Choices We Face at the Border of a New Land – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk Speaks on Jason Collins Recent “Coming Out”

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” is excerpted from Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk’s remarks at Shabbat Shelach Lecha, Friday, May 31, 2013 at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to share, respond, or consider carefully these teachings offered at our community’s Shabbat Worship service. You may also see a video archived of the service at the following link: Click on “archived” services and on Friday, May 31 Shabbat Evening Worship.


Joseph Epstein, a well-regarded American essayist and short-story writer, once said: “We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch or the country of our birth. We do not, most of us, choose to die, nor do we choose our time of death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how to live: courageously or with cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or in drift. We decide what is important and what is trivial, what to do and what to refuse. And no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, they are ours to make. We decide. We choose, and so are our lives formed.”

I love this quote from Joseph Epstein. For when I hear its words, I think of a lesson in life that my dad once taught me, by what he expressed on boards in which he served and committees in which he’d been a part. My dad told me that you sometimes have to vote against the pulse of the group. You have to lead others, or risk being seen or misunderstood as a naysayer, in order to pursue a path that is the right one. For at the very least, with your willingness to express your views you can be sure that dissent is recorded in the notes of the meeting, when you feel the community is making an ill-advised decision is an admirable trait, and I’ve hardly ever met someone who disagrees with my dad– at least as long as the discussion is hypothetical.

It is much different in practice, isn’t it?

On paper, it sounds great to say you admire someone for being willing to blaze a new trail, for showing independence of mind and spirit, and for conscientiously objecting to a particular action or a new law or restriction. But what are the actual in-practice experiences of the one who is enduring the community’s reaction to their willingness to speak up and be the first, be the only, or be the one who will take all the slings and arrows, so that another generation might learn. What are the experiences of the trailblazers, when they share the courage of their convictions?

-Ask Jackie Robinson or Larry Doby or the members of their families who remember the abuse of a society who tried to refuse these men the right to play baseball.

-Ask our recent Fairmount Temple speakers Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi or Anat Hoffman,  women who lead in Israeli and in Jewish society, but who have seen the dark underbelly of a society in Israel, now 65 years old, but first coming to terms with the adult questions of who decides on Jewish authenticity and equality, as women and men stand on the other side of barriers marking their separate unequal territories of prayer at the Western Wall.

-Ask my colleague Rabbi Judith Schindler whose father Rabbi Alexander Schindler had so much vision during his lifetime on so many causes- among them to see a new defining paradigm to Jewish identity for the modern age- the notion of patrilineal descent, allowing the children born to either a Jewish mother OR A FATHER, raised with Jewish teachings and lifecycles, to be authentically accepted by their synagogue. Rabbi Schindler was indeed a  trailblazer. But he saw himself as simply part of a continuum. It was his turn to choose, his turn to speak up, and signal inclusion to so many families, but signal as well a change that would and that continues to enrage many Jews across the denominations.

Or look in this week’s Torah portion, that famous passage called Shelach Lecha, in which the scouts described in the Book of Numbers sent on a reconnaissance mission to gather information about the land of Canaan, come back with a mixed message and create a riot. Ten of the spies, the majority report to Moses and the people Israel say- the land in Canaan does indeed flow with milk and honey. But the people who live there are giants! Looking at them, we felt we were as though we were the measure of grasshoppers to the giant obstacles that came before us, and so we must have looked to them.

But two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, they beg to differ. Caleb said Ki Yachol Nuchal. Yes, we can overcome the challenges of conquering new territory. Joshua as well showed with Caleb the confidence and the vision and the clarity of mind and purpose to say through their joint actions to fellow scouts that- no matter what you felt inside your guts, no matter the fear that had you quaking in your boots, ki yachol nuchal. We can do this. We can achieve what society once told us was absolutely unachievable.

It seems to me that in recent weeks, this kind of wisdom, the wisdom of Caleb and Joshua to speak up with confidence that a generational tide is turning and changing our way of life is becoming a more prominent thread in the public dialogue. Instead of the wisdom of the past decade, which posed oversimplified questions to engender a public sensation, not terribly dissimilar to the questions Moses asked the scouts going to Canaan today we are hearing a more nuanced set of ideals expressed and actions taken in the public square on the dividing issues of the moment.

Consider the choice made just last week by another group of scouts- the Boy Scouts of America who changed their definition of membership in order to include young men who identify as gay to their ranks, though not as of yet to their adult leadership.

Or consider the story of well-regarded NBA basketball player Jason Collins, who in a recent well-publicized interview in Sports Illustrated said: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay. [And though] I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport…I am, [so] I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

You’ve got to see this guy play. Jason Collins, a tough journeyman player most recently for Boston’s Celtics, is both in his own self-perception and by agreement of all who can see him, is truly “a free agent ” an agent of change and an agent of freedom and courage, and yet all he ever desires to be for the rest of his life is “to be genuine and authentic and truthful.” This is hardly the agenda of a renegade!

Collins describes a reaction among his family and his teammates that he or any of us might have thought would mirror the divided reaction of the scouts examining Canaan. Would his brother Jarron, who also plays professional basketball, or his grandmother, who grew up in rural Louisiana during the civil rights movement, fear that Jason would not overcome the heckling of fans or the public spotlight?

His aunt Teri, the first relative he came out to, a superior court judge in San Francisco, surprised him by saying “I’ve known you were gay for years,” and this made sure he became settled within his own skin. But he realized he needed to go public about the fact that he had always been gay when Joseph Kennedy, his old roommate at Stanford University and a Massachusetts congressman with a distinguished family civil rights legacy, told him that he had decided to march in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade. His envy at hearing that his straight friend could come out for pride while he was still living in half-truths, made him want to step up for what he thought would be the larger values another generation might take for granted- the values of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that rarely if ever greeted Jackie Robinson, or Anat Hoffman.

Finally, last month’s Boston Marathon bombing made him realize that he shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of his coming out as a gay professional athlete to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?

I have to say- and I don’t know about you. But I had the very same kind of reaction to the news of the Boston Bombing. It was just over a month ago, and immediately preceded a Shabbat that I had planned to travel with my family to join with dear friends celebrating out of town their daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Yet upon seeing the severity of the trauma inflicted at the Boston Marathon, and the numerous ties that our members were expressing to the senseless terror inflicted upon our nation, I immediately thought of you, the folks who come to Shabbat evening services. I thought of the fact that people might be coming to shul that Friday and want to hear from me some message of consolation.

On the other hand, I thought – like Collins describes, with life being able to change in an instant, I also asked myself: is my entire life about my dedication to this pulpit? Am I absolutely essential here to deliver a Shabbat message, or is it in fact, even more important to be present for a once-in-a-lifetime simcha in which my friends feel uplifted at their child’s milestone?

Living truthfully is what Collins says is his desire. Playing fiercely on the court, but with truth as his highest value. Competing in difficult circumstances, fighting in battles and enduring the triumphs and failures that would come their way as they crossed the border into a new land, potentially a land of promise, was the task ahead of the scouts and their followers in our Torah.

But what does it mean to arrive in a promised land, if you cannot live truthfully? So must that question have pervaded the air as the scouts pronounced fears overwhelmed the confidence of the two visionary scouts who saw the possibility of success, if all joined together in solidarity.. As Jason Collins said in his interview, and as Caleb and Joshua said with their actions, a lot of fears can be squelched, a lot of boos can be quieted, if one just goes out on to the field and wins the game, or wins the battle.

In his efforts, Collins says he is guided by the motivational message of his recent coach on the Boston Celtics Doc Rivers, who says, “If you want to go quickly, go by yourself — if you want to go farther, go in a group.” Listen again to that message: if you want to go quickly, go by yourself, if you want to go farther, go in a group. Go together.  That’s what we’re here to do as a temple. To go forward, in a group. We are here to go forward together.

On this Shabbat Shelach Lecha, this Shabbat in a historical moment which so many different tides seem to be changing because of the confidence and bravery of individuals who are or who have been willing in the past to step out on their own and blaze a trail, on this Shabbat, let us pray for the strength to go in a group. May we unify as a society around the core values by which we want to live, and may groups, pluralities of leaders in power, combinations of five or six supreme court judges in their chambers, be capable of pulling together, and pushing us forward to the land across the border. Let us go to that land together.

For the land, they say, is flowing with milk and honey. I hear it really is. So let’s get in there and taste some of its nourishment and sweetness, the nourishment of having disarmed prejudice right after it was locked and loaded, and the sweetness of knowing we’ve done our part to bring about more peace, more goodness, and more understanding, where strife and discord currently live.