How Do We Want to Be Remembered?

February 10, 2020Rabbi Allison Berry

When we’re gone, how do we want to be remembered? These words flew through my mind that January day when I read about the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash. This is the worst kind of senseless tragedy, and my heart goes out to the victims’ families.

In The New York Times obituary for Bryant, Marc Stein called him "a mammoth figure almost from the moment he arrived” in the NBA, going on to say a great many deserved things about Bryant.

But when I finished reading, I was stunned. There was no mention of the woman Bryant allegedly raped in 2003 – and it wasn’t until there was an outcry from readers that the Times amended the obituary.

After Bryant’s death, attorney and writer Jill Filopovic wrote:

“It’s uncomfortable to raise the worst thing someone has ever done when that someone dies, and they are beloved…We still don’t know how to tell human stories when a human’s life ends, only hero’s journeys or villains’ defeats...Maybe the stories we tell [should] strive to be true for better or worse.”

How do we want to be remembered?

In the 1960s, Sol Tepper was a highly respected figure in Selma, AL. The child of Jewish immigrants, he worked his way up to become the owner of Tepper’s Department Store. In 1965, Sol sent a letter to another Jew, scolding, “I am proud of my Jewish heritage. I am not proud that you call yourself a Jew. In fact, I say you are not.”

He wrote this letter weeks after Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when Black residents and civil rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. Instead of a peaceful march, there was a riot, resulting in one death and dozens of injuries.

I learned about Sol Tepper just this month, when my synagogue’s Etgar36 group traveled to Selma. It turns out Tepper was not only a business leader; he was a bigot and a loud proponent of segregation. He wrote that scolding letter to a rabbi who had come to Selma to support civil rights – because in Tepper’s eyes, that rabbi was no longer fit to be called a Jew.

As Jews, we often talk about how proud we are of our historic commitment to civil rights – and as a community, we have much to be proud of. But in Selma, my congregants and I also opened ourselves up to an uncomfortable truth: As we learned from our tour guide JoAnne Bland, a survivor of Bloody Sunday, there were Jews on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And some remain there still.

How do we want to be remembered?

This time of year, our cycle of Torah readings bring us to the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We learn of the slaying of the firstborn, of evil Pharaoh finally allowing the Jews to go free, and of the miracle of the Sea of Reed’s parting. We are reminded that the Israelites crossed to the other side, reaching freedom, while the Egyptians drowned in the sea.

When we read the Torah text, depicting this moment, we hear in the chanting, the sound of the Israelites rejoicing. (Exodus 15: 1-18) And yet, in a footnote, we find this Midrash: After the Israelites cross the Sea, the ministering angels want to join their song of celebration. “But the Holy One says to them, ‘The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?’ We do not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.” (Talmud Megillah 10b)

The Israelites have cause to rejoice, but our tradition also teaches that during our greatest moments of joy, it is incumbent upon us to tell the whole story: the world is imperfect and incomplete because somewhere, someone experiences pain.

Midrash includes another surprising footnote: Pharaoh doesn’t drown at the Sea of Reeds. He is exiled from Egypt and becomes King of Nineveh.

There, he meets the Prophet Jonah who comes before him to deliver God’s prophecy: The people of Nineveh must repent or die. And what happens? Pharaoh, the King of Nineveh, puts on sackcloth and ashes and repents, calling upon his people to do the same – and in so doing, saves the city. (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eleazer 43:8 and Yalkut Shimoni 176)

How do we want to be remembered?

Bryan Stevenson writes in his book Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” But that doesn’t mean we can leave out the parts of our story that make us uncomfortable. There can be no honest reckoning or growth when we overlook bitter realities.

This past weekend in Selma, we, a group of white, upper middle-class Jews, allowed ourselves to learn about the past in new ways, acknowledging some of the worst deeds we have ever done. 

We learned that ignoring an ugly reality doesn’t erase that it happened and continues to happen. 

We learned that our inability to face the fullness of our past, doesn’t mean that those who were harmed have forgotten. They will never forget.

We learned to wrestle with our conscious and unconscious bias, our shame, and the idea that no matter how opposed we are to racism, we are part of a system from which we benefit, while others, because of the color of their skin, are left behind.

And we learned that when we tell a story that excludes the hard stuff, the stuff that paints us in not-so-flattering ways, it precludes the hope that there can ever be justice for the people who have been wronged. And, we close the door to the possibility of even a small measure of growth and grace for ourselves.

There are some truths that must be told, no matter how painful – for then and only then can we open the door to the possibility of redemption.

How do I want to be remembered? I want to be remembered for who I truly am.

This piece is excerpted from a sermon delivered at Temple Shalom. Read the text of the entire sermon on the congregation's blog.

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