The following drash was delivered at the Saturday Morning Shabbat service at Second Unitarian on September 9th, 2022. You can also listen to the sermon on Contact Chai. This piece also contains a preview of Rabbi Steven’s Rosh Hashanah sermon — do you have your ticket yet?
This past Sunday, I had the privilege of speaking just outside this building at a rally in support of Second Unitarian. I was proud to be supporting a community that is working against the prevailing rhetoric that religious freedom and progressive values stand in opposition to one another. Rather, the free practice of our religion – in their case Unitarian Universalism, and in our case Judaism – in this country demands progress. To be a Jew, living out the values of our tradition, necessitates building a society where people are given the essential human rights of food, shelter, safety, dignity, education, and healthcare – including, as our siblings at 2U have courageously advocated for, access to abortion.
Many of these progressive values have deep roots in our tradition. The rabbis first talked about the right of a person to end a pregnancy, particularly when the life or livelihood of the parent is in danger, nearly two thousand years ago. These same rabbis talked about labor rights, and loan forgiveness, and building robust welfare systems. They talked about access to healthcare and agency in making medical decisions. They spoke on the dignity that should be afforded to all people, especially the most vulnerable. But more than the content of their conversations, what the rabbis gave us is a tradition that empowers us to make change – even when what we are changing is the tradition itself.
One of the first texts I studied from the Talmud – the compendium of rabbinic conversations that serves as the foundation of the Judaism we practice today – is the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, often translated as the wayward and rebellious son. This is one of the 74 mitzvot found in this week’s Torah portion, among laws about prisoners of war, inheritance, burial and dignity of the dead, returning lost objects, and building guardrails to keep people safe. It goes something like this: “If there is a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his parents, and they chasten him but he still does not listen – then his parents shall bring him before the elders of the city and say: This son of ours is wayward and rebellious, he does not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunk. To which the elders will respond by pelting him to death with stones.”
This is one of those moments that makes me cringe. This is part of our inherited tradition? It seems anathema to the Judaism we know and love, which tempers justice with compassion and provides mechanisms for restitution and forgiveness. Yet this is precisely the reason most students start with this text, because two millennia ago the rabbis were also disturbed by this text. And so they started asking some questions. Let’s begin with the word son. Clearly we can rule out anyone who does not identify as male. And we must be talking about a minor, but not someone so young that they can’t understand what they’re doing. Then we must be considering a child who has started but not completed puberty. After extensive conversation about the parameters of puberty, the rabbis conclude that this must specifically refer to the time one begins to grow body hair – according to them, a period of about three months. So a “son” is a male child above the age of majority, who has started but not yet completed puberty, during the three months that they begin to grow body hair. Great. Check.
Okay, but what makes him “wayward and rebellious.” Well the parents later call him a glutton and a drunk, so it must be when he consumes a large amount of meat and wine in one sitting (How large? The rabbis argue about that for a while). Yet, it certainly doesn’t count if he does this while celebrating a holiday, or a wedding, or some other joyous occasion. And if he ate meat but did not drink wine, or drank wine and did not eat meat – that doesn’t count either. But where did he get the meat and wine? Well, it only really qualifies if he steals these items from his parents and consumes them elsewhere – because if he eats and drinks the stolen food at home, he’ll be afraid of getting caught and this will prevent him from further transgression; same if he steals from another person, and eats and drinks in their home.
But what about the parents? Well if one parent thinks he should be punished but the other does not, then he doesn’t qualify. And because the parents say that the son doesn’t listen to koleinu, to “our voice,” then that implies they speak with one voice – that is, they sound exactly alike. And if they sound alike, then they must also be identical in height and stature. If they aren’t, even if they condemn their son, it doesn’t count. The rabbis continue, adding qualification after qualificaiton, until R’Shimon bar Yochai throws his hands in the air. “Oh my god, you guys,” he exclaims. “At this point, there never was nor could there ever be a ben sorer u’moreh.” (One rabbi pipes in from the side, “I saw one’s grave once, somewhere. I think”). But what I imagine happens in this moment is that every other rabbi in the room looks at R’Shimon and says, duh. That’s the whole point. We are not given to this tradition, this tradition has been given to us – and we are empowered to help it grow as we also grow in our understanding of the world, to redirect it as we are directed by our moral compass, to change it as we are changed.
I believe the greatest gift given to us by the rabbis is that the Judaism we practice today is an evolving, interpretative tradition. We are not fundamentalists, nor could we be. History is not kind to rigidity or an unwillingness to change. The ability to adapt our tradition to new challenges and opportunities has allowed us to survive for two thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem, an event that could have just as easily made us a small footnote in the story of humankind. The same vision of a better future that underlies our progressive values today also birthed a hope and resilience that has sustained our people through some of the darkest moments of the past few centuries – and I know will continue to bear us through whatever lies ahead.
That is one of the messages of this season: the hope that things can change for the better and the understanding that it is in our power to make it happen. It is easy (and perhaps a little tempting) to believe that things are just the way they are, because it abrogates us from responsibility and allows us to shrink into the convenient falsehood that we are too small, too powerless to do anything of significance. Which is precisely why the month of Elul – these 29 days leading up to Rosh Ha’Shanah and the new year – begins with the self. It is a reminder that we, just like our tradition, are able to adapt, to change, and to grow. How many of us have allowed ourselves to become trapped by the narrative that there are things about us that are just too broken to fix, too rigid to bend, or too unlovable to be treated with the care and compassion each of us deserves? This is what teshuvah is about, to turn back (literally, this word means to turn back) and look at ourselves, to imagine what a different story would sound like: one in which we have the power to repair what we have broken, to forgive those who have hurt us, and to step into the happier, more powerful, and more courageous self that has always existed within you but was hidden by the lie that you could never become that person. What if we believed that everything could be changed, including ourselves?
I’m going to be speaking on this more during Rosh HaShanah, so this is a little preview of what I’ll be talking about – but I want to share some of what has been on my heart this season. My year started with the decision to get divorced, a difficult and heartbreaking process that was finalized just a few months ago. The end of my marriage made me feel like a failure. I wondered if I was inherently unlovable. I looked at the parts of myself that were broken and started to suspect that they would never be fixed. Maybe this is just who I am. But that is the lie of divorce. It is the same lie told to us by being rejected from college, or being fired from a job, or by not meeting your goal weight, or by hearing that the embryo didn’t take, or by receiving the call that the loan wasn’t approved, or by walking away from another disagreement with your mother, another fight with your partner, another argument with your child, or by picking up the bottle again, or by lighting up another cigarette even though you said you’d quit but you’re at your wits end and it’s just too much to deal with right now. We try and we fail and we fail again. We take risks that don’t pay off. We make decisions to end things that weren’t supposed to end. We fall back into habits that we said we would quit. But where we might tell a story that continues indefinitely, unchanging into the future, one that says this is just who I am and this is just the way things are – our tradition reminds us that it is in our power to rewrite the narrative. It may not look like the story we planned. This is certainly not the story I planned when I stood under the chuppah. But it can be a happier story, a story about our resilience and our courage and our ability to change, a story that surrounds us with people who love us in both our moments of struggle and our moments of strength, a story that upholds our dignity and celebrates our worth.
This is our sacred inheritance. This is teshuvah. It is the imagination to dream of what a better future might look like, the ability to tell a new story that rewrites the narrative of our lives, and the will to bring it into being. The tools for change are in your hands. They’ve always been there.