Shabbat Miketz: Survival Tip for 2020 – Remember Who You Are

s/he was bullied by siblings.

s/he was terrorized by being thrown in a pit and ignored.

s/he was sold into slavery in a strange society.

s/he knew neither the language nor the customs.

s/he was accused of crime s/he had not committed.

s/he was thrown in a dungeon and forgotten.

In parashat Miketz, Joseph models for us the self-reliance and courage needed to survive when one is powerless and adrift. Jews wandering in Exile have long identified with powerlessness, being blamed for terrible crimes we didn’t commit (blood libel being one), and being confronted with languages and customs we don’t understand, but yet must somehow make our way through in order to survive.

Many generations of Jewish commentators have seen in the Joseph story clues for our own survival. Our sense of difference may come from Jewish historical experience and epigenetic trauma, and may be sharpened by further experiences of exile, such as being Queer, Black, converted, Sephardi, returning, or female in a cis white heterosexual male-dominated Ashkenazi Jewish society such as that considered normative in the United States.

Our ancestors look closely at the Joseph story and derive lessons for us that resonate with profound truth over much human history. As we enter the darkest days of the year in the northern hemisphere of the planet, may their words stay with us:

  • Let there be light is the first obligation of Judaism. As we are taught to see ourselves as shut’fei Elohim, partners with HaShem, these first words of Creation are an ongoing mitzvah for us to fulfill. To the dark corners of our fears, let us bring light to each other by a simple email or phone call, a word or a gesture.
  • They continued to give their children Hebrew names. How did our ancestors finally merit to be rescued from the darkness of Egyptian slavery? Just as Joseph modeled when finally a parent, giving their offspring the Hebrew names Efrayim and Menashe, so we continue to preserve this custom that links us to our people, with names (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and more) that come from elsewhere, and remind us of who we are.
  • Our sources point out that in a way significant for us, Joseph was greater than even Moshe Rabbenu, Moshe our teacher, because Moshe concealed his identity (see Exodus 2.19, where the daughters of Reuel call him an Egyptian and he does not correct them) but in our parashah Joseph, when brought before Pharaoh powerless and without allies, nevertheless proclaims their identity at the first opportunity (Genesis 41.16).

Joseph’s feelings of abandonment are expressed in the names of their children (Gen. 41.51-52) “I have forgotten my parental home” and “I thrive in the land of my affliction.” Yet Joseph remains rock steady in knowing where they came from.

This is the key to keeping our own balance in these dark days: remember where you came from. Hold on to who you are, even if no one else validates you. Hang in there: keep learning (no one’s perfect) and keep the light of hope burning. Hanukkah may be over but the light we kindle together never goes out.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

…one more thought: some have designated a Ninth Night of Hanukkah for this year in honor of the Shamash, that candle that does all the work of bringing light to the others yet is not itself representative of a day. In honor of all those who have done the essential work of bringing light, health care, food, shelter, and compassion to others in this terrible year, we honor the Shamash. You can light nine candles, or you can add one more candle to your Shabbat lights, to honor the light brought by the faithful Shamash and all those symbolized by it.

Letter to a Young Jew

I’m thrilled that you got in touch to ask me about your discomfort with the prayer for Israel we did in the shul during High Holy Days. I’m also very happy to hear that you are finding ways to express your sense of Jewish identity in resistance to the evils of our day. Jews, with our natural bend toward community, have created a number of activist organizations on our local scene: Matzah Bloc, Alberta Shul, Bend the Arc’s Moral Minyan, Never Again Action, and TischPDX, among others. In all of these I appreciate the chance to show up as a Jew in support of other marginalized communities, and to make common cause to struggle for justice.


To me all this comes from a very Jewish place, and my protest ethics are informed by Jewish sources both rabbinic and prophetic: 


1. It was the Israelite prophets who insisted that we must support the vulnerable or our society is doomed, so I feel that my actions when I protest ICE or police brutality are directly in line with Isaiah or Jeremiah or Huldah. Those prophets were declaring their fiery words directly at the government of the kingdom of Israel. Jeremiah was arrested for sedition and thrown in jail by the king who wanted to him. Elie Weisel (may he rest in peace) was famous for saying that Jews “speak truth to power” and it’s an ancient Jewish ethic.


2. Jews do not condemn human beings, we condemn human behavior. In a famous ancient story, a rabbi (Meir) is assaulted by a gang and subsequently prays for their deaths. His partner, also a rabbi (Bruriah), asks how Meir can possibly believe such a prayer could be acceptable. Rather, she counsels, he should pray for those who do evil to repent – so he does. We pray for the end of evil, not the end of evil-doers.
Thus the Jewish liturgy includes prayers for the U.S. government and the Israeli government. Not that they should prosper in their wickedness, but to speak our optimism that every human being, created in the image of G*d, is capable of evil, and of turning from evil and doing good. 


Jewish prayer has a lot of purposes. Maybe you remember the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof who insisted that there is a blessing for everyone and everything? his students ask him, if that’s so, what’s the blessing for the Czar (under whom Jews were massacred regularly). He offers the immortal line “may G*d bless and keep the Czar…far away from us.” Prayer is not agreement. It’s review, it’s musing, it’s sometimes a cry of anger against G*d, it’s sometimes disgust. To care enough about good to be disgusted by evil is also a kind of prayer. Apathy is the only non-prayer I know.


3. I’m also informed by the Jewish teaching that all is one, that all existence is connected. As Alice Walker wrote, I know that if I cut a tree my arm will bleed. All of us are part of the same living continuum. It’s a cop out, according to Jewish mystical tradition, to say that someone or some thing is demonic, i.e. beyond the bounds of human. It’s a disinclination to recognize that we are all capable of evil, an frankly all it does is draw the circle of our capacity smaller than it actually is. We can only defeat evil when we understand and own it as being a human failing that we can understand and recognize.


One final note. On the Left, Jews are usually asked to leave their Jewish particularity at the door. Events are held on Shabbat or Jewish holy days, because we’re a very small group, percentage-wise, in every social justice movement. Many Jews are not entirely proud of their Jewishness anyway. 


It’s important, ethically, to me to distinguish between protest against the Israeli government and the occupation, and condemnation of every Israeli. There are groups in Israel/Palestine in which Palestinians and Jews work arm in arm together for peace and justice; there are bilingual schools which teach Arabic and Jewish culture and language together. 


Blanket dismissal of any people – our own included – is just bigotry. Lumping a state’s government in with its people is sloppy and wrong (anyone who condemns the protesters in Portland because of their Mayor is similarly wrong). As a Jew, I believe it is a mitzvah to work for social justice in Israel, just as I do in the U.S. I’m not pro- or anti-U.S. or pro- or anti-Israel; I’m anti-cruelty, anti-occupation, anti-oppression anywhere and everywhere. It’s in the U.S. where I am a citizen, and Israel where my people comes from, where I must make those words live.

May these days of Hanukkah bring warmth and illumination for you in the midst of all this darkness of fear and hatred.


Some reading if you’re into it:

Reflections on Being a Jewish Activist:

https://medium.com/@YotamMarom/toward-the-next-jewish-rebellion-bed5082c52fc

The difference between criticizing Israel and being antisemitic:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-to-tell-when-criticism-of-israel-is-actually-anti-semitism/2018/05/17/cb58bf10-59eb-11e8-b656-a5f8c2a9295d_story.html

and intersectionality:

https://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/06/29/skin-in-the-game-how-antisemitism-animates-white-nationalism

Shabbat VaYeshev: Justice by the Light of the Hanukkah Menorah

You may very well be wrong in your first impression – Love, Tamar

In the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading, we find that the focus of the parashat hashavua (“Torah reading of the week”) is the story of Tamar in Bereshit, also called Genesis, in chapter 38. After the strange silence imposed upon Dinah in last week’s parashah, the narrative of a woman who succeeds against misogynist assumptions and coercion is all the more striking.

One need not be female-identified to empathize with Tamar’s predicament. She is married in to the family of Judah ben Leah v’Jacob, to his oldest son Eyr. When Eyr dies suddenly and inexplicably, the Israelite tradition expects her to be married to Eyr’s brother Onan – who also dies. Alarmed, assuming the worst about Tamar, Judah does not fulfill the legal expectation that the next (and last) son Shelah be now joined with Tamar. Having no way to force the issue, Tamar is relegated back to her family of origin. Her life is now on hold, and over time it becomes clear that Judah has no further thought of her. She is treated unjustly, and has no recourse within the system.

Because the law gives her no place to stand, Tamar goes around it in order to achieve justice. It requires courage and strength of will, but more, she has to act in ways that bring about condemnation from those who believe that acting legally is the only correct way to behave – even when there is no justice forthcoming.

Tamar forces the issue and achieves justice, but the oh so human story is messy and upsetting. It proceeds from injustice to injustice and from assumption to assumption until finally the truth is forced forth, and Judah recognizes that he was wrong.

The only way Tamar could get justice was to go outside the law in order to force the issue. The words of the second Hanukkah blessing come to mind: bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, “in those days as in these,” the situation is no different in our own days. Those who have no recourse within the system, who are held down and oppressed by it, will go around it to seek justice, if they have the courage and strength of will.

______________________________

My beloved companions in Jewish learning, I believe in the power of Torah study to help us understand the lessons of every modern story we learn. Tamar’s story offers insight into our own Jewish struggle against generations of oppression, which have brought about a certain wariness about government authority not only in Exile but in Israel. As surely as if she was lighting a Hanukkah menorah, Tamar can also shed a necessary, holy light upon the struggle of Portland Oregon anti-government activists such as those protesting gentrification at the Red House.

Please see the link below to the recent coverage by OPB, the best explanation I have seen of the situation. Use your Torah study skills; read closely.

To be a Jew is to ask questions beneath the surface of a narrative. Such digging is called midrash in Torah study; let it guide our reading of the newspaper as well. Jews, more than any other culture, know that the surface story is only the simplest, most misleading aspect of any narrative. Remembering Tamar and her wisdom as we try to make sense of the struggle for justice in our own day, and even the nature of what people define as justice, is not just useful. It is the Jewish path, and it is the only path to the wisdom of Judah, who when presented with the fuller story realized that he was wrong. It is the greatest courage of all to be open to learning when we already know we’re right, and to learn how to say “no, she is right and I am wrong.”

Or, as I am fond of quoting the Rambam, Maimonides, “teach your tongue to say  I do not know and you will learn.”

By the light of Hanukkah may we all see the path to justice for ourselves and our community.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!

Rabbi Ariel

see: Understanding the Eviction Blockade

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Becoming Whole By Becoming Oneself

There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in – Leonard Cohen ז״ל

In this week’s parashah, the eponymous ancestor of the People of Israel is given the name Israel. The deceiving, conniving, too smart by half Jacob has apparently achieved some kind of transition.

The people Israel has for two thousand years developed our sense of identity as a people through learning the lives and lessons of our ancestors. In order to do so, those of us who are not male (or the other things the text might be seen to assume are normative) have had to learn how to do Midrash – to look beneath the surface of things – in order to relate to the essential humanity beneath what seems to be a patriarchal text.

Patriarchal but not without matriarchal moments; heterosexual but not without its moments of queerness; spiritually uplifting sometimes but more often a tale of mistakes, venality, and “stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”*

Jacob this week is stumbling toward his destiny, a trail that leads directly to his brother Esau, whom he has cheated and lied to, and then run away from. In so doing he becomes a paradigm of the necessary steps we still know we must take in order to achieve atonement; at-one-ment, reconciliation not only with another but, in the process, becoming more whole in oneself.

Such work requires difficult struggle. This week’s Torah recounts that struggle one night, which has been variously understood by many of us over the generations: the Torah itself refers to “a man” but the prophet Hosea says it was an angel (Hosea 12.4-5). Our Rabbinic Sages declared that it was Samael, whom they called Esau’s “guardian angel” and a source of evil (Rashi, peace be upon him, Gen.32.35).

Isn’t this just like ourselves? As the people, so the individual: before I finally locate the blame appropriately on myself, I will blame everyone else for my fault. My yetzer hara’ will convince me that I myself am blameless but just unlucky. These stages of denial lead me away from seeing how much I really struggled with the evil of blaming others, because all I see is the evil I have experienced.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, peace be upon him, taught that Jacob’s real problem is that he does not know himself, and does not value himself. That is why he steals blessings and birthrights. But our tradition rules that you can’t bless HaShem with a stolen lulav on Sukkot; our people has learned that stolen blessings are really useless. A blessing only applies to the one who fits it.

This week Jacob wrestles, really with himself in all those guises: the “angel” is his better nature, the “samael” is his yetzer hara’, the evil impulse we all feel and struggle with. Jacob wrestles with Israel, the person he is meant to be, most of all. 

It’s not so easy to grow. It’s terribly difficult to apologize, and make amends. But it is also incredibly powerful.

Jacob returns to Esau by stages. First he sends to Esau the material blessing he took, a gift of hundreds of sheep and goats, cows and camels and donkeys. Then, when he meets him, he returns the blessing of primacy: “be lord over your brothers,” (Gen.27.29). Jacob bows repeatedly to Esau, calling him “my lord.” 

And Jacob leaves that place of denouement in peace, which is to say he is whole, although he is limping from the struggle to become himself. Our ancestors learned that there is nothing as whole as a broken spirit, and that the truly repentant stand in a higher, more discerning place than those who have never struggled.

May it be a Shabbat of peace and wholeness for us. Hazak Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

________

*Churchill, according to Sacks