When somebody answers, “Who am I?” by telling you who they’re not, they’re telling you a lot. When they go on telling you, instead of what they love and live for, who they dislike and want to punish, they’re telling you even more. Deriving self-worth from those who hold us in contempt does little to make us content, much less to help us flourish. Deep down we know: when someone’s self-worth depends upon making trouble, they are actually in trouble.
Some of the harshest critics of all time were biblical Prophets. Isaiah had contempt for arrogance. It was matched by Nathan’s hostility for hypocrisy and Jeremiah’s rejection of falsehood. But they are remembered for their loves and loyalties. This is because the Prophets loved those they criticized. When they condemned their failure, they always yearned for their success.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who knew the Prophets intimately, and whose 50th yahrzeit was observed this week, once asked: “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Kehillath Israel was honored to host major addresses from both Heschel and King in 1966. As we move forward into the twenty-first century, we seek to shape new bonds and build new bridges that don’t depend upon the past. Rather they dip into its surplus.
Judaism calls this zechut avot, ‘the merit of our forbearers.’ Today’s challenges may be unique but they aren’t original. We’re well-served not to face them with our backs turned to our past.
This week’s portion of Torah introduces the most remarkable prophet of all time, when Moses receives his commission at the Burning Bush. Although the love and loyalty shared between God and Moses will be forged over time, through considerable trials and turmoil, the most emotionally thick verse we meet this week begins in anger and closes with happiness. “God became angry with Moses and said, there is your brother Aaron the Levite. He speaks well, and has already set out to meet you and he’ll be happy to see you” (Ex.4:14). God’s impatience with Moses comes because Moses appears dismissive of the uniqueness he brings to his sacred role. The verse quickly resolves by introducing Moses to his brother, to his family, to his loves and loyalties.
Rabbi Heschel taught that deep challenges are spiritual opportunities. As we rise to meet them, we need not be alone. May our loves and loyalties strengthen us and inspire others to embrace theirs.