Friday, July 15, 2016

"Hamilton" meets the Torah

Parashat Chukat - Our Peacemaking Founding Fathers
July 15th, 2016
Alli Cohen


[Sung] "Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
Look around, look around" (Miranda).

These lyrics are from the Tony award-winning musical, Hamilton, which tells the story of America’s less-acknowledged founding father, Alexander Hamilton, during the time of the Revolutionary War.

These words are sung as a reminder to be thankful for each day and as a reminder to make the most of each day. I felt they were appropriate for today, at a time when we are more keenly aware of life’s fragility and of our own mortality. 

How do we memorialize so many individuals who have been killed?
How do we pay homage to their lives?

This week’s Torah portion may provide some answers for us, as we learn of Aaron’s death. In the Torah we learn that all of the house of Israel mourned the death of their leader Aaron. In one commentary, by Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz, which reads like a eulogy, we learn just what made Aaron so special. The commentary reads:

Of Aaron it says that ‘all the house of Israel’ bewailed him (v. 29), while of Moses it merely says that ‘the Israelites’ bewailed him (Deut. 34:8). In this way the Torah tells Aaron’s praise as a peacemaker [68]. According to rabbinic legend, Aaron would go from house to house and, whenever he found [some]one who did not know how to recite the Sh’ma, he taught him to recite it. He did not, however, restrict his activities to [this,] ‘establishing peace between God and man,’ but strove to establish peace between man and his fellow. If he discovered that two men had fallen out, he hastened first to the one, then to the other, saying to each: ‘If you only knew how [the one with] whom you quarreled regrets his action!’ Aaron would [then] speak to each separately, until both the former enemies would mutually forgive each other, and as soon as they were again face to face greet each other as friends [69] (Hertz).

The commentary concludes by saying how Aaron’s kindness led sinners to rethink their actions. They would remember the time Aaron took to make a difference in their lives and would think to themselves, “If I sin again, ‘how shall I be able to lift up my eyes to Aaron’s face…’” (Hertz)?

As we learned, Aaron’s peacemaking work was not just between mankind and God, but among mankind itself. He understood that just as important as learning about the Oneness of God and being in Oneness WITH God, so is being in Oneness with our fellow human beings. 

Alexander Hamilton was another peacemaker of our people. 
As we learn from the musical:
Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one (Miranda)!
Hamilton defended the Constitution, the very words that formed the backbone of our country, a backbone that in today’s world, seems to be slowly breaking, day by day. 

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America" (U.S. Constitution).

What is happening to that union? to that justice? to that tranquility we once fought so hard for?

For one more quote, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”

Both our biblical leader Aaron and our founding father Alexander, held in common a fundamental truth that we are tempted by sin, but that with willpower and determination, peace and order in our world can prevail. Oneness with God and oneness among humanity can become a reality. 

But it has to start with us. 
It has to start with one individual at a time,
by building bridges between people,
by finding commonalities,
by breaking down stereotypes,
by realizing fundamental truths of all human beings, 
reminding us that we are not so different from one another,
that our hearts beat the same and our blood bleeds the same.

These two founding fathers teach us that we can best pay homage to those that have died, by changing the world we live in now,
by making it better than it was before,
by doing the hard work of peacemaking.

[Sung] "Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
Look around, look around" (Miranda).

These lyrics should prompt us to be thankful 
but also prompt us to take action while we can, while we are alive right now,
because we are the ones that can change society for the future, 
that can be the peacemaking, founding fathers for those that we pray will follow.

May it be God’s will.
Shabbat Shalom!

Citations:

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. "Deficiencies of the Confederation: Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, No. 15, 90--98." The Founders' Constitution. 2000. Accessed July 15, 2016. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch5s21.html.

Hertz, Rabbi Joseph Herman. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. Edited by W. Gunther Plaut. Revised ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2006), 1041.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. "Non-Stop". Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson, Leslie Odom, Jr, Phillipa Soo, et al. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording). 2015. CD. Atlantic Recording Corporation.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. "That Would Be Enough". Lin-Manuel and Phillipa SooHamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording). 2015. CD. Atlantic Recording Corporation.

U.S. Constitution. Preamble.