America of Firsts

02.08.2017

I grew up around the excitement of the American space race. I remember sitting in my elementary school class and listening to the reporting of John Glenn’s orbit around the earth. I can recall our science teacher, Mrs. Pfeffer, telling us that someday we wouldn’t even remember this moment because space flight would be so routine. And, of course, since she said that, I made a conscious effort to remember it.

 

And, I also remember an argument that I had with my parents a few years later. It was the height of the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson had declared his war on poverty. And, in that context, I wondered aloud why we were spending billions of dollars trying to get to the moon when we could take that money instead and use it to help the poor.

 

A few weeks ago I saw a wonderful film called Hidden Figures which addresses this question in a particularly eloquent way. Hidden Figures brilliantly blends two great American stories/two stories of what makes America great: the story of America’s race to the moon in the 1960’s and the story of the Civil Rights Movement which was unfolding at the exactly same time. The movie focuses on the true story of the contribution to NASA’s space program in the 1960’s of African-American women who were high level engineers and mathematicians.

 

There is one especially powerful scene which focuses on two alternative meanings to the word ‘first.’ Mary Jackson is a black woman who needs an engineering degree to advance in her work at NASA. But, she can’t get into the program without taking graduate school classes at the University of Virginia. And, these classes are only available at a local segregated high school, so she’s not allowed to take them. So at the advice of her Russian Jewish immigrant mentor, Mary goes to court.

 

At first, the judge is unsympathetic. “The law is the law,” he says. “There is no precedent for me to allow you to do this.” But, then Mary approaches the bench. And, she says to the judge: “I know you were the first in your family to join the military. And, I know that you were the first in your family to go to college. I have no choice but to be the first if I want to make the contribution I know I am capable of making. Just because it was never done before, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen now.

 

Now, I want you to think about all the decisions you are going to make in the courtroom today. Which ones will be remembered twenty years from now? But, if you choose to be the first today, you will truly be making a history.” And, the judge was moved by this appeal, and he granted her the right to be the first African American to break the color line at this high school.

 

What I love about this story is how it integrates two very different meanings of the word ‘first.’ These two meanings correspond to two very different kinds of human breakthrough. There is first of all, the race to be first to the moon. It’s our creative side. It’s the drive in all of us to push out our boundaries.

 

Just the other day, I was recalling to a friend of mine the time I first scaled a climbing wall.  I remember vividly the feeling I had when I got to the top. I felt exhilarated because I had done something I never imagined I could do. I had shattered the boundary of what I thought I was capable of, and it made me wonder in what other ways I might be underestimating myself.

 

This is what thrilled Americans and all people about Neil Armstrong’s first step. We all identified with that step. We all want to excel. We all want to be the first. We all want to create something brand new, to go where no one has gone before.

 

But, there is another kind of human breakthrough. This is the breakthrough we feel when we fall in love. It’s what happens when we connect so deeply with another person that we say, “I never knew that I could feel this way before.”

 

It’s what Belle in Beauty of the Beast meant when she looks at the hideous figure in front of her and sees a tenderness she didn’t expect to see. It takes her by surprise, and she says, “there’s something there that wasn’t there before.” This is  the part of us that wants to scale the barriers that separate us from each other.

 

There is a persistent notion that we have to choose between these two sides of ourselves, that we are either one or the other. We are science people or we are humanities people. We are businessmen who care about making lots of money and scaling the corporate ladder. Or, we are humanitarians who care about reaching out to the poor and promoting world peace.

 

I went to NYU’s college of arts and sciences. My roommates at NYU went to the business school. My friends eyed them suspiciously. If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that these prejudices still exist. But, our Tradition says the part of us that wants to be first to the moon and the part that wants to experience love for the first time are two sides of the same person. The Rabbis teach: yetzer ha’ra hu tov. The selfish inclination is good. Our competitive drive is essentially self-serving. But, it can be channeled into acts of generosity.

 

When that judge became the first to de-segregate that high school, he was acting on his desire to make history, to be known, to stand out above the rest. But, he was also acting on his desire to create an unprecedented human connection which is at the root of every true love encounter.

 

In today’s parasha we read, ‘hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodoshim/this month of Nisan in which we celebrate Passover is to be the first of the months on the calendar.” “Rishon hu lachem/It is to be the first to you,” says God. This is the Torah’s way of saying to us: “Think about what it means to be the first. It’s the question that was asked of the judge: What kind of first do you want to be? Do you want to be first to get to the top of the pyramid? Or do you want to be the first to free the slaves from the land of the pyramids?”

 

Or, is that really a false distinction? God says ‘Ani Rishon. I am the first.” The Creator God is also the Redeemer God. The source of all creative breakthroughs is also the source of breakthroughs in love.

 

President Trump is not entirely wrong. Every country has the right to want to be first. Every country and every person has a right to be concerned with its own self-interest. But, that’s only one half of the equation. It’s only one kind of first. Instead of saying “America First”, we should take pride in being the America of Firsts. Both kinds of firsts.

 

After all, the same president who challenged us to be first on the moon also started the Peace Corps. The same president who challenged us to be first in the world in power and technology also said to us: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

We are the country of firsts. Yes, first to the moon, but just as importantly, the place where a child can be the first in his family to go to college, the place where Mary Jackson could become the first black female engineer, the place that people all over the world look first for leadership in the promotion of human rights and the dignity of all people, the place people yearn for first when they have unrealized dreams.

 

When I was in Baltimore last week, my Uber driver told me she had never been out of the State of Maryland. She wishes she could see Paris some day. She’s seen pictures. It broke my heart to hear her say that. But, America has always been a place where people could aspire to be more, to dare to hope.

 

It’s a country where breakthroughs of the human heart are as valued as breakthroughs of human technology, where we take pride in giving every person a chance to to flourish. And, it’s country where a Muslim can reach out to a Jew and say: “I went to Israel for the first time and it moved me”. And, where a Jew can say: “I had a conversation with a Muslim for the first time and it changed me”.

 

Let’s aspire to continue to be that kind of country. Not America First, but the America of Firsts. That has always been and will always be the key to American greatness.