June 19, 2020
A colleague shared with me the story of a kind and gentle soul – a child of God seeking the strength and the wisdom he feels he lacks. Seeking affirmation for the person he is. His story and his struggle are uniquely his own – but many of us will see ourselves in his mirror. His name is Noah Hepler and he’s the head pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church of Atonement in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Now in his 30’s, he only been out thirteen years – and has found it hard to acknowledge his queer identity because of a childhood in North Carolina where he was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist denomination that taught that queer people would be consigned to hell. In his seminary years, he even tried marriage to a woman, thinking that would solve his issues – but he ended up coming out to his wife, getting a divorce, and then moving to Philadelphia to fully realize his identity.
She continues her story when the Netflix program “Queer Eye” came to Pastor Hepler’s community as requested from members of his congregation, who wanted him to love himself fully and embrace his role as a leader. Noah was the subject of the first “Queer Eye” episode of the new season, entitled “Preach Out Loud.” The Fab Five crew arrived to find a man who was introverted and almost invisible in many aspects of his life – the way he speaks, the way he dresses, the way he lives – and even the space in which he lives. He has consigned himself to live in the parsonage next to the church, which is such a wreck that it’s unsafe and really uninhabitable. The crew had to physically remove Noah from the residence and create a bright and cheery space for him in the church itself while the parsonage is renovated. They also breathed new life into the church’s communal space and into the sanctuary itself. But there seems to be a deep emotional reason why Noah accepts the way he lives, and this is what they finally coaxed out of him: “I wasn’t able to come out until much later in life,” Noah shares. “I wasn’t at the forefront of people leading the church into greater acceptance. I feel guilty. I have a severe case of impostor syndrome. Like – am I really the best person for them here?”
I think that, in some way, Noah had the courage to express what many of us feel – especially these days. If we don’t quite feel like impostors, many of us feel less than adequate to handle the Herculean tasks that have been thrown into our laps for months now. We may be home-bound parents, or physicians, or teachers, or front-line workers, or retail clerks – asked to perform double- and triple-duty for things we were never trained to do. I can’t tell you what a panic my fellow rabbis are in now, with High Holy Days fast approaching, because we are called upon to be preachers and pastors – but also epidemiologists and video producers and bouncers. That’s not quite our skill set.
And with all this, we now bear witness to the upheaval in our cities, where months of lock down have added to the explosion of raw emotions since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the ongoing systemic racism against all people of color. Even those of us who have for decades been (so we believed) active and committed to the cause of civil rights and the recognition of the dignity and worth of every human being – we are overwhelmed by the immense and rapid national movement of Black Lives Matter from the fringe to the forefront in a tense, hot summer. And we are called on by Jews of Color to actively and quickly develop programs of racial justice, equity and inclusion in our own communities. As such, this feeling of inadequacy, this guilt, this collective case of “impostor syndrome” – like, are we the best people for this job? – has echoes in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41). God has told Moses to appoint a dozen scouts from among the tribes and send them into the Promised Land to see what lies ahead for the children of Israel.
Upon their return, only Joshua and Caleb call on the Israelites to move forward. They do not sugar-coat the challenge but insist, “surely we will overcome it!” (3:30). But ten of the twelve are so overwhelmed by what faces them in this unknown land – that they cower at the thought of fulfilling their God-given destiny: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers,” they report back. “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size. We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must surely have looked to them!” (13:33). “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must surely have looked to them!”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, a Hassidic leader in 19th-century Poland, says this was the sin of the scouts. We can understand, he teaches, the first part – because maybe that is how they saw themselves. But what difference should it make how we appeared to them? And what right did they have to say that, anyway– to presume to know how others see us. This is when our feelings of failure – that we are not smart enough, or brave enough, or strong enough — take over our lives. We not only feel our own inadequacy – we also believe that everybody else sees us for the impostors we are.
This is the essence of the message of the spies. Joshua and Caleb will be chosen to lead the next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land, not because of their words but their example: their emotional strength, and their unyielding faith that God has great plans for the people. And this is the essence of the message to us. Whatever we feel about our own inadequacies, people see us as loving and committed and trying our hardest to help – in the face of the greatest personal and professional challenges many of us have ever known. We may not be giants. But we are not grasshoppers. Thus, we are not impostors and we can make the commitment to listen and learn from our friends of color so that we can enter into the Promised Land together. As we have learned, it is not our job to fix the whole world – only to do our part. Let’s get to work.