Shabbat Miketz: All of a Sudden, Change

You know where you stand, you know your path forward, you’ve spent time deciding what your future is going to look like. And then something happens, all of a sudden, and your plans….they get eaten up like the seven fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream.

Every year we read parashat Miketz on a Shabbat that coincides with Hanukkah. Every year Joseph is suddenly snatched from a dungeon and hurried before the Egyptian throne. Whatever he had imagined for his future disappeared suddenly, and a new reality confronted him. He was alone, surrounded by strangers, without resources.

Except for one very important resource. As the text tells us, when he is asked to show what he’s capable of, Joseph says clearly that his strength and his vision are not his, but the inspiration and blessing of his G*d.

What does he mean, and how can we relate?

Each of us is alone in our skin and in our dreams, as in our hopes and our fears. In the days and weeks since the U. S. presidential election, a growing sense of vulnerability has begun to eclipse the fairer aspects of the autonomy – the individuality – of our lives. While we may cherish our time alone, no one wants to be lonely. More, to be alone is to be isolated in ways that may be dangerous.

We know it: the only thing you can count on in life is that change happens. As the Yiddish folk saying goes, man tracht und Gott lakht, “we make plans and G*d laughs.” We can attempt to deny it and keep going in the path in which we’ve already invested our time and our dreams, but day by day we will only become more out of touch, and more pathetic.

I once officiated at the burial of a woman who lived alone. It was two weeks before they found her. Long walks by yourself in the woods or on the beach are one thing, but there is nothing uplifting about that kind of solitude that leaves you without support when you need it most.

I worked with the Jewish community of Kiev during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and saw Soviet citizens at a loss for a sense of identity and belonging in the post-Soviet era they were entering, very much against their will. Jews were among the minority groups who had an ironic advantage; the Jewishness that had been held against them in the Soviet system gave them a fallback – although they didn’t know much about it, their Jewish identity was there for the exploring. Jewish communities formed with great rapidity and passion in those days.

Like Joseph, those Jews were vulnerable and without resources – except for one. The memory of where they came from and its teachings was still there for them, and as they sought it out, it strengthened them. Through the communities they formed and the support they gave each other, they experienced inspiration and blessing. As the Jewish mystics would say, they evoked G*d’s presence in their midst, and thus they knew strength and support and hope.

The same thing happened to the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story. The same thing can happen to us. Change happens, uproots our expectations, upends our lives. And when in response a small group of individuals comes together, supports each other, in so doing they create something holy.

All of a sudden. May it happen to us.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat VaYeshev: Return, O Light, and We will Return to You

This is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, the light of the sun returns to us, slowly, day by day.

Darkness settles on us human beings like an oppressive cloak. Like Jacob and his sons in our parashat hashavua, we might even lose our grip on what’s real, and what’s really important. The darkness of their jealousy causes his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and allow his father to believe that he is dead. The darkness of his grief turns Jacob away from his remaining sons. Love leads to hurt, becomes betrayal, and mires a family in misery.

The wisdom of our ancient tradition does not tell us to avoid darkness – we’ve been around too long to believe in such a possibility. Rather, we are invited to note that the eye has both a dark part and a white part, and it is out of the dark part that we see. (R. Berekhiah b’Rabi, Midrash Tanhuma to Exodus, commenting on Psalm 18.29) Light blinds the eye; it is only in darkness that we are able to see light.

Joseph, cast into the darkness of an Egyptian dungeon, embodies this insight. It is not by betrayal and hate that he is able to climb up out of that darkness. When he is offered success in Egyptian terms, he consistently applies the ethical terms he learned from his own tradition to those opportunities. His steady honesty leads toward blessings he can see in the greater light that dawns for him and, ultimately, for all Egypt, as he is able to use his position to create public policy to forestall the worst effects of a multi-year famine.

Some of us have been cast down into our own dungeons of darkness, flirting with despair and with helplessness, in these dark days. It has been harder to remember to be gentle with those we love, and kind to those with whom we share our communities. It is not only personal grief that turns one inward and can lead to more hurt than necessary. It’s not easy to find the strength that Joseph had, to banish the darkness through steady connection to one’s ethics and honesty. 

How did Joseph manage it? What allowed him to see the light in the midst of the darkness that surrounded him? According to our tradition, it was because he never forgot the place from which he came and the people who came before him. He was able to see much more than light; because he remembered who he was and where he was from, he was able to see light’s Source.

We are taught that each of us is a reflection of G*d. That does not mean that we look, physically, like G*d. What we “see,” in the reflection that is each of us, is not carried on the wavelength of visible light. It is memory that communicates the resemblance between Creator and Creation. Memory is not a personal reverie; it is a collective, pulsing river of light, carrying the story of who we are, back and forth, all life long, creating us and forming G*d. Each individual’s memory illuminates a small part of the darkness that surrounds us.    

And so Hanukkah comes to remind us, just exactly at the right time, that darkness is nothing but an invitation to believe in our ability to kindle light, and to see in that light much more than the present reality it illuminates. Our Havdalah candle tomorrow evening leads directly to the kindling of the first light of the Hanukkiyah, as if already to encourage us to see how the spark becomes a bigger flame when we remember all the Hanukkah holidays that have come before, and all those who kindled light before us.

This, we pray, is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, may light of our own kindling return to us, slowly, day by day.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Gratitude, Not Fear

As Parashat VaYishlakh begins, Jacob survives a confrontation with his brother Esau, from whom he has been estranged for twenty years – a generation, a lifetime, of distance. Jacob has prepared himself for the worst, splitting his family into two camps and sending lavish gifts to his brother in advance – according to the Midrash, he even hides his daughter Dinah in the luggage lest Esau, his disgusting thug of a brother, see her and want to marry her. 

Yet Jacob finds his brother forgiving and welcoming. Upon meeting him, Esau folds him in a loving embrace. What does Jacob make of this surprise? Generations of commentaries have related to this encounter in ways that reveal more about the commentator than the story.

One asserts – with a complete absence of evidence – that Esau’s embrace was meant to kill his brother, and only G*d’s protection of Jacob saved his life. Another insists that Jacob was punished for hiding Dinah, and in so doing manifesting his contempt for the brother who was so different from him, rather than believing that a match between Dinah and Esau could possibly have redeemed Esau, bringing him back into the main narrative of the family.

Unable to believe in the peace that Esau is apparently offering, Jacob makes excuses, falsely assuring his brother they will meet again soon, and then heading as far away as he can get. Jacob settles his miraculously intact family in Sh’khem, where the townspeople seem friendly enough. 

Jacob’s punishment then arrives. As often happens in families, the effect of his behavior falls not upon him but on Dinah. What happens is unclear in the text; Dinah goes out to see the town, and either falls in love and elopes or was kidnapped and raped. The Torah does not record her own feelings about the situation, only those of the men between whom she is caught. 

Jacob’s sons falsely assure the men of Sh’khem that it’s all right, and they then fall murderously upon the unsuspecting some in their beds. Many die in the ensuring conflict, and Jacob and his family flee, wanderers again, this time in their own home country. Jacob’s experience has gone from mistrust of a brother to misunderstanding with an entire community.

Was all of this inevitable, as the plight of homeless wanderers often seems unrelievedly tragic? Or was it possible that Esau and Jacob – twin brothers after all – really could have been reconciled? And that perhaps the tragedy of Sh’khem never needed to happen at all….

In a time of fear it is easy to assume that violence and hatred are around every corner. If only Jacob could have kept in mind the prayer of gratitude with which he traveled to meet his brother: קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת שעשית את עבדך – “I am too small (i.e. unworthy) for all the true kindness You have done for Your servant”. (Bereshit 32.11) If he had managed to maintain a sense of gratitude for all the miracles he had already known, could he have approached Esau with hope in his heart, rather than (just) fear?

Yes, for Jacob the world may have been ending, but he had known so much good until that moment. What shall we feel, those of us who have known so much good in our lives, and still do – gratitude for all the years? or shall we allow it all to be erased in moments of darkness and fear? What evil do we bring upon ourselves and our loved ones because we expect it? What good is murdered in its bed before it can be born?

We may be unworthy, but we have known so much good. On this Shabbat, may your gratitude overcome your suffering.

(Here is an amazing recording of Jacob’s prayer of gratitude by Israeli composer and musician Yonatan Razel: Katonti)

Shabbat VaYetze: Backyard Mitzvot Will Change the World

This is the parashah of the “baby wars”. Leah and Rakhel, sisters and also wives of Yakov, strive against each other to bear more children. In the triennial system in which we are reading Year Two, Rakhel’s dramatic declaration and Yakov’s reply reveal the intensity:

וַתֵּרֶא רָחֵל כִּי לֹא יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב וַתְּקַנֵּא רָחֵל בַּאֲחֹתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל-יַעֲקֹב הָבָה-לִּי בָנִים וְאִם-אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי.

And when Rakhel saw that she bore Yakov no children, Rakhel envied her sister; and she said unto Yakov: ‘Give me children, or else I die.’

וַיִּחַר-אַף יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר-מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי-בָטֶן.

Yakov’s anger was kindled against Rakhel; and he said: ‘Am I in God’s stead, who has blocked you from fruit of the womb?’ (Bereshit 30.1-2)

Rakhel brings her servant companion into the battle on her side, so that any children she bears will be counted as Rakhel’s; Leah then does the same. The four women live in a system in which they are judged by their ability to bring children into the world – most specifically male children.

They are caught in this contest, in which they are judged by their ability to have a child. Rather than make common cause against it, asserting many other ways in which a human being who happens to be a woman is precious, necessary and valuable, they let the system define them. They turn against each other rather than work together to change what they can, and refuse to give in where they cannot effect change.

Their challenge is also ours. Human nature has not changed all that much in the several thousand years since this story was first told. It is striking and significant that our ancestors, telling a patriarchal story, devoted so many of the sacred words of the Torah to the struggles of Leah and Rakhel to live meaningful lives. As in much of the Torah, we are not told the right answer to the story; we are given this human story, with all its familiar human emotional difficulties, so that we can work out the right answer.

Their challenge is also ours and it belongs to those who function as men in our society as well as to those who are women, in terms of our roles and how they are valued. Can we in our day do better than these two, who were siblings before they were Yakov’s wives? Can we, of whatever and all genders, look beyond the way in which we are currently valued as a result of our gender (and of course other factors)? Can we see the ways in which the way we value ourselves leads us to compete with each other to our own detriment?

The women of the Torah are not powerless. The story of Tamar, or of Rivkah, or Naomi and Ruth, clearly indicate that. The difficulty is in reaching beyond the strong walls of assumptions, of learned mistrust, of personal vulnerability underneath it all.

In these days of fear for our own safety, may we learn from this story not to let our society assign our value – and not to trust it to assign any one else’s. You and I must accept the results of this election, but we must never ever accept injustice, inequality, or indecency. 

Can you see the larger forces that push us away from each other? Can you see our power if we refuse to be pushed?

As we seek to find our path through this present wilderness, don’t worry about challenging these great forces head on. Ancient Jewish wisdom bids us begin in our own backyards, for this is the only way that the great forces of society will ever change.

Here is a list of ten Backyard Mitzvot for you to consider for this week:

1. Write or call your representative in Congress and express your opposition to any attempt to roll back equal rights for LGBTQ people, to create a registry for Muslim Americans, to cutting 22 million Americans off health insurance, to reduce access to contraception and cancer screenings, and to nominations of people who are unqualified or bigoted.

2. Make Shabbat intential downtime for you. Set your kavanah (intention) to commemorate this upcoming fourth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. After Shabbat, look up Moms Demand Action to see what you can do to help.

3. If you’re in Portland Oregon, come on Sunday December 11 to the Japanese American HIstorical Plaza at 4pm for Vision & Vigilance Candlelight Vigil: Protesting Muslim Registry.

4. Put your money where your mouth is. Contribute regularly to groups that promote equal rights, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and our Portland chapter of SURJ (Show Up for Racial Justice).

5. Don’t let it slide when a friend makes degrading comments about anyone. Kindly but firmly ask them not to make those kinds of remarks around you.

6. Consider joining the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration. 

7. Volunteer as an escort for patients at our local Planned Parenthood who must endure the verbal assaults of protesters in order to receive medical services.

8. Donate canned goods or send a check or bring clothes – to the Arc, to the Oregon Food Bank, to the North East Emergency Food Pantry.

9. Give books to the Books Through Bars program, which provides reading materials to incarcerated people.

10. Mark your calendar now to join us in marching in the Gay Pride parade next June.

Yours is not to complete the work, yet neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot

Calling upon the President-Elect to Pursue Justice: Oregon Board of Rabbis Statement

Pray for the peace of the place in which you live; build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. – Jeremiah 29.7

Since the election, there has been an increase of hate crimes around our great nation. The Oregon Board of Rabbis is disturbed by this trend. A key part of our ongoing mission is dedicated to teaching compassion and tolerance within our community. We call upon the President-elect to demonstrate similar caring leadership by denouncing in the strongest possible terms extremist voices that sow hate and disarray.

As Americans it is our privilege, and as Jews our responsibility, to speak out against the elevation of bigotry and extremism in our national life, and to guard against complicity in ourselves and others. 

As Jews we are respectful of the government and of the power of authorities to do justice, and we also have a particular obligation that reaches far beyond the halls of civic power. We are commanded: justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 16.20)

As Americans we call upon the leaders of our government to pursue justice for all the inhabitants of our land. As Jews we call upon each other to work for the peace of the land in which we live, and to stand firm in common cause with all those who are vulnerable.

We pray for the peace of this land, and we each commit to tending the gardens where we live.

Hazak hazak v’nit’hazek, let us be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Toldot: The Unraveling

This Shabbat we read parashat Toldot. Two boys are born to Rebekah and Isaac. Esau and Jacob are twins, born together – Jacob’s name reflects the fact that he is born holding on to his brother’s heel. Surely they will grow up to be close.

But they grow up very differently. Esau loves the outdoors, and learns to track and hunt. He is most alive when immersed in the natural surroundings of their lives. Jacob, the Torah tells us, is a quiet young man who “dwells in tents”, someone who cooks with his mother. Surely, though, their differences need cause no distance between them.

The Torah’s narration of their early lives emphasizes their differences, though, and it seems inevitable that the conflict will occur, as it does. The blessing of the first born can only be given to one of them, and when Jacob manages to steal it from his brother, older by about two seconds, Esau swears to kill him. And so this family is rent asunder, for Jacob must leave home, and Esau is left bereft not only of blessing but of his companion, his twin.

How does this unraveling occur? How might they have stopped it from happening? And what can we learn from this story, so as not to repeat it?

We in this United States of America have long been taught that we are all brothers and sisters, twins so to speak in the opportunities that lie before us, the glowing horizon that beckons us. Why is it that we end up at odds with those who should be our companions? How is it that we end up stealing blessings from each other? Is there not another way, a way in which we might demand that there is enough blessing for all?

In these days as winter closes in and we withdraw to warm dwellings (and may we not forget to look after those who have no place to get warm!), there is much to keep us contemplative and thoughtful. Soon enough we will be called to act – many of us are already active in one way or another. Now is a good time to not only gather together, as we will soon for Hanukkah, but also to settle into learning what we can.

I recommend this book, The Unwinding, that I am settling down to read. I would be interested in your thoughts about it as we continue to meet, and talk, and pray over the questions of what we are called upon to do, and how we might be reconnected to our twins who grew up in this country of promise with us, and yet are so far away from us that some have even spoken of killing – have even killed – those whom they see as in some way stealing from them.

On this Shabbat, may we find learning, and quiet consideration – no conclusions necessarily ripe to be drawn, but perhaps, just maybe, a memory of once long ago, a touch of a hand upon our heel, a grasp of one with whom we were born and with whom we will find our destiny.