Shabbat Shemot: Listen and See that All Is One

we have met the enemy and they are us – cartoonist Walt Kellly in the comic strip Pogo

What is the cause of uprisings? the seed of violence? what did we see on Wednesday in Washington D.C., and all spring and summer in Portland?

Others will turn to political scientists and sociologists; to these sources of wisdom we are fortunate to add another resource: the Torah. Torah in its widest sense, which invites us to seek wisdom with which to respond to the challenges of our days thoughtfully, from our people’s experience and insights.

A new book of the Torah greets us on this Shabbat Shemot. (Even the way we name our weeks when we tell time centers Torah and its weekly offerings of consolations and challenges to our way of thinking!)

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “look, the Israelite people are far too much for us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they increase, and in the event of war, join with our enemies and rise from the ground.” – Exodus 1.8-10

Once, Joseph had saved Egypt from famine. But the beginning of parashat Shemot, the first parashah of the book of Shemot, called Exodus in English, describes a time long after. Now the Israelites living in the midst of Egyptian society are suspect. They seem dangerous. After consultation, Pharaoh’s ministers advised him to murder every baby Hebrew boy by throwing them into the Nile
“because they are too much for us.”

Why would the Israelites become suspect?
Why were they suddenly seen as possibly dangerous? 

The Torah, and the midrash investigating the deeper meanings of its words, point to the very words: this people are too many for us, they might be our enemies. This is the timeless, fearful rhetoric of us vs. them.

The Jewish response to this is to suggest something far deeper and more difficult to fully grasp, and it is the true meaning of the Shema – that we are all One. There is no us vs them; only shifting groups that change and coalesce around thinking and feeling processes that we are only partly aware of in ourselves and around us.


Unless you are willing to try to understand that, you will never be able to grasp the insight that true monotheism offers you – the kind Isaiah tried to teach us:

יוצר אור ובורא חושך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני ה עושה כל אלה
Shaper of Light, Creator of Darkness, Maker of Peace and Creator of Evil; I HaShem do all these things. – Isaiah 45.7

To understand the central tenet of Jewish spiritual culture is harder than we might understand at first grasp. It tells us that there is no such thing as radical individualism. The mystics compare this to a drop of water in a stream; each of us is such a drop of water. We are barely aware of the ocean in which all our acts are contained, carried and influenced. We are, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner put it in his writing, all linked by Invisible Lines of Connection.

More than one psychologist has suggested that the self was never meant to carry its own weight. We are herd animals. We would rather feel safe at home in a bad agreement than alone in righteousness, for good reasons: one who is alone is in danger of death – or the lesser death of ostracism – at the hands of the many. That is the spirit of the mob this week at the U.S. Capitol; it is the same spirit in the Klan. It is the same human spirit in a youth group and a football team and a group of anarchists breaking windows at night downtown.

We are all the same in our basic needs. We are all the same in our humanity. We are all influenced by factors in our makeup, our history, our community – and there are so many that we are completely unaware of! 

It follows that there is no meaningless violence – only causes that we do not as yet understand – or do not wish to understand. We may feel a certain leaning to condemn one more than the other. In such moments we do well to remember that none of us can claim to know Truth, but only a partial truth. 

As white supremacy expresses itself in police violence against Black bodies, so does alienation from social values similarly express itself – in violence that we want to distance ourselves from for our own safety.

Yet we all own all human acts, those we are aware of and those we are not, those we commit and those we witness. Yom Kippur puts these words in our mouths: for the sin we committed on purpose and for the sin we committed by mistake, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. Atonement means at – one – ment, recognizing that we live within and among, not separate from, all that makes us recoil as well as all that makes us happy.

To believe in meaningless vandalism from individual thugs who can be punished individually for their individual stupidity or anger is the final absurdity – of which, alas, too many of us are convinced. It allows us to deny our own complicity in the state of our society. 

Jewish tradition is braver than that, and in every honest moment of study and prayer we are invited to step from safe space into that brave space. Brave Space – actually a recently developed concept to improve our thoughtfulness about how we behave in diverse community – is a useful way of fact-checking the truth you feel safe with, and allows you to consider how you might grow beyond your current definition of personal safety, in ways that might allow others to feel more safe with your support. Learn more here: Fakequity 

The Shema should remind us of our link to everything else in Creation every time we recite it – and if we are not Jews who daven regularly, we might be those who recite it at bedtime, and know that it has also become the cry of defiance of our martyrs. Why should it have become a sacred utterance if not because it stands beyond our ability to fully grasp, and therefore is always urging us to do better, to think more compassionately and with more humility, seeking the wisdom which our tradition tells us is the path to peace?

In this week of national horror and disgrace, to be overwhelmed is to fail in our response. The Shema is defiance because it calls us to recognize and accept our part, both in the evil and in the good that we can rally to overcome evil by our small, every day actions, and by recognizing how they add up. That’s what the gift of our mitzvot are, and they matter more now than ever. No, that’s wrong: they always matter; it’s we who must change.


Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other

The Face of Evil at the U.S. Capitol

The foolish do not know
the ignorant to not understand this
though evil seems to flourish like weeds
springing up, vigorous, in every corner
it will not last
God is above all; God is what lasts.
That which hates truth and light will fall
all that is the enemy of goodness
will perish, and crumble away into dust.
– Psalm 92

Shalom Shir Tikvah companions,

The news from our national capital, that a pro-Trump violent mob has breached the U.S. Capitol, is frightening and horrifying. This mob, at the urging of the outgoing, defeated U.S. President, have caused the evacuation of both House and Senate chambers and disrupted the Electoral College vote. They insist that the election was corrupt and are demanding the vote be stopped. At least one person has been shot and seriously wounded.

All we can do is to watch and pray for the peace of our nation and the well being of those who are tasked with guarding the democratic process upon which we all depend for our lives and welfare.

The state National Guard has been called; we have no reason to believe that the electoral process will be stopped. But we know now that the evil that has been unleashed in our nation is not going to quietly ebb away. There is so much more that we are going to have to strengthen ourselves, to survive and to act toward the healing of our society.

We dare not underestimate the danger of the hatred and lawlessness encouraged by the outgoing President. We see it not only nationally but locally. Let it not overwhelm us – we are an ancient people who have lived in more than one nation, and affected by more than one historic event. Focus on that which you love, that which you know you can trust, and the trust and the love we share and know to be real.

My companions, let’s remember what our teacher Elie Weisel once said: we as Jews are vulnerable, but we must not be alone. Reach out to those you know in our community and beyond. Do what you can to console and strengthen others, and you will find your own soul strengthened. Let’s hold hands and watch together; let’s hold on to each other and keep believing in the words of Psalm 92 we chant every Shabbat morning:

Look up and see that evil cannot last
listen and hear then end of meaningless suffering

hazak hazak v’nithazek – let us be strong and hold on to each other!

Shabbat VaYehi: Update Your Priors

“One should always be as soft as a reed, and not as hard as a cedar.” Ta’anit 20a-b

Parashat VaYekhi is the final parashah of the first book of our Torah, the book of beginnings called in Hebrew Bereshit, “with beginning”(in English, “Genesis”). It’s appropriate that it falls on this Shabbat as we end the darkest days and begin our Northern Hemisphere’s turn back toward the light of the sun. We are beginning to find our way back to warmth, light and, dare I say, hope.

In this parashah, the last patriarch of the Torah, Jacob, dies. His death is accompanied by one of the more ancient texts in Genesis, the deathbed song of the patriarch. It doesn’t seem to be much of a blessing, although it is called one, for much of what Jacob has to say to his children, as he reflects back over his life and learning, bears the harshness of long-avoided truth.

Truth is not necessarily harsh. Long-avoided truth, however, will always be more painful than necessary, if only because of lack of practice in learning and growing. If only because of the shock of finally hearing something never spoken, but always known.

It is said that a good death is when HaShem takes one’s soul away with a kiss. The image of a kiss, neshek, is of love, gentleness, openness; such a death seems easily to be what we would all prefer. But to get to such a lovely moment of openness we have to be able to open ourselves past the armor of a lifetime, and past the armor of the fear of a moment.

Such a deathbed moment may occur long before the moment of death. It is a moment of recognizing, or avoiding, the relationships that matter. Each one of us chooses every day whether each moment of connecting to another person, and the G*d within them, is a moment that we will meet by donning our emotional armor, or opening up to the possibility of gentleness symbolized by a kiss. 

This is what our tradition is trying to tell us in the ancient teaching repent one day before your death (Pirke Avot 2.15). How can we know which day is our last? Better to live each day as if it is our last, and become the person we have been putting off becoming.

Such a becoming requires us, finally, to grow up: to grow past the child’s response of the experience of fear, to the adult’s ability to be thoughtful about other people’s fear.  Fear – yir’ah, according to Jewish tradition, is a necessary first posture we all adopt vis a vis the world. It is, after all, a vast and terrifying place. Yet there is a higher stance to which we are urged to strive: love – ahavah. It is a place not devoid of fear, yet not ruled by it.

How do we learn to grow past the need for the armor we all have developed, into the gentleness our souls require to thrive in connection with each other?

The uncertainty of life will not change. All we can do, in the words of statisticians, is to “update our priors”:

“priors” are your prior knowledge and beliefs, inevitably fuzzy and uncertain, before seeing evidence. Evidence prompts an updating; and then more evidence prompts further updating, so forth and so on. This iterative process hones greater certainty and generates a coherent accumulation of knowledge. (an explanation of Bayesian analysis from How To Think Like An Epidemiologist, NYTimes 4 August 2020)

We all carry our “priors,” our beliefs and certainties, with us every day. Without prior beliefs in the nature of our existence and context we would not be able to function. Yet 2020 has been a year like no other in the exercise of learning which of our prior beliefs and certainties we held have been proved wrong!

This past year has only been a more extreme version of the challenge life constantly offers us: to learn, from teachers and from experience, and to grow from that learning. For Jews this is the heart of Jewish wisdom: “teach your mouth to say I do not know and you will learn” (attributed to Maimonides). This year has surely shown us the damage that comes from holding on to beliefs that are proved wrong, misplaced certainty, and trust betrayed by elected leaders.

Barukh HaShem, Thank G*d, we are not our certainties; when we learn and grow and our certainties become uncertain on the way to new certainty, we do not lose who we are. We become more of who we are meant to be.

When we are as stressed out as we have been in 2020, it’s hard to stay open to learning and to love. We might find that we tense up in fear, our armor strengthens, and we close off from gentleness. Yet religious teachings all encourage us to be gentle with each other and ourselves, that anger destroys and compassion builds.

It’s inevitable that life hurts, things change, and we are misunderstood. What’s not at all certain is how we will choose to respond. After a year of so much irrational suffering, may we all learn to be a bit more open to the rationality of learning, and growing. Any prior belief or certainty may change at any time; let us hope to be in all circumstances not like a stiff cedar, but like a reed, capable of bending gracefully with the pressure that will come to bear upon us from storms without and within.


Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other.

Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat VaYigash: Stepping Away from the Past, Shaping the Future

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – William Faulkner

The denouement of the Joseph saga occurs at the beginning of this week’s parashat VaYigash. The great dramatic moment comes when Judah courageously steps forward. He does so to accept the burden of the family’s great hidden sin: that of the brothers’ selling Joseph into slavery and hiding it from their father.  Judah gives himself up for the sake of them all, but especially for the father who, tragically, does not have it in his heart to ever be able to repay or even recognize this gift of love and family responsibility.

Judah’s act has been seen primarily by Jewish tradition as the proof of the extraordinary nature of the tribal line associated with him, the royal one; that of the once and forever line of the kings of Israel. His willingness to step first into a breach reminds one of Nakhshon ben Ammindav, his descendent, who is unafraid to leap into the Sea of Reeds even before the waters are miraculously parted during the Exodus from Egypt. 

Jewish tradition looks for family resemblances in this way, echoes and answers that reverberate over many generations. This is in line with ancient Israelite belief that we are all connected, and our acts affect each other over time and space. To understand the universe in this way is to see that we act within a sense of

אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲון אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י

“A passionate holiness, within which the sins of ancestors 

reverberate onto their descendants 

for three, and even four, generations” – Exodus 20.5

Judah is the great grandson of Sarah and Abraham, the grandson of Rivkah and Isaak, the son of Leah and Jacob. His life reflects not only the brave boundary crossing of Abraham but also the trauma of Isaak’s Akedah, Jacob’s theft of birthright and blessing from Esau, and the massacre of the men of Shekhem by his brothers Shimon and Levi. His step forward is a step away from all that inchoate pain, and toward wholeness. It is breath-taking, because Judah here is both wounded and whole. Where his father limps and lies, Judah strides toward the truth.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ז״ל attributes the reinterpretation of the past which becomes possible at this point to Joseph, who offers the brothers the perspective that instead of guilt at their own acts, they should see Joseph’s presence in Egypt as HaShem’s doing, for a higher purpose.

But Joseph’s generous reshaping of the impact of the years of suffering cannot take place until Judah takes the fateful step. Not unlike many of us, who limp through life in inherited pain until one day we are able to break the pattern, Judah steps out of and away from the family path. 

Today is Asarah b’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet. This day has been observed as a (minor) fast day for many generations of Exile, because on this day over 2500 years ago the Babylonian Empire, besieging Jerusalem, breached the walls. It was the beginning of the end. How could we know that all these years later the day would be scarcely relevant, as Jerusalem is rebuilt and so much has happened to soften that past horror?

We cannot erase the past, nor can we bury it. Both our Jewish tradition and any good therapist will agree: if you do not recognize your past consciously, it will demand your recognition subconsciously. All we can do is act now to set that past in a larger, redeeming perspective. As long as we live, such acts – we call them mitzvot – are constantly possible. Each small act of kindness, of wholeness, of love, defies the darkness of our isolation from each other in this 9th month of pandemic. And it will redeem our perspective in ways that will define these days in ways we cannot possibly imagine now.

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

s/he was bullied by siblings.

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

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

s/he knew neither the language nor the customs.

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

s/he was thrown in a dungeon and forgotten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

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

Letter to a Young Jew

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


Some reading if you’re into it:

Reflections on Being a Jewish Activist:

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

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

and intersectionality:

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

Shabbat VaYeshev: Justice by the Light of the Hanukkah Menorah

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!

Rabbi Ariel

see: Understanding the Eviction Blockade

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Becoming Whole By Becoming Oneself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

*Churchill, according to Sacks

Shabbat Toldot: Naming our Transgender Children

Today, Friday November 20, is Transgender Day of Remembrance. During Portland’s observance (last night on the eve of the day) we called the names of those who were murdered in the U.S. during this past year for no reason other than their transgender identity. 

We remember them, and mourn the loss of these irreplaceable Images of G*d. They existed in all their personal created glory, and we refuse to let them disappear into the void of nonexistence. We say their names. 

In Hebrew, the verb for “read” is קרא k.r.’ which also means to ‘say out loud.” In ancient Jewish tradition, to read was to speak audibly; there was no “silent reading.” The power in naming is in hearing as well as seeing. The first humans became partners with HaShem in the act of creation by naming the creatures that they encountered. To name is to bring fully into existence; to name is to recognize relationship between the namer and the named.  

To name someone or something is to declare that there is reality here. Here is a reflection of the All in the part.

We are sometimes wary of naming, sometimes afraid, and sometimes simply insensible to what we have not recognized. Peeling back the interpretive layers of what we assume, we can find astonishing depths.

The Torah is often astonishingly coincidentally relevant to our own circumstances, and this week is one of those times. Last week in parashat Haye Sarah we watched Rebekah, daughter of Betuel, as the center of the narrative’s action, from welcoming the stranger to deciding her own future. This week in parashat Toldot she is still the focus as she acts to decide the future of her family – and the Jewish people. Judging by her acts, Rebekah behaves more like a patriarch than Isaac.

But we don’t tend to see that; our ability to see and to name Rebekah as head of her family is hampered by our assumptions. She must be a wife and mother, and any other impression must be an exception to the rule.

But what if we recognize her full reality, and Isaac’s too? Mystical speculation on the nature of femaleness and maleness led to the insight that Isaac was transgender:

It is known that when Isaak was born, he was born with the soul of a female, and through the Akedah (the binding) he got a male soul … this is known according to the Sod (Secret/Mysticism) of the cycling of souls – that at times, a female would be in a male body, because of gilgal (the cycling of souls) [Or HaHayim, 18th century Hasidic commentary]

Ancient Jewish tradition is conversant with much more than a rigid gender binary. The research of Rabbi Elliot Kukla shows that at least six gender expressions were part of normal life and legislation in Talmudic times (listed below).

We can only talk about what we recognize; we are able to name only that with which we are in relationship. Let this be a cautionary lesson as well as an encouragement: even as we are taught to learn and recognize and interact, so we are unable to do so if we do not have the opportunity to have naming experience. We can’t name Rivkah if we don’t really know her. Let this Shabbat be a chance to learn more about the glorious spectrum of gender identity and sexual expression throughout our world, and the Jewish ways we learn to respect all Created Beings.

hazak hazak v’nithazek, may we be strong and strengthen one another!

shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

________________________

  1. An androgynos has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics, and there are 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE). 
  2. A tumtum’s sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishnah and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes. 
  3. A person identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile is called an aylonit (80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes). 
  4. A saris is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis (156 references in Mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes).
  5. Nekevah, usually translated as “female.” 
  6. Zakhar, usually translated as “male.”

A Prayer for Healing in the Time of COVID-19

Source of Healing, help us find healing.

We seek strength for our spirit, resilience

that will carry us through this plague in peace.

Compassion that saves us,

Heal the body of everyone struck
with the threatening virus,

and heal the souls of all who suffer.

Remember those who have died.

Heal us and we shall be healed,
save us and we shall be saved,

Source of our strength and our hope.

Creator of freedom, inspiration for all who are bound up in these days of quarantine,

As the gates of our homes are shut,
open for us the gates of our hearts.

Liberate us from our fear and anxiety.

May the great wind that hovers over the abyss bless us to find a place to stand firm in holy presence

with open hearts where there must be closed doors.

In the Presence of holiness we are taught that nothing is too difficult.

The Source of both death and life

Is the source of wholeness and peace.

We offer up our gratitude and praise
for healing, for wholeness, for hope.

רוֹפֵא חוֹלִים, רְפָא נָא לָנוּ.

הַגְבֵּר אֶת רוּחֵנוּ וְטַע בָּנוּ חֹסֶן

שֶיַּעֲבִירֵנוּ בַּמַּגֵּפָה הַזֹּאת בְּשָׁלוֹם.

רַחְמָנָא לִיצְּלַן, רְפָא-נָא
לְגוּפֵי הָהֻכִּים בַּנְּגִיף,

רַחֵם-נָא עַל נַפְֹשוֹתָם הַסּוֹבְלִים,

זְכוֹר-נָא בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִים
אֶת נִֹשְמָתָם שֶהָלְכוּ לְעוֹלָמָם.

רְפָאֵנוּ וְנֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִוָֹּשֵעַ,
כִּי גוֹאֵל חָזָק אָתָּה.

מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים, עָזְרֵנוּ בִּימֵי הֶסְגֵּר.

בְּעֵת נְעִילַת שַעֲרֵי בָּתֵינוּ,
פְּתַח לָנוּ אֶת שַעֲרֵי לִבֵּנוּ.

שַחְרְרֵנוּ מִכָּל פַּחַד וַחֲרָדָה.

הָרוּחַ הַמְּרַחֶפֶת עַל תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ

בַּרְכִינוּ בְּמָקוֹם נִיצָּב לְפָנַיךְ וְלִפְנִים,

בִּלְבָבוֹת פְּתוּחִים עַל יָד
הַדְּלָתוֹת הַסְּגוּרוּת.

עֵין הַגְּבוּרוֹת, מִי דוֹמֶה-לָךְ? 

מֶלֶךְ מֵמִית וּמְחַיֶּה וּמַצְמִיחַ יְֹשוּעָה.

בְּרוּכָה אתְּ, עֵין הָרְפוּאוֹת
וְרַבָּה לְהוֹשִׁיעַ.

inspired by R. Peretz Rodman