Sacred Endings: A Tribute to Elijah Cummings (with help from StePHen Sondheim)
A Jewish saying teaches, “God created people, because God loves stories.” So do we! Stories are an escape, and a window into understanding ourselves and the world. They are one of the first tools we use to teach children. Consider fairy tales. Their canon is familiar to almost all of us. We know the formula:
Once upon a time there was _____ Fill it in however you like: a princess, a young lad, three pigs. Whoever it was lived ______with her father, with his cow, in their hut. Then, danger in the form of _________ a wicked stepmother, an evil spell, a hungry wolf. Just when things seem hopeless, a magic solution _________a handsome prince on horseback, a beanstalk reaching to the sky, a house made of bricks.
And finally, the conclusion: Happily ever after!
Fairy tales are reassuring because they always get us to that place we want to be: “Happily ever after.” We love sharing them with little ones, because we know the world can be a dangerous place, and we want children to feel safe and happy. We do all we can to make that possible, softening sharp edges, both real and metaphorical. But the irony is that the more we try to provide, or insure, or gift happiness, the less prepared our children will be to discover it for themselves. They will also find themselves ill equipped to deal with life’s unpleasant and unpredictable realities.
This week, we lost one of the greatest leaders in our nation’s history. Elijah Cummings pulled the veil off the fairy tale “American Dream” and dedicated himself to fighting for justice. Like fictional storybook heroes, he began his life with challenge and then tread a windy path to success. This descendent of African slaves, this son of sharecroppers, was once told by a school counselor that he was too slow a learner and too poor a speaker to ever fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer. Elijah described those comments as leaving him devastated. But he overcame those attacks, and ultimately did become a lawyer, then a judge, and eventually a member of Congress.
Elijah had no fairy godmother, but he had a greater treasure: devoted parents who inspired him. After their first child was born, Ruth and Robert Cummings set off on an epic journey, leaving their home in South Carolina and settling in Maryland, part of a larger migration of southern black Americans traveling north in search of a better life for their families. They quickly realized that no corner of America provided the Promised Land they hoped for. Every evening, after returning home from his job, Robert would sit in his car, sometimes up to an hour, before entering the house. Elijah finally asked him why he wasn’t just coming right inside. His father explained that he needed time to rid himself of the bitterness he carried from the demeaning discrimination he experienced every day at work. He didn’t want to bring it into their home, where it would poison Elijah and his five siblings (https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/2014/10/13/up-hill-climb).
At some point, every adult realizes the impossibility of protecting children from danger. Even if we could lock them in a castle, surrounded by a moat and a fiery dragon, they would still be vulnerable to disappointment and evil. Stephen Sondheim, with lyrics from his musical, Into the Woods, describes the despair that invades our psyche when this reality sinks in:
”How do you say to your child in the night
Nothing is all black but then nothing is all white?
How do you say it will all be alright
When you know that it mightn’t be true?
What do you do?”
( “Children Will Listen”)
Robert and Ruth Cummings decided what they would do. They spoke honestly to their children, and at the same time, worked even harder to create a nation that would give their descendants access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their children followed their example. Elijah was 11 when he and about two dozen African American boys tried to integrate a neighborhood swimming pool. Enormous crowds of approximately 1000 white adults surrounded the boys, splashing in the water. Holding signs with vile slogans like “Keep Our Pool Germ Free,” they shouted vicious chants. “Go back where you came from!” echoed from that moment to a few months ago, tweeted by our nation’s most powerful leader. Elijah lived the rest of his life with a scar above his eyebrow from a rock or bottle that someone hurled at him that summer (https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/10/17/white-mob-attacked-elijah-cummings-integrating-swimming-pool-he-was/).
Elijah’s parents understood that they couldn’t wish away racism, so they named it, and fought it. Elijah devoted his life to doing the same. He voiced with prophetic optimism his belief that we can make the world better, but without sugar-coating the truth. In 2015, at the funeral of Freddie Grey, one of the many black young men who have died in police custody, Elijah called out a destructive national evil: “I’ve often said that our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see. But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see. There’s something wrong with that picture” (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-pol-cummings-notable-speeches-20191017-20191017-bnkcxyyg6bdpliakgmkefhiubm-story.html).
Like his parents, Elijah Cummings spoke with brutal honesty. Like his parents, he led us in making change. Like his parents, he left us with a mission. Only months ago he charged, “I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on, because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children, and your children’s children, and generations yet unborn, we’ve got to guard this moment . . . this is our watch” (https://thehill.com/homenews/house/454645-cummings-implores-american-people-to-pay-attention-to-whats-going-on-after).
Children learn about the world through the stories we tell and the way that we live. For Jews, this is the heartbeat of Torah. We retell its stories every single year with the goal of inspiring each generation to embody its teachings. The Torah begins like a fairy tale: God creates a beautiful world, vibrant with color, brimming with life. At the center – an exquisite garden. A charmed couple lives in this magical place. Their life is perfect. They have almost everything they could ever desire. Then they fall under the spell of a sinister creature, and they’re banished from the garden. Forever.
Another tale quickly follows, perhaps the one inspiring more children’s books, art, puzzles and songs than any other. A generation of evildoers corrupts God’s creation, so God sends a storm to start over. One righteous man named Noah rides upon waves of God’s cleansing waters, safeguarding an ark full of animals. Forty days later, the ark finds dry land and creation begins anew. Noah’s family and the animals rejoice as a radiant rainbow illuminates the sky.
That’s the “happily ever after” ending we know, but the part that never makes it into children’s nurseries is that as soon as Noah steps off the ark, he drinks himself into oblivion and his sons commit acts of sexual violation.
More fables follow. A man and a woman try for years to have a child. Miraculously, in their old age God blesses them with a son! And then the father raises a knife above his boy and his mother dies in grief. Sons trick their fathers, mothers pick favorites, brothers sell brothers, and sisters compete over the same man. And this is just Genesis!
These legends are not fairy tales. But these are the stories contained in our sacred scrolls, the stories we tell to our children, the stories our children study and then teach us when they begin transitioning into adulthood. Sunday night is Simchat Torah. Carrying these our Torah scrolls, we will celebrate these legends while we dance and sing. Simchat Torah does not mean “the joy IN Torah.”It means “the joy OF Torah.” We embrace Torah in its fullness, with its tales of redemption, sin, heroism and fallibility.
Joy is a Jewish value. We delight at Shabbat candles, inhale fragrant Havdalah spices, dip apples in honey, savor sweet wine, recline at seder feasts, dress in silly costumes on Purim. The Talmud teaches that if a funeral processional and a bridal processional meet at a crossway, the bridal processional must pass first – we are taught to lead with happiness, and to savor happiness.
The danger arises when happiness becomes our goal. Into the Woods dramatizes this teaching, interweaving storybook characters from different fairy tales. They meet in the woods, each of them in pursuit of his or her own happiness. Like all fairy tale characters, their dreams come true. The childless baker and his wife have a baby, Cinderella marries her prince, and Jack descends the beanstalk a rich young man. Together they sing out their happiness with the song, “Ever After.”
But this is only the end of Act I. If you stay for intermission – and you must – things look different in Act II.
Now a family of three, the baker and his wife are dissatisfied with the size of their home. Cinderella realizes that living in the palace is overrated, and she’s not sure that the prince is the guy for her; meanwhile, the prince meets Snow White and realizes commitment isn’t his thing. Jack has more money than he ever imagined and more than he’ll ever need, but he finds himself addicted to the thrill of acquisition, and climbs back up the beanstalk to pilfer more treasures from the giant.
As Sondheim so cleverly teaches, people who chase happiness, who make attaining happiness their lives’ purpose often end up the most dissatisfied. We may believe we deserve to be happy, but none of us have the power to create a charmed life for ourselves or for those we love. To try to do this is to live in a fairy tale. We live in this world that God created, with its blessings and blemishes, its wonders and evils.
On Sunday night, we will unscroll the Torah, and literally uphold the parchment detailing the earliest tales of our human and Jewish narrative, beginning with a paradise of promise, and ending with an excruciating cliffhanger. Our sacred narrative lacks a storybook ending. Moses stands atop Mt. Nebo, gazing over at the Promised Land – tantalizingly close, but ultimately, beyond his reach. No one yearned more or worked harder to enter that land than Moses did. Leaving behind the palace for the desert, he sacrificed life as a prince to arrive at the land of his dreams. But he doesn’t die bitter. He leaves this world with the joy of knowing that others will carry his experiences, his teachings, his story, into his vision for the future. His descendants will have the opportunity to bring it closer to reality.
Elijah Cummings tells the story of his father witnessing him enter a world of wonder – the US Capital, the center of American Democracy. It was Robert’s first time in that awesome building.
“My father came with me when I came in to get sworn as a member of Congress. He was so proud. When I raised my hand to speak my oath, I glanced up and I saw my father, wiping away tears. I had never seen my father crying before. Never. He came down to the floor to meet me. ‘Dad, I noticed you crying?’ I almost wanted him to lie to me! To say he was sweating.
“I asked, ‘Dad, are you crying because your son became a member of Congress?’
“He said ‘No. Don’t get me wrong. I am very pleased. But I’m crying because I kept looking at your hand. I realized the same blood that runs in your hand runs in mine. Isn’t this the place where they used to call us slaves?’
“I said ‘Yes, sir.’
“‘Isn’t this the place where they called us ⅗ of a man?’
“I said, ‘Yes, sir.’
“‘Isn’t this the place where the called us chattel?’
“I said ‘Yes, sir.’
“He said, ‘Watching you being sworn in today… now I see what I could have been, if I had been given an opportunity’ (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rep-elijah-cummings-life-pain-passion-and-purpose-60-minutes-2019-10-17/).
As Jews, we are called to continue the journey of our people’s greatest prophet, Moses. As Americans, we are responsible to continue the story lived by one of our nation’s greatest prophets, Elijah Cummings.
“What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in its head
Things that your mother and father had said
Which were left to them too
Careful what you say, children will listen
Careful you do it too, children will see and learn.”
“Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
“Children may not obey
But children will listen
Children will look to you
For which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say
“Listen to me”
Children will listen
Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true
“Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
“Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen”
(“Children Will Listen)