William Hamilton

That’s our story and we’re sticking to it

What is your story about? Is yours a life story of resilience? Helpfulness?  Courage? Having just returned from a remarkable week in Israel sharing deep experiences with some first-time visitors, the question ‘What is Israel’s story?’ is a question we often revisited. And it feels relevant today to what many Americans find themselves asking: ‘What is America’s story?’

We tell many stories about our country. City on a hill. Manifest destiny.  Of the people, by the people. Ask not. Morning in America. In the wake of last week’s election returns, perhaps consulting the biblical story of Abraham can be useful in recovering and collecting around a vividly moral national narrative.

It is noteworthy that although Abraham builds many altars, he almost never sacrifices offerings upon them. The only actual offering the Torah records is the ram which replaced his son Isaac at this week’s Akeda (Gen. 22:13). Why is this so? What is the Torah trying to convey by minimizing the occasions when ritual offerings are actually executed by Abraham? Perhaps in order to depart from pagan norms. New acts of devotion will not focus upon the quantity of offerings but rather upon the quality of religious centers. 

Rituals, creeds, and institutions, are means that must not dislodge ultimate goals. Goals are expressed prophetically: “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel warns: when the means become the ends, then injustice becomes the way. Abraham’s Ethical monotheism will stress the higher purposes of sacred centers in order to keep from losing the plot of their essential story. Abraham’s story grounds their story. Abraham’s story is one of faithfulness. Is it also about fairness. But even more, it is about protest agains the status quo.

For America too, we must be wary of confusing means with ends. Who gets the next Cabinet post matters. But the kind of America we build matters more.  Clarifying who is responsible for changes in our climate – both our natural and our emotional ecosystems – is important. But our future will be determined by those willing to assume a measure of responsibility for making it healthier going forward. Those who inflame anger and angst require rebuke. But those who embolden generosity and gentility ensure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Victim-villain stories leave us too passive, as done-to rather than as doers. America’s story, like Abraham’s, is about protest and about being doers along freedom’s-way to shape an exemplary, just society. May the subversive texture of the stories of Abraham and America imbue the stories we show and tell with greater goodness.  And if we don’t like how the story ends, may we act to make what appeared to be the end of the story into the middle of the story.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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