Shabbat Miketz: All of a Sudden, Change

You know where you stand, you know your path forward, you’ve spent time deciding what your future is going to look like. And then something happens, all of a sudden, and your plans….they get eaten up like the seven fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream.

Every year we read parashat Miketz on a Shabbat that coincides with Hanukkah. Every year Joseph is suddenly snatched from a dungeon and hurried before the Egyptian throne. Whatever he had imagined for his future disappeared suddenly, and a new reality confronted him. He was alone, surrounded by strangers, without resources.

Except for one very important resource. As the text tells us, when he is asked to show what he’s capable of, Joseph says clearly that his strength and his vision are not his, but the inspiration and blessing of his G*d.

What does he mean, and how can we relate?

Each of us is alone in our skin and in our dreams, as in our hopes and our fears. In the days and weeks since the U. S. presidential election, a growing sense of vulnerability has begun to eclipse the fairer aspects of the autonomy – the individuality – of our lives. While we may cherish our time alone, no one wants to be lonely. More, to be alone is to be isolated in ways that may be dangerous.

We know it: the only thing you can count on in life is that change happens. As the Yiddish folk saying goes, man tracht und Gott lakht, “we make plans and G*d laughs.” We can attempt to deny it and keep going in the path in which we’ve already invested our time and our dreams, but day by day we will only become more out of touch, and more pathetic.

I once officiated at the burial of a woman who lived alone. It was two weeks before they found her. Long walks by yourself in the woods or on the beach are one thing, but there is nothing uplifting about that kind of solitude that leaves you without support when you need it most.

I worked with the Jewish community of Kiev during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and saw Soviet citizens at a loss for a sense of identity and belonging in the post-Soviet era they were entering, very much against their will. Jews were among the minority groups who had an ironic advantage; the Jewishness that had been held against them in the Soviet system gave them a fallback – although they didn’t know much about it, their Jewish identity was there for the exploring. Jewish communities formed with great rapidity and passion in those days.

Like Joseph, those Jews were vulnerable and without resources – except for one. The memory of where they came from and its teachings was still there for them, and as they sought it out, it strengthened them. Through the communities they formed and the support they gave each other, they experienced inspiration and blessing. As the Jewish mystics would say, they evoked G*d’s presence in their midst, and thus they knew strength and support and hope.

The same thing happened to the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story. The same thing can happen to us. Change happens, uproots our expectations, upends our lives. And when in response a small group of individuals comes together, supports each other, in so doing they create something holy.

All of a sudden. May it happen to us.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

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Shabbat Ki Tetze: You Can’t Choose Whether, but You Can Choose How

The title of our parashat hashavua is ki tetze, “when you go out”. The Torah is continuing to give instruction for how we shall behave when we go out from our place, and a number of possibilities are offered here. What we come to realize is that there is a Jewish ethic for any act. These ethics are context-bound in their particulars, but we are able to discern what the theologian Louis Jacobs called the meta-message of the Torah: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. 

It’s interesting to note that the words ki tetze make it clear that one has no choice; one does “go out” into the world, out of one’s place. As an ethical teaching, this teaches several lessons:

1. We don’t have a choice but to go out: none of us are able to create a place to be which encompasses all of life – we have to leave it sometimes, as a bird leaves the nest, perforce, to find food.

2. When we do go out into the world from our place, we must carry the teachings – the ethics – with us. As it is said, “in your home and on your way”.

3. We also “go out” from our place in other ways: to truly live in the world, we are sometimes forced to leave our “comfort zone”, whether that be a comfortable assumption about the world, a friend or family member, or the story we are telling ourselves about our place in reality. 

I knew a Rabbi once who said that after twenty years of work with a particular congregation, “I finally had them where I wanted them. But then things kept right on changing!” As long as we live, we don’t get to choose whether we are going to “go out” from the comfortable assumptions and arrangements we have made – change does happen. Our only choice is to decide how we will greet the changes in our lives, how we will “go out” from our places.

As Jews we are expected to use our power to choose to maintain a certain ethic in the world, no matter where we find ourselves or what happens to us. The only sure support we have in a changing world is Torah. Keep studying, and keep seeking understanding – it’s very different from gathering facts!

Let these words from near the end of the parashah help you consider just how much more there is to discover in your understanding. The following verses are the basis for much Jewish business ethics, but there is one more teaching hidden within them:

 

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּכִיסְךָ, אֶבֶן וָאָבֶן:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small.

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּבֵיתְךָ, אֵיפָה וְאֵיפָה:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a great and a small.

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.

A perfect and just weight you must have; a perfect and just measure you must have; that your days may be long upon the land which your God gives you.

כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה:  כֹּל, עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל. 

For all that do such things, each one that does unrighteously, is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. (Devarim 25.13-16)

The basic ethic here is that you must acknowledge the correct weight (that is, value) in buying and selling – whether in your traveling “bag” (laptop?) or at home. Notice the strong words of condemnation for one who acts unethically in this way. One who cheats is an abomination – the word in Hebrew refers to one who is not righteous, but the opposite. This word is much stronger than that used for homosexuality, which is to’evah, a word that relates to a local cultural norm. 

There is so much more in a sophisticated approach to the Torah than you can know – and more support for your ethical journey than you can imagine. Don’t go out there without it.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for a good 5776

Shabbat Ha’azinu: Only Uncertainty Leads to New Truth – Jump, Already

During these ten Days of Awe in which we now find ourselves, we are challenged to really try to change from the ingrained habits that define us. It is easy in the first moments after Rosh HaShanah to experience a setback. In that moment, according to Jewish tradition, the yetzer hara’ will appear to you as a sense of despair, or, at least, resignation: you can’t possibly really change in that way. This is, after all, who you are. It’s who and what your life experience has made you.

Watch out for it. The yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse”, works within us with great subtlety; in this Age of Reason, often it masquerades as the reasonable voice within us. Have you heard it already? “Things will never change. Well, maybe a little, but not really.” That’s your yetzer talking.

It’s tempting to go with the reasonable voice, if only because real change creates wilderness, and no one really wants to wander in a wilderness without a clear sense of direction or a visible goal. And that’s what it takes to change: a willingness to lose the illusion of visible goals, not to mention the illusion of control over our direction.

Our parashat hashavua this week is called Ha’azinu, which means “listen!” in the imperative plural. Moshe is imploring us to hear his last song. And what a song it is, full of ancient Hebrew words and soaring poetry – and glimpses of an early stage of Israelite belief as well. Most of all, the Song of Moshe describes an overview of Israelite history as we rehearsed it to ourselves at the time. Interestingly enough, it all comes down to wilderness:

G-d found us in a desert land, in the waste, the howling wilderness   (Devarim 32.10)

During the High Holy Days it is easy to go with the flow of holiday celebration – greeting old friends, making new ones, enjoying the chance to get reconnected to our congregational family. In the rush of holiday organization and busyness, the parashah reminds us to listen for the song humming along, just below the level of distracted errands and mitzvot.

Listen, the song says. It is in the wilderness itself that life is lived most fully. If we are able to leave behind your current certainty, and enter that wilderness of unclear direction and unknown paths, of leaving behind the old certainty in search of a truer one, the song of Moshe holds out this amazing idea: there, where you cannot find yourself, there, G-d will find you.

Close to the end, Moshe is urgent to get the message through to us: this is not a rehearsal. No one has as much time as we think we do. Don’t sacrifice another minute to that false god, your internal yetzer hara’, as reasonable as it sounds.

Go ahead, Moshe urges us from a perspective only he has, staring at the road ahead that he will be unable to take: do the scary thing. Make that change. Say the words you’ve been unable to utter. Do the thing you’ve been afraid of. Get help for that issue. What if, after all, it goes well?

shabbat shalom and חתימה טובה – May you be sealed for good in the coming year