Growth potential

This past week in Jerusalem, in partnership with the office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, an Ivy League educated Jewish woman at the top of her profession and at the cutting edge of American pop culture, especially beloved among millennials, and starring in a hit movie this summer received the Genesis Lifetime Award – known as the Jewish Nobel Prize. I’m referring, of course, to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.. (who did you think I was talking about?)

In receiving the award, she said, “I am a judge, born raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace, for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”

One of the keystones of Justice Ginsburg’s jurisprudence, one of the foundations of her philosophy, is what she’s referred to as the “growth potential” of America’s founding documents. It’s actually a very Jewish concept – it actually goes back to this morning’s Torah portion, and let me explain how.

Our Declaration of Independence says that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Now, if you read those words in 1776, the word “men” implied “not women.” Women couldn’t consent to their government, because women having the right to vote was not even under consideration. This is not to mention the fact that many of the signers owned slaves, whom they certainly did not think were created equal.

So, some argue that, through the perspective of hindsight, we now know that the founders simply failed to live up to the values they claimed to espouse – maybe they were even cynical liars.

Ginsburg, though, argues that the genius of America lies what she calls its “growth potential.” That word, “men,” has gone on to mean much more than it meant in 1776. It used to refer to certain people, but now it refers to many more – the definition of the word has expanded over time.

For Ginsburg, the genius of America lies in the way they we are part of an ongoing project that’s now continued for more than two centuries, in which the words of our Founders have led, in turn, to the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the end of anti-Semitic immigration and medical school quotas and to the end of Jim Crow and segregation – all when at first those words meant none of those things.

And when she considers the constitution and its meaning, she does not see her own decisions and opinions as the last word, but as just one step in that ongoing process, with their own growth potential, building on the hundreds of years that came before her, and paving the way for those who will come next.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Moses was approached by five sisters, the daughters of a man named Tzelaphchad who had passed away. These sisters wanted to claim their father’s share of the land of Israel. By right, Moses could have turned them away, because it was understood that the law was clear – only sons inherited land, and Tzelaphchad had no sons.

All Moses had to do was lay down the law as it had been written and understood – and he would have been correct, and justified, and nobody could have had a complaint. But he didn’t. Instead, he tested to see if the law had growth potential – and, lo and behold, it did. This is one of several points in the Torah where Moses is faced with a situation that asked him to decide according to established precedent, to interpret the laws as they were originally understood, or to read them more expansively. And he read them expansively – every single time.

By contrast, in this morning’s portion, we also encounter the character of Pinchas, who saw a Jewish prince and a Midianite princess openly consorting in a way that violated both the law and propriety. Meanwhile, Moses and Aaron were standing by and letting it happen, too shocked to react. Pinchas responded zealously and violently – he killed them both. The story ends as God commends Pinchas, and elevates him to the priesthood. The rabbis understand that Pinchas was technically correct – the prince did, technically, deserve the death penalty, and the well-being of the nation was at stake. Pinchas did, they say, correctly interpret the law, but, even if his actions were justified in the moment, the rabbis are uneasy. To express that unease, they add a dramatic epilogue to the story.

If you remember last week’s Haftarah, we were at the point where the Israelite judge Yiftach had just won a tremendous military victory, and was heading home. He had solemnly sworn that, in gratitude, he would offer up the first thing he would see upon getting home as a sacrifice. He was expecting to see a goat, or a cow, but certainly not his daughter, who ran out into the fields to greet him. Now he faced a problem.

The rabbis understand that Yiftach’s vow should have been easy enough to annul. All he would need to do was see the High Priest, explain the situation, and the vow could be easily annulled. But there was a problem. The question was who needed to call on who – in whose office would the meeting take place. Neither would consent to call on the other. The rabbis excoriate them both for standing on their honor and sense of prestige while a young woman’s life hung in the balance, but they were especially disappointed with the High Priest. According to their tradition, that High Priest was, in fact, Pinchas!

So our sages understood that someone who is especially zealous for God’s honor does not have far to travel to become equally zealous for one’s own honor. Someone who believes they understand the one and only correct meaning and interpretation, the one and only correct course of action may be capable of incredible acts of zealotry, even heroism, while others remain frozen with indecision. But that same self-assuredness is also a particularly dangerous form of arrogance, even narcissism.

Pinchas, the zealot, who saw everything in black and white, who saw all laws etched indelibly into stone, was heroic in the moment, but failed as a leader. But Moses’ successful, empathetic leadership challenges us to cultivate in ourselves the breadth of perspective to understand how the way we might see things is not the way they always have been or the way they always will be. Moses challenges us to exchange the smug satisfaction of having the right (the original?) answer with the humility that comes from being a small part of an unfolding story that extends far beyond us, both into the past and into the future. It is that sense of progress, of marching through history that is such a key element to our identity as Jews – and as Americans. It is why Justice Ginsburg was honored as a paragon of the Jewish people – and, also like Moses, may she continue with grace and distinction until 120.

Delivered at
The Hampton Synagogue
July 7, 2018

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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