It has been a long two weeks for my family. After a valiant fight against cancer, my stepmother’s life came to an end. At the time of her death, I was driving a U-Haul from Dallas to California, rushing to be at her side and the sides of my father and step-siblings, hoping to say one last good-bye.
For Shabbat, I removed my kriah ribbon, the black cloth that we tear, representing the person torn from our lives. And, following Jewish tradition, I will not shave my beard or cut my hair until someone reprimands me for looking too scruffy. Which means I’ll be shaving on Sunday because my wife, Sandy, thinks I look scruffy. But the reason that we wear ribbons or refrain from shaving is partially so we can silently and subtly tell people in our Jewish community that we are in mourning—that we recently stood at the threshold of life and death—because Judaism teaches us that thresholds should not be crossed alone.
It is especially at thresholds that we need people surrounding us. I particularly feel blessed to have been surrounded by my family as we moved from living with my stepmother to remembering her. And my family was blessed by being embraced by my stepmother’s friends at her funeral, as well as by the many members of this TAE community who attended.
We read about thresholds in this week’s Torah portion, called Pinchas. In our parashah, God tells Moses to ascend a mountain. There, God informs Moses that he will not cross over into the Promised Land; instead, Moses will remain on this side of the threshold, forever outside the Land of Israel. Moses is told to call forward Joshua, whom God has selected to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Moses and Joshua remind us that there are often two types of people who stand at thresholds. There are the people who remain at the door, peering in but not entering. Many of our loved ones are like Moses. They escort us along our life’s path until they reach their threshold. I can’t help but think of our Moseses of this congregation who have helped us move forward: Rabbi Greenbaum; Rabbi Riter; our dear friend, Rabbi Dubowe; and Rabbi Straus, along with the many other leaders and members of our congregation who helped to create and sustain this community. Somehow, it is at these threshold moments that we bring them to mind and express our gratitude for their having moved us along our path. Then there are Joshuas, who are willing to pick up the mantle of leadership and carry it forward, at least a few steps.
It is interesting that just as my father and Sandy and I were blessed to be surrounded by family and friends at the threshold of my stepmother’s funeral, we also feel blessed to be surrounded by you at this threshold that we stand at today. Returning to this congregation that we love so much reminds us of the power and importance of walking this life as a member of community. The importance of community was illustrated in the Torah portion when Joshua was made leader. Rather than God selecting him and introducing him merely to the heads of the twelve tribes, as we might expect, God directs Moses to present Joshua before the entire community. Every single one of the Israelite was able to see Joshua, their new leader, and hear the high priest charge him with his sacred mission. But why should it have been done this way? Why was it so important to establish Joshua’s leadership role in public?
I think the answer is as perceptive as it is timely. The Torah realizes that Joshua, like every leader, has weaknesses and foibles. He will have successes and will certainly make mistakes. By having Joshua receive his divine commission in front of all of Israel, each person can feel a sense of ownership in Joshua’s leadership. Each person can say, “I was there when he became the leader.” And each person can recognize that although Joshua is only a flawed human, he still has the trust of God and the authority to lead.
This insight—that our leaders must be able to lead even though they are imperfect—is the deep wisdom that our country’s founders understood as well. Perhaps with a hint from this week’s portion and other parts of the Torah, and certainly with the wisdom of Enlightenment philosophers like Baruch Spinoza and John Locke, our founders understood that all human beings have flaws—every member of a congregation, every member of the board, every member of the clergy. We all have flaws because we are human beings. And because our founders recognized our common human weaknesses, they chose to organize our country around a covenant, not with God, but with one another. In that covenant, we collectively gave power to our government and then divvied that power up to different groups, all of whom would watch and check one another. The great accomplishment of this country is not that our forebearers declared our independence from England 241 years ago, although that certainly took courage. Our founders’ brilliance is that they created a form of government founded on the will of the public and built on a sober understanding of human nature. That understanding has allowed this country to create one Joshua after another. Each new leader, in turn, may lead us to the next threshold and, like Moses, pass along the power and promise to the next Joshua.
It’s not just about leaders, though; it is also about followers.
While our founders recognized that every human has shortcomings and they tried to address it with our form of government, they also understood that no form of separated powers and checks and balances can ever make up for a citizenry where there is no commitment to truth and compromise and tolerance. It is within communities that we shape and nurture the values and character that sustain our country and its freedoms. For many people—I dare to say, most people—we may not naturally act charitably or kindly to those who are outside our immediate circle of friends and family. Think of the last time that you made a donation to some cause. Was it because you felt called on to support the cause, or was there some larger communal effort that encouraged you to do the good that you know deserves to be done? We act better when we are in a community that encourages us to act better, encourages us to examine our own behavior, and supports us as we try to improve our conduct and our world. That is what I would like to be a part of here at TAE. I want a community that encourages us to reflect on our behavior and our sense of higher purpose and meaning. I want a community where our members care about one another, and then I want to extend that circle of care out beyond our own confines. I want a community where we can develop the character to participate meaningfully and productively within our society and world. I want this community, and I want it with you.
Let’s cross this threshold together. Let’s have hard conversations together. Let’s hold each other gently accountable to become our best selves. And let’s delve into our treasury of wisdom and beliefs as we deepen our relationships with God and with one another.