Shabbat VaYishlakh: #Dinah Too

A phrase is making the rounds on social media: #Me Too. It refers to women who are sharing their stories of sexual harrassment and abuse. A startlingly powerful wave of reaction is carrying off prominent men, one after the next, with breathtaking rapidity. And some of us watch with an uneasy feeling, wondering:  where will it go next; how far will it go?
In the parashat hashavua, the weekly reading from the Torah this week, we find the disturbing story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter.
Jacob and his large family, along with their servants and their flocks and herds, have just arrived in an area in the outskirts of the city of Shekhem, and they have set up their tents and settled in. Among the responsibilities of a young woman of Dinah’s age would be that of going to the nearest well to draw water for the household; while this may have often been an onerous chore, one can imagine her in this case excited to go to this new watering hole, to see the local women, and to possibly make a social connection.
Probably she did not go alone, for such a large camp would need more water than she alone could draw; perhaps the young women among their servants came with her – perhaps they were even friends. But she was the only one who, according to the text, ran into trouble:

וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Shekhem the son of Hamor the Hivite – the prince of the land – saw her;
and he took her and lay with her, oppressing her.

Here’s what happened next: the man who raped her decided he wanted to keep her; her brothers and father met with him and his father to discuss her situation and whether she would marry her rapist; and her brothers, after pretending to agree to the marriage, took outsized revenge upon the people of Shekhem, catching them unaware and slaughtering all the men of the town.
No one doubted her story. The man involved was punished with death. But: so was every other man in the town.
The story is disturbing enough in its depiction of the suffering of the innocent young woman, but the outsized anger that causes so many more, who are likewise innocent, to suffer is likewise troubling. G*d forbid we should doubt the true word of one who comes forward to tell a story of sexual oppression, and G*d help the person who becomes convinced that she has suffered abuse when she has not – and even more, G*d help the accused innocent in that case. Who will believe that person?
The faster each name is publicized, the farther they fall, the more our yetzer ha’ra’ – our evil impulse – prods us to overlook due process, and to tolerate a rush to judgement that may be flawed.
In the Salem witch trials a contagious hysteria caused people to accuse their neighbors of acts for which they were punished – although they were innocent.
In the Middle Ages, European Jews were accused of the “blood libel” – using the blood of a Christian child to make matzah – and murdered.
When I lived in Ukraine I heard stories of people who denounced their neighbors – because as a reward they were given their neighbors’ apartment.
In Jewish law, two witnesses are required to convict a person of wrongdoing in a capital case. No one is allowed to indict herself. And as the Torah says, the very height of injustice is that which sweeps away the innocent with the guilty. Even HaShem expressed remorse after the Flood.
Times like this require us to review: every human being is created in the Image of G*d. Reducing anyone to a two-dimensional, single-issue soul is to do violence as great as that which we seek to abhor. While we pillory each other, what are we distracted from seeing? Powerful forces in our society seek to shred what’s left of our social contract; let our time-tested ancient Jewish ethical tradition support you as you seek to balance all the conflicting truths in the painful reality of our lives.
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Shabbat VaYetze: Give Me Children Or I Will Die

This week’s parashah finds Jacob leaving home, going to a new community and creating family there. The resonance is obvious here for so many of us, for whom it is natural to expect to create our families and our future in a place different from the one in which we grew up. For Jacob, a short sojourn turns into a generation, during which he marries not one but two women, sisters who are his cousins – his mother Rivkah is sister to their father Laban.
The sisters are close – ancient midrash tells us that they supported each other when the men in their lives were not interested in their well-being, to the point that when Jacob and Laban arranged for Jacob to marry Rachel out of the normal order of things (she is the younger sister), Rachel actually cooperated in an intricate  and intimate deception that resulted in Leah being married to Jacob. (Rachel followed before long.) The Torah demonstrates by way of this narrative that the two sisters have a strong and trusting relationship.
Our text, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah readings, begins on a less happy note: the two sisters are locked in the “baby wars.” Leah is easily having one strapping baby son after another: Re’uven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, in quick succession. Meanwhile Rachel has yet to be pregnant, and, distraught. she confronts Jacob: Give me children or I will die. (Gen. 30.1) Jacob’s response is angry: Am I G*d, to make you fertile when you’re not?
It’s hard to withstand the ancient hard-wiring that moves many women of child-bearing age, to tears, and more, if they are unable to have the children they long for. A famous story about King Solomon describes a woman swapping her dead child for that of her friend in the night; in our narrative, Rachel gives her attendant Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate. In our own day, entire lives are subsumed by the effort to have a child.
As we see in the parashah, marriages suffer as a result, and also the relationships we have with those we perceive as happier than we in the baby context. And in the intensity of the self-absorbed focus that grows into a monster, one sees Rachel’s cry for what it is. Ironically for a book that demonstrates the power of women over and over again, Rachel is depicted as a woman of no worth if she cannot have children.
For many of us who do not give birth to children, either because we cannot or because we did not, this is a troubling message, and not only because it demeans women, turning anyone with a uterus into a single-issue soul. Jewish tradition clearly expects of all of us that we help to raise the next generation; the Shema is incumbent upon us all, not only women and not only those parents who raise children. You shall teach them to your children is meant for the entire extended community – there was no such thing as the unique torture of the nuclear family, with no relatives to share the raising and tending, then. All Jews help to raise the next generation of Jews, which is why paying taxes for a neighborhood school, or supporting universal health insurance for children, is an obligation and a privilege even when we ourselves do not have children.
For some of us, a traditional way to express our lives would be to humbly recognize that it is not G*d’s will that we bear children in our bodies. To let that single fact define our lives as a life-ending disaster would be an insult to the richness of each human life and the undiscovered country we each inhabit, in our homes and on our ways. Each life is always a gift, every day, and the people we are privileged to spend it with are a delight. On this Shabbat may we each speak to the Rachel in our hearts or in our lives with gentleness and understanding, and with encouragement as well, that a wider focus is possible on all that is being born, and all that we can help to nurture and thrive.
…and finally: on this Thanksgiving weekend, observed by so many as an welcome equalizer of all faiths and orientations, it’s important for us to hold two conflicting truths in mind: while yes, for some of us this holiday is a rare opportunity to join in the general celebration, for others it is a yearly reminder of their exclusion from American-ness. On this Thanksgiving, while we complain about all the food, consider how you can support those among the First Nations of this land who have to worry about their food: Food As Economic Development Among First Nations

Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

In parashat Toldot we read of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, born to Rebekah and Isaac after years of trying to get pregnant, and much frustration and difficulty. The family that is created when the children are safely born seems to thrive: their parents succeed in helping their boys to find for each a distinct identity. A family of four, well-off and living at a peaceful time – they look as if all is well.
It all falls apart so fast, in a morality play that seems to demonstrate the damage a controlling parent can do to a child – or, perhaps, the way that deception and betrayal can tear even close families apart. At least, they seemed close.
Those who study the human condition, from ancient Rabbis to modern psychologists, remind us that there is much to be learned not from what we experience, but from how we react to our experiences. Faced with a crisis, Rebekah turns to deception; Jacob ignores his misgivings to go along; Isaac, it is suggested, knows what is happening but shrinks from confrontation; and angry Esau, at the short end, snarls and stomps out, threatening murder.
What if someone had simply spoken directly to the crisis? Why was there no trust among this family’s members? Why did everyone assume the worst?
Consider Isaac, neither the creator of his world – Abraham did that – nor really able to control it. Isaac, who was not killed in the Akedah, who survived his parenting and now is to carry forward their vision. Israeli sociologists speak of the “Isaac generation,” that person or generation that comes of age in the shadow of larger-than-life parents. In the early years of the State of Israel, after the heroes of old founded the state, their children had difficulty discerning how they might make their own contribution to the world. The same is true of any of us whose parent is of an outsize fame or reputation; that identity shadows our own, and it may prove difficult to find one’s own sense of identity.
There is an unfortunately significant attribute of the Isaac generation: its vulnerability to disappointment and cynicism. The first generation carries a great and visionary hope, but afterward, the deconstructionist histories are published, and we learn that all those to whom we had looked up and followed are only human – and some, a great deal worse. Sometimes we might find ourselves driven to punish those who disappoint us in ways that seem to reduce them to the kind of shadow some of us may feel we ourselves are.
Most of us have either felt or can easily imagine the enervation of having our early faith in god-like heroes destroyed. It has been suggested that we ourselves – the people of the United States of America – are part of a great Isaac-generation despair that began with the Vietnam War and sharpened with Watergate. Of course, it is also possible to go back much further, to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, which stained United States society and polity from the beginning.
Jewish tradition offers us a radical teaching in the face of all this demoralization: if you feel betrayed by another person, review your own assumptions. Why is it that you are reacting the way you do? What other choices might you have?
Jewish mysticism teaches that while we may not feel that we can always access a sense of faith – in ourselves, in others, in G*d – we can always act out of trust. Our tradition is full of stories of Jews betrayed by life who, bereft of the feeling of G*d’s presence, insist on it. The Piacezsner Rebbi, who led his people in the dark days of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that even those who feel no faith can reach up to the ladder between heaven and earth and, by sheer force of will, pull themselves toward G*d, and bring G*d’s presence down to them.
Feeling unhappy, betrayed, misunderstood, disappointed? Reach up and pull heaven down into your heart again. All you need is your yetzer hara’s stubbornness, turned toward the lifeline rather than the pit. Then, judge each other, not from a place of demoralization, but from kindness and empathy, and so fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Mourning the Dead

Once again, gun violence leaves us breathless, and leaves some of us dead.
We have reached a point in our nation where, when we see an American flag at half-mast, it is no longer clear to us why. There is so much death around us, so many incidences of murder by gun. And once again this week we are in mourning, this time for the violent deaths of innocent people at prayer, including the very young.
This week our parashat hashavua begins with a death announcement.  Sarah, first matriarch of the Jewish people, is dead. Before we reach the end of this parashah, we will also read of the death of Abraham. The first Jews, gone – and further gone, the sunny vision they had once shared of the life before them. Sarah died in the area of Hebron, and a sensitive reader will note that Abraham is described as “coming to mourn” – the question provoked, of course, is “coming from where?” And indeed, a thread of midrash considers the possibility that Abraham and Sarah had separated; it is suggested that the trauma of the Akedah had caused Sarah to end their relationship.
And here Abraham is now, an old man who has lived to see that his life’s vision is nearly undetectable in his life’s work, one whose best efforts led to rejection by Sarah, the companion of his life, distance from his son Isaac, and the loss of his son Ishma’el along with Hagar, his mother. He is left alone, with only a faithful servant as head of his household. He was called by a sense of the sacred to a new evocation of that sense in his life – but for what? What is he thinking as he travels the distance to Sarah’s deathbed?
It all seems to be for nothing. Here is the difficult and dark place in which we all may find ourselves at some point: what has my life meant? what does it all add up to? Looking back at regrets and mistakes, it is hard not to see them as definitive, and the lasting meaning of a single human life as a laughable concept. We see the violence that takes so many lives and we may entertain despair.
The light of life in twenty-seven human beings was extinguished on November 5 in Sutherland Springs Texas. The number of mass shootings in the United States in 2017 stands today at three hundred and nine. The number of incidents of gun violence in the U.S. in 2017 stands today at 53,038.  The number of deaths stands today at 13,326. (Gun Violence Archive 2017)
What has happened to the vision we thought we shared in this nation of a good place, a place where we might each pursue life, liberty and happiness? or, at least, a place where we would allow each other the space simply to live? …and is there anything, at all, that each of us can do about it?
The Jewish tradition that Sarah and Abraham began says this: each life is worth the life of the whole world; each life matters. Yes, we have lost untold worlds of potential and promise and love. But in each one of us there is a connection to All That Is – and each one of us carries a world of promise and of potential, too.
Never get numb, we say. Bewail the violence and the dead, as Sarah did and as Abraham did; come to mourn, and to consider the way of this world we share. Know that this will not end soon, and take a moment to appreciate that once you did not know this. And keep looking for the mitzvah that needs doing in each moment, for no matter how the storm rages, there is always the need for a quiet hand to reach out to answer a need. That small moment can save our world, even now, even now.

Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

ז
  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

….

טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.

Shabbat of Sukkot 5778: the sukkah as reminder of the wilderness Mishkan

Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur. In the maftir Torah readings for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we have seen (in Numbers 29) a list of the holy days in chronological order, and what sacrifices our ancestors brought to mark each one. Numbers 29.1-6 refers to “the first day of the seventh month,” which is Rosh HaShanah, and the next verses, 7-11, describe the ritual for Yom Kippur.  Numbers 29.12 begins the description of the sacrifice to be brought on the 15th day of the seventh month – which is the beginning of the week-long harvest festival of Sukkot.
On this Shabbat, which occurs during the Intermediate Days of Sukkot*, the reading is quite different, and seems completely unrelated to Sukkot:
Moshe said to HaShem, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. 
Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’
Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. 
Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.”
HaShem replied, “If I go in the lead will that lighten your burden?”
Moshe said, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.” (Ex.33.12-15)
In order to understand why we study this Torah text on the Shabbat of hol haMo’ed Sukkot, you have to employ the interpretive principle of juxtaposition. What was happening during the days that are now before or on Yom Kippur?
It was on Yom Kippur, we are taught, that Moshe brought down the second set of Tablets of the Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Words) from Sinai; the first Yom Kippur, then, comes about as an expression of the atonement our ancestors achieved with G*d after the betrayal we remember as the incident of the Golden Calf. The Covenant between us and G*d was re-affirmed and finalized on Yom Kippur. In the Torah, we are reminded that G*d had told Moshe that intimate contact between G*d and the people Israel was no longer possible.
It’s often true; when someone hurts us, lets us down, doesn’t show up in the way we depended on, we may find ourselves emotionally withdrawing from that person. Close contact may seem as if it will never be possible again. Yet Moshe pleads, and G*d is reconciled.
In this light, the Sefat Emet shares an insight into the nature of the sukkah:
[It] was a dwelling given to the people of Israel after they had repented of their sin [the Golden Calf]. RaSHI interprets “Moshe assembled the people” [Ex.35.1] to have taken place on the day after Yom Kippur, when he came down from the mountain…it was then that they began to contribute to the Mishkan, on those days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Torah records that the people gave joyfully of all they had to the Mishkan, giving until they had to be told to stop. This was the joy of relief, and of a new optimistic determination to do better, to be better. The Sefat Emet suggests that this is the reason that Sukkot is called in our tradition “the time of our rejoicing.” It is perhaps easier to understand the command “you shall have nothing but happiness” in this way: you shall have no doubts that full and complete forgiveness is possible – for you and for those who have disappointed you. Your first attempts at reconciliation and wholeness may feel as tenuous as the sukkah is temporary, but atonement is possible, and so is joy.
And so every year we are invited to remind ourselves of this truth not only through sitting and studying and thinking and praying about it – but also by the practice of building our sukkot, little individual reminders of the great Mishkan we once built together. One day may we be privileged to all together find shelter in the great sukkat shalom, the Sukkah of Wholeness that we will someday learn, once again, to joyfully build together.
________________________________________
*The intermediate days of Sukkot are called Hol haMo’ed, “the days of the Festival which do not carry Shabbat-like Festival status.” The first and last days of Sukkot are such sacred days – as you’ll find out if you attempt to call any Jewish organization on the first two or last two days of Sukkot, which are called hag, plural hagim, “Festivals.” All the other days are hol haMo’ed, literally “the non-sacred days [hol] of the appointed time [the mo’ed].” Then there is the Shabbat that will occur once during this 8 day period (never twice, since the Jewish calendar was carefully engineered to ensure that Yom Kippur will never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday because it would create tirkha d’tzibura, too much of a burden of the community). The Shabbat of Sukkot this year falls during the Intermediate Days.