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Finding Dory and Jewish Values

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, July 22, 2016

Finding Dory is a sweet movie, with some exciting moments, and a theme with redeeming social value. Would that every differently abled person could be appreciated as Dory eventually was for her gifts and contribution. Despite her disability, Dory is able to do what no one else can do, what needs to be done, to bring her adventure to a happy conclusion. And despite their frustration at times, those around her came to appreciate this and to see Dory in a new light.

But that was not what struck me most about the movie when I saw it last week. What really made an impression on me were the exceedingly long closing credits. The film was clearly the work of a very large team, and looking at the names, the team was exceedingly diverse. I realize that names can be deceptive-the De Christofero’s were active members of my synagogue in Brooklyn, all of them born Jewish. But still the names on the credits, do give a sense of national origin, of languages spoken, of heritage- and Finding Dory was created by a talented team that represented the full diversity of the American people.

The ability of a diverse group to work together to such positive effect, might be something we’d be inclined to take for granted, were it not for the current climate of mistrust. At a time in which difference is seen as a danger and outsiders are suspect, the names on the screen were a reminder that diverse individuals even if they are from countries that have been at war with each other, are still able to participate productively on a joint project. When people come to this new country, a common goal and focus can overcome the legacy of decades, even centuries, of enmity. This is what is special about America, and what, even more than economic opportunity, has made it a golden land for the Jewish people. That is what is not evident to the xenophobes nor to the jihadists, and something we must affirm, loudly and regularly.

But there is a second aspect to that long list of credits, and that is the idea of group rather than individual accomplishment. Sure some of the actors and actresses, who were the voices of the various characters, are stars, but this film is something that no one person who could have created all by themselves.

In this week’s Torah portion we make the transition in leadership from Moses to Joshua. We reject the zealot Pinchas, as Moses’ successor, even though the portion is named for him. Though a few contemporary commentaries, particularly from the settler movement, praise him, for most of Jewish history, his path has been rejected. In the Tanach, our Jewish Scripture, his extreme anti-Moabite position, was replaced by the acceptance of Ruth the Moabite, and her position as ancestress of King David. 

In this week’s portion, instead of Pinchas,  it is Joshua who God chooses to replace Moses and it is Joshua will take his place, as the first stage of the shalshelet hakabbalah, the chain of tradition testified to in the opening paragraph of Mishnah Pirke Avot.

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets and the prophets handed it down to the members of the Great Assembly.”

Moses and Joshua are individuals, who are notable for their humility. Though Moses is unique, the greatest of Jewish prophets, he is also known as the most modest, more humble than any other person. Joshua too is an example of servant leadership. He was chosen, in contrast to Pinchas, for exactly these qualities and for his ability to bring people together rather than to divide the community.

Following Moses and Joshua, the transmission of our tradition is through groups, even as outstanding individuals existed. There were major prophets, exceptionally learned rabbis in the days of the Mishnah and Talmud, but our tradition sees the chain of tradition resting on the group and not the hero. In part this may have been fear of the worship of the outstanding individual, but I think it also was recognition that for Jewish survival over the very long haul, contributions would be made by many people and not just a few outstanding individuals.

The model of rabbinic leadership in the Talmud was collegial and when someone violated those norms, it was not taken well.  The most famous story, provides the background to Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah’s puzzling statement in the Haggadah, that he is like someone who is 70 years old. Why did he say that? Was he 70 years old or not? Well actually he was a young man when he was given the position of head of the academy and this is how it happened.

One year there was a dispute over Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, and as a result, most of the community was set to mark Yom Kippur on one day but Rabbi Joshua had calculated it for a different day. Rabbi Gamliel, the authority at the time, feeling that Jewish unity was very important in the face of Roman persecution, demanded that Rabbi Joshua come to him, on the day Rabbi Joshua considered Yom Kippur, with his walking stick and his wallet- a clear violation of the holiday. Rabbi Joshua did this but the other rabbis were so unhappy about this autocratic behavior, that they deposed Rabbi Gamliel and appointed the young and non-threatening Rabbi Elazar in his place. On that day his hair turned white from the pressure, and so he was like one 70 years old.

The Jewish model of leadership has included consultation with others, and the use of argument and persuasion rather than compulsion and force. It has meant including everyone’s contribution, even those with whom we disagree. It has not focused on demonizing one’s opponent, but instead on turning enemies into friends.

To me the long list of credits at the end of Finding Dory, also conveys this message of the important of groups working together, rather than the leadership of one individual.

Sometimes it’s fun to have an excuse to see a kid’s movie and sometimes that kid’s movie turns out to be pretty sophisticated after all.


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