One of the surest signs of the quality of our state is the outpouring of grief from Beau Biden’s passing. Not just in the abstract, but personal, as if we’d lost a family member. Again and again as I’ve spoken to people since Saturday I’ve heard a little speculation about the race for governor, and a little speculation about whether Joe Biden put off announcing a run for the white house because of his son’s illness, but more than anything else a LOT of grieving, and empathy. I’ve heard a number of people talk about his wife Hallie and his kids and what it must be like to lose a young father, and I’ve heard a number of people talk about the tragedy of Joe having to bury a second child in his lifetime, and the horror of that.
I had the chance to meet Beau on a couple of occasions, including when Marsha Lee’s road was named in her memory, and he spoke with a simple, honest, authentic love. Every report that speaks of how gentle and unassuming Beau was in life is, from my experience, true; living in the public eye did him no disservice, but gave him a special connection to those around him. I’ve seen a lot of pictures going around social media of Beau holding kids at the JCC PreSchool—not posed pictures, but just having someone’s kid in his lap, like he was just another young dad, no different.
It says something about him, and it says something about our community, I think in contrast with a lot of rhetoric we’ve been hearing as of late from all corners. We hear—I’m hearing—a lot of talk about enemies, a lot of heated talk, from political types who use such talk cynically, but also from regular folks whose own perspective increasingly blinds them to the humanity of others; a smug self-righteousness that continually infects our discourse. We saw it in some of the commentary around Catilin—formerly Bruce—Jenner. We see it in the increase in anti-Semitic speech on college campuses, as students are reporting a 50% increase this past year. And in so many other, little ways, as friends or coworkers spout venom before they even think about it. Even, from outside our state, truly nasty commentary from some that Joe and Beau got what they deserved for being democrats, or—in the case of one person—because he rooted for the Red Wings.
We hear this voice repeatedly in our Torah portion. First, as Israel would go on the march, Moses would say, “Arise Adonai and scatter your enemies!” This is not, to say the least, the language of interfaith dialogue! It’s the language of a people ready for war, a people unwilling to see the other as anything less or more than that—Other. We hear it again when Israel complains loudly that they would have been better staying slaves in Egypt that eat manna—a text that Tatum is going to preach on tomorrow, so I don’t want to steal hear thunder. And finally, in the rechilut, the gossip that Miriam and Aaron perform against Moses by complaining loudly to all who would hear about their sister-in-law, Moses’ wife, being a Cushite.
This is the language of demonization, the language of dehumanization, the language of winning at any cost. Is it any wonder we removed the words “Arise Adonai” from the beginning of the Torah service? Is that what we learn from our tradition—to fail to see the humanity, God’s grace, in the other?
Contrast with Moses’ words, as Miriam suffers her punishment from God for her words. As she suffers from a skin ailment, he prays “please, God. Please Heal her”. Commentaries tend to focus on the ‘please’ and the efficacy of Moses’ prayer, but what they don’t pick up on is the sheer chutzpah present, despite the pleasant language. Yes, he says please—twice. His language is polite—gone is the man of rough speech. But in his prayer he challenges God’s own punishment! In his appeal, he is telling God that God’s judgment is wrong. That Miriam doesn’t deserve punishment. Moses, in a way, chooses sympathy with other people over loyalty to God.
In Beau’s passing we have a kind of mirror refracting back to us how we choose to see others. Do we choose to see their humanity, or do we choose our own ‘rightness’? Do we choose to embrace or combat? In Proverbs we read, a person shall have his fill of good by the fruit of his mouth. (prov. 12:14). Will we command God to stand up and strike down our enemies, or plead with God for those who are in need? What will be the fruit of our mouths? Arise, Adonai, and scatter from us the enemies of inappropriate speech, leaving only words of hope and love. Amen.