Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One

Shabbat Yitro: What does the Voice of G-d Sound Like?

This week parashat Yitro calls us to stand once again at the foot of a mountain as a people, brought together not by lines of descent but by a willingness to go forward, to cross over, to live with uncertainty in the hope of reaching a vision.

One of the most compelling uncertainties of Jewish religious tradition centers on G-d. It begins when Moshe asks, “how shall I say when I am asked how I was sent?” and receives the reply: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “What Will Be is What Will Be”. As if we were children asking to know what will happen when we grow up, all Moshe is told is that Time Will Tell. It has been noted already by Rabbinic scholars and interpreters that this is not a name. It may be, rather, a way to describe Eternity – all time and all space, All, Here, Now.

And what did it sound like, to hear a voice one might – during or afterward – attribute to G-d? Coming out of a bush, of all things? According to our parashah this week, G-d spoke:

Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d; and they stood at the foot of the mount. Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G-d descended upon it in fire; and smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled violently. When the voice of the shofar grew louder, Moses spoke, and G-d answered him by a voice.  (Exodus 19.17-19)

What does that mean, “by a voice”? what did our ancestors hear? what are we, by extension and by tradition, called upon to hear?

It is useful to compare another fascinating story of that mountain, preserved in our sources, that happened at another time:

[The Prophet Elijah traveled] forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mountain of G-d. And he found a cave, and hid there; and, there, the word of G-d came to him, saying to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ …. G-d said: ‘Go forth [from the cave], and stand upon the mountain before G-d.’ And, behold, G-d passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks; but G-d was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but G-d was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  (I Kings 19.8-12)

According to our Jewish intuition, developed over millennia, the sound of G-d’s voice is not a great and thunderous, frightening, obvious sound. The phrase “by a voice” in the Sinai story hints to us that hearing G-d is not necessarily the sound of a voice, although it might be “a still, small voice.”

G-d’s voice might also come to us as a realization of something true for our lives; or as an invocation of something real when we find ourselves standing before it; or as a realization, after the fact, that we were in a place of connection to a sense of something greater than our own individual small selves.

What was, is, and will be.

Such an awareness comes to us in small moments, but the impact is earth-shattering. That still, small, certain voice says that you are an essential part of all that is, carry within you the potential of all that will be, and are a necessary, cherished part of what will be remembered. You are part of us, and of All That Is, Always.

On this Shabbat may you hear what you need to hear, and may the source of that hearing delight and unsettle you with a new awareness of the places where truth resides.

Shabbat BeShalakh: What Do You See in the Sea?

This week, the Shabbat of the parashah BeShalakh, is also called Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of the Song”, in honor of the fact that on this week we read the Song of the Sea in the scroll. The Israelites have crossed over through the Sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians who pursued them have drowned in those same waters.

As our ancestors gather on the far shore, astonished by what they’ve experienced, one might imagine that they were speechless. Perhaps there was no sound at all for a few moments, from that whole motley group. Imagine them: self-identified Israelites (those who held a family memory of descent from the sons of Jacob), and with them, others – those who were attracted to the strong family culture of the people of Israel even under the stress of slavery in Egypt. Finally, there were those who saw a good thing when the Hebrew slaves made their miraculous jailbreak, and went with them through the suddenly-opened gate to freedom.

There were a lot of them. They did not all know each other. And now, with a moment to breathe, they looked back at the way they had come, at the Sea, and then at each other. Now what?

They sang. We call it Shirat haYam, the “Song of the Sea”.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider G-d has thrown into the sea.” (Ex.15.20-21)

The first expression of the refugees is joy, and gratitude. And within this rejoicing, one finds a very personal expression of religious awakening. First, one becomes aware of one’s own joy; then, upon reflection, one begins to feel gratitude for the happiness. This is the first step toward a personal sense of religious awareness: the dawning knowledge that one is grateful.

Moses and the people of Israel sang: I will sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has G-d thrown into the sea. G-d is my strength and song, G-d is become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will praise, my parents’ G-d, and I will exalt (Ex.15.1-2)

This song then expresses the next steps in religious awareness: beyond gratitude for my good fortune, and onward to the recognition that I could never have escaped the Egyptians alone. A strength greater than my own, something beyond my own small intellectual capacity, brought me to this moment. I could not have planned this and carried it out alone; circumstances were also aligned just exactly right. I become aware of something beyond me, which is a part of me, and carries me, too.

This is my G-d – I reach my own sense of  awe, of that which I respect as greater than me, but also mine.

my parents’ G-d – only now can I begin to understand what my parents have revered; only now can I start to see the ethics of their lives, that which they care about most.

Now what? what happens after we cross the Sea and realized that now, we are on our own? When this door opens, it shows the Israelites – and us – the way forward into the future. And that future is much wandering, bumbling our way toward a distant vision, with lots of false starts, lots of dead ends, and some days when we’ll wonder if we truly are on the right path. The religiously aware path is a long one, but it does offer us certain steps toward the Promise of wholeness within ourselves, with our families, our tribes, our people, and the world. It begins with G-d and ends with G-d, and every day is one more opportunity to become aware.

This is not esoteric knowledge: all of us cross our own Seas, and all of us have eyes and hearts to see. In a wonderfully subversive ancient teaching, it is written that “a servant girl saw at the Sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold”. (Mekhilta)

This Song of the Sea united the refugees on the shores of the sea, and it unites us still. The Song is incorporated into our daily prayers; we sing it whenever we recite the mi kamokha. Wherever you are on this Shabbat, may you find yourself with the Jewish people in spirit as we offer up, once again this year, our chorus of joy for awareness of our reasons for gratitude for that which is beyond us, and blesses our existence.

Shabbat Bo: When Will Death Come?

Have you seen the television commercial for heart health that begins with a person very matter-of-factly receiving a note that says “your heart attack is coming tomorrow.” As we know, says the voice-over, such events happen without any warning. If you could know when a life-threatening event would happen, you could prepare for it, dodge it – even, as in our Jewish legends, try to avoid the Angel of Death by changing your name, or heading to the town of Luz (where no one ever died).

This week our reading, the second segment of the parashah according to our Triennial Cycle count, begins with a terrifying declaration: come midnight, all the first born of Egypt shall die. Terrifying, yes, but perhaps some people would like to have such certainty. After all, there’s even a “Death Clock” on the internet. Very appealing, perhaps, to fill in the information it requests – but would you believe the answer?

Our ancestors were aware that they were part of a never ending cycle of life and death; that they, like all that lived and moved, would one day stop living, stop moving. Curiously, ancient Hebrews did not seem to worry so much about life after death – at least, not to the extent that our Torah speaks of it. When our ancestors died, according to our Scriptures, they either had a “good death”, which meant being surrounded by loved ones who cared for and buried the body afterward, or a “bad death”, which meant that one died in agony – of war, disease, famine, and other horrible causes – and that there was no sure burial for the body. A “good death” was indicated by the idiom “gathered to one’s ancestors”, and a “bad death” was expressed by the term “going down to She’ol”. (A helpful site for more information, including what the ancient Hebrews DID believe about life after death, is in the Jewish Encyclopdia: Sheol.)

The fear of death, however, was as powerful for them as it is for us. When would death come? how? when will we be deprived of those we love? In most cases, there is no certainty. Even in our first verse of this week’s reading, there is one tiny letter that hints at the uncertain territory between life and death. In Exodus 11.4 it is literally written: כחצת הלילה – “some time around midnight”. The single letter khaf indicates “sort of”, “almost”, or “about”.

That’s as close as we get in Judaism to the ultimate truth of life and death. That letter khaf stands in between us and the complete, transcendent truth. We cannot know the time of our death, or any of the other things we want to know the most, and the khaf is there to remind us of that.

Don’t let the khaf get you down, though. Consider this tiny message from the Hebrew letter: the letter khaf has the same name as the word “hand”, and a khaf has the numerical values of two tens, that it, two yuds, which designate a Name of G-d. The little khaf that stands between you and death reminds you that you are in the hands of G-d. And no matter where you go, what you fear, or what happens to you when, you can never fall out of the hands of G-d.

Shabbat VaEra 5774: Don’t Look Away

We take up our story in the parashah called VaEra at chapter 7, verse 14: Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. Moshe and Aharon had come to bring him a message, and he turned away from it.
A close examination of the events so far indicate no reason why Pharaoh should be impressed: Moshe and Aharon his brother have appeared before him, and Aharon has turned his walking staff into a serpent. Pharaoh’s servants promptly imitated the special effects, and Pharaoh turned away, dismissing the message and the messengers.
How many of us have had this experience, or been the victim of it? A disturbing message, dismissed as someone else’s truth, not mine? A message refused on the face of it, because it’s so patently ridiculous? After all, you see it your way and I see it mine, and aren’t both views – or even my assertion that there is nothing to see – both equally true?
It is true, after all, that all truth is relative; what is also true, however, is that different truths create different contexts and different consequences. Truth must be understood by the company it keeps, so to speak. What are the consequences of what we see and refuse to credit?
Pharaoh turns away, “hardening his heart” and refusing to listen to a message that seemed preposterous, or at least ridiculously unpleasant. Did his unwillingness to to listen, to look, early on really lead to the catastrophe his people experienced? And if so, what must we learn from this example of turning away from the unpleasant and disturbing messages that come to us? What are we risking by pretending everything will be all right – what are the chances, anyway?
On this Shabbat, what can we learn from a parashah  called VaEra, from Exodus 6.3: I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as a Mighty G-d, but by my Name I did not reveal Myself to them….
 
Perhaps that truth is revealed in different ways at different times, and different contexts. No one’s truth is absolute; all of us need to listen, and to look.
In a recent article about the polarization of American politics, Jill Lepore offers us a fresh perspective on this idea:
“In more analytically luxuriant times, political scientists debated some of the very questions that…before the denial of climate change, certain philosophers argued that all science is interpretation….But intellectuals, as Bruno Latour once pointed out, are nearly always one critique too late: “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” Irony is cheap, not painless.”  (New Yorker, Dec 2 2013, p. 79)
Truth is a very powerful weapon. In the wrong hands, it brings plagues and tragedy. We cannot afford to look away and dismiss the potential damage of arguments that seem absurd, especially when so many people are ready to uncritically adopt them.
Not all is revealed to anyone; humility is a necessary partner to the truth we think we know well enough to assert, and live by. But truth does exist, and as the Kotzker Rebbe said, we must look for it everywhere, and help it to rise from the ground.

Shabbat Shemot: can you feel your own galut?

Our parashat hashavua (“parashah of the week”) finds us far from home and ancestral memory; we are in Egypt, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But “there arose a king who did not know Joseph” (still a Jewish way to say “things are going to get worse now”), and our comfortable, protected status as guests of the crown ended. In a shockingly short time, we were enslaved, and the Egyptians who had been our neighbors became our willing persecutors. If this sounds familiar, it is because this story has happened to us more than once, most recently in Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

The fall from prosperity into slavery and persecution begins very early in the book Shemot (Exodus), within ten verses of the beginning of chapter 1. Late in chapter 2, in the middle of our parashah, just at the beginning of the reading for the second year of the Triennial Cycle, we read:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned by reason of the bondage. (Shemot, “Exodus”, 2:23)

Why, the commentators ask, is it written only here that the Israelites cried out because of their suffering? What took them so long? One early modern commentator offers:

“Until this point, the Children of Israel were so deeply sunk in their galut that they could not even sense it. But now, when the first budding of their redemption began to emerge, they could begin to feel the depth of their suffering.”  (Hiddushei ha-Rim, “Innovative Interpretations by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Rothenberg, 1789-1866).

According to Jewish tradition, G-d responded as soon as the Israelites cried out for relief. Why not earlier? we might ask in outrage: is this not a form of blaming the victim? I should have to scream before someone helps me?

No: rather, one has to realize that one is suffering before one becomes ready to accept the help that was already there, and available. When you are immersed in suffering, you do not believe in the reality of escape. Perhaps your thinking is that you do not deserve it, or that it’s not so bad, or that it’s too embarrassing to admit.

Galut, “exile”, is most painfully exile from oneself, and from G-d. The worst kind of suffering is that from which we do not believe there is relief. And the most important blessing we can be to each other is to do what Jews have always done when confronted with exile of any kind: stay together, help each other, and remind each other that it is when we can see and react to our galut that we begin to be able to heal it.

What suffering might you become aware of? what relief is already nearby, if you are ready to admit your pain? Go ahead; reach out for it, and in so doing may you realize your own strength to help others toward it as they help you. As we recited according to the minhag (custom) for finishing Bereshit last week and and getting ready to read the next book of our Torah: hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen each other.”

“Five Reasons for an Orthodox Rabbi to Support Gay Marriage” – A response to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

If you haven’t seen this post, go read it! and then we can talk: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuly-yanklowitz/orthodox-rabbi-gay-marriage_b_4452154.html

Rabbi Yanklowitz shares his personal reflections and halakhic struggles – and in so doing, he expresses the most traditional kind of Judaism, that which teaches the value of hiddush (innovation within the law) and the humility of our ancestors. They knew that “even the most innovative teachings of a wise student in the future will also be Torah m’Sinai” (JT Peah).

It is worth noting, for all who are so exercised about this social question in both directions, that United States legal tradition makes a distinction between that which is a civil right and that which is a religious right. To insist that our religious convictions have a place in determining the civil rights of others is a dangerous thing, given that in liberal, tolerant San Francisco there was recently an effort at the local level of government to prohibit the Jewish religious ritual of circumcision!

We who are religious leaders are better off supporting equal civil rights for all American citizens and spending our time on more legitimate ground, working within our religious communities to reinforce our religious values. That’s where such activism belongs.

Shabbat VaYekhi: What Makes a Good Song?

We’ve arrived at the last weekly parashah of the first book of the Torah: the book of Creation, of beginnings, of the kind of stories that are meant to answer the essential questions. How did the world come into existence? How did you and I? How did the Jews become a people? and less happy questions as well, such as Why do people kill each other? The stories of Genesis are Mythical in their necessity. We want to know how and why our existence follows certain paths, with choices and eventualities we might not have chosen ourselves had we the choice, and way too much pain besides.

This week we are reading nearly the entirety of the next to last chapter in the Book Bereshit (Genesis), chapter 49. The entire chapter consists of Jacob’s final words, which have come down to us in the form of what is often understood as the blessing of the twelve tribes in the persons of their eponymous ancestors. Although the text does not say so, Jacob probably spoke in song, just as Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our Rabbi, his traditional appellation) will sing as he takes his leave of his people, and life, on the other end of the Torah. There, at the end of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the Torah will call Moshe’s final words a song.

When we look closely, we see that Jacob’s last song is not exactly a blessing. It is more a declaration of character of each of the twelve sons who become progenitors of tribes. It is also, of course, a description of the tribes as our tradition knows them (and in that way we can understand retrojected elements that are clearly not contemporary). It is a complex song, full of Jacob’s feelings about his sons, and so it expresses chagrin and pride, love and resignation. It’s not an easy song to hear – but it is honest.

What makes a good song? In an opera or musical, the best songs are not simple in subject matter; and often, the most beautiful songs include harmonies, different voices pitched in different ranges and even rhythms. A good song is just a cacophony if it is mistimed, or when the singers are not in sync with each other – but a good song sounds like a miracle of beauty when everything comes together just so. The same is true of a good music jam session – musicians sensitive to each other, each contributing, each welcoming of the other’s contribution.

A community’s expression of itself is similar. We sing a song that belongs to each of us but also to all of us, each of us in our own way. It’s not always an easy song: we clash sometimes. Someone’s voice is not in sync, someone gets outsung (or does the outsinging!), someone’s timing is well-meant but not so good….

The song that Jews sing in community is full of life: disagreements, good and bad days, pain, happiness, grief, pleasure, impatience, and much more. Just look at our Talmud and the rest of rabbinic literature.

The author of the halakhic (legal) code Arukh haShulkhan, Rabbi Yekhiel Epstein, points out that those same rabbis who argued all day long about the finer and larger points of law also insisted that eylu v’eylu divre Elokim Hayim, “these AND these are the words of the living G-d”. (Hoshen Mishpat, Introduction). And “this is one of the reasons the Torah is called ‘a song’ – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.”  (From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Torah as G-d’s Song).

A good congregational song is not always pretty. That is, if it is a good song, because a good song is honest. Like Jacob’s final song, it has dramatic curves, flashes of pain as well as happiness, and the occasional diva. A good song is one that helps us explore our Torah inheritance, to speak our personal truths and learn our community truths from each other. It’s a process that, over time, offers us the opportunity not only to make beautiful Jewish music together, but to fulfill our obligation to find our voice in the harmonious song of Torah that only we can make together.

Shabbat VaYigash: How To Become Israel

The famous part of this week’s parashah is at the very beginning: after weeks of build-up, the saga reaches its dramatic climax as Judah steps forward to confront the ruler of Egypt (not knowing that this ruler is his own little brother). In this single act of courage and emotional maturity, Judah breaks a tragic cycle of family dysfunction which has haunted the household of the first Jews since Abraham.

But that’s not our text. We are reading from the second third of the Torah in this year of our Triennial Cycle, and we begin with chapter 45, verse 16 of Bereshit (Genesis). Joseph has revealed his identity to his brothers, the tearful reunion has begun, and Jacob is about to find out that his long-lost, most beloved son is not only still alive, but is ruler over all of Egypt.

Jacob will journey to Egypt to see Joseph. What must that journey have cost? After so many years, what would he find?

Life has continued in the interim; the lost years cannot be regained. That which has been torn, like Joseph’s old multi-colored coat, cannot be fully repaired. Jacob at first finds himself unable to believe. It is a tremendous shock, and he reels from it.

What might he be thinking? Is his mind working with the possibilities, attempting to discover how it is that he was deceived? Does he look upon his other sons in a new light? What tension exists in those days – might Jacob even be considering some bitter, angry action toward the brothers?

The Torah does not tell us more than this: somehow, Jacob manages to pull himself together, and he resolves to undertake the journey to Egypt.

And the Torah itself seems to react. At the beginning of chapter 46, calling him Israel for the first time in a long while. Israel – the name given to Jacob which becomes the name of our people, the name which speaks of struggle, hard-won experience, maturity. And Israel undertook the journey with all that he had, and came to Beer Sheva…

He travels as far as Beer Sheva, the city associated with his father Isaac. Something is calling him toward the memory of his father in these moments. Is he perhaps thinking of his own difficult experience as a father, does it shed new light on his experience of Isaac as a father? And then the text continues …he offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac. 

There is a hasidic story about a young man destined to succeed his father as Rebbe of a community, but his behavior worried his father. When reproved, the young man replied “This is my G-d and I will glorify; the G-d of my father and I will exalt.” (Song of the Sea, Exodus 15.2). In other words, the young man had to figure out his relationship to G-d for himself before he would be able to fully appreciate and respect that of his father. Is this the experience that Jacob – Israel – is now having?

The next verse relates: And G-d spoke to Israel in the night, saying, ‘Jacob, Jacob’. And he said, ‘here I am’.” (Bereshit 46.1-2) From the evidence of the Torah, it appears that G-d has not spoken to Jacob since the journey from Beth El, when Rakhel died in childbirth. G-d’s presence returns to Jacob, now Israel, only because Jacob is finally, it seems, able to become Israel.

We don’t know what was going through Israel’s mind and heart as he took that journey after so many years of loss. We only know that he we reunited with Joseph and died at peace.

Today the world mourns for Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday. I well remember watching him walk away from prison in 1990, amidst all the excitement, and the hope, that he engendered. After so many years, what was that journey like for Mandela? What did it cost him? We will never really know – all we have is the teaching he did by example of how to be reunited, and how to die at peace. It is, as the Torah would put it this week, to become Israel: to put down bitterness and anger, to walk away from regret for loss. It is to let one’s hard-won experience lead one toward wholeness, finally, rather than looking for payback or, even, the attention one feels one deserves.

And perhaps, in that way, finally to come to know what is the true source of one’s reverence and awe, and be able to see others – even one’s own parents – in that new light as well.

May the light of your own hard-won experience illuminate your life in these longest, darkest days of the year.

Shabbat Miketz: light is seen only in darkness

The Shabbat of Hanukkah is nearly always Shabbat Miketz. The word miketz means “at the end of”, and in this context it refers to the end of a period of time – a dark time, with Joseph missing from his family and his home. Joseph is imprisoned in a dungeon as we begin the parashah, and back home a famine is ravaging the land. Everyone is starving: for freedom, for food – for love. 

 

This time of year is the darkest; like all ancient religious traditions, we have our festival of light now, to reassure us that there is light at the end of this darkness. If only it were as true that there is freedom at the end of every enslavement, nourishment at the end of every drought, and love waiting for us all.

 

The reason that this is not reliably true is not because G-d plays favorites, but because we do. Francis Moore Lappe showed years ago that there is enough food on this planet to feed us all if only we would treat Earth wisely, and each other with respect; in the case of love, also, we act as if there is a limit to love, and ration it to the deserving, the attractive, the pleasing. Enslavement both real and metaphorical traps so many who could be freed….

 

In the parashat hashavua for this week, Jacob’s sons will go down to Egypt seeking sustenance for their families. Why, the midrash asks, are they called “Joseph’s brothers” instead of “Jacob’s sons”?

 

In so doing, the Torah is signaling the beginning of a move from darkness toward light. The brothers will confront their brother, whom they betrayed, and, after great emotional upheaval, be reconciled with him, and in the nurturance of that moment, so many longings will be answered. 

 

Joseph’s brothers were afraid when they first met Joseph – afraid of what they did not know about him, afraid that he would be angry at them, and perhaps try to kill them. Especially in this dark time, we too are afraid of what might be lurking within that which is impenetrable to our sight. Like the brothers, we assume fear, anger, difficulty – and we add to the darkness in that assumption. 

 

In a midrash, it is pointed out that the eye is made up of a dark part (the iris) and a light part (the white of the eye), and that one sees only out of the dark part. Consider a dark room with a spotlight: only when one is in darkness can one see that there is light (if you are in the spotlight you cannot see what is in the dark). Thus it is in our lives: darkness is a necessary precondition to seeing, and not at all, necessarily, an impediment. We forget to look sometimes for the light in the darkness, but it is there.

 

These long nights are a time to admit that these long nights can be full of grief and sadness, to express it and comfort each other in it. Let us seek to answer each other’s longings, feed each other’s hopes, and free each other as we are able from the prison of our fears. Let us kindle light together – not in defiance of the darkness, but in recognition that it is only when we realize the nature of the darkness that we are in, that we can begin to see the light.