For my first sermon at Oak Park Temple, I reflect on the memory of Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence we celebrated this week. I share a bit about myself as well as my own struggles with how to remember prominent figures of the past whose impact has been both tremendous and terribly flawed.
How Do We Remember?: Thomas Jefferson
This has been a big week for me! Starting on Saturday, when I joined many of you at the Families Belong Together march—riding the L, which my kids loved! And then on Sunday, it became official: I’m a rabbi here! It’s been a full and busy week, and though I’ve had a chance to meet many of you in the past couple of days, I look forward to developing deeper connections in the months ahead. For now, let me share a little bit about myself.
My family and I moved here less than a month ago from Overland Park, Kansas, which is just outside of Kansas City. There, I served as the assistant rabbi at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah for three years. And they were three pretty big years! While we were in Kansas City, my wife, Jessica, completed her PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University; my son, Jeremiah, enrolled in preschool and made his first friends; and my daughter, Esther, began to exist.
Before Overland Park, I worked for one year in Mahwah, New Jersey at Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom. My position there was somewhat similar to what we’ll be creating here: I was the congregation’s first assistant rabbi, a role they created under unique, short-term circumstances. I learned a lot about building a new rabbinic presence in a heimish community, and I’m excited to grow from that experience in this congregation.
For six years, Jessica and I lived in New York City, where we completed the bulk of our graduate training. Prior to that, for my first year of rabbinical school, we lived in Jerusalem. And before that, the first twenty-three years of my life were spent in Virginia. I grew up in Roanoke, attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and after college, I returned to my dad’s home-town of Arlington for a year of national service in Washington, D.C. I identify strongly with being a Virginian and affirm the ways—for better and for worse—that context has shaped me.
Every year around this time, I become especially nostalgic about Virginia and in particular about one of our most prominent leaders, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, of course, was our third president; however, he left explicit instructions that his tombstone be inscribed with three other accomplishments, “because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.” They are: authoring the Declaration of Independence, which I believe we can all understand; writing the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, one of the earliest and most significant documents defending that right; and serving as “Father of the University of Virginia,” my alma mater.
It’s appropriate on this week of July 4th, and especially easy as a UVA alumnus, to honor the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. He should be celebrated not only for these successes but also for his attempts—and his failures—to advance what some would call radical political progress.
Well-known is his attempt to eliminate slavery in the Declaration of Independence, a proposal that quickly died in Congress. Concurrently, Jefferson wrote and proposed a new constitution for the burgeoning state of Virginia, including the clause: “no person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever.” This, too, was unsuccessful, but Jefferson nevertheless persisted in his attempts to gradually wean America off the labor of slavery, an institution which he called “evil,” arguing that every human being “under the law of nature … [is] born free.”
Though we might well say that Jefferson was singular in his time for these progressive views, he certainly was not a saint. Despite his attempts to alleviate and eliminate slavery in America, the incontrovertible fact is that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. During his lifetime, Jefferson owned more than 600 persons, and despite his ideals, he freed only a handful of them. Moreover, Jefferson’s purported intimate, even abusive, relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, has received renewed scrutiny in recent years, further complicating—and tarnishing—his moral legacy.
So how do we remember a person like Thomas Jefferson? When do we valorize his oratory and philosophy, and when do we vilify his cowardice and decrepitude? For years, I’ve simply acknowledged the bad while mostly saluting the good; however, since last July 4th, I’ve started to see things a little differently.
Surely we all remember the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville last August, which led to the death of Heather Heyer and which ignited a national debate about white supremacy in America today. I’ve spoken and written about those terrible events and the racism that underlies them, and I’ve often consulted a documentary produced by Vice News. In it, a local activist named Tanesha Hudson responds to the assertion that the white nationalists marching down UVA’s Lawn are #NotMyCharlottesville. She says:
This is what we deal with every day being African American, and this has always been the reality of Charlottesville. You can’t stand in one corner in this city and not look at the master sitting on top of Monticello. He looks down on us. He’s been looking down on this city for God knows how long. This is Charlottesville.
Ever since I heard that, I’ve thought differently about Jefferson. I had always felt that the statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front UVA’s iconic rotunda represented truth and freedom. But now I see that the memory of Jefferson is very different to Hudson and others like her, for whom the oppression of the slaveholder has never fully lifted and can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Within the Jewish tradition, we’re used to such messy and disjointed views of the past. Take this week’s Torah portion as one example. The parashah opens with God’s approval of the zealous warrior, Pinchas. In last week’s reading, Pinchas executed an Israelite and a Midianite who were publicly violating God’s sanctions against idolatry. This act of vigilante justice is credited with stopping a plague that was decimating the Israelites, and in this week’s portion, God bestows upon Pinchas a brit shalom—a pact of peace—and an eternal holding in the priesthood that eventually blossoms into his becoming high priest himself.
Consistent with the tone of this text, rabbinic tradition has generally viewed Pinchas favorably. The sages teach that peace was his due reward for pious action. Indeed, Pinchas is said to have borne the countenance of an angel and, like the prophet Elijah, to have ascended to heaven without ever dying. In these sources, Pinchas is remembered first and foremost as a hero.
But the brutality of his actions does draw critique. The sages of the Talmud disapprove of his tactics, and though they can’t directly say that he was wrong, they nevertheless do insist that his actions shouldn’t serve as a model for our own behavior. Twentieth-century scholar Nechama Leibowitz writes, “Taking the law into his own hands constituted a dangerous precedent from the social, moral and educational angles.” And just this week in the Reform Movement’s Ten Minutes of Torah podcast, Rabbi Rick Jacobs categorically condemns Pinchas’ violence in light of today’s Reform values.
So how do we remember a person like Pinchas? Do we take our cues from the Torah, searching for the explanation and justification of extreme measures in extreme times? Do we follow the lead of authorities we trust, adopting their interpretations as our own? Do we make a personal assessment of the facts at hand and come to our own conclusions about whether he was right or wrong, contemptible or commendable?
However we proceed, our tradition consistently reminds us that there are many ways to look at a single person or event, and though these perspectives contradict, they do not cancel one another out. Pinchas was righteous just as he also was vicious. And Jefferson stood for liberty just as he also held the chains of bondage. Both views are powerful, both are true, and hopefully, both motivate us to reach for the highest ideals we see in our shared past and strive to create in our common future.
It is a privilege this year as every year to celebrate America’s jagged journey toward freedom, especially as I now share it with this community. We know there is much darkness in our past and our present, darkness which threatens to undermine our ideals and overwhelm our communities. And there is much light as well, light which pierces the shadow and gives us inspiration and hope that we may indeed find our way to the gleaming realization of the promise of redemption.
When we commemorate our country and its founders, let us do so not as worshipers of a halcyon past but as believers in the power of a freedom that continues to unfold. Let us think twice—at least—when putting our role models on a pedestal just as we should hesitate to tear them down on account of their tragic flaws.
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the issuing of the Declaration of Independence. He had been invited to attend an Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C. that year but was too ill to make the journey. In the last letter he ever wrote, addressed to Washington’s mayor, Roger Weightman, Jefferson reaffirmed the ideals he and his comrades had fought to make a reality. Today, two centuries later, his prayer remains our own:
May [our country] be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing [us] to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. .... All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of [humankind].… The palpable truth, that the mass of [humankind] has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.…
Let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Kein yehi ratzon, be this God’s will.
 See Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist” in The Atlantic, Oct. 1996. Available: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1996/10/thomas-jefferson-radical-and-racist/376685/.
 Jefferson would later succeed in banning the importation of slaves in Virginia. See “Bill to Prevent the Importation of Slaves, &c., [16 June 1777]” at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-02-02-0019 and editorial comment ad loc. The national end of the slave trade was effected by Congressional act in 1807 under the encouragement of President Jefferson and in adherence with the earliest possible date permitted by the US Constitution (1 January 1808).
 See the passage in his autobiography concerning the “Bill to Prevent the Importation of Slaves” at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-1756.
 B’midbar Rabbah 11:7 and D’varim Rabbah 5:15.
 Vayikra Rabbah 1:1; cf also B’midbar Rabbah 16:1.
 B’midbar Rabbah 21:3.
 PT Sanhedrin 9:7, 48b. See also BT Sanhedrin 82a, in which we receive a tradition from Rabbi Yochanan that Pinchas was a rodef, though apparently exempted from retribution, and one is not advised to follow his precedent. A fuller discussion of these texts can be found in David Bernat’s “Pinchas’ Extrajudicial Execution
of Zimri and Cozbi” at https://thetorah.com/pinchas-extrajudicial-execution-of-zimri-and-cozbi.
 Studies in Bamidbar, p. 329.
 Thomas Jefferson to Roger Weightman. June 24, 1826. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/214.html. Adapted slightly.
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