Early one morning in August 1993, Jose Antonio Vargas’ mother dragged him out of bed and brought him to an airport in the Philippines. He was twelve years old. His mom had told him a few months earlier that they were going to join his grandparents and live in America. Jose would travel first with a man his mom said was one of his uncles, and a few months later, his mom would join them.
Jose made his new home with his grandparents in Silicon Valley. America was this incredible place where he learned English, ate gallons of Neapolitan ice cream, and got his first laptop. And a few years later, when he was 16, Jose decided it was time to do what most other teenagers across America were doing and went to the DMV to apply for a driver’s permit.
He brought his green card that his grandfather kept in the filing cabinet in his bedroom, along with his school ID and presented everything to the lady behind the desk. She looked closely at the green card, then leaned forward over the desk and whispered to him: “This is fake. Don’t come back here again.”
This was the day that Jose Antonio Vargas learned that he was an undocumented immigrant. And in an instant, the entire story of his life up until that point was called into question.
He started asking all sorts of questions, like “If this green card is ‘fake,’ then what else is ‘fake’? Who else knows? Why didn’t anybody tell me? Can I tell my friends about this? Can I trust my family? Who can I trust?”
He learned how to hide in plain sight. He taught himself how to pass as a “true American,” how to be perfect in order to avoid detection and deportation. He pursued a career in journalism, rising in the ranks at the Washington Post, winning a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, but revealing his true identity only to a few close mentors and friends along the way.
Jose recently published his story in a book called Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. I read about how he hid from his colleagues at work, how he pulled away from his family members, and while there was so much in his story of hiding as an undocumented American that I haven’t experienced and cannot know, what resonated for me on a shared human level was the experience of how scary, how anxiety-provoking it can be to hide the truth from the people around you, especially when it doesn’t conform to the narratives that you’ve been telling yourself, or the ones that the people around you want to hear.
I spent a good chunk of time this past spring feeling burnt out, and not knowing why. The image that kept coming to mind was that I was like a scorched pot, and every time I wanted to teach something or be “inspiring,” I’d have to scrape the bottom for bits to offer. I chalked the feeling up to the fact that my dad’s first yahrtzeit was getting closer, and all of the anniversaries from a year ago – my dad getting sick so quickly, his death, and then my wedding anniversary – were coming up, and so of course it was an intense time. At least, that’s the narrative that made sense to me and was easy to communicate to other people when I got irritable and short-tempered at work. But what was so shocking to me was that most people that I spent significant time with, even my coworkers, my therapist, and my husband, had no idea that I was having a hard time. My burnt-out-ness was so obvious to me all the time, because I was living it, but apparently I do an incredibly good job putting on a positive, competent face to the world because no one else really had a clue. At first I thought it was their fault that they couldn’t intuit what was going on with me – but then I realized that this was something I needed to figure out how to express.
I took a little time away at a retreat, and I resolved while I was there that I’d only teach something during the retreat if it came naturally from my own experience and my truth, and not from a sense of obligation or “should”. I listened to other people around me speak about their lives with total unvarnished honesty, just letting truth flow out of them, uninhibited and unedited, and little by little, I practiced doing this too.
And when I got home, I wondered: Why is it so hard, here in the real world, to tell the truth, even when the stakes aren’t as high as they were for Jose?
The Zohar, one of the core Jewish mystical texts, calls the world we live in “alma d’shikra” – the world of illusion. Truth in this world is hard to come by.
For me, some of the reasons are:
- We aren’t sure if we’ve got it right, and we don’t want to say anything until we’re 100% positive.
- We think that what’s true might change, so we don’t want to commit to it.
- And most of all (for me), we’re scared that the truth might be painful. We’re scared of hurting the people that we love by speaking the truth into being.
I grew up in a family full of tremendous love, and also one where we learned that if there was a truth that was messy or didn’t conform to a simple narrative, it was better and easier to keep it quiet inside until you’d figured out what it meant for yourself and were pretty confident that you were right. It’s only recently that we’ve begun to explore other ways of being in the world by practicing speaking the truth.
It’s easy to think that my family is the only family in the world who struggles with truth-telling, but I know we’re not alone.
Our own biblical ancestors lived in this tension between narrative and truth. The narrative? The promise that God had given Avraham that he would become the father of a multitude of nations, that Sara would give birth to a son, and that this first family would become a great nation, a blessing to all of the families of the earth. The reality was that for years, Sara hadn’t been able to become pregnant, and that it seemed that their legacy would never come to be. So Sara gave her maidservant Hagar to Avraham to bear a child for him, named Yishmael.
In the section we read this morning, Avraham and Sara finally became the parents of a son, Yitzhak, the fulfillment of their long-awaited dream. This is a moment of incredible joy for their family, but it also opened a rift. Avraham had now become the father of a multitude of nations: two sons, from two mothers; one with status and power, one with no protection at all, and Sara demands that Hagar and Yishmael must be cast out. How are they supposed to reckon with the fact that the truth of this family is far more complex than what they were promised?
We asked before we began this reading which character you identify with in this story, this year as we’re reading it again with fresh eyes. I have always identified with Avraham in this moment. His internal moral truth says: this isn’t right. Hagar and Yishmael are part of my family; I can’t let them be sent off into the desert, I have to resist letting this happen. But if I say something, if I come to their defense, I will risk destroying Sara’s dream, which is also my dream, of having the family that we’ve always wanted. He can’t hold all of this truth together – the pain and fear that his wife feels, the vulnerability of Hagar and Yishmael, and how threatened these parts of his family are by one another. And in this moment, he remains silent.
We often frame the choice as one between telling the truth and telling a lie. But rarely is it that black and white. More often, the choice is between truth and silence. We wonder: Can I risk sharing something that’s not yet fully formed? Can I speak this out loud, even though it might change? And how can I say my truth with as much love as possible, so that it has the opportunity to be heard?
I think it starts with being able to see the truth that’s in front of us, when so often it remains hidden.
Hagar and Yishmael flee to the desert, and when their water runs out, Hagar becomes certain that she and her son will die. She leaves him underneath a bush and sits far away from him, both of them weeping, both of them suffering, but separate – unable to share in each other’s pain and unable to access any kind of resources that could help them. It’s easy to judge her here, to wonder how she could have abandoned her child, but I think she also needed to take a moment for herself away from the overwhelm, a moment to breathe and distinguish between the story she was telling herself and the truth of her reality before returning to her son. And sure enough, when she opens her eyes, she sees that a well of water has been there in front of her all along. All the resources that she needs are there – she just needed to pause and take a breath before she could access them.
The truth is often so much more expansive than the stories we have grown used to telling. Can we be courageous enough to see it – and then to speak it?
Jose Antonio Vargas realized that the terms that others used to define his life – undocumented, illegal, unAmerican – did not reflect the reality of his own lived experience. He began a gradual process of truth-telling about his immigration status: first to a handful of trusted teachers and mentors in his high school, then to a few trusted coworkers at his newspaper, and then, courageously, to his own family.
And in 2011, Jose decided to come out publicly as undocumented in a story that was published in the New York Times Magazine. As a journalist, whose credibility rested on his ability to tell the truth as an impartial observer, it was a tremendous risk to place his own story at the center of the narrative and even more so to admit that he had lied and broken the law in order to get where he was today. It essentially destroyed any chance that he had at gaining American citizenship, which was already slim. But the vision he had for his project was much larger than his own story by this point.
His nonprofit, Define American, began to help other undocumented immigrants share their stories publicly with the goal of ultimately changing the conversation around immigrants, identity, and citizenship in this country. It is a humanizing project, a truth-telling project, believing that you cannot change the politics of immigration until you change the culture in which immigrants are seen. In each story, another undocumented immigrant shares their truth of what it means to be American, one that defies the narrow definitions and narratives that we have absorbed about who immigrants are.
Like Jose’s definition: “I define American as someone who works really hard, who’s proud to be in this country and wants to contribute to it. I am an American – I just don’t have the right papers.”
Maybe our truth, too, can expand beyond the narrow boxes that we’ve always known.
So in this moment, before we sound the shofar, I want to invite you to close your eyes and just ask yourself: What is true for you right now, in this moment, and maybe hard to see?
This year, my intention is to practice acknowledging the truth in these small moments so that I can speak it into existence. I want to encourage all of us to give ourselves the spaciousness we need to remind ourselves of what’s true for us. I want us to practice telling the truth with the people we’re closest to, taking risks, and doing so with as much love and compassion for ourselves and for others as we can muster. As often as the truth may be hard to share, and also hard for the person on the receiving end to hear, it is also often the beginning of a conversation that has been necessary for a long time, and may even be welcomed. We can share our truth as it exists in the here and now, even if what we want to say isn’t fully formed, and even if it changes along the way. It will change and evolve as we bring it into conversation, because it is alive, as we are alive.
I believe that in alma d’shikra, this world that is so often full of illusions and lies, telling the truth can be an act of resistance and hope in something that is much more fundamental, believing in the ultimate stability and foundation of our world that is beneath an ever-changing surface. This year, as we experience the call of the shofar, may we open to the expansiveness of truth in all of its multiple voices, and may we gain the courage to add our truth to the sound. L’shana tova.