April 1, 2017—5 Nisan 5777
I have been saying Kaddish for my mother and mother in love every day. One of the glories of Kaddish is that it creates a space for me to free associate different stories.
Last Sunday morning, at minyan, while saying Kaddish, out of the clear blue, I had a crystal clear memory of what happened to my Mom and me one day in Denver, Colorado in June, 1977. That summer I was going to Israel with a teen study tour from Denver. Going to Israel was a big deal. Neither of my parents had been able to go to Israel, neither went to college, we had no money, but I was going on a very subsidized trip which made my going possible. Before the trip, we got a packing list. Because the trip was long, six weeks, there was a lot of clothing on that list. I did not own most of the clothing on the list, and it was going to be prohibitively expensive to get it all. But then my Mom had a great idea. There was a Kmart in Denver which sold clothes called imperfects that were stacked in bins. There were stacks of imperfects, clothing rejects, button down shirts missing buttons, polo shirts sporting stains, clothing with scars and seams visibly showing. My Mom was able to get me every item on the list at a discount, and I went to Israel attired in my imperfects.
Through the magic power of Kaddish, that time at the imperfect bin in Kmart in June, 1977 came back to me in the Gann Chapel just last Sunday. Why that memory, why just then? Perhaps it has to do with Passover.
What I know now, that I did not know then, is that it’s not just the clothing in the Kmart bin that is imperfect. We are all imperfects. What are we to do with our scars, our stains, our missing buttons?
I recently read a profile of the actress Viola Davis by John Lahr in the New Yorker.
In her childhood she knew dire poverty. Her family was so poor that they lived in dilapidated buildings, some condemned, without heat or electricity or food. She once invited a friend to her house, and the friend opened the refrigerator, and there was no food in it. Her friend asked: “Are you guys moving?” For the years of her childhood, she ate one meal a day, school lunch. Growing up, she remembers always being hungry. What do you do with a scar like that?
The other trauma of her childhood was that her parents had a challenging marriage. Her father would get paid on Thursdays, and he would come home drunk, and would act in scary ways against their mother. What do you do with a scar like that?
Viola Davis’ scars may not be our scars. But everybody has something. What shall we do with our imperfects?
We could suppress, repress, lie, deny.
But there is another alternative, one suggested by the holiday of Pesach. Here is the core fact about the ancient Israelites. They were slaves. They were owned by taskmasters. They were worked by taskmasters. When their taskmasters said jump, they had to say, how high? That is a huge badge of shame.
What is it like to be a slave? It is impossible for we who are not slaves even to imagine what it is like to be a slave, but I saw something recently that is at least suggestive.
There was an African American couple named Kenneth and Mamie Clark who did famous doll experiments in the 30s and 40s. Their studies based on these experiments helped persuade the Supreme Court to overturn separate but equal in Brown v. Board of Education. What happened in these experiments?
The Clarks gave African American children two dolls that were identical except one doll was white, the other doll was black. The child was asked a series of questions: which is the doll they would rather play with, which is the nice doll, which doll do they look more like? The study showed a clear pattern that African American children living in a segregated world showed a strong preference for the white dolls over the black dolls. These children had internalized the racism inherent in separate but equal—real damage that motivated the Supreme Court to declare separate but equal unconstitutional.
Now imagine the psychological scars not of being segregated, but of being slaves? Israelite children and adults would have internalized terrible shame about their slave past. We might expect them to repress their past as slaves, to deny it, never to talk about it. But the opposite is the case.
The Torah teaches us: own it. Find a way for the most painful parts of your past to make you better, stronger, deeper.
The Talmud teaches that the Torah instructs us on 36 separate occasions that because we were slaves in Egypt, we should be compassionate to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, all those who are vulnerable. You were vulnerable. Be good to others who are vulnerable. That is the single most frequently repeated command in the Torah. Transform the shame of your slavery into greater compassion in your lives as free men and women.
That is what we do with the imperfects we wear, with the scars and stains and missing buttons. We do not suppress, repress, lie, deny. Rather, we find a way for that pain is to make us better, stronger, deeper.
Which brings me back to Viola Davis. What did she do with the pain of her past?
She recently won an Oscar for best supporting actress in the film Fences. She plays Rose, a woman married to Denzel Washington’s Troy for 18 hard years. Troy is a garbage collector. He was once a talented baseball player whose talent could never shine due to racial discrimination in baseball when he was in his prime. His life is fenced in. Constricted. Constrained. Circumscribed. Small house. Little money. Promising career that never happened. He drinks too much. Rose is his long-suffering wife. In one especially memorable scene he lets her know not only that he has been having an affair with another woman—she makes me laugh, you don’t make me laugh—but also this other woman is pregnant with his child.
You have to see Viola Davis’s response to believe it, her pain and passion and pathos. Commenting on this searing scene, one of Viola Davis’s co-stars puts it simply: “You can’t go there if you haven’t been there.” She was there. So she could go there. Viola Davis channels the pain of her childhood into her non-pareil acting.
But it was not only in her acting where the pain of her past made her better, stronger, deeper.
Viola Davis grew up with her father being abusive towards her mother. She waited a long time until she found just the right man to marry, which one day she did. She was 34 when she met a man named Julius Tennon. At the end of one evening, Davis said “it was a wrap.” Viola and Julius have been happily married ever since. Better. Stronger. Deeper.
She grew up in houses that did not have electricity. Now she and her husband and their daughter Genesis live in a beautiful home. Better. Stronger. Deeper.
She grew up hungry. Now she and her family have an abundance of healthy food. Better. Stronger. Deeper.
We are not Oscar winners, but we can find our own way not to suppress, repress, lie and deny. We can find our own way for our pain to make us better, stronger, deeper.
I finally came to understand why, last Sunday, while saying Kaddish, I thought about the bin of imperfects where one June afternoon 40 years ago my Mom outfitted me for my first trip to Israel, which the community paid for. I have always been passionate about helping our teens get to Israel, and not letting money get in their way. I only now came to understand why that is–because 40 years ago, that teen was me.
We all have scars. We all have stains. We all have missing buttons. That goes with being human. The question is: how do our scars, our stains, our missing buttons make us better, stronger, deeper? Shabbat shalom.