A sermon exploring the “Beloved Community,” for Parshat Va’era on MLK Day weekend.
I met recently with my eye doctor and got into a conversation about Ancestry.com. He was intrigued by a feature that suggested the last names of people who might plausibly be related to him. But, when most of them were obvious, or all from the same place in Eastern Europe, he got a little disappointed. What he was searching for in his family tree seemed to be surprise. Maybe he wanted some cool tidbit to share at parties, to feel that somewhere in his genealogical past lurked exotic and alluring details that wouldn’t have come through just by looking at him.
I too share a fascination with all the people who lived and loved and led to me existing. I won’t spoil any of the details of the movie Coco, but if you haven’t seen it yet, and this type of thing attracts, go and watch it. You will be crying.
Our Torah portion, Va’era, begins with Moses crying, well – being a bit of a cry-baby. “God,” he says, “I tried to talk to Pharaoh, and it made everything worse. Now the Israelites hate me too. I can’t do this job of trying to free people who won’t listen to me from an evil ruler who won’t listen to me.” After this complaint, the text shifts suddenly into the beginning of a genealogy. (Exodus 6:14-27).
The Torah reads, “The following are the heads of their respective clans. The sons of Reuben, Israel’s first born, etc. etc.; the sons of Shim’on, etc. etc.; the sons of Levi, one of whom is Kohath, and one of Kohath’s sons is Amram, and Amram’s children are Aaron and Moses. Just as suddenly as it began, the genealogy stops. The other 9 tribes go unlisted. Why is this section here? Why does it start with Reuben and Shim’on, include Levi to Moses, then stop?
When we see genealogies before this in the Torah, in the book of Genesis, those genealogies are all about identity. Who are you depends in part on who you are descended from. Almost every major character in the book of Genesis gets a full genealogy of ancestors and descendants.
But this genealogy in Exodus is far from complete. It starts the way it should, but stops with Aaron and Moses, revealing something I think about another purpose of genealogy. You’ll remember that Moses was in severe doubt about his ability to fulfill God’s mission for him. Instead of a reply from God, the Torah gives us Moses and his brother’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, all the way back to the beginning of the 12 tribes. Here we have genealogy as a source of merit, worth, pride, honor, and legacy. The double helix of our dna plays out in doubt and destiny. Who we are is not just an identity, but a purpose. Moses is reminded of his ancestors to encourage him and to motivate him in fulfilling his mission.
We hunger to know where we came from because we long for clarity of identity, and that special sense of purpose that comes from being a unique human in a long chain that led bit by bit directly to you.
Genealogies unite us through revealing that chain, and connecting us to all our relatives. Genealogies also divide us by collecting us in tribes. I am descended from this person, not that person. So much of the pain our world holds comes from not feeling related to each other. Only a sense of deep difference could lead someone to reject others because they come from someone else, from somewhere else, somewhere deemed lesser because it isn’t here.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt this pain and did his very best to respond with love, to insist on our relatedness, using the term “the Beloved Community” to refer to a world where “poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood….Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict…[But] no conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.” (http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4)
So much of our pain comes from separating ourselves by who we are descended from. What do we hope for those whom we parent and teach of younger generations? How do we understand genealogy not just as a source of particular identity, and particular purpose, but as a vision of peacefulness, a clue to who we can truly be some day?
Let me tell a Jewish story about the very first human, the human who started all genealogies.
Adam’s Soul (as told by Howard Schwartz)
Before God created Adam as a man of flesh and blood, God created a dream Adam, whose name was Adam Kadmon. And God called forth the dream Adam and said: “Alone among all creations, I am going to permit you to choose your own soul.” And God brought Adam Kadmon to the Treasury of Souls in heaven and opened its door. And when Adam looked inside, he saw a sky crowded with stars. And God said: “Every one of those stars is a soul. Which one do you want?”
As he gazed out at that constellation of souls, scattered like sparks, Adam wondered how he could possibly choose one from among them. Every one glowed with a light of its own. Every one was equally beautiful. Then Adam saw that the constellation formed a great Tree of Souls, which branched out in every direction. And Adam replied to the Holy Blessed One, and said: “I want the soul of the Tree of Souls from which all of the souls are suspended.” And God was delighted, and brought forth the soul of the Tree of Souls and gave it to Adam.
And that is why the soul of Adam contained all souls, and why all souls are but a part of Adam’s soul.
So we learn from this story, that not only do we all share a common ancestor, but every person alive shares in the same grand soul that we call humanity.
This is a genealogy that commands us to find it our job to respect and preserve everyone’s dignity, no matter where they come from. We are already the Beloved Community, that single majestic soul refracted beautifully in each one of us. Now – we need to act like it.