06/23/2015 07:29 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2016

The Promise of Potential

(This invocation was delivered at the June 23 Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting.)

In a few weeks, my family and I will pick up and leave what we've experienced to be the greatest city in our nation, Los Angeles, and head to Washington DC for our next life adventure. Until then, I am commuting back and forth from Ojai, California, where I teach teenagers in a religious Jewish summer camp, Ramah. On Sunday, as I was walking to dinner with my two young kids, a 17-year-old staff member approached me with what he said was a quick question.

"Rabbi A -- I don't get it. God performed miracle after miracle in the desert for the Israelites, brought them from the denigration of slavery to the expanse of freedom, and time and time again they show nothing but ingratitude. They complain, they build an idol (a real, big, golden idol), and then they complain some more. Mistake after mistake, bad choice after bad choice, it feels never-ending. So God eventually gives Moses an option, an escape hatch: I'll wipe them out and give you a new people, a quieter people, an obedient people. You can take them to the Land of Israel. You can start over. A divine "easy" button."

And so my student asked, thoughtfully, why not? Why shouldn't Moses take God up on this generous offer?

Would it not have been easier for everyone had Moses replied to God: "Go ahead. Let's do it -- they'll never change. It's who they are, their very nature. Our hands could even feel clean. We could just enable the capacity for violence by freely allowing for a flood of dangerous weapons into their camps, and let them kill themselves. Or, we could respond to their mistakes by building massive prisons and incarcerate an entire generation, hide them away as if they don't exist, demonize and shame them, thus branding them for life as biblical felons forever unable to overcome their latest mishap. Or maybe we could give them what they seem to ask for and send them up or out. That could surely drain the resilience from their hearts. Or, we could simply water the seeds of hatred and let them self-destruct from the inside out."

Moses could have replied: "Yes! I'd like to start my leadership life over." But he didn't.

I thought for a moment and answered my young student. Maybe this biblical story isn't meant to be one of perfect redemption, but of our shared and sacred humanity. It's as much a story of failure as it is our right to be seen for our next potential triumph, rather than our last bad choice. Maybe the Exodus narrative is not about getting to the promised land, but understanding that within each of us is a basic need to find promise in our hearts, and to be seen and treated with such. Maybe this is simply a story about the courage of one person who would stand between people and perceived power to say: "Enough! You can do better. We can be better, together."

We are all the floundering Israelites in the desert, and we are all, each of us, a Moses who will not tolerate a system that is indifferent to the basic need of any person to transcend her past, elevate her present, and imagine her dignified future.

Ribono Shel Hesed ve-Rachamim -- God of kindness and compassion, we ask that you bless our hands and hearts with the determination to actualize your original vision for humanity. The embrace of a systemic justice that is filled the spirit of potential, the promise of dignity, and your abiding attribute of love.