Shabbat VaYetze

Shabbat VaYetze brings us parashat VaYetze, the Torah reading for this week, which includes mysterious visions of G-d, looming intimations of exile, and a couple of verses which have caused the Jewish people two millennia of hope and difficulty.

“The land upon which you are standing right now, this land I give to you and your offspring forever; and you will flourish and spread out to the West and East, to the North and South.” (Gen.  )

This promise described in our Torah gave our ancestors the hope they needed to survive terrible years of exile; the difficulty began when, in the late 1800s, in response to horrific pogroms in Eastern Europe, they began to find their way toward that promise. This human seeking of shelter in an ancestral home, expressed by Jews through the socialist utopian movement which came to be called Zionism, brought first hundreds, then thousands, of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel.

In the political and social upheavals of 19th century Europe, other peoples were seeking their own shelters in what came to be called the rise of nation-state-ism. It was a time when peoples began to define national borders by some sense of ethnic and cultural, as well as historical, belonging. 

And there we find the difficulty. The Jews, holding on to the promise made to our ancient ancestors, sought to return to the land of their historical and ethnic and cultural origins. But we (many of us, although there have always been some communities of Jews living in Israel) had been away from home for a long time. Others were living there, some the descendants of those who had moved in not long after we left, or perhaps had shared the space with us just as long ago. These Arab inhabitants also made the claim of ethnic, cultural, and historical belonging in the Land we call Israel and they call Palestine.

There are two rights here, and painfully, terribly, they are adding up to make a wrong: conflict, hate, and murder, all over the deep human need to belong and to be safe. That wrong is exacerbated by the choice by some on both sides to cite G-d’s word to them. Some Jews quote the verse which appears in our parashah this week, as well as others, and expect that simple word to end the argument. They seem to believe that they are bringing an irrefutable claim by quoting our sacred text. 

But they have forgotten one small detail: our text is sacred only to us. It is not a ground for common understanding any more than the Koran is. It is nothing more than an expression of our own sense of belonging, and therefore necessarily limited to us. 

In asserting this I am placing myself firmly on one side of another divide: that between Jew and Jew. To talk about our relationship to Israel is to make claims regarding history, ethnicity and culture, certainly – but it is also a religious declaration. And religion can become the single most divisive aspect of human relations, because it speaks to the deepest heart of human existential uncertainty. 

I do not believe that our religious beliefs and our sacred texts must lead us to this difficult place. After all, the sacred text which promises us the land of Israel also promises us that the land will spit us out if we do not live upon it ethically. And that same text also insists that we treat our neighbors with compassion, dignity, and respect.

How much more so must we remember and try to practice this same ethic while we talk about the Land of Israel and its fate here in the United States.

I urge you: don’t feel anxious to rush to easy clarity. We should feel confused and torn; it is only our unease at feeling unsettled that makes us opt out of learning and choose a belief based on shallow, second- or third- hand information. There are many tangled feelings and much difficult history here, and no good, easy, satisfying answers. Keep asking questions, keep reading from many different sources; keep asking yourself: where is the mitzvah here, and what is the best way to perform it?

May you learn in the best spirit of Jewish openness, “with all your mind, with all your heart, and will all your being”, and may you come to trust in your ability to hold partial clarity, and to stay open to further learning, rather than closing your eyes and taking refuge in an easy, but ultimately false, partial truth. There’s no blessing in that. If we keep talking, sharing our feelings and our pain, we will wrest the most Jewish of blessings from our struggle.

Ferguson, and here: What Is a Jew To Do?

It was Monday evening when the news was announced: that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr, in Ferguson Missouri. An indictment does not assume guilt; it merely declares that there’s reason to go to trial to ascertain guilt or innocence. 

According to the path of Jewish law, we are commanded: Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live. (Deut.16.20) Why, the Sages asked, was the word “justice” repeated? Because, they answered, one must pursue justice justly. In Ferguson on Monday justice was denied, in the denial of a fair and open trial.

What are we, as Jews who are obligated to work for the prosperity of the country in which we live, to do? How shall we respond? what is the next step? We are also commanded to use our best learning to ascertain how best to fulfill a mitzvah, in this case the mitzvah of you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. (Lev. 19.16) 

For that purpose, yesterday afternoon I attended the rally downtown at the Justice Center called by the Albina Ministerial Coalition and others, to respond to the news. There I heard a call to action toward those of us “who identify as white” to “use your privilege to further justice.” As local coverage put it:

Bring in a special prosecutor when deadly officer-involved shootings happen, to keep the case unbiased. And after at least four controversial minority deaths that resulted in no charges against Portland police over the years, they want a review of the deadly force policies here, too.

“The killing of Michael Brown has also brought to light many of the unfortunate blemishes – criminal justice disparities, volatile police-community relations, unemployment and economic inequities – that tarnish our nation and that prevent us from being the best of whom we can be,” said Dr LeRoy Haynes, Chair of the AMA Coalition. “This tragedy has exposed the persistent state of emergency that grips not only Ferguson, but our city and our nation as a whole.” (see the complete report here.)

There were no Jewish speakers at the rally. It was an absence I felt painfully, for it speaks of the gap that has widened between Jews and African-Americans in the years since Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr Martin Luther King Jr walked hand in hand over the Selma Bridge. Much bitterness has passed under that bridge in the meantime, but we cannot let the distance fetter our efforts to fulfill the mitzvah of working for the prosperity of our country. To be Jewish is to hope, and to work, for a better world. It’s in our prayers and our ethics.

Pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which you live. (Jeremiah 29.7) For Jews, to pray is to imply action based on the prayer. 

But for those of us who identify as white, our collective white liberal guilt, as it is called, can blind us to the best way to take action. We can’t simply approach an African-American of our acquaintance or in the street and offer a hug and a statement of support. That might make us feel better, but it’s not about us. There is real anger in Portland’s minority and disenfranchised communities, as we saw demonstrated when some of the marchers last night turned violent.

Listen carefully, then, to what the leaders of the Ferguson press conference said. Watch for the small acts that we can effectively do to work toward equal justice. Most of all, as one speaker pleaded last night at the Portland rally, “don’t go back to your routine.”  

“You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our backs.” So said Rev Al Sharpton Tuesday at a press conference in Ferguson. There is an ongoing Federal investigation; let’s stay focused. Watch for ways to be supportive. Raise your voice; write a letter; don’t go back to your routine. 

Shabbat Toldot: What Are We Teaching Our Children?

This parashat hashavua couldn’t be more timely (it happens so very often that I can’t help but get a bit mystical about it). This week we read of the birth of twins to Rebekah and Isaac, and of the oracle that Rebekah receives when she asks after their – and her – fate:

Two nations are in your womb, 

two peoples shall be separated from your body; 

one people shall be stronger than the other people; 

and the elder shall serve the younger.     (Gen. 25.23)

Esav is born first, followed by Yaakov. And upon this birth order hangs a destiny: once again, for the second (and not the last) time in Jewish history, the first born is passed over in the succession. The way it happens this time is through subterfuge: Isaac calls upon Esav to bring him a meal of the kind of wild game that only Esav, the hunter, can provide, and then Isaac will give Esav, his first born, his “innermost blessing”. But Rebekah hears, and devises a ruse so that Isaac will bless Yaakov instead of Esav.  Which is what happens.

Commentators write that Rebekah was only following G-d’s will as revealed to her in the oracle. Some even implicate Isaac, and say that he was in on the deception. Only Esav is left out of this scenario; Esav, who cries bitterly upon hearing of his loss, “bless me too, Father! don’t you have even one blessing left for me?”  Esav’s cry of pain is still difficult for us to hear. Our commentators say whatever they can to prove that Esav was really the bad guy, he was just pretending to be innocent and hurt.

Just as Ishma’el is first born, so is Esav; and just as Isaac inherits his parents’ legacy, so does Yaakov. And so a family pattern is replicated, which records, even in the sacred text which clearly shows that this is how it should be, that it comes at a terrible human cost.

What is Rebekah teaching Esav, and Yaakov? 

A nine-year-old in a local school accuses a classmate of belonging to “that people which is killing other people and taking their land.” Where does a nine-year-old get such an idea? Who did she hear talking?

Many normal human beings of average intelligence tell me that the only way to deal with “those barbarians” is to “kill them all before they kill us”. Why do we generalize in such a terrifying way? And what has led us to say such a thing?

I am reminded of the old “South Pacific” song: “You’ve got to be taught to hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” We have all been taught some dangerous beliefs. Some of us put our trust in such ideas as the eternal validity of going to war in order to secure peace. Or that only force will restore order. Or that today’s threat must be dealt with on its face, regardless of its cause.

That approach certainly supports the military industrial complex, and it certainly will cause gun sales to remain robust. But it does nothing to heal the pain. It will only replicate it, for another generation. Violence can never end violence. The truth is more difficult, and it rests in what we learn throughout our entire lifetime. This week’s horrors – murder, torture, and exile – are not the impulse of a day. They are the fruit of deep movements within the psyche, long histories of experience, and the lack of an opportunity to learn how not to despair.

How are we to respond? how are we to choose our acts? Jewish ethics tell us that

Every person has within a spark of G-d

Every person deserves to be judged with the benefit of the doubt

Justice can only be pursued on a first-hand knowledge basis

Here’s the challenge: Jewish ethics are not followed only when we feel powerful, righteous and optimistic from a distance. Anyone can be ethical under those conditions!

Let Ishma’el and Isaac teach us what their parents did not learn. The two men defied the estrangement  ordained for them and, as we see in last week’s parashah, they bury their father Abraham together (and hopefully bury some of what he taught them in his own actions). Let Esav and Yaakov tell us what their parents might have said, as recorded in a parashah only two weeks away, when the two brothers meet again after many years of life and learning:

Esav ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept….And Esav said: ‘I have enough, my brother, let that which you have be yours.’ “(Gen. 33.4, 9)

Both Esav and Ishma’el are apparently able to refuse to be overwhelmed by bitterness, even though they have been cheated of what everyone knew was the first-born’s birthright. Esav seems to be able to see that even though he was bereft, now he has enough – he also is blessed. In the course of many years, Esav found the ability to look beyond the destiny imposed upon him and learn something that requires more thought, more emotional maturity, and brings more chance of healing.

We on this planet have much more to learn before we can hear the cry of pain at the bottom of evil. We must keep talking as honestly and compassionately as possible toward each other, and keep trying to help each other forward toward the light at the end of all this darkness.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Is the Torah Misogynistic?

This week’s parashah is called Hayye Sarah, “Life of Sarah”. The name is derived from the first verse of the parashah:

  וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  “Sarah’s life was 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23.1)

This, however, is the beginning of what we would call Sarah’s epitath. In the next verse we are told of her death. In the parashat hashavua called by her name, Sarah does not appear as a living, acting person. She is, however, a powerful memory which shapes the ensuing acts of her husband and son. Sarah is mourned in this parashah, and in this third year of the Triennial Cycle, Abraham’s most trusted servant has gone back to the home country to find the proper wife for their son, Isaac. It sounds like a typical male-centered text, and the story of finding Rebekah is told with, sure enough, permission being granted by the head of the family in order for her to go and marry Isaac.

Modern Jews often struggle with the gifts of our people’s long memory. Among our inheritances is the gendered Torah text, which skews quite clearly male, both in identifying the Divine and in describing the cultural, social and religious practices of the humanity linked with that vision.

I am not saying “cultural, social and religious awareness”, only “practices”. Please note that we have no idea of the extent to which the Torah clearly describes the actual reality of our most ancient ancestors. The Torah transmits the formative narrative of our people, but it does so through the eyes and ears of those who passed the stories on faithfully from generation to generation. The Torah itself hints at this, by using terminology that expresses awareness that the story happened in earlier times, or is in some other way not fully told.

As a female Rabbi I am sometimes asked whether the Torah isn’t just an outdated misogynistic artifact that we must overcome in order for women and men – and all the genders in between the poles – to be treated as equally valuable, equally necessary, equally filled with the Divine. The answer I often offer comes from my teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, who once pointed out to me, many years ago, that rather than be angry at what I knew from the text, it might be advisable to learn more about the text.

That may have been a gentle way to point out to me that I didn’t completely know what I was judging, and he was right. He was also right to challenge me with the following: “Feminists don’t have to find arguments outside the sacred texts in order to rebut them; the texts themselves are diverse enough that you can find whatever you need within them.”

One of our greatest challenges is becoming aware of the assumptions, and baggage, that we bring to Torah. Is there some part of us that wants to stay angry at this central sacred symbol? Do we prefer to stay away from it and the associations we carry? In other words, do you come to Torah only to pick a fight and then walk away satisfied that there is nothing relevant here?

Here’s a case in point. When you look carefully at the story of Rebekah’s engagement to Isaac, you will see that the head of the household which gives permission for her to go is actually female. You can see it in the Hebrew grammar of the text. It seems as if perhaps someone telling the story later, or perhaps the scribe who first wrote it down, must have assumed that the story was meant in a patriarchal context, and so some words were changed. But they weren’t changed thoroughly enough, and you can see the fingerprints of the change all over the story. And then there’s the fact that Rebekah is asked if she agrees to go. She is not sold, or sent away against her will.

And when Rebekah arrives, it is a signal event for the family:

וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. “And Isaac was comforted after his mother[’s death].” (Gen. 24.67)

Whatever role Sarah played in this more patriarchal culture than the one she and Abraham came from, she is clearly so central a presence that nothing will be right until there is once again a woman in her place. Attack it as you might, this is not a misogynistic story.

There’s much more just like this in the investigation of this endless book. You’re invited to dive in any time. What you find may dismay and infuriate you at times, but you will also find uplifting courage and kindness – and best of all, you will be challenged to grow.

May Torah always beckon you toward, and support you in becoming, your highest spiritual self.

Shabbat VaYera: How Are Jews To Be in the World?

How are Jews meant to be in the world? The answer suggested by Jewish ethics is that with every step and with every word, we are to seek the presence of G-d. That does not mean that we are to treat the world as a game of hide-and-seek, but rather that we are to consider the impact of every word and act. Will this thing that I am about to say, that I am burning to say, bring the Presence more fully into being? Will this act that I plan to undertake bring more wholeness into my life and that of my family, my friends, my companions in community?

This week we are given a clear message about the intersection of ethical behavior and the Presence of G-d, as our ancestors struggled to understand it.

We have arrived, this week, at the parashat hashavua called VaYera, “[G-d] appeared”. In this first verse and throughout this long parashah, G-d appears several times to different people, in different guises. 

First, to Abraham in the guise of three travelers (or maybe only one of them, the text is obscure).

18.1: “God appeared to him by the scrub oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day”

Second, to Sarah in the guise of an accuser, “outing” her private laughter:

18.15 “Sarah denied it, saying ‘I didn’t laugh’, because she was afraid. But G-d said, ‘you did too laugh’.”

Third, to Abraham in the guise of a king taking counsel with a trusted advisor:

18.17: “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing?”

Fourth, to Avimelekh, king of Gerar, who adds Sarah to his harem after Abraham says that she is his sister (long story):

20.3: “You are going to die, because you have taken a woman who is another man’s wife.”

Fifth, to Abraham, as a friend counsels a man having trouble at home:

21.12: “In all that Sarah tells you, do as she says.”

Sixth, to Hagar as a savior:

21.19: “G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

Seventh, and finally, as – well, we don’t really know for sure:

22.1: “After all these things, G-d tested Abraham.”

These appearances all have in common an invitation to consider the meaning and ethical impact of one’s acts. The first is the classic story of Jewish hospitality. The second and fourth have to do with honesty, and the third with refraining from hypocrisy. The fifth touches on a Jewish category called shalom bayit, “keeping peace at home”. In the sixth, Hagar is challenged not to give up as long as life remains. 

The seventh appearance of G-d in this parashah introduces the story of the Akedah, the “binding” and near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir. For millennia, Jewish commentators, teachers and scholars have all tried to explain this incident and make it comprehensible. How could G-d command Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah, and take your son, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering to Me on one of the mountains that I will show you there.” (Gen. 22.2) As has been said by many long before now, this makes no sense. It is also horrifying, of course.

One of the more compelling answers to this question is the one which notes that G-d “tested” Abraham. Pointing out that G-d did not allow the sacrifice to be completed, it has been suggested that the answer is quite simple: Abraham failed the test. The test was knowing when the voice that you are sure is G-d’s is not.

If the idea of “hearing G-d’s voice” is really just another way to say “I feel absolutely certain”, then the true test is knowing when that truth of which you are already certain is no longer true.

Each of the appearances in this parashah ask the protagonist to make a difficult ethical choice. Contrary to what we might assume, the appearance is not a reward for doing the right thing, the appearance is in the quandary itself. 

G-d is present in our difficulties as the strength and vision that allows us to find our way through them. The Divine Presence is not, according to this particular Torah insight, the property of the one who makes the right choice. It is with all of us who realize that before us lies a struggle to discern the ethical path. It is in the seeing, not in someone’s temporary and partial definition of success. It is clearly NOT the property of one who says s/he speaks in the name of G-d, or the secular god of ethics, and then speaks a hurtful, cold, word, or does a cruel act. It is no accident that G-d never again appears to Abraham after this incident.

May the sense of a divine supportive Presence be with you as you do your best to discern the ethical and moral choices of your life, and choose your acts in response.