11 Cheshvan 5779 — October 20, 2018
Every so often a new phrase will emerge that I had never heard before, and suddenly it seems like everybody is using it.
A few years ago the new phrase was bespoke, meaning something tailored to your unique predilections. A bespoke suit is a suit made just for you. A bespoke vacation is a vacation crafted just for you.
Then the hot phrase was curated, meaning that some collection was organized or selected according to some principle that made sense. Curated clothing for young professionals.
Then there is artisanal, meaning a distinctive product made in small quantities by hand, using traditional methods, rather than by machine. Artisanal cheese, for example.
Bespoke. Curated. Artisanal. That seems so long ago, relics of a bygone era.
The phrase that I keep hearing nowadays strikes a very different tone. That phrase is hot mess. As in, the Senate confirmation battle was a hot mess. Our political division is a hot mess.
Our country is a hot mess. I was hearing this phrase so often, by ordinary people in ordinary conversations, that I decided to look it up in urban dictionary. I was surprised by what I learned.
I had thought that the hot in hot mess was about temperature. That hot was a synonym for fiery, burning, heated. Inferno mess.
But as defined by urban dictionary, the hot in hot mess has a different resonance entirely. Not temperature. Not inferno. Rather, the hot in hot mess is used as it is used colloquially to describe somebody who is attractive or compelling.
Hot mess is not inferno mess, but attractive mess. Here is the actual definition:
“When one’s thoughts or appearance are in a state of disarray but they maintain an undeniable attractiveness or beauty.”
This nuance is important. An inferno mess would mean stay away, stay away, it is fiery and messy. Who needs it? But an attractive mess suggests that a person or a place or a situation is compelling, attractive, beautiful—and troubled, all at the same time.
Which brings us to our beloved country today, a hot mess, an attractive mess. The beauty is real. The disarray is real. At the same time.
If your eyes are open to see it, you will encounter stories of the decency, kindness, humility and character of ordinary citizens. For example, the story of a 21 year-old named Trenton Lewis who had no choice but to walk to and from work at UPS in Little Rock, Arkansas every day. It was 5.5 miles a day each way. He had to be at work by 4:00 a.m. He would walk for three hours, from 1:00 to 4:00 a.m., every day, to get there by 4:00. He was inspired to walk these long miles at this ungodly hour because he wanted to provide for his infant daughter. One day, a UPS driver learned that Trenton Lewis was walking both ways every day, and he started a collection. Every person who was asked gave. These are UPS workers who don’t make a lot of money, but their hearts went out to this young father. They raised $1,900 and bought him a car. That story is true. That decency is real. Real people doing beautiful and inspiring things. That is our country.
But what is also our country is how divided we are, how fraught and taut and urgent the moment a few weeks before the mid-terms. The title of a recent Thomas Friedman column is so evocative. Civil War, Part II. When my colleague, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, gave a sermon about our country on Rosh Hashanah, entitled “An America of Hope and Fear,” talking about the divisions in our land, many applauded; many walked out. In one service, while he was in the middle of delivering the sermon, a person got up and started challenging him: Rabbi, it is totally inappropriate for you to give this sermon. The Rabbi said if you wish to leave, by all means, feel free to leave. And the man did as the Rabbi continued to deliver his sermon. That is also our country. That is a hot mess.
How do we understand the notion of a hot mess, and what we are supposed to do about it?
Our Torah reading speaks directly to this issue. Abram and Sarai are commanded to be a blessing. Veheyei berakcha.
Now if that is their job, to be a blessing, you might think that God would create a landscape where being a blessing was easy. Maybe the land that God would show them would be unpopulated, virgin land with abundant resources. Maybe God would give them a tabula rasa, a clean start in a clean land.
But when they arrive in the land, it turns out that it is already settled by another people. The Torah is matter of fact about this. Vehaknaani az ba’aretz, the Canaanites were then in the land.
A tabula rasa is not to be. An easy landscape for blessing is not to be. If Abram and Sarai are going to be a blessing, they are going to have to be a blessing in a crowded, imperfect place filled with real people, real conflict, real problems.
The Canaanites were then in the land. There is not enough food to go around. No sooner do they get there then Abram and Sarai have to look elsewhere for food.
The Canaanites were then in the land. Abraham has tensions with the Philistines over water rights.
The Canaanites were then in the land. Abraham has to rescue his nephew Lot from four invading kings.
In short, God’s charge is not just be a blessing. That’s hard enough. But be a blessing even though the Canaanites are then in the land. Not enough food. Not enough water. Lots of people. Now be a blessing there. That is even harder.
The Torah invites us to reframe things. Anyone can be a blessing in Utopia. Anyone can be a blessing at Disneyworld. Anyone can be a blessing on a perfect day at the beach. But to be a descendant of Abraham and Sarah is to be a blessing at a time of, in the presence of, hot mess.
All of this came to a head for me on October 5. October 5 was a perfect, crisp autumn day. I was trying to figure out a split screen that was playing out.
On the one hand, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Larry Bacow was being inaugurated as the 29th President of Harvard. There were 10,000 people in Harvard Yard to celebrate this moment. So much unity. 10,000 very diverse people who shared so much love, so much hope, so much joy.
And on that same day, in Washington, D.C., a very different vibe, Civil War, Part II, the most divisive Supreme Court confirmation in our nation’s history was playing out.
Who should be at the inauguration but the Governor of our Commonwealth. I saw him, and I said to him: Governor Baker, can you help me figure something out? There is so much love and unity here. And the opposite of love and unity in our nation’s capital. The same country. The same day. Two different realities. How does all this fit together?
I will never forget what he said. He said that our nation is in a rough patch. But we have been in a rough patch before. He said he was asked to speak at an event for the Special Olympics. So he did some research on the Special Olympics, when and how it was founded, how it has grown, and what he discovered is very relevant to our reality today.
The Special Olympics was founded in 1968. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics. He pointed out that America in 1968 was a hot mess.
JFK had been assassinated 5 years earlier. In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Senator Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Our involvement in the Vietnam War was deepening. LBJ was not running for reelection due to that war’s unpopularity and his role in deepening our engagement in it.
The Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 was famously contentious.
With all that tension, somebody might have said: what can I do? The country is so fraught. The country is so divided. How can a blessing grow in such rocky, divided soil?
But it was precisely then and there, in 1968, the year of the assassinations and the contested convention and the deepening Vietnam War, that the Special Olympics were founded, to see people with special needs who had not been seen, to empower people who had not been empowered, to celebrate people who had not been celebrated. In the fifty years since it was founded, the Special Olympics has grown exponentially. More dignity. More decency. More seeing. More including. All of which started in 1968.
We did it then. We can do it now.
Our country is a hot mess now. That is true. But Canaan was a hot mess for Abraham and Sarah. 1968 was a hot mess for the founders of the Special Olympics. Maybe that is why the Torah grounds the Abraham and Sarah story in the reality that the Canaanites were then in the land. Because life is always a hot mess. Nobody gets a tabula rasa.
What can we do now to be a blessing? Shabbat shalom.