Shabbat Miketz: Life Comes At You Fast

This week’s parashah is Miketz, which literally translates as “at the end”. In the Torah’s context, it refers to the end of two years’ time during which Joseph languishes, forgotten, in an Egyptian dungeon. The word ketz, “end”, is short and sharp. It echoes another key word of the parashah, vayikatz, which refers to the way in which Pharaoh startles awake after a disturbing dream, not once but twice as the parashah unfolds its tale.

The overall impact is of language which startles with its abruptness. Life changes just that quickly: one carries on for endless days until, suddenly and shockingly, everything changes. Pharaoh is shocked out of sleep and complacency; Joseph is hauled up out of the dungeon with no warning, brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. We go on day by day with our lives, consuming fossil fuels or throwing things “away”, until, suddenly, the reality of climate change bursts upon us, and we have to have emergency meetings in Paris.

Life seeems to change that quickly. Even when we have a sense of warning, and think we have time to prepare, the actual moment of impact can be shockingly sudden. 

But the work of that change is actually slow, even plodding, and full of blind alleys. What seems a sudden sprouting is really the result of greater forces at work than we can possibly manage, or even discern – not to mention the forces that grind themselves out before their impact can become known. Once again we realized that we are not in control of our lives, nor of what happens to us. 

As is often said, all we can control is our response. And we sabotage our responses in many ways: we become afraid to move, we underestimate our capacity to act, we let the momentary imbalance of the shock send us into a rabbit hole of panic. 

This all sounds very personal, but it is also global. We are who we are, regardless of the scale.  And it is true that, in ways we do not easily feel in our bones, our individual responses have meaning.

We can choose as individuals to join a march to express our individual convictions, to commit to some small act to lighten our single demand on the planet, to reach for a new degree of kavvanah, mindfulness, in all our acts – and in so doing discover that many others are marching, committing, and reaching in the same way. 

During this dark time, as we struggle with so many invitations to despair, I offer you one specific act to heighten the meaning of the Hanukkah menorah you light this year (I recommend doing it on the 8th night, when the menorah is fully ablaze):  https://www.vsgoliath.org/action/blacklivesmatter-chanukah/. One small way to say to the forces of evil that they will not win. We have their number.

Life comes at us fast – but Shabbat is here to give us a moment to focus, and that slows everything down just enough. This evening we mark T’ruah’s call for a national Human Rights Shabbat. Spend some time on this Shabbat, in shul with your community if you can, lighting a candle, and meditating in its light upon how together we can help each other not to panic, to recognize our ability to respond, and then, to do so to the best of our ability.

shabbat shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!

Shabbat Bereshit: Beginning Again, But Not at the Beginning

Here we go again with the beginning!

This week we begin once again to read the Torah. Our parashah is Bereshit, “in [the process of] beginning”. We all know how it begins, and we all know what happens in the story: creation of the world, then of plants, animals and human beings, and then the trouble starts. There’s a snake, and the first murder, which is a fratricide: Cain kills his brother Abel.

Life can seem like a nightmare of repetition some days; somewhere in the world, another war is breaking out. Another famine is causing the suffering of millions. Another act of violence is diminishing the humanity of all it touches. It makes you want to turn off the news forever.

It seems hopeless, yet Judaism teaches hope. In our liturgy, our theology, and our seeking of justice, we are trained always to hope. Not in an irresponsible way, but hope, nevertheless. It is said that in the Warsaw Ghetto, above the entrance to a shul, were inscribed the famous urging of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav: “No matter what, Jews, do not despair!” Jews historically vote for rehabilitation, not capital punishment, because there’s always hope. In Jewish law one may never assume that someone is no longer living, even if the person was last seen in a war zone, or is very old and frail. There’s always hope.

As we begin again at the beginning, we know that we will soon read again of sin, of murder, of war and of misery.

We will also read of courage, of kindness, of righteousness, and of how many stars can be seen in the sky on a night when we remember to look up.

That’s the reason, we are told, that we are to hope. We are not automatons, doomed to repetition. We learn from our experiences, and we listen to those who are wiser than we. We sometimes feel trapped in repetitive patterns – but we take part in being trapped, and we can choose to change the pattern, and our part in it.

You will continue to repeat what you are doing until you learn what you need to learn from it. That learning is “Torah” in the widest sense, for it is your capacity to learn life lessons and plumb their truth depths. And then you will walk away from the damaging repetitions of your past, because you will have learned what you needed to learn from them. And then, feeling a new sense of strength, you will be ready to face the next challenge.

How will this year be different from all other years that have come before it? This year we are in the third year of our Triennial Cycle of Torah reading. We will begin not with the very beginning of Bereshit, but much later, near the end of chapter 4. One of the first verses we read is this:

א  זֶה סֵפֶר, תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם:  בְּיוֹם, בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם, בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ.

1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created the human being, in the likeness of God it was made;

ב  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בְּרָאָם; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָם אָדָם, בְּיוֹם, הִבָּרְאָם.

2 male and female created it was created, and G-d blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

We will begin with an entirely different beginning – after the Garden of Eden, past the snake, way past the misunderstanding and bad feelings that led to murder. The terrible news from the world around us does not define our future, only our present. This verse from chapter five is not the first statement, but perhaps it is the result of some learning, some experience, and some re-thinking. It offers us a simpler, essential version of human beginnings: one single being, made up of all the human potential in the world. From this verse the tradition derives the teaching that despite all that divides and differentiates us, each individual, precious life is worth the life of the world, because in each one is a whole world of potential.

And therefore, in each one of us is that hope – of an entire world of potential. How will your year be different from all those before it?