In 2015, before the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, I delivered a sermon which has always been one of my favorites. The sermon was inspired by an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg called Sometimes the Smallest Things. It is a great piece in which the author describes how his mother taught him to tie his shoes the wrong way and how long it took for him to figure that out. You can find it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/02/opinion/02tue4.html
In the sermon, I spoke about the importance of honoring our parents and grandparents for everything they taught us, even for the things we later discovered were wrong. My point was that presuming parents were loving and wanted the best for their families, adult children should respect them and honor them for teaching them the wrong things now and then because, in the long run, that gave us the opportunity to grow. Growth comes from recognizing there is a more efficient, more meaningful or more ethical path we can take than the one that was handed down to us.
In that sermon, I also quoted from one of the most moving scenes in television history. In an episode of All in the Family entitled Two’s a Crowd. Archie Bunker and his son in law Mike have an deeply personal conversation in which Mike tries to convince Archie that his father was wrong for using a racial epithet and Archie refuses to accept it. Mike says: “Your father was wrong, Archie” and Archie responds with a beautifully emotional tribute to his father in which he said a father could never be wrong. You can find the episode online and it is worth watching if you have never seen it.
It was such an emotional scene and, of course, Mike was absolutely right. Parents can be wrong and our children and grandchildren will say that about us someday if they haven’t already.
While the sermon was about our family relationships and simple lessons such as tying your shoes or, in my case, shooting a basketball (which my father taught me to do incorrectly), I stressed that growth takes place when generations realize that what they had been taught was wrong. I cited two public examples that were in the news at that time: the first was the legalization of same-sex marriage and the second was the removal of the confederate flag from the capitol building in Columbia, SC in wake of the horrendous murder of 9 African Americans at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston by a gunman who identified with that flag. Each was an example of a rejection of the past and of growth to a better future.
Were I to give that sermon today, I would naturally pay much more attention to that last point as we see many in our nation calling for the removal of not only confederate symbols but also memorials to our founding fathers and others from our history because they owned slaves or expressed racist views. This is a very emotionally charged issue and one which many of us are wrestling with.
Can we find some wisdom from Jewish tradition concerning this issue? I believe we can.
First, our tradition is one which recognizes, respects and cherishes history. We are commanded never to forget the past and how it can guide our future. We are obligated to remember the past completely, failings and all. We don’t remove from the Tanach the sections which paint our “heroes” in a bad light. We remember stories about weaknesses and sins.
In that light, I believe that our first obligation regarding our nation’s past is to commit ourselves to telling the entire story of our history and our leaders. We have not been completely honest in our telling the story of the of the past and we must accept that fact. We need to look at the lives of those whom we have honored and be frank and honest about their failings, especially in this area.
Whether one can continue to respect these men and women who did so much good for our nation after hearing their complete stories and continue to honor them despite this grievous moral failing is a difficult question and each will have his or her own answer. But, whatever we feel, we can not bury the negative aspects of the past and we certainly can’t immediately brand anyone who raises this issue as unpatriotic whether they are expressing this view quietly or passionately marching in the streets. The idea that it would be “un-American” to question, for example, Washington or Jefferson’s legacy is misguided to say the least. Honesty demands of us that we confront the past with eyes open wide and with a full story, no matter how painful.
Secondly, it is important to remember that, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, no one is perfect. That is why we have the concept of teshuva, repentance, which impels us to evaluate our lives and make changes to return to the proper path. Ideally, people have the privilege of living long enough and being thoughtful enough to repent from that which they have done or said and change their behavior. But, many of the people whom we routinely honor endorsed slavery and racism to their death and their failure to repent and change needs to be taken into account when we remember them.
But, even if they didn’t do teshuva, our nation as a whole should have repented. Had we properly done so, the discussion about the past would, I believe, be very different than it is today.
While we can sincerely point to positive progress in confronting inequality in our nation over the years, we have clearly not done nearly enough. The inequalities in this nation: income, opportunity, health care and notably law enforcement and the judicial system are glaring to the point where it can be said, as many have, that we have never cleansed ourselves of this sin which was at the foundation of so many of our national institutions. Had we done so more sincerely and more actively, it would be easier to just point to the founders of our nation as being products of the time and we could celebrate the fact that we have grown, having learned from their mistakes. But we have not changed enough to make that claim.
So, in the end, the debate about what should be done with the statues and other memorials is legitimate and it must lead us towards coming to terms with our history honestly and sincerely. As a lover of American history, I would hate to see monuments of our early patriots torn down. But, as one who loves this country, I do want to see and be part of a change for the future. We need to question the past but, more importantly, we need a process of teshuva, of repentance, that recognizes those moral failings, commits ourselves to growth and leads our nation closer to true equality, to being the land where the dreams of all can come true.