David Lerner

Standing as One – Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5783

So, I am a big sports fan, and I am wondering about sports movies. Yours?

Here are my favorites:

For cycling: Breaking Away

For running: Chariots of Fire

For baseball: Field of Dreams

For football: Remember the Titans

* * *

On the day that Matan, my youngest, came home from two months at Camp Ramah (his last summer as a camper ☹️), we decided to watch Remember the Titans – his second time and my third.

I am not sure why we had to watch it that night after he hadn’t slept for 60 hours, but we did…

It’s a fantastic movie based on the true story of how T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, integrated its school and its football team in 1970. 

At the film’s beginning, the black and white students and players do not get along, which is an understatement. 

But under the tutelage and hard love from their black coach, Herman Boone, played by Denzel Washington, and his white assistant coach, Bill Yoast, played by Will Patton, who generously put his team and his values before himself in accepting a demotion, they build a team. 

One where everyone figured out how to get along.

Was it easy? No.
Was it messy? Yes.

Was there violence? Sadly, yes.
But did this team create something magical – yes!

They came together as one. 

They went through their season undefeated, becoming not just champions of their league but more importantly, champions of racial integration and harmony.

They taught their parents, fellow students, and the larger world how people from different places can come together.

They taught that all people are equal and that underneath our differences, we are the same.

And the team did it with a smile – like their entrance song. Does anyone remember it? 

Everywhere we go!
Everywhere we go!
People wanna know!
People wanna know!
Who we are!
Who we are!
So we tell them!
So we tell them!
We are the Titans!
We are the Titans!
The mighty, mighty Titans!
The mighty, mighty Titans!

It’s a compelling story, and it’s well told – it’s rare that I see a movie more than once, but this is worth it. If you missed it, give it a look.

* * *

The movie is a good reminder about how hard it is to overcome our racial hate and stereotyping and that this work is not done.

When Sharon and I were in Atlanta last month for a wedding, we had the opportunity to visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. We could see the pictures, documents, and speeches from August 28, 1963, when 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech painted a vision of a different world.

To commemorate this historic event, tens of thousands returned to DC. It was billed as a “continuation” of the original march, “not a commemoration.” But given how Supreme Court rulings and national legislation over the last year have rolled back progress for racial justice, much work remains. 

This Washington gathering was a much more diverse group across gender and other identities. They included the actor Sasha Baron Cohen, who called for an end to antisemitism, and Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg, who called for younger generations to run for office in response to gun violence.

A day when various groups joined together as equals.

* * *

As the Declaration of Independence states: “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.”

Declaration of Independence Where does this idea come from? 

The prophet Malachi, in the 6th century BCE, asked: “Have we not all one Creator? Has not one God created us?”(2:10) The beginning of the Torah states we are ALL created in God’s image.

All human beings come from the same parents; we are all fundamentally the same – every human being has equal worth. 

But, if you look around, that would seem to be untrue. 

It is not our reality. 

We do not look the same, nor do we have the same wealth or the same opportunities. 

The reality is not one of equality but inequality. 

Malachi is addressing things not as they are, but as they could be. 

As they should be. 

Judaism does not simply notice the status quo – it invites us to imagine. 

Imagine a different world. 

Imagine a world where the values we aspire to embody are put into action. 

Imagine a world where we are treated the same. No matter the color of our skin, our religion, our abilities, our gender, or our gender orientation.

But, of course – it’s not enough to imagine it. 

We need to move our reality closer to it. 

The book of Vayikra, Leviticus, declares: “וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכׇל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ – You shall proclaim freedom, liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” (25:10).

What is this freedom that the Torah calls for?

It’s not just an announcement; it’s the Jubilee year, the Yovel, which would correct inequalities that would occur in Israelite society. 

If someone accumulated too much wealth or had too little, this declaration of the Jubilee year returned land to its original owners. 

It was a societal reset. 

It was a moment when entire communities could take a hard look at themselves and try to fix the imbalances that tend to occur over time.

That is still true today. 

Not easy to fix.

But the Torah demands that we try. 

That’s something our society needs to think about —  in terms of race, class, and opportunities for people from all socio-economic backgrounds.

* * *

And now, you might be wondering how this relates to this moment on the calendar or this morning’s Torah reading.

Good questions.

Well, we gather this morning on the precipice of a new year. 

This is when we reset ourselves and perform the self-reflection that allows us to hone in on ourselves and move ourselves closer to what we want to become.

And so, similarly, we remind ourselves that this is not only for us; we should look at our community, our country, and our world and see how we can move them all closer to the ideals set forth in our sources. 

Closer to the dream and the values embedded in the Jubilee year.

And all that brings us to this reading – the final reading of the year 5783. 

It opens with a covenantal moment. 

This one is different from the covenant at Mount Sinai. Sinai sets out the ideals, the vision, and the dream.

As the people are about to enter the Promised Land, it’s time to put these values into practice – it’s time for tachlis – it’s time to get down to brass tacks. 

And the parashah reminds us of the goal – we are ALL in this together – from all parts of the society. 

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ 

“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter God’s covenant.”  (Dt. 29:9-11)

Everyone, no matter what their occupation – even what are seemingly the lowest jobs in our society, they are included – no one is left out of this national partnership.

All people coming together from the lowest to highest – from different backgrounds.

To accomplish that, we need all the tools we can get – dreams and ideas, words and actions, Jubilee years, and yes, even the story of a football team.

Let this year be one when we all come together to make the dream of equality a reality.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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