Every time I fly on an airplane the same thought goes through my head: Do I tell them? I have flown on many flights in the last five weeks – to Florida and to Israel.
The routine is the same even if the players are not, like some grand play with an excellent setting and dialogue but the actors change. I lurch down the aisle and pray there is room for my bag up top; I thump down into my seat and when the person next to me introduces themselves almost every time, I sit down and put on my seatbelt. The door closes, the plane lifts off and then the person sitting next to me asks me what I do for a living. Do I tell them I’m a rabbi?
When I do, (spoiler alert: I always tell them) I hear their wonderful life-stories of success and failure, of adventures and misadventures. Like the time when I was flying to Orlando and in the seat next to me was an engineer who worked for years on refining a propulsion system in aerospace only to be laid off at fifty-five because the company downsized and now she’s trying to reset her life. Or the teenager on my way to Newark from Ft. Lauderdale who tells me of the leadership clubs she is in only to then tell me later that she struggles with her body image and feels like no matter what she does on the outside she never feels right on the inside. Or the man who’s on a business trip to Israel (he lives in Killeen, Texas) and is excited to make a deal, but in his heart he’d rather be home to nurse his ailing mother. I’ve heard each of these stories in the past several weeks and I know there are countless more. I’m amazed that when I tell strangers what I do, how quickly they open up to me and not just share their beauty, but their brokenness.
At some point in the conversation, after much storytelling, we inevitably get to what I call the “rabbi question.” It’s the number one question I get from both the religious and the non-religious, Jewish or not. I’m sure other professionals can relate to this same story. My friends who are doctors probably get medical questions, friends who are in politics get political questions, friends who are in business get business questions. I, being a rabbi, I get the rabbi question.
At some point they ask me, “Am I a bad Jew/Christian/Person because I…”. It doesn’t really matter what the end of the question is. Sometimes it’s about addiction or infidelity, sometimes it’s about not keeping kosher or Shabbat, sometimes it’s about rejecting the religion of their parents. Sometimes the rabbi question is asked in defiance and sometimes it’s asked in deference, but the question starts out the same way, always – “Am I bad?”
I never mind getting asked. In fact, I’ve come to expect it and am honored that a complete stranger, whom I only met just a few minutes before, would be so open with me. Usually it’s an invitation to tell me more about their lives and their choices, and often they share with me their struggles. I think of it as an opening of the soul and is a sacred moment and a privilege that I carry with me.
Behind this question lurks a deeper one that belies the insecurity many of us feel. The deepest part of the human soul wants to know and feel that we are all connected to each other. When someone asks me “Am I bad?,” part of what they are asking me is if they are being judged negatively for their choices. Yet another part is asking if this judgment means that they are alone inside themselves. They want to feel that they, even if they are different, are still connected to the greater whole.
Behind the question of “Am I bad?” Is the question, “Do I [still] have a place?” As I sit next to a stranger among the clouds, and ask myself do I tell them I am a rabbi, it is this question I am thinking about and this question I will invariably receive. The question of connection that we all bring with us like a carry on, and only taken out at cruising altitude, when we seem more open to each other. It’s the question of connection that I get every time when they are only inches from me and 38,000 feet above the soil.
The Torah answers this sky high question in the most beautiful way in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10). The central theme of the reading is a description of the vestments of the High Priest, Aaron. God instructs the people to make robe a tunic, a headdress and breastplate. (27:4-28). The Torah goes into great detail in each of these items, describing the metals and yarns to be used and the precious stones that are to be inlaid into the finery. Finally in verse twenty-nine the Torah says, “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breast-piece of decision over his heart, when he enters the Sanctuary for remembrance before Adonai, always.” (28:29).
More explicitly, the purpose of carrying the names is for remembrance. As the rabbis teach when Aaron and God have sacred conversation, neither party shall forget they are not alone in the room. They carry with them the memories of the past and the hopes for the future. (Sforno – Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno – Italian Rabbi commentator 1475-1550) Notice that at the most exclusive moment in the most exclusive place in the Sanctuary, the High Priest, the anointed brother of Moses, is carrying over his heart the names of the tribes of Israel, even those who will participate in the sin of the Golden Calf, even those who wanted to deny the project of the Exodus itself. All the broken, the sinful, the mumbling rabble, all of us past and present, are engraved in stone over the heart of Aaron and loved by God, always. God really is in the details.
In the most subversive way, the Torah is teaching us that holiness, at its heart, is not exclusive but inclusive. God might have taken the primordial grist of space and time and separated it to form what we know to be the world, but it is upon us to put it all back together. As written, holiness is not seeing ourselves as exclusively separate from each other, but in our ability to cross the divides that do separate us. Feeling separate from each other is a fact of life, but bringing everything together is the purpose of life. From the One became the many, and our holy purpose is to use our hearts to bring each other back to the One.
At 38,000 feet, do tell them? If I am asked, I always tell them. To miss an opportunity to hear a story, to commune with a soul, would feel like a loss to me because a better world is built through connection and all have a place – the beautiful and the broken, well-off and the wretched, the sinful, the sad, the downtrodden; all are engraved over the breast of the High Priest, as a remembrance before God, always.