Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Vayigash 5783

Rabbi Timoner shares stories of moral courage from Jewish leaders. 

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I had dinner with Ruth Messinger on Thursday night. Ruth served on the New York City Council for 11 years from 1978 to 1989, and then was Manhattan borough president for 8 years, from 1990 to 1998, and then led AJWS, American Jewish World Service, for 18 years, and now has four jobs and is a general trailblazer and badass of the Jewish world. We got to talking about moral courage, in particular its indispensable function in rabbinic leadership and Jewish leadership more broadly. Ruth told me two stories that I knew I’d want to share with you this morning.

Story number one:

We might take for granted the fact that New York State protects a woman’s right to an abortion, but that right came from one last minute act of courage.

George M. Michaels was a Jewish legislator representing a heavily Catholic district when efforts to legalize abortion in New York came to a head in April 1970, just before Passover.

Bonnie Eissner reported the story in the Forward in June of this year:
Raised in Queens, the son of Polish immigrants who were secular Jews, Michaels moved to Auburn, New York, a small city in the Finger Lakes region, after marrying his college sweetheart. He had served in the New York State Assembly for 10 years by 1970 when a bill to legalize abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy came up for a vote.
A more liberal version of the bill, without the 24-week limit, passed 31-26 in the state Senate on March 18 with bipartisan support. The Assembly took up the amended bill on March 30, but it failed to pass. Michaels voted against it at the request of Cayuga County Democratic officials, even though he personally supported giving women the right to choose.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Republican Constance E. Cook, maneuvered another vote on the bill on April 9 using a parliamentary procedure. The Catholic Church had ramped up opposition after being caught off guard by Senate approval in March. Priests and nuns paced the chamber floor. During hours of contentious, emotional debate, legislators spoke about their personal convictions and the pressures they faced from constituents and the church. A few members switched their votes. The bill needed 76 votes to pass and was about to go down in defeat, with an even 74 votes for it and 74 against it.
Michaels was initially among those voting against the measure, but as the roll call was ending, he asked to change his vote. “If I am ever going to have peace in my family … I cannot go back to [them] on the first night of Passover and tell them that George Michaels defeated this bill,” he told the stunned chamber. “I fully appreciate that this is the termination of my career,” he said, pale and fighting back tears as TV cameras turned to him.

The New York Times reported that he sobbed as he told the chamber about the tension in his family, including his son, a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, begging him not to be the one who defeated the bill. “I must keep peace in my family,” he said.

Ten days after the vote, on April 19, members of the Cayuga County Democratic Committee withdrew their endorsement of Michaels. He lost a four-way primary in June.
Friends whom he and his wife had known for decades turned on them. His law firm of 40 years disbanded. The next year the Assembly voted to repeal the abortion law, but Gov. Nelson Rockefeller vetoed the bill. In 1973, with Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court protected the right to abortion before 24 weeks. Now that it’s been overturned, Michaels’ vote is the reason why we have abortion rights in New York State.

When Michaels died in 1992, at age 82, the Times, in its obituary, called him the “legislator who changed abortion law.” New York became then and continues to be now a haven for women seeking safe and legal abortions.

Story Two:

Cyril Harris was an Orthodox rabbi who grew up in Scotland and then became a
rabbi at a synagogue in London.

Several years into his career the powers that be in the Orthodox community assigned him to become the chief rabbi in South Africa. This was during apartheid and extended to the time when Mandela came out of prison, became prime minister, decreed the end of apartheid, and ordered a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to knit the country back together.

In South Africa Rabbi Harris regularly spoke out in support of Mandela and took positions against apartheid and for the new government that often made the South African Jewish Board of Deputies anxious; their style had been to lay low and not comment on government or political issues.

Mandela came to call Harris “my rabbi” and to thank him regularly for sticking his neck out, against—often—the wishes of his community. Mandela then organized a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring the country back together and asked faith leaders to speak at a meeting of the Commission. Rabbi Harris testified, saying that while the Jewish community did not initiate apartheid and while many Jews did not agree with it, nevertheless “most members of the Jewish community benefited in one way or another from apartheid. It is possible—and, indeed, probable—that our personal circumstances are products of apartheid. And if we are responsible for this country’s past, then we are, of course, responsible for its future.” He continued: “it is insufficient to stand apart from violations of human rights, and disassociation is inadequate where vocal protest is urgently called for and positive steps must be taken to rectify injustice….So the Jewish community in South Africa confesses to a collective failure to protest against apartheid….The entire thrust of Jewish moral teachings, together with the essential lesson of Jewish historical experience, as the most consistent victim in the world, should have moved the community to do everything possible to oppose apartheid. Distancing oneself from the anguished cry of the majority and myopically pursuing one’s own interests can never be morally justified.”

And THEN he quoted Heschel “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. It is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, indifference makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being, in turn, accepted.”

He ends: “Because of the evil of indifference which so many in the Jewish community possessed, we confess that sin today before this commission and we ask forgiveness for it. It is not that in spite of the past we must do better, but because of the past we must do better.”

“The self-respect of every member of the Jewish community is at stake in this issue more than any other, for it’s always been an established principle that the distinctive honor of being Jewish carries with it corresponding responsibility… the doctrine of the chosen people does not imply the conferment of special privileges rather the imposition of extra obligation…We are ‘chosen’ for duty, however uncomfortable…’chosen’ to be an example of good, whatever the circumstances. I ask for a real identification with suffering and degradation, for a sharing with underprivileged of the blessings we enjoyed—if anyone cries in the beloved country, let it never be our fault, let it not be due to us”.

This week’s parasha opens with an act of moral courage. We find ourselves in Egypt. Joseph is Pharaoh’s vizier, responsible for all food distribution in the region, appearing to be an Egyptian. His brothers stand before him seeking food, unaware that they are speaking to Joseph. He has tried them, tested them, by imprisoning their brother Shimon and threatening to imprison and enslave their brother Benjamin. Judah had promised Jacob, their father, that no harm would come to Benjamin and now he is confronting this Egyptian high official to protect his baby brother, offering, begging to be enslaved in his place. Judah tells the Egyptian official about the loss of a brother, about the grief of their father, about the bond between their father and their youngest brother Benjamin, a bond the severance of which would end their father’s life. Describing it, Judah says these words:
וְנַפְשׁ֖וֹ קְשׁוּרָ֥ה בְנַפְשֽׁוֹ

His own life is bound up in his, or
his soul is tied to his soul
כִּ֤י עַבְדְּךָ֙ עָרַ֣ב אֶת־הַנַּ֔עַר

For your servant (he is speaking about himself in the third person) has pledged himself for the boy, in other words, I have pledged myself for my brother.
arav, to pledge, guarantee; also means to mix together, intermingle. Erev, evening, the mixing of light and dark, day and night.
What it is to pledge oneself is to recognize one’s mixing in with the other, one’s interconnection.

Finally, Judah says,
“Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”

This act by Judah not only saves his brother Benjamin from slavery, not only breaks down Joseph’s walls leading to his shocking self-revelation, not only reunites the brothers in love and weeping, not only restores Joseph to his father Jacob, not only provides a new future for the whole family in Egypt, but it answers Cain’s ultimate question, a question that has reverberated throughout the book of Genesis from the first human beings to the generation of the book. It is a question that has plagued every set of brothers– Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Until Judah turns the tide, ends the pattern, by saying yes, indeed, I am my brother’s keeper. And when we see that Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe accept their moment of blessing without jealousy or strife, we know that Judah’s act of moral courage opened up the possibility of peace for all future generations.

In all three of these stories we see that moral courage is rooted in the recognition of interconnectedness, in our souls being bound up with one another’s. George Michaels feeling bound to his son the rabbi, his daughter in law the social worker, and his baby granddaughter, such that he was willing to end his career to do the right thing. It was Rabbi Cyril Harris feeling bound to Black South Africans, such that he was willing to buck the lay leadership of the South African Jewish community and speak truth about the sin of complicity and silence. It was Judah feeling bound to his father and to his brother and to their tie to one another that allowed him to put his own life on the line to save them both.
It is interesting that it was Judah who understood this interconnectedness, this nafsho keshura v’nafsho. Rabbi Art Green points out that Judah’s name Yehuda not only means gratitude, but also contains the word Hod, which is the sefirah, or the aspect of Divine energy that is humility. And it requires humility to see that we are interrelated, interdependent, bound up with one another, that none of us are free until all of us are free, that I am because you are. It’s a worldview in which none of us is at the center, or all of us are.

Looking back at 2022 with the lens of moral courage, we can see many moments when it was present and many when it was absent. If the last decade has taught us anything it is that every leader, every citizen, every human being, every Jew has a role to play, a responsibility and tremendous power, in demonstrating this essential quality. May 2023 be a year in which we all grow in our capacity to be moral and to be courageous.

Happy New Year. Shabbat Shalom.