We can do better

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and Central Reform Congregation.

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Sometimes I feel as if I am missing something in perspective in the radical now, the holy present that occupies my attention. The present is challenging enough to require my full attention, to be here, now. I don’t have the koyech (strength) to be anywhere else because I am preoccupied with the present.

I should get some slack because at the beginning of Vayeshev, I’m young, 17. The future I learned to leave to the futurists. Guild prophets. The past, preoccupation of the revisionists, you know who they are, sitting in the corner whispering to each other, arms folded over their chests. Scowling.

In this part of the story, Vayeshev, I remember it clearly. My story reads like a short story with a beginning, middle, end. This is near the beginning of the story, when I was sent by father, Jacob-Israel, to find my brothers and to inquire of their shalom. The brothers were out feeding father’s flock in Shechem, and father sent me to find them.

Hineni, I said (Gen.37:13), which is the radically present response. Well, everybody says hineni nowadays. It’s one of the words to breathe life into again. It will take a poet, a King David, a Leonard Cohen. It’s become a cliché already. I see it on license plates. 

I meant to say I live in the present, preoccupied with showing up, my response hineni — here I am, with everything I have. Where else is there? Wherever I go — there I am. But more: I have to be here, because my existence is challenging enough that I cannot be anywhere else. I was immature as a young man, so to speak. Growing up and into myself was hard work.

I have a lot of regrets about my youth, which I can say now. Bialik and Ravnitzky in their book of legends, were they making fun of me when they described me as a kind of 17-year-old dandy? Out of all the lore about me, they could have chosen different stories. I was annoying, I know it.

Well, that’s the point. Acceptance. I might have been a little irritating early on. I needed some work. And my people should understand that. There is a place for everyone. Big Tent. Come on in. 

That’s why we appreciate the Big Tent emphasis over there in your community around mental illness-mental health organized by your St. Louis Rabbinical Association. Over here, we teach that the mark of a great community is the willingness to go to any lengths to include everyone. We call it the Big Tent: There’s room for everyone.


So open up those tents of yours, make the doors big, bigger; over here, we say we can always do better. Set your standards high. Look at your histories to remember how high we have aspired to as a people. Don’t be afraid to call yourselves out: We can do better. That’s a good slogan for you, if you’re into slogans (I see you are). We can do better.

I didn’t become a holy man until much later in life. I had ups and downs and, like uncommon ideas, I wasn’t always so welcome, even by my own people.

But I held no recriminations. You’ll see that in the story as it plays out in the next several weeks. For now, open up your tents wide, and know that from over here, we’re with you. We’re helping you, even if you don’t know it. It’s called Z’khut Avot, the merit of the ancestors. 

Call on us when you need us. I think you need us now. But the principle holds: The upper worlds do not respond until the lower worlds bestir themselves. Bestir yourselves.  

Yours truly,

Joseph (Jacob’s son), for the Ancestors’ Association (AA).