From Anticipation to Action

Let’s take a few moments to remember when we waited for something special – a birthday, an anniversary, a birth, a graduation, a reunion or even a sporting event. We counted down the months, days and hours, looking forward to its arrival. Within this anticipation were hopes, dreams, expectations … a vision of what could be.
As a people, we are in the middle of a 49-day waiting period, the time between Passover and Shavuot. Passover began on sunset of April 5; Shavuot begins on sunset of May 25. The point of Passover was to experience freedom after 430 years of slavery. The point of Shavuot is to learn for what purpose we received our freedom. Passover does not celebrate freedom for freedom’s sake; rather, it celebrates the purpose of freedom.
Part of this purpose relates to the overlapping circles of our identity: the self; family; community; K’lal Yisrael, the greater Jewish family; and humanity. With Shavuot, when we mark the receiving of the Torah, we learn how we have obligations, responsibilities and connections related to all of our overlapping circles.
In this waiting period between Passover and Shavuot, we have precious time to reflect. We can reflect upon our complicated, nuanced identity. As part of our identity, what do we look forward to? How do we express our identity? How much time do we devote to building and maintaining the legacy we will leave behind?
One of my favorite movies speaks of the power of legacy and how our legacy is intimately connected with everyone who has affected our lives, whether directly or indirectly. The final scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” tackle the relationship between legacy and our dependence on others.
In the movie, Captain John Miller has been fatally wounded. Ryan draws close. With his dying breath, Miller tells Ryan, “Earn this… earn this.”
Then the scene cuts to years later, when Ryan is gathered with generations of his family at the military cemetery where Miller is buried. At Miller’s grave, Ryan says, “Every day I think of what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
Then Ryan’s wife walks to his side. He turns to her and says, “Tell me I led a good life. … Tell me I’m a good man.”
I always tear up at these scenes.
Think of what we owe the generations who came before us. Have we earned what they did for us? Every day, I try to “earn this.” Sometimes I feel I have succeeded. Sometimes I feel I could have done better. But every day, I try.
As we count in anticipation of the celebration of Shavuot, what have we done to earn our identity as part of the Jewish community? We owe a debt of gratitude to untold numbers of people who lived before us. And we are obligated to ensure the health and welfare of our fellow men and women, whether they live under our roof or halfway across the world.
So let me share some tangible ways that I try to “earn this.” On a basic level, like all parents, I try to fulfill my obligations to my children. I support them 100 percent and often sacrifice my needs for theirs. As a sibling, I offer gratitude and a listening ear to my sister, who is the primary caregiver of our mother in Houston, who recently moved to a new retirement community.
Professionally, I know that being your Jewish Community Chaplain is not “a job” and is not 9-5; rather, it is part of my identity… who I am.
Politically, I try to remain as engaged as I can. This has always been a challenge. I have found it much easier to be invested on a national level than a local level. I have to keep reminding myself I can have a greater impact if I increase my involvement locally.
I also try to “earn this” by addressing injustice and inequality. But this can be daunting. There is only so much I can do as an individual politically and economically. At the very least, I will work to protect the social contract that glues us together as a nation. I will also continue to learn about the ideas that form the bedrock of our democracy. This has required me to accept the hard facts of American history I was never taught as a youth.
Finally, to “earn this,” I must stay connected with the land of Israel. Much like the United States, Israel is nuanced, complicated and at times aggravating. But it will always be one of my many homes.
In about a month, we celebrate the tradition of how we gathered at Sinai to receive the Torah. This will always be the instruction manual of how to live in relationship with ourselves, our family, our community, humanity and God. The more we learn about Judaism and put its wisdom in to action, the more we “earn this.”
And the more we learn and act, the more we will express our multifaceted identities and change our world for the better.

Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area.


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