Shabbat Shemot: Do you Know your Name?

What makes you cry out?

Why has much of the Jewish educational establishment been so concerned about the possibility of Jews joining in the U.S. celebration of Christmas? There are some good reasons. 

For many generations of Jewish exile, Christmas was a mortally dangerous time. Hatred of Jews was used throughout medieval Europe as a way of redirecting peasant frustration from exploitation by lords and church toward an easier, unifying condemnation of the people who “killed Jesus”. No one whose Jewish identity carries the epigenetic trauma marker of Christian-inspired crusades and pogroms can be expected to react with equanimity and understanding when informed that the Portland Public School board has declared Christmas trees to be neutral holiday symbols.

Jewish educators and rabbis have often been cast in the role of disapproving gatekeepers, disapproving of any syncretism and distributing books with titles like “There is no such thing as a Hanukkah bush”. Parents can feel caught between wanting to respond to their children’s sense of being left out of a great big party to which only they have not been invited, and the sense that Jewish establishment that will disapprove of any social compromise a Jewish parent might feel they need to make – often remembering their own feelings as a child feeling left out.

Our ancestors are living in Egypt for 400 years by the time the book of Shemot, which we read this Shabbat, begins. It started well, under the protection of a regime that was shaped and ruled over by an Israelite. But in the famous line that augurs a sea change, there arose a king who knew not Joseph (Exodus 1.8). 

Suddenly the Jewish people, which had participated in Egyptian life thinking they were at home and equal, were targeted and set apart. Now they were not Egyptians, but Jews, and their situation deteriorated rapidly. 

We read in the Torah that HaShem appears to Moshe in the famous bush that was burning and was not consumed, and in the first meeting says 

רָאֹ֥הרָאִ֛יתִיאֶת־עֳנִ֥יעַמִּ֖יאֲשֶׁ֣רבְּמִצְרָ֑יִםוְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤םשָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙מִפְּנֵ֣ינֹֽגְשָׂ֔יוכִּ֥ייָדַ֖עְתִּיאֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו

I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their cry because of their taskmasters (Exodus 3.7)

The ancient midrashic musings upon this moment ask why it took so long. Why were the Israelites crushed by slavery for generation after generation? Why is it that now, finally, HaShem “marks” this suffering?

The answer is in the verse itself: the Israelites were crying out for relief. They gave voice to their misery – because they finally realized that they were insupportably miserable. They became aware of it.

The enforced exposure to Christmas is not comparable to slavery, of course not: except in one way. To feel the discomfort of it is to be aware of the fact that one is not Christian, that one is Jewish and that one’s identity is not recognized in the holiday onslaught.

It must be noted that for Jews, as a small minority of the population, Christmas is pretty overwhelming. The majority culture, here as well as elsewhere, presumes the public spaces to be theirs to decorate and to infuse with their holiday’s songs, food and visuals. Schools run Christmas plays, pageants and other required gatherings. Some Jews who have extreme doctrinal differences with Chabad nevertheless take great satisfaction from the giant in-your-face Hanukkah menorahs that group often erects alongside public Christmas trees.

There’s no cure for a child – or an adult – feeling left out, unless the child has so much richness in their life already that they can feel the discomfort of an identity being unrecognized. Children in Israel have no Christmas envy, because they have fully realized identity rituals such as Pesakh (Hanukkah is a minor holiday, celebrated, like Purim in Israel, mostly as a children’s thing).

Rabbis and educators aren’t gatekeepers, and they shouldn’t be put in that position. They don’t stand between a Jew and a Jew’s life, or conscience. Each of us decides, under the pressure of the majority community, what hurts and what doesn’t. Only those who become aware of it and cry out will be rescued from their oppression.

Kings who don’t know Joseph will come and go. The question that remains for us is, do we?

Shabbat VaYehi: Death and Love

It is far easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives. – bell hooks

I believe profoundly in the power of Torah learning to help us deepen our spiritual grounding and help us navigate our way through the challenges of our lives. This week, the learning is about death.

Our parashat hashavua opens with the death of Jacob and closes with the death of Joseph. Immersing ourselves in the learning of this parashah as we do every year in the depth of the darkest days of the year, Torah invites us to take advantage of the emotional doorway opened by long nights to overcome whatever reluctance we may have to confront this inescapable aspect of each of our lives.

“This too is Torah, and I need to learn it” – my own motto for approaching life – was first spoken by Rabbi Akiba, a Second Temple era sage who understood that Jews may gain vital insights for meaningful Jewish life from almost anywhere. The great bell hooks, who died this week, is my special Torah learning conduit for this parashah. Her musings upon love can help us articulate the innermost truth of our lives.

Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise. – bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, 2000

In our parashat hashavua, the children of this large family, our ancestors by whom we call ourselves the People of Israel, face each other in the moment of the death of Jacob. Not only the patriarch of the family, he is the weaver of the common cloth of their varied lives. His death brings them together to face their source and each other, their past and their doings. 

This deathbed scene is a moment of truth for each of them, and significantly unpleasant for some of the siblings, because the truth of their lives is brought forth and magnified. This is always possible and often true: when a loved one dies who is central to our sense of self, we are brought up against the truth of our lives in what may be a disturbing, even shocking way.

Death comes; all those we love will die, some before us, and some after us. We, too, will die, each of us, leaves dropping one by one from the Tree of Life, following no rhythm or rhyme that we can detect. 

The death of a parent is epochal. Jacob’s children are left to look at themselves and each other in a different way, with a new sense of agency. Will their lives change? Will the loss of the parental love – however it manifested itself there is always that expectation from the child – allow them to learn what it meant, and what love means in their lives and their acts? Will you?

learn more about death here – The Alef Bet of Death: Dying As A Jew

Shabbat VaYigash: Stick Together

וְדַבֵּ֣ר אֲלֵיהֶ֗ם כֹּֽה־אָמַר֮ אֲדֹנָ֣י ה’ הִנֵּ֨ה אֲנִ֤י לֹקֵ֙חַ֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מִבֵּ֥ין הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָֽלְכוּ־שָׁ֑ם וְקִבַּצְתִּ֤י אֹתָם֙ מִסָּבִ֔יב וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם אֶל־אַדְמָתָֽם׃

Declare to them: This word is holy. The Israelite people will be gathered from among the nations they have gone to, from every corner of the world, and they will come to their own land – Ezekiel 37.21

The parashat hashavua, the parashah for this week, is VaYigash, in which we read the denouement of the Joseph story. The opening scene is dramatic: brother squaring off against brother, neither knowing the full truth of the other’s lived experience. Joseph uses his power to push his brothers to decide the fate of one of them, and Judah finds it within himself to respond with courage and selflessness.

It’s fascinating to consider this story within the larger political context in which it would have been told, and that is what the prophet Ezekiel does in his own day. Consider Ezekiel’s situation: exiled with the refugees from the Babylonian destruction of Israel, he has pitched his tent along the river K’var with the other houseless Israelite wanderers. They are in shock; they are dispirited; they wonder if this is the end of the line for the people of Israel. Ezekiel – whose name, יחזקאל Yekhez’k-El, means “G*d will give strength” – brings his prophecy into this time of terrible despair and hopelessness.

The Israelite prophets were good pedagogues; they often used a visual aid to support their teaching. Ezekiel uses two sticks:

וְאַתָּ֣ה בֶן־אָדָ֗ם קַח־לְךָ֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְתֹ֤ב עָלָיו֙ לִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְלִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו [חֲבֵרָ֑יו] וּלְקַח֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְת֣וֹב עָלָ֗יו לְיוֹסֵף֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶפְרַ֔יִם וְכָל־בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו [חֲבֵרָֽיו׃]

And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Judah and the Israelites associated with him”; and take another stick and write on it, “Of Joseph—the stick of Ephraim—and all the House of Israel associated with him.”

וְקָרַ֨ב אֹתָ֜ם אֶחָ֧ד אֶל־אֶחָ֛ד לְךָ֖ לְעֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֑ד וְהָי֥וּ לַאֲחָדִ֖ים בְּיָדֶֽךָ׃

Bring them close to each other, so that they become one stick, joined together in your hand.

(Ezekiel 37.16-17)

In his hands Ezekiel brings together a stick with the word Judah carved upon it, and another with the word Joseph upon it. He holds them together and demonstrates how much stronger they are together than each one is held separately.

This is classic Israelite prophecy. It does not foresee the future, but seeks to understand the moral impact of the past, and in that way to offer guidance toward future acts. The two sticks represent the two kingdoms of Israel that formed as a result of an ancient political and social sundering of family ties. Unlike the brothers of the Torah story, who repair their breach, the two kingdoms have gone their separate ways, and, ironically, it is only in their destruction are the people again united in a common path – and a shared misery.

Ezekiel’s prophecy in essence is still relevant, for it reminds us that we are not as strong as individuals as we are in community. Even when we, like those ancient Israelite exiles, sit by the river called “K’var” (literally “that which has been”) and mourn that which we’ve suffered, without a clear sense of the way forward, we can find strength with each other. And as Ezekiel’s name itself encourages us, we will be stronger together to face whatever will come.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: How To Give

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר עֵשָׂ֖ו יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃

Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב אַל־נָא֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי׃

But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. (Bereshit 33.9-10)

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are once again this year occurring unusually close to each other in the Western calendar. Such is the possibility when our lives are regulated by both the solar and lunar calendars, one for our secular lives, and one for our spiritual. As Jews, we know that our Jewish identity is sufficiently robust when we become uncomfortably aware of the clash between the demands of the two. Thus it has ever been for Jews living in Exile, with a foot planted in each of two very different worlds, and the daily demand upon us is to consider what the balance might look like today.

Both of these holidays are also considered to be a time for giving. The excess of Thanksgiving consumption, both of food and “holiday sales” items, years ago led to the response we call “Giving Tuesday”. Hanukkah, on the other hand, is not traditionally focused upon gifts, but upon gratitude for survival against the odds. The gift giving aspect of Hanukkah has arisen in the West as a Jewish syncretism with the Western holiday of Christmas.

Jewish giving at its best is not holiday determined, nor timed for end of the year appeals, although we have learned to adapt as the majority culture around us does. Our parashat hashavua this week offers an interesting meditation upon modes of giving: Jacob gives lavish gifts to his brother Esau after many years of absence. Esau does not need them. Why does Jacob insist? What should Esau do?

The traditional commentaries are interested in Jacob’s motivation. Both Ibn Ezra and Shnei Lukhot haBrit hold that we are to read the Torah exactly as written: 

כִּֽי־אָמַ֞ר אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

For he reasoned, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.” (Bereshit 32.21)

Jacob here clearly hopes to soften any anger Esau might still feel toward him as a result of Jacob’s betrayal of his brother twenty years before. This is the gift given “with strings.”

We who follow the Jewish tradition of Torah Study consider the ethics of the situation. Here the great Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, guides us clearly and completely with his explanation of the mitzvah of giving found in his Matanot l’Evyonim 10 

  • We are obligated to be careful about the mitzvah of giving, for it is of supreme importance
  • A person is never impoverished through giving
  • Anyone who ignores the chance to give is called a barbarian (b’liya’al – “wicked”, also possibly “one who has no lift upward in the soul”)
  • One who gives with bad grace has destroyed the merit of the gift
  • The reward of one who compels others to give is greater than the one who gives
  • There are eight levels of giving; the highest is to help someone no longer need help
  • One who sustains those that one is not obligated to sustain is considered righteous
  • The poor and vulnerable should be part of our household
  • Those who lie about needing help will not die without coming to that place of need

What is Jacob doing? Probably as much from guilt as from fear, he is trying to achieve balance between what he took from Esau many years ago and what he can give now. Judging him l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, we can see ourselves in a similar emotional situation, perhaps, when we give to those who have less than us.

What is Esau doing? From the evidence of the Torah text itself, he is the soul of graciousness. He does not need to accept, yet the giver needs to give. 

To learn from Esau is to understand that it is sometimes a gift to let someone give you something, even if you do not need it. And to learn from Jacob is to know that sometimes, when gift, giver and given aligns in grace, we are able to see, a bit more clearly, the Face of acceptance, of forgiveness, of love.

The act of balancing is to consider both the needs of the giver and the receiver; both the inner motivation and the communal obligation; and, in our case, both the Western social expectation and the Jewish teaching.

May you learn to give, in this season and every season, in the path of righteousness, and may it lift you up.

Shabbat VaYetze: Whence Antisemitism?

מַאי ״הַר סִינַי״? הַר שֶׁיָּרְדָה שִׂנְאָה לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם עָלָיו

What is “Sinai”? To indicate that from there, hatred – sin’ah – descended.
– Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 89a

We have been following the story of Ya’akov / Jacob now for long enough to recognize that he is no saint. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Torah is that it is not a hagiography, not a “Lives of the Saints” describing those humans who seem to be perfect in thought and action, whom we are expected to admire and emulate. No, Ya’akov is all too human, from his name – Hebrew for “heel” – to his youthful willingness to betray his brother.

In the latter part of parashat VaYetze, which we read in this third year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading (an ancient minhag but not widely followed among Jews in the U.S.) we find a different Ya’akov. He is older, he has wives and children to support, and has been working for his father in law Laban for twenty years. It is Laban who has taught Jacob what it means to be on the other side of deceit; Laban who in this parashah speaks of love and concern but only displays such feelings toward himself.

Jacob serves his father in law as shepherd, guarding the flocks and ensuring their welfare. He and Laban enter an agreement that all the speckled and striped sheep will be Jacob’s, as his payment. Laban then immediately removes all such sheep from the flock and has his sons take them far away to graze, thereby cheating Jacob of his pay. Jacob, however, knows a shepherd’s trick, and he causes the offspring of the sheep in his care to bring forth “streaked, spotted and speckled young.” (Bereshit 30.39).

In short, he outsmarts his father in law, who is trying to cheat him. But Laban’s sons find fault with him, in terms that seem to echo much later antisemitic accusations:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֗ע אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֤י בְנֵֽי־לָבָן֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לָקַ֣ח יַעֲקֹ֔ב אֵ֖ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֑ינוּ וּמֵאֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֔ינוּ עָשָׂ֕ה אֵ֥ת כׇּל־הַכָּבֹ֖ד הַזֶּֽה׃

Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.” (Bereshit 31.1)

Then as now, the smart Jew is not admired, but accused of greed, selfishness, and deceit. 

Like any delusion, antisemitism cannot be reasoned with; it cannot be explained away nor demonstrated to be false. It is a blind lashing out, and all one can do is, as Jacob does, to become aware of it, and to take measures to keep oneself away from it. In Western democracies, we are fortunate to sometimes reach the ear of elected representatives who will further those measures.

Our ancestors do not understand the hatred for our people any more than we do, as our midrash (cited above) reflects. We know that many, many Jews have attempted to leave their Jewish identity behind; ironically, very often their descendants find their way to a shul, seeking the spiritual path their great grandparents gave up in their desperation to find a safe space to live.

The prophet Bil’am spoke words about us that remain true thousands of years later:

הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations (BaMidbar 23.9)

We can’t guarantee our safety as Jews; ironically, the times we live in have shown us that no one can do that. No one can guarantee peace, freedom, security… our only choice is how we will respond to whatever comes. And here is where being Jewish is a great support: our tradition teaches that every human being is a reflection of the divine image. Every moment of life is a gift. And every day is a blessing if we celebrate it as one.

If you were born into the Jewish people, or if you have found your way into belonging, doesn’t matter one iota to the antisemite. It shouldn’t matter to us either; we need every one of us to hold hands, as we step forward on our Jewish spiritual path together.

This is that path: to respond to baseless hatred by doing random acts of kindness, for it is kindness, along with study and prayer, that uphold the world. Smile at a stranger; give someone flowers for no reason; cultivate patience for others and yourself.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Toldot: What the World Needs Now

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  – Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)

וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

Isaac loved Esau *כי צידו לפיו and Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25.28)

Commentaries have long noted that it is in the story of Rebekah and Isaac that we first see the word ahavah, love, used in the Torah. Isaac is described as loving Rebekah in the context of their marriage:

וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ

[Isaac] loved [Rebekah] and thus found consolation after [the death of] his mother.

(Genesis 24.67)

We often reflect upon the life of Isaac in the passive, and pathetic, mode: the son of Abraham, who was nearly slaughtered in the violence engendered by his father’s vision. Yet the Torah has more to tell us about this person who is the first to be described as loving.

Where does love come from? What makes us able to love, and what makes us feel that we cannot? To ask these questions of ourselves we must first ask the eternal question of song and story: what is love? The answer, it turns out, depends on the culture. In Jewish tradition, love is not an emotion, caused by something outside of us, and affecting us. Love is, rather, a deliberate act of the intellect. 

Personal:

You shall love HaShem your god with all you have – this verse from the first paragraph of the Shema is not a statement of emotional imperative. It is asking for your loyalty; it is summoning you to be All In on your path of belief and action. 

Social:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself – again, this is not a command about emotion, which is an unknown definition of the term for ancient Israelites. Judaism understands this mitzvah of the Torah to compel us to make sure that whatever we want for our own lives, we make sure is available to those with whom we share our lives and communities. 

Where does this lead us in our attempt to understand the nature of Isaac’s love? First, it is a depiction of a person whose response to unimaginable trauma is to refuse to let it define their life. Isaac is able to love; personally, to act in line with his loyalty, and second, as in Hillel’s famous formulation, to not do to someone else that which was done to him.

Anger is sometimes justified as a way to flush out the emotions from our system. But no one should dwell there. Love is what builds: family, community, and an integrated sense of self.

Isaac shows us that love does not indicate passivity. Love, in the Jewish sense of the term, fills you with power, not weakness; with a sense of purpose, not hopelessness. It is stronger than hate when it is a conscious choice which leads the heart toward generosity and openness. And in these difficult times, it may not save the day, as one more popular slogan puts it, but this choice will save the day – and our lives – from meaningless.

______________________________

*for the grammar and critical edition geeks: this is a variant reading preserved in ancient manuscripts which makes more sense, and indicates that Esau brought his father game to eat.

Shabbat Hayyei Sarah: The Grace to Open

וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה אֶל־שְׂדֵ֞ה עֶפְרֹ֤ן בֶּן־צֹ֙חַר֙ הַֽחִתִּ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Bereshit 25.9)

Sooner or later it happens to us: death comes to those who have had a part, for better or for worse, in forming our lives. We are left to ponder what that influence means. It is said that those who have not yet come to closure are the most torn, for now that emotional work is brought into sharp, insistent focus

Consider Isaac and Ishmael, as they are brought together by the death of Abraham. Ishmael, first born, suddenly sent away, through no fault of his own, by his father one day with his mother, abandoned, left to survive – or not. Isaac, nearly murdered by that same father who seems too distracted by his own divine visions to notice what they cost those around him. 

No wonder both sons disappear from the narrative. It is simple self-preservation that causes us to pull back from contact with one who harms us; for some, leaving family of origin behind is the only way to live a life of love and the search for meaning, which is, as Victor Frankl demonstrated, the only real happiness. 

But our Jewish tradition not only teaches that atonement and reconciliation are possible and positive, but also that we are to honor parents. This parashah ends with an amazing tableau: Isaac and Ishmael joining together to bury Abraham. To bury their father is a mark of respect for Abraham; to come together to do so speaks of some kind of reconciliation with all that caused these siblings to be distanced from him, and each other.

And we find that according to Rashi, drawing on the midrashic understanding of what the Torah means in its description of Abraham dying בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָ֖ה – b’seyvah tovah, “at a good contented age” (Bereshit 25.8) – we are to understand that Ishmael and Isaac were indeed able to come together and to find peace with each other.

How did they find the grace to be reconciled to each other, and to their father, sufficient to draw them together at his grave? This kind of Hesed, although it may alight upon us without warning, does not come without openness. And openness is not easy in this harsh world.

Yet closing off from pain also means closing off from joy. It’s the same door. So how are we to find our way forward on the spiritual journey of a lifetime, and go on past that which hurts?

A Hasidic parable compares our emotional pain to falling in a mud puddle. It makes sense to get up, get cleaned off, and avoid that spot again. Similarly, we must move away from the pain, do what it takes to heal from it, and move on. To revisit the pain, through anger or other emotional ego traps of the yetzer hara’, is nothing less than jumping back into the mud. It makes no sense, and it does not bring joy.

Jewish ethical teaching does not tell us to forgive a bad parent. Forgiving and forgetting, however, are two different things. We are to learn from that which hurts us, yes; but to let that define our lives is to close the door to all that life might mean, and bring.

Ishmael and Isaac demonstrate for us that gestures of honor and respect are still possible. Is it because they are treating Abraham as they wish to be treated by their children? Standing there together, they refuse to let their father’s acts define their relationship and their lives. It is telling, though no midrash (that I could find) notes it, that they bury their father in the cave of Makhpelah, עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא – al p’nei Mamre, “facing Mamre.” Mamre is closely associated with their mom, and with the divine feminine. In so doing they are, perhaps, offering us a consolation:

שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד הֹ’ 

לֹא־גָבַ֣הּ לִ֭בִּי וְלֹא־רָמ֣וּ עֵינַ֑י 

וְלֹֽא־הִלַּ֓כְתִּי  בִּגְדֹל֖וֹת 

וּבְנִפְלָא֣וֹת מִמֶּֽנִּי

A song of ascents, of David.

O HaShem, my heart is not proud

nor my eyes patronizing;

I do not aspire to great things

or to what is beyond me

אִם־לֹ֤א שִׁוִּ֨יתִי  וְדוֹמַ֗מְתִּי נַ֫פְשִׁ֥י 

כְּ֭גָמֻל עֲלֵ֣י אִמּ֑וֹ כַּגָּמֻ֖ל עָלַ֣י נַפְשִֽׁי

but I have learned to be content

like a child with its mother;

like a small child I seem to myself.

– Psalm 131.1-2

It is the child in us that is badly hurt by life, and the hurt of those who are the caregivers meant to nurture and protect us is profound. Yet we mature, and we learn, and we grow. 

Whether it was a parent who first destroyed trust, or a loved partner, or a trusted friend or mentor who betrayed us, Jewish tradition urges us: don’t let that define you. Ishmael and Isaac challenge you: don’t even let that define the relationship. 

Explore your capacity for openness despite everything. Join hands with others in Torah learning through the pain; avail yourself of thousands of years of human struggle and painful triumph over it. You’ll find you’re not alone. You’ll find others struggling, and growing, and learning the Hesed that we cannot earn, but when we are able to be open, alights, in a blessed moment, upon even our darkest moments.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat No’akh: There’s Still Time

What caused the destruction of all that lived upon the earth? The Torah describes the divine thought process:

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

The earth became corrupt before G*d; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

When G*d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

G*d said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Bereshit 6.11-13)

Comparisons with other ancient literature show a common thread in the Flood story: something more powerful than humans reacts to human evil.

What was the evil that was so great that it caused the destruction of the world? Jewish commentaries focus upon the word in our parashah, חמס – hamas, “lawlessness.” In modern Hebrew the definition is

Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, injury

The term appears in the Torah in contexts that show that the behavior is sociopathic:

“Malicious witness” – Shemot 23.1

“Testify falsely” – Devarim 19.16

Jacob’s deathbed curse of Shimon and Levi: their tools are tools of hamas (Bereshit 49.5)

These ancient witnesses to the breakdown of human relationships and the ensuing world-destroying horror shine a truth upon all of us. In the words of Thursday’s bar mitzvah, Alexandre Leikam, the world was destroyed because human beings did not work together in community for good.

The world was destroyed by hamas. Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, and injury committed by people like you and me. It will be destroyed again by you and me if we do not learn the lesson that hamas is not demonic, but in our hands to do or to not do.

It’s easy to see this in the Climate Emergency activists, led by young people demanding the hope of their future from corporations that maximize profit at the expense of all life. We can see it in the effects of social breakdown that cause suffering and death to the vulnerable, whether they die of cold in a tent or of a policeman’s gun. 

It’s harder to see our own part in either the evil or the good. For that we have to go back to the Torah and look for our own reflection. 

What is it to testify falsely? We can see it in the Torah’s prescribed remedy: no one is convicted on the basis of one witness. There must be two – and they must speak openly. No anonymous complaints are given credence.

What is it to witness maliciously? Maimonides supplies the answer: lashon hara’, speaking negatively of another person. 

This does not mean that we are not to denounce wrongdoing. It does mean that every time we speak up to criticize, we must balance the mitzvah of naming hamas with the mitzvah of “love the other as you love yourself,” which means that you should call out someone else as you yourself would appreciate being notified that you’ve crossed the line of social decency.

What destroys the world? Disconnect between you and me, the kind that allows you to complain about me, or me about you, without ever feeling the need to actually talk together to repair our relationship. 

According to our Jewish ethical tradition, the doorway into the opportunity to repent our evil that opened at Yom Kippur does not close until Hanukkah. On this Shabbat No’akh, consider not the evil corporations but the casual hamas of our days, and seek to rid yourself of it. Stop expecting the worst of others; stop carping; start loving. The world depends upon it.

Shabbat Bereshit: The Fate of the Earth

The curse of farming, or, not all who wander are wrong

On this Shabbat we begin all over again with Bereshit, a recounting of the ancient legends our people  knew about how human life began. 

Interestingly, some of the first stories make no sense to us. We are mystified by HaShem’s choice of Abel’s offering over Cain’s. For that matter, why is it such a big deal if we eat of a tree of knowledge of good and evil? Aren’t we supposed to know the difference, and isn’t that distinguishing at the heart of our Jewish ethics?

Comparisons to other origin stories of the ancient Near East shed some light, sometimes. Just as our creation myth depicts a divinity creating the world out of an abyss of water and darkness, others local goddesses and gods create the world out of something – for instance, the origin myth of Ugarit details the murder of the Mother Goddess by her son, who fashions mountains from her breasts, and the sea from her tears. 

Where reason ends, mysticism and midrash sometimes find a deeper sense of meaning. Based on a midrashic understanding, the great Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague (mistakenly considered the creator of the golem) suggested that human beings were meant to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because until we sinned – by doing so, against HaShem’s edict – we could not know what good and evil are. 

One of the mysteries we confront in this week’s parashah is this: why is farming a curse? We see it expressed three times, once in the punishment HaShem ordains for eating of the tree in Eden:

וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, 

yet your food shall be the grasses of the field

בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃

By the sweat of your brow 

Shall you get bread to eat,

Until you return to the ground—

For from it you were taken.

For dust you are,

And to dust you shall return. (Bereshit 3.18-19)*

The second time is at the birth of Noah, whose parents say:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֞֠ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְהֹוָֽה׃

This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, 

out of the very soil which HaShem placed under a curse. (Bereshit 5.29)

The third instance is in the very rejection of Cain’s agricultural offering and the acceptance of Abel’s shepherd’s offering. Clearly, farming is a cursed existence – yet our sources do not understand why.

Of all things! – the book Ishmael that I invited you to read during Elul of this past year, as we prepared spiritually for the High Holy Days, offers us an interesting insight. The reason that we do not understand these stories is that by the time that the Torah becomes our sacred text, we have given ourselves entirely over to the existential narrative that our lives are to be based upon farming the soil. 

Of course, this leads to the impossibility of the shemitta year which has now begun; every seventh year we are commanded by Torah to let the land rest. The idea seems unreasonable – in much the same way it seems unreasonable to let ourselves rest every seventh day. 

Is there a correlation between the state of a human body when it is deprived of rest and the state of the earth deprived of rest? What, perhaps, might we have to learn the hard way if we cannot do what we are commanded out of ancient wisdom to do?

If you have not yet had the chance to read Ishmael I still recommend it. Or you can read the archeological studies indicating that the first farmers experienced heightened hardship and lowered life expectancy; and the discovery that a major spiritual gathering site in Turkey was not created after farming reached that region, forcing scholars to re-consider the orthodoxy that civilization is necessarily a by-product of farming.

As we begin again with Bereshit, may we remember that every bit of Torah has seventy different possible interpretations, according to Jewish tradition – and that which we do not yet understand is not necessarily either unreasonable or ignored by those who seek wisdom by which to live. We’ve eaten from that tree, we are what we are, and it’s vital that we use the capacity we have to distinguish good from evil, and truth from myth.

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*I’ve left the text in the original poetic format, to emphasize the antiquity of the passage (Biblical scholarship has established that the poetic passages in the Torah are the most ancient, and most clearly indicative of its original oral transmission.