Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
July 24, 2020
I’m still thinking about John Lewis’ passing.
Rep. Lewis was taken from us on the 17th, in the evening, as Shabbat was beginning. Senator Chris Coons called him a living saint, and in so many ways, he was. I didn’t know him, obviously. I missed an opportunity to meet him a couple of years ago when he was in town. I know him as so many of us know him; the person who put his body on the line so everyone would have the right to vote, the moral voice of Congress, the man who, remembering the comic books written explaining the Freedom Rider efforts in the 1960s, wrote his biography as three graphic novels (all called, appropriately enough, “March”), and then came to San Diego Comic Con dressed in his iconic trench coat and backpack from marching across the Pettus bridge, and led children on mini-marches around the convention, who continued to dance until the end. The person who loved America so much he couldn’t bear to see it as anything less than its full unrealized potential, who watched a new generation of protesters and marchers embrace his legacy.
It’s that question of legacy that confronts us in Deuteronomy. Moses was supposed to die on Mt. Nebo back in Numbers, just as his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam died. He, like that generation that went out of Egypt, is supposed to die in the wilderness. But Moses speaks a series of sermons to the people, five of them in fact, which are called “Deuteronomy”, or ‘Mishneh Torah’, the repetition of the Torah. Or, if you prefer, “Devarim”, words. Moses speaks many words; standing on the other side of the Jordan, in view of the Promised Land, 40 years and eleven months since they left Egypt, he begins his narrative as Israel leave Sinai for their wandering. But it’s not a straight recapitulation. Moses, who called himself ‘slow of speech’, who always preferred action to talking, who needed Aaron to be his spokesperson before Pharaoh, who spoke in the Wilderness primarily to tell the people what God said, now finds his voice in full, and brings forward not just descriptions of the journey, but his interpretation, his viewpoint. He’s not retelling, he’s teaching.
In fact, the midrash tells us he is teaching in two different ways. First, he is reminding Israel of all the miracles God did for them. This is a generation that has only known the desert, knows the Exodus as a story told by their parents and grandparents; soon they will cross the Jordan and take their rightful place in the land promised them; a land they’ve never known except as myth. Will they forget all that God has done, and the covenant we as a people made at Sinai? So, Moses lists them again, every single one.
In addition, the rabbinic writings imagine this scene as Moses issuing a rebuke to Israel. What is a rebuke? I think we tend to think of it as speaking angrily, cruelly, airing grievances and calling to mind a person’s failings in order to embarrass them. But we are told, that is not how Moses speaks to Israel. Rather, he speaks as a good teacher does to his students; he reminds them of what went wrong along the way, the times when Israel didn’t live up to their potential and corrects them. Not to denigrate Israel, not to score points, but as an act of love. And he speaks broadly, to all the people, so that no individual would be embarrassed. Just as we say at Yom Kippur “for the sin we committed”, Moses reminds everyone that they are responsible for one another, regardless of whether this one or that one committed the error.
In this sense, he leaves behind a legacy. He offers his own experience of God, the people and Israel, his own struggles and loves, Israel’s struggles and failings as well as successes, as something for Israel to pass down from generation to generation. Even the failings. Perhaps especially the failings.
John Lewis called out our failings as a country, and perhaps as individuals as well, challenging us to not despair, nor sit quietly and ignore the issues raging across our country, but to go out and get into ‘good trouble’, the kind of trouble that call attention to the challenges at hand and encourage us as a society to face those challenges and respond accordingly. And his challenges were always done with love. Can we say that we are standing up and dealing with the issues in our country? That we are willing to get into good trouble as an act of radical love? If not, why not? Why are we not willing to go out and call attention to what is wrong, to do everything in our power to try to resolve the injustice in our land? Indeed, we have an obligation to do so; to lovingly rebuke our society and ourselves for our failings, our tolerance of injustice.
John Lewis died on Shabbat, at the beginning of Shabbat, and the Talmud teaches us that there is something special about dying as Shabbat begins; that one enters the world to come through that taste of the world to come. John Lewis left us a sacred legacy. Let us live up to that legacy by committing to calling out injustice in our land, calling out our own trepidation to get involved and do the work so desperately needed, and commit ourselves to getting into good trouble. Amen.