Being Good Citizens

In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, have escaped from Egyptian slavery, crossed the Red Sea and are beginning their journey to the Promised Land. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, has heard about the events that took place, and travels from his home in Midian to meet up with Moses in the Wilderness. Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children, and the family is reunited. Jethro congratulates Moses on the victory and offers up a blessing to God on behalf of the Israelites.

The next day, its business as usual, and, as the text describes, Moses takes his position at the head of the community to adjudicate the disputes of the Israelites:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:13-18)

Jethro then advises Moses to set up a system of system of judges wherein selected leaders would be placed over smaller groups of people, “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens,” with each leader handling the disputes of the group that they are overseeing. Larger disputes make their way up the chain, and Moses is left just handling the most important and difficult cases.

It is a system of jurisprudence that is familiar to us, with lower courts handling local disputes with the ability to appeal to higher courts as necessary.

This story of Jethro is taken to teach the importance not only of having an orderly court system, but to have an organized system of leadership in general. Moses running the entire community by himself was not sustainable neither for him nor for the people. We recognize the need to have institutions of government in order to facilitate community and ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

But Jethro has another lesson for Moses. For before advising Moses to set up the system of leaders he says to him, “enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.” (Exodus 18:20)

In other words, Jethro says before you set up a system of judges, make sure the people themselves know the law and what is expected of them as members of the community. A successful system, therefore, is one that not only relies on a functional system of government but on an active and engaged citizenry.

Earlier this week I sat on a panel at The Evergreen State College on the subject of religious liberty and specifically how it relates to the LGBTQ community. I represented a faith community perspective in a wide ranging conversation in which we talked about law, discrimination and the Constitution, circling around the Arlene’s Flowers case, in which a florist was sued for discrimination for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding claiming it violated her religious beliefs. (The Washington Supreme Court unanimously decided against her on Thursday.)

During my opening remarks, I cited the famous letter from George Washington to the Jewish community in Newport, RI in 1790, which has become a sacred text to the American Jewish community. In that letter, a response from Washington to a letter of congratulations sent to him by the congregation on the occasion of his inauguration, he writes,

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I’ve always knew this letter to be an affirmation of religious liberty, especially important to a minority faith community wary perhaps of its position in this new country. But in reading it again we see that while Washington affirms those rights, he also notes that at the same time in order for those rights to be guaranteed, those who live by them should behave as “good citizens.”

From Jethro to George Washington the message is that while we have leaders and guides, the obligation rests on us to know what is expected of us and to behave accordingly.

We are responsible for our civic lives, needing to be educated in our laws, our rights and responsibilities and to conduct ourselves in such a way that we not only exercise them for ourselves but guarantee them for others. Courts can serve as a correction when things go wrong, but the onus is on us to treat everyone fairly.

And we are responsible for our own spiritual lives, needing to be educated in our traditions, texts and practices and to find our place within them in order to live out our values and convictions. We can find others who serve as teachers and guides, but we can not expect others to do it for us.

In both instances, we ourselves are expected to “know the way we are to go.”

Shabbat Morning Quarterback: My Take on the Seahawks Loss

“The thing you are doing is not good.”

These are the words spoken by Jethro to his son-in-law Moses in this week’s Torah portion. The Israelites are settling into their new life since leaving Egypt and adjusting to being a newly freed community. Moses is adjudicating all of the disputes of the Israelites, who line up all day and all night to present their grievances. This prompts Jethro’s response, who advises Moses to set up a more efficient court system.

“The thing you are doing is not good.” These words are a variation of what has been repeated all week, after the stunning loss of the Seattle Seahawks in the Superbowl. In the final seconds of a thrilling game, the Seahawks found themselves down by four points with the ball on the Patriots one yard line. A touchdown would win the game. On second down, quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, and the Patriots intercepted. The game was over with a heartbreaking loss after being so close to victory.superbowl

What made the loss that much painful is the choice to throw the ball in the first place. The Seahawks have one of the best running backs in the NFL, Marshawn Lynch, known as “Beast Mode.” Lynch, who can barrel forward bringing defenders with him. Lynch, whose strength and skill is seemingly made for this type of play. Why did the coaches decide to throw the ball instead of just running it into the end zone?

Since the game I have read way too much commentary and analysis on the play. Some are calling it the worst call in Superbowl history. Others analyze the thought process and understand why a passing play might have been appropriate. One of the more interesting articles analyzed the call in relation to game theory. But in any event, whether it was a bad call, or a bad execution or both—the Seahawks came very close to winning a second Superbowl and blew it in the end.

Not long before the Superbowl, I came back from a retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, as part of my 18-month Clergy Leadership Program. It was an amazing experience of prayer, song, meditation, yoga and study. And now, as I am back from retreat, I continue learning with a weekly hevruta (study partner).

[I should say that my hevruta is a rabbi in the Boston area, and he showed up to our weekly Skype session this week wearing a Patriots jersey. Sigh.]

The theme of our study is an examination of middot (character traits) that we are meant to focus on and inculcate within ourselves. The practice is to make us better people, and thus better leaders. The study is drawn from Jewish texts, mostly from the Hasidic tradition, but we also read a wonderful article by the contemporary spiritual writer Parker Palmer.

In that article, Leading from Within, Palmer identifies 5 “shadows”—or negative traits—that affect leaders today. One is—in a beautiful phrase—“functional atheism.” That is, the belief that responsibility rests solely with me as an individual. Our IJS teachers have presented us with five middot that are meant to balance the shadows. The middah that my hevruta and I studied this week that is meant to “counter” that shadow is bitachon, or trust.

Why trust? As I understand it, it is because when we live under the shadow of functional atheism, we operate under the assumption that we are the only one that matters. That whatever we do or don’t do is the sum total of everything, that it all begins and ends with us. But this is misguided, it is an ego response. Having trust—in God, in the greater system, in each other—allows us to understand that it isn’t all about us, but that we are part of a larger whole that works in ways that sometimes we can not fully understand. Having trust allows us to see beyond ourselves, and understand that nothing can be reduced to one thing, one act, one person, one choice.

So here is my Superbowl analysis: No game can be defined by one call, one play. In sports, we tend to need a “goat,” someone to blame when things go wrong. But that is the wrong response. The game could have been different at many different times. The Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw an end zone interception which could have been a touchdown. There are other plays that could have turned out differently, other choices that would have had different results. Just because they didn’t happen at the end of the game doesn’t mean they didn’t have an effect on the outcome.

That last play didn’t lose the game any more than it would have won it if it was successful. The Seahawks unfortunately lost because of everything that happened on that field. And heartbreaking as the loss was, we can have trust that a team is not just defined by one play or one game.

And there is always next season.