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America: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Shabbat Chukat
July 3, 2020

“America: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”

This Shabbat I am celebrating the arrival two highly exciting, highly anticipated events.

The first, of course, is our first Shabbat with our wonderful new cantor, Cantor Michelle Rubel, who I know will enhance, energize and add so much to our community and to our worship space.

The second, is the long-awaited release of the film adaptation of the hit musical “Hamilton” on Disney Plus.

Since it’s revolutionary arrival to the Broadway stage in 2016, Hamilton has captivated audiences with its hip-hop portrayal of the life and legacy of the American founding father, Alexander Hamilton – as well as its groundbreaking casting of non-white actors as the founding fathers and other historical figures.

To my fellow Hamilton fans out there – I have been waiting, for months, to say that tonight – as we celebrate Cantor Michelle’s first Shabbat service – we are, indeed, in the “Zoom” where it happens. Tonight, we begin a new and powerful story about who we are, and who we are capable of becoming.

Hamilton, too, is a story about the power of stories. And it is a story that charges us to wonder:  Whose stories are the ones that most often get told, and retold? And why? And how? And by whom?

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” This is the show’s closing chorus – these are the words that hang, suspended in mid-air, in those awesome, awe-filled final seconds, before the velvet curtain closes and the theatre erupts in applause.

If you have seen Hamilton live – or even if you haven’t – perhaps, like me, you can close your eyes, and savor the haunting echoes of that final refrain:  Who lives, who dies, who tells your story…

Somewhere in the Sinai Dessert. Thousands of years ago. As retold in this week’s Torah portion.[1] The Israelite people, parched by the loss of their leader, Miriam – whose presence literally supplied them with wellsprings of water and wisdom.

Miriam. How do we go on, without Miriam?

Miriam, who, as a child, prophesized that her baby brother Moses would lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.[2]

Miriam, who inspired others to lift their voices in song and dance after their tumultuous trek through the Red Sea.[3]

Miriam, who boldly spoke out against about her brother’s choice for a wife.[4]

Miriam, who the people insisted on waiting for when she was quarantined with leprosy.[5] 

Miriam, who led, with equal footing and equal authority, right alongside her brothers – Moses, and Aaron – as the Israelites ventured out, into their 40-year wilderness journey.[6]

In Torah and in history, it is not always a given, that a woman’s story gets told and retold in such a detailed and honorable way.

Who decided that Miriam’s story was worth telling?

Who whispered her prophecies and her undertakings, night after night, year after year, generation after generation?

Who ensured that her story would be told and retold, that her legacy would endure, that her wisdom would be canonized?

Who guaranteed that she would become known to us not only as Miriam the sister – but, also, as Miriam the prophet? Miriam the wellspring? Miriam the leader? Miriam the activist? Miriam, the one we couldn’t live without – Miriam, the one we wouldn’t be the same, without?

Miriam, in a sense, was lucky. Somebody, at some point, heard her story, lifted her story, and then – challenging the status quo – centralized her story within a patriarchal world. Somebody – or, a whole group of somebodies – knew that her tremendous accomplishments and contributions needed to be honored and recognized, for all of eternity.

She lived, she died, and, now, because of them, we tell her story.

But how many other Miriam’s have come and gone – unnoticed, untold, forgotten – swept away by the passage of time? How many female leaders and visionaries; how many leaders of color; how many transgender activists and leaders…whose stories and whose accomplishments we will never know?

Our histories and our sacred writings are weighted so heavily with white male voices and white male leaders not because other voices and other leaders didn’t exist…but, because to a large degree, other voices and other leaders weren’t lifted. Weren’t valued. Weren’t included. Weren’t centralized. And weren’t shared.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story…

America. Two thousand and two.

My high school American history class. I still remember their names, as if it were yesterday:  Christopher Columbus. Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon. John Glen. Neil Armstrong. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan B. Anthony.

All memorialized within the pages of my American history textbook.

All remembered and retold, year after year, high school history class after high school history class. More men than women, on whole.  All white.

Of course, there was also Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and Malcom X. But I can hardly remember another black individual, included within the extensive list of our nation’s foundational fathers and mothers.

And now, in this watershed moment in our nation’s history, we are finally beginning to understand all the undeniable ways that systematic racism feeds on the exclusion of black stories and on the silencing of black voices.

We are finally beginning to understand that we don’t need a better understanding of American history – but, rather, we need to learn the history that no one gave to us. We need to lift the voices and tell the stories that were never in the textbooks, to begin with.

Like when I learned about John Glen and Neil Armstrong – where were Katherine Jonson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA and who were the brains behind John Glen’s launch into space.

And when I learned about Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and all the other (male) presidents and politicians who shaped our country, where was Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman and then the first African-American woman of a major political party to run for president.

And when I learned about the women’s suffrage movement led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, where were the leaders in the black women’s suffrage movement – leaders like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who were sidelined and excluded from the white, mainstream efforts.

But it cannot stop there. Refabricating our history is pointless if we do not simultaneously work to raise and include and centralize all of the minority voices and stories that are still very much alive, and still have so much to give to our country and our world.

Looking out into the public arenas of politics, religion, academia, medicine, and law, I can’t help but notice all the instances when women and people of color are in the minority. Panels of “experts” assembled to speak about the coronavirus pandemic, or another topic of relevance, and I count: How many are women? How many are people of color?

Clergy assembled to lead interfaith vigils, and I count: How many are women? How many are people of color?

And I read the New York Times bestseller lists, and I count: How many are written by women? How many by people of color?

I invite you to join me, in asking these questions. I invite you to join me in noticing who is continuously at the forefront, leading, teaching, preaching, advising… and who is not?

Who is on the expert panel you have been invited to speak on, or the expert panel you are watching – and who is not?

Whose voices are always being heard and whose stories are always being told, again and again, and whose, are not?

We have work to do.

Someday, when we are remembered by future generations, I want us to be remembered as those somebodies who challenged the status quo.

I want us to be remembered as those somebodies who dared to lift up the voices – past, present and future – that, otherwise, would have been overlooked, forgotten, or ignored.

I want us to be remembered as those somebodies who told and retold all of the stories that deserve to be honored and centralized and canonized within our ongoing American story.

America, America.

A nation with so much potential. A nation with so much beauty in all of its diversity. A nation with so many stories that need to be told – A nation with so many stories that need to be heard.

Who lives, who dies, who tells those stories…that, we now know, is on us.  

[1] Parshat Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1

[2] Babylonian Talmud Megillah 14a

[3] Exodus 15:20

[4] Numbers 12:1

[5] Numbers 12:15

[6] See for examples: