Shabbat VaEra 5774: Don’t Look Away

We take up our story in the parashah called VaEra at chapter 7, verse 14: Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. Moshe and Aharon had come to bring him a message, and he turned away from it.
A close examination of the events so far indicate no reason why Pharaoh should be impressed: Moshe and Aharon his brother have appeared before him, and Aharon has turned his walking staff into a serpent. Pharaoh’s servants promptly imitated the special effects, and Pharaoh turned away, dismissing the message and the messengers.
How many of us have had this experience, or been the victim of it? A disturbing message, dismissed as someone else’s truth, not mine? A message refused on the face of it, because it’s so patently ridiculous? After all, you see it your way and I see it mine, and aren’t both views – or even my assertion that there is nothing to see – both equally true?
It is true, after all, that all truth is relative; what is also true, however, is that different truths create different contexts and different consequences. Truth must be understood by the company it keeps, so to speak. What are the consequences of what we see and refuse to credit?
Pharaoh turns away, “hardening his heart” and refusing to listen to a message that seemed preposterous, or at least ridiculously unpleasant. Did his unwillingness to to listen, to look, early on really lead to the catastrophe his people experienced? And if so, what must we learn from this example of turning away from the unpleasant and disturbing messages that come to us? What are we risking by pretending everything will be all right – what are the chances, anyway?
On this Shabbat, what can we learn from a parashah  called VaEra, from Exodus 6.3: I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as a Mighty G-d, but by my Name I did not reveal Myself to them….
Perhaps that truth is revealed in different ways at different times, and different contexts. No one’s truth is absolute; all of us need to listen, and to look.
In a recent article about the polarization of American politics, Jill Lepore offers us a fresh perspective on this idea:
“In more analytically luxuriant times, political scientists debated some of the very questions that…before the denial of climate change, certain philosophers argued that all science is interpretation….But intellectuals, as Bruno Latour once pointed out, are nearly always one critique too late: “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” Irony is cheap, not painless.”  (New Yorker, Dec 2 2013, p. 79)
Truth is a very powerful weapon. In the wrong hands, it brings plagues and tragedy. We cannot afford to look away and dismiss the potential damage of arguments that seem absurd, especially when so many people are ready to uncritically adopt them.
Not all is revealed to anyone; humility is a necessary partner to the truth we think we know well enough to assert, and live by. But truth does exist, and as the Kotzker Rebbe said, we must look for it everywhere, and help it to rise from the ground.

Shabbat Shemot: can you feel your own galut?

Our parashat hashavua (“parashah of the week”) finds us far from home and ancestral memory; we are in Egypt, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But “there arose a king who did not know Joseph” (still a Jewish way to say “things are going to get worse now”), and our comfortable, protected status as guests of the crown ended. In a shockingly short time, we were enslaved, and the Egyptians who had been our neighbors became our willing persecutors. If this sounds familiar, it is because this story has happened to us more than once, most recently in Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

The fall from prosperity into slavery and persecution begins very early in the book Shemot (Exodus), within ten verses of the beginning of chapter 1. Late in chapter 2, in the middle of our parashah, just at the beginning of the reading for the second year of the Triennial Cycle, we read:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned by reason of the bondage. (Shemot, “Exodus”, 2:23)

Why, the commentators ask, is it written only here that the Israelites cried out because of their suffering? What took them so long? One early modern commentator offers:

“Until this point, the Children of Israel were so deeply sunk in their galut that they could not even sense it. But now, when the first budding of their redemption began to emerge, they could begin to feel the depth of their suffering.”  (Hiddushei ha-Rim, “Innovative Interpretations by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Rothenberg, 1789-1866).

According to Jewish tradition, G-d responded as soon as the Israelites cried out for relief. Why not earlier? we might ask in outrage: is this not a form of blaming the victim? I should have to scream before someone helps me?

No: rather, one has to realize that one is suffering before one becomes ready to accept the help that was already there, and available. When you are immersed in suffering, you do not believe in the reality of escape. Perhaps your thinking is that you do not deserve it, or that it’s not so bad, or that it’s too embarrassing to admit.

Galut, “exile”, is most painfully exile from oneself, and from G-d. The worst kind of suffering is that from which we do not believe there is relief. And the most important blessing we can be to each other is to do what Jews have always done when confronted with exile of any kind: stay together, help each other, and remind each other that it is when we can see and react to our galut that we begin to be able to heal it.

What suffering might you become aware of? what relief is already nearby, if you are ready to admit your pain? Go ahead; reach out for it, and in so doing may you realize your own strength to help others toward it as they help you. As we recited according to the minhag (custom) for finishing Bereshit last week and and getting ready to read the next book of our Torah: hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen each other.”

“Five Reasons for an Orthodox Rabbi to Support Gay Marriage” – A response to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

If you haven’t seen this post, go read it! and then we can talk:

Rabbi Yanklowitz shares his personal reflections and halakhic struggles – and in so doing, he expresses the most traditional kind of Judaism, that which teaches the value of hiddush (innovation within the law) and the humility of our ancestors. They knew that “even the most innovative teachings of a wise student in the future will also be Torah m’Sinai” (JT Peah).

It is worth noting, for all who are so exercised about this social question in both directions, that United States legal tradition makes a distinction between that which is a civil right and that which is a religious right. To insist that our religious convictions have a place in determining the civil rights of others is a dangerous thing, given that in liberal, tolerant San Francisco there was recently an effort at the local level of government to prohibit the Jewish religious ritual of circumcision!

We who are religious leaders are better off supporting equal civil rights for all American citizens and spending our time on more legitimate ground, working within our religious communities to reinforce our religious values. That’s where such activism belongs.

Shabbat VaYekhi: What Makes a Good Song?

We’ve arrived at the last weekly parashah of the first book of the Torah: the book of Creation, of beginnings, of the kind of stories that are meant to answer the essential questions. How did the world come into existence? How did you and I? How did the Jews become a people? and less happy questions as well, such as Why do people kill each other? The stories of Genesis are Mythical in their necessity. We want to know how and why our existence follows certain paths, with choices and eventualities we might not have chosen ourselves had we the choice, and way too much pain besides.

This week we are reading nearly the entirety of the next to last chapter in the Book Bereshit (Genesis), chapter 49. The entire chapter consists of Jacob’s final words, which have come down to us in the form of what is often understood as the blessing of the twelve tribes in the persons of their eponymous ancestors. Although the text does not say so, Jacob probably spoke in song, just as Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our Rabbi, his traditional appellation) will sing as he takes his leave of his people, and life, on the other end of the Torah. There, at the end of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the Torah will call Moshe’s final words a song.

When we look closely, we see that Jacob’s last song is not exactly a blessing. It is more a declaration of character of each of the twelve sons who become progenitors of tribes. It is also, of course, a description of the tribes as our tradition knows them (and in that way we can understand retrojected elements that are clearly not contemporary). It is a complex song, full of Jacob’s feelings about his sons, and so it expresses chagrin and pride, love and resignation. It’s not an easy song to hear – but it is honest.

What makes a good song? In an opera or musical, the best songs are not simple in subject matter; and often, the most beautiful songs include harmonies, different voices pitched in different ranges and even rhythms. A good song is just a cacophony if it is mistimed, or when the singers are not in sync with each other – but a good song sounds like a miracle of beauty when everything comes together just so. The same is true of a good music jam session – musicians sensitive to each other, each contributing, each welcoming of the other’s contribution.

A community’s expression of itself is similar. We sing a song that belongs to each of us but also to all of us, each of us in our own way. It’s not always an easy song: we clash sometimes. Someone’s voice is not in sync, someone gets outsung (or does the outsinging!), someone’s timing is well-meant but not so good….

The song that Jews sing in community is full of life: disagreements, good and bad days, pain, happiness, grief, pleasure, impatience, and much more. Just look at our Talmud and the rest of rabbinic literature.

The author of the halakhic (legal) code Arukh haShulkhan, Rabbi Yekhiel Epstein, points out that those same rabbis who argued all day long about the finer and larger points of law also insisted that eylu v’eylu divre Elokim Hayim, “these AND these are the words of the living G-d”. (Hoshen Mishpat, Introduction). And “this is one of the reasons the Torah is called ‘a song’ – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.”  (From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Torah as G-d’s Song).

A good congregational song is not always pretty. That is, if it is a good song, because a good song is honest. Like Jacob’s final song, it has dramatic curves, flashes of pain as well as happiness, and the occasional diva. A good song is one that helps us explore our Torah inheritance, to speak our personal truths and learn our community truths from each other. It’s a process that, over time, offers us the opportunity not only to make beautiful Jewish music together, but to fulfill our obligation to find our voice in the harmonious song of Torah that only we can make together.

Shabbat VaYigash: How To Become Israel

The famous part of this week’s parashah is at the very beginning: after weeks of build-up, the saga reaches its dramatic climax as Judah steps forward to confront the ruler of Egypt (not knowing that this ruler is his own little brother). In this single act of courage and emotional maturity, Judah breaks a tragic cycle of family dysfunction which has haunted the household of the first Jews since Abraham.

But that’s not our text. We are reading from the second third of the Torah in this year of our Triennial Cycle, and we begin with chapter 45, verse 16 of Bereshit (Genesis). Joseph has revealed his identity to his brothers, the tearful reunion has begun, and Jacob is about to find out that his long-lost, most beloved son is not only still alive, but is ruler over all of Egypt.

Jacob will journey to Egypt to see Joseph. What must that journey have cost? After so many years, what would he find?

Life has continued in the interim; the lost years cannot be regained. That which has been torn, like Joseph’s old multi-colored coat, cannot be fully repaired. Jacob at first finds himself unable to believe. It is a tremendous shock, and he reels from it.

What might he be thinking? Is his mind working with the possibilities, attempting to discover how it is that he was deceived? Does he look upon his other sons in a new light? What tension exists in those days – might Jacob even be considering some bitter, angry action toward the brothers?

The Torah does not tell us more than this: somehow, Jacob manages to pull himself together, and he resolves to undertake the journey to Egypt.

And the Torah itself seems to react. At the beginning of chapter 46, calling him Israel for the first time in a long while. Israel – the name given to Jacob which becomes the name of our people, the name which speaks of struggle, hard-won experience, maturity. And Israel undertook the journey with all that he had, and came to Beer Sheva…

He travels as far as Beer Sheva, the city associated with his father Isaac. Something is calling him toward the memory of his father in these moments. Is he perhaps thinking of his own difficult experience as a father, does it shed new light on his experience of Isaac as a father? And then the text continues …he offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac. 

There is a hasidic story about a young man destined to succeed his father as Rebbe of a community, but his behavior worried his father. When reproved, the young man replied “This is my G-d and I will glorify; the G-d of my father and I will exalt.” (Song of the Sea, Exodus 15.2). In other words, the young man had to figure out his relationship to G-d for himself before he would be able to fully appreciate and respect that of his father. Is this the experience that Jacob – Israel – is now having?

The next verse relates: And G-d spoke to Israel in the night, saying, ‘Jacob, Jacob’. And he said, ‘here I am’.” (Bereshit 46.1-2) From the evidence of the Torah, it appears that G-d has not spoken to Jacob since the journey from Beth El, when Rakhel died in childbirth. G-d’s presence returns to Jacob, now Israel, only because Jacob is finally, it seems, able to become Israel.

We don’t know what was going through Israel’s mind and heart as he took that journey after so many years of loss. We only know that he we reunited with Joseph and died at peace.

Today the world mourns for Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday. I well remember watching him walk away from prison in 1990, amidst all the excitement, and the hope, that he engendered. After so many years, what was that journey like for Mandela? What did it cost him? We will never really know – all we have is the teaching he did by example of how to be reunited, and how to die at peace. It is, as the Torah would put it this week, to become Israel: to put down bitterness and anger, to walk away from regret for loss. It is to let one’s hard-won experience lead one toward wholeness, finally, rather than looking for payback or, even, the attention one feels one deserves.

And perhaps, in that way, finally to come to know what is the true source of one’s reverence and awe, and be able to see others – even one’s own parents – in that new light as well.

May the light of your own hard-won experience illuminate your life in these longest, darkest days of the year.