The Courage to Stay

03.12.2015

In the NY Times magazine section two weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan writes that the phrase “Let’s get out of here” is among the most popular lines in the movies. These words fit the frontier psychology of American culture. Americans have always wanted to move up and out of some provincial Podunk to something bigger, better and more exciting.

But, lately, says the writer, there is an opposing trend in American movies. Today’s heroes are being urged to stay. In the opening scene of “The Imitation Game”, the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing is talking about a project which he hopes can turn the tide of world war 2. And he says to his students: “if you cannot commit to this, then please leave the room – But, if you choose to stay – remember this: If things happen that you do not like, you chose to be here.”

In the movie Foxcatcher, the wrestler David Schultz bucks up his brother Mark for the 1988 Olympics. He says: “I need you there. Stay focused on what’s important.” The focused stay.

Heffernan says that in an earlier age, we worried that the would be hero would get stuck and never leave his hometown or his dead end job. But, today, we worry that our heroes in training won’t settle on a path at all. Distraction is our great challenge. On highways, we die not in high speed chases, but because we can’t stop texting. So, today’s heroes don’t get outta here. They stay.

That tension between “let’s get outta here” and ‘stay’ is felt strongly in today’s parasha. There is plenty of “let’s get outta here” in our Tradition. The first Jew, Abraham, was told, Lech lecha/leave, go to a brand new place. Our most central national story, the Exodus from Egypt, is a story about leaving a bad situation.

But, even as our redemption is unfolding in Egypt, we already begin to see the down side of a life that is primarily defined by leaving. Time and again, whenever our people face a crisis, our first impulse is to bolt and run. When Moses first comes with a message of rescue, we get excited. The Pharoah makes life worse, and we get discouraged. Then we get excited again when we leave Egypt. Then we panic again at the Red Sea, and we want to get outta there. We don’t seem able to sustain our faith for more than a few minutes at a time.

And, in today’s parasha, it is not only the Jewish people that threatens to get out. It’s God, too, who wants to get outta here. When the Jewish people worship the Golden Calf, God is so frustrated with us, that God wants to destroy us and start a new people with Moses.

And, Moses’s response to God is to show God that God’s success in history is going to depend on God’s ability to sustain a project over a long period of time. He reminds God of his long term dream, a dream that began hundreds of years before with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These were people who themselves were defined by their ability to stand fast, to stay in the game, even when there was very little outside evidence that their dreams would come true. And, God listens to Moses. And, God stays.

There was a time that to be a hero was to get outta here, Today, we need heroes who will commit to a course and stick it out. A couple of weeks ago, I observed a very moving ceremony in memory Ben Delson, a member of congregation who flew 41 missions over Europe and was a POW in Germany in world war two. Ben used to sneak out and steal milk for his fellow prisoners. He was beaten for it, but he kept doing it.

And, the U.S. Air Force remembered, seventy years later. Before his burial, there was a flyover. First five planes flew in formation, and one veered off to symbolize the departure of a beloved soldier. But, then there was a second flyover, with all five planes together again – as if to say, even in death, we are still together. We have not forgotten your heroism.

For any ideal to succeed, we need more than action. We need faithfulness to a cause over time. The true story is told of the grandson of slaves who grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans. His parents abandoned the family, and he had to live with his grandmother. He had a gift for music, and he would sing in the streets to earn money.

A family of Jewish immigrants had compassion for this 7 year old boy and took him in. At bedtime, Mrs. Kanofsky would sing him a Russian lullaby that he would sing with her. Over time, he became their adopted son. They gave him money to buy his first trumpet.

Later, when he became a professional musician and composer, he used these Jewish melodies in his compositions. He wrote a book about the Jewish family that adopted him. Until the end of his life, he wore a Star of David and he said that in this family he learned ‘how to live real life and determination’. The name of this child was Louis Armstrong.

We need more of that staying power today. I attended the AIPAC conference in Washington, DC this past week. I know Nevet and Gabe would have been there, but they had other priorities this week. AIPAC’s mission is to strengthen the life long relationship between Israel and the United States of America. AIPAC does this by cultivating personal relationships with congressman and senators over long periods of time. Often these relationships start when the leaders are presidents of their student body at college.

What especially impressed me this year, was the depth of the America-Israel when it is tested. The best of relationships have their moments of tension. America and Israel is no exception. There was tension this week. By speaking before Congress at this moment in time, Prime Minister Netanyahu risked offending an American president and an entire political party that has been very supportive of Israel. But, considering the stakes, the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, I think Netanyahu made the right call. I didn’t think so before he spoke, but I do now. And, I believe that even though the way the invitation to speak before Congress was arranged was politically crude. It was embarrassing to the president I voted for and the party I feel most connected to.

In spite of this, what impressed me most this week was how the love of Israel by American leaders transcended the tension of the day. Even those who disagreed with Netanyahu spoke passionately of the unshakable bond between Israel and the American people. When Netanyahu entered a packed congress on Tuesday, the air was electric. One of the congressman pulled out his iphone and took a photo! And, when the prime minister of the State of Israel was announced, the applause was thunderous.

I got goosebumps, seeing the reaction in the U.S.Congress to the presence of an Israeli leader. I know some of this is politics. Some of it is personal admiration for Netanyahu himself. But, most of it, I believe, reflects the profound attachment of America to Israel. In spite of what we read in the papers daily, I belive most Americans sense in Israel something heroic, a story of freedom and determination that resonates with the core values of America.

What was applauded this week was Israel’s ability to stay in the game, the courage to stick it out day after day, after all the terrorist attacks and the wars and the international vituperation  – and, not just for 66 years, but for the past 2000 years. Americans get that. The Americans who paid tribute to Ben Delson understand the power of faithfulness to a cause over time. Americans who this weekend commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma march understand the importance of a sustained effort over time to overcome hatred and bigotry.

In the Jewish community, for the past twenty years, we have spoken about loyalty as an outdated concept. I myself have said we have to be creative. We cannot depend on our own people staying with us, just out of nostalgia for our past. Today’s mantra is ‘meaning.’ If it’s meaningful to me I’ll do it. I won’t do it just because my parents and grandparents did.

But, minus the concept of loyalty, ‘meaning’ itself is meaningless. Today’s world is teaching us that we need a return to the value of staying power. The endless search for the latest stimulation cannot be a substitute for relationships that stand the test of time. The richest moments of our lives are meaningful to us precisely because they contain within them the memory of countless earlier moments.

I saw that in the veterans who took off from work to pay tribute to Ben Delson. We can see it in the touching loyalty of Louis Armstrong to the Jewish family that raised him. And, I saw it this week in Washington, DC, when the most powerful country in the world declared its unwavering friendship for one of the smallest countries in the world.

An earlier generation had good reason to say, “let’s get out of here.” Our generation needs to learn about the courage to stay.