, they won’t lead the people into the Promised Land.
Commentators for centuries have been puzzled by this story. What precisely was their mistake? Was the problem the words that they used or in striking the rock? Why were Moses and Aaron punished so severely for a seemingly small error?
Some modern commentators note that God had previously asked Moses to hit a rock to elicit water, which had worked well in the past. Perhaps then, Moses’ mistake was in using a prior approach rather than listening to precisely what God wanted from him in the moment. According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, God’s response shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment, but rather “a recognition that their time of leadership was over,” and it was time for a new generation to take the helm.
No matter how great the leadership of Moses and Aaron, the role of being head of the community or High Priest (like President or rabbi) is a temporary job. Only a generation born into freedom would be ready to take on the next set of battles of settling the Promised Land. Liberation is a relay race.
In the end, I wonder if Moses and Aaron saw the conclusion of their service as a punishment or rather if they were filled with pride to watch Joshua who they had mentored grow into leadership. I imagine they felt more joy than regret.
Although I can’t know for sure how they felt, I know that’s how I feel. This year I had the extraordinary opportunity to mentor Dror’s chevruta (study-partner) Rachel, a senior rabbinical student, wife, daughter, and mother, as she prepares for the rabbinate. I shared with her lessons I learned both from my successes and struggles as a rabbi and a mom. I hope that I can help her go further in the rabbinate than me by giving her a head start and awareness of a few pitfalls to avoid along the way.
I realized that the evening on which she and Dror will be ordained is the Hebrew date of my fortieth birthday. Forty is an important number in the Torah. Noah’s family and the animals were in the ark for forty days; the people journeyed in the desert for forty years. Forty represents the completion of a significant journey. Personally, I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate my birthday than to watch Dror and Rachel be ordained and to listen to Dror give the commencement address.
As I appreciate the historical significance of the moment, I’m glad for now that my children, Rachel’s child, and Dror and David’s child don’t. I hope they won’t know the heartache of fearing one’s gender or sexual orientation may be an impediment to their dreams. Then they can take us on the next leg of the journey and truly enter the Promised Land.