Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

In parashat Toldot we read of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, born to Rebekah and Isaac after years of trying to get pregnant, and much frustration and difficulty. The family that is created when the children are safely born seems to thrive: their parents succeed in helping their boys to find for each a distinct identity. A family of four, well-off and living at a peaceful time – they look as if all is well.
It all falls apart so fast, in a morality play that seems to demonstrate the damage a controlling parent can do to a child – or, perhaps, the way that deception and betrayal can tear even close families apart. At least, they seemed close.
Those who study the human condition, from ancient Rabbis to modern psychologists, remind us that there is much to be learned not from what we experience, but from how we react to our experiences. Faced with a crisis, Rebekah turns to deception; Jacob ignores his misgivings to go along; Isaac, it is suggested, knows what is happening but shrinks from confrontation; and angry Esau, at the short end, snarls and stomps out, threatening murder.
What if someone had simply spoken directly to the crisis? Why was there no trust among this family’s members? Why did everyone assume the worst?
Consider Isaac, neither the creator of his world – Abraham did that – nor really able to control it. Isaac, who was not killed in the Akedah, who survived his parenting and now is to carry forward their vision. Israeli sociologists speak of the “Isaac generation,” that person or generation that comes of age in the shadow of larger-than-life parents. In the early years of the State of Israel, after the heroes of old founded the state, their children had difficulty discerning how they might make their own contribution to the world. The same is true of any of us whose parent is of an outsize fame or reputation; that identity shadows our own, and it may prove difficult to find one’s own sense of identity.
There is an unfortunately significant attribute of the Isaac generation: its vulnerability to disappointment and cynicism. The first generation carries a great and visionary hope, but afterward, the deconstructionist histories are published, and we learn that all those to whom we had looked up and followed are only human – and some, a great deal worse. Sometimes we might find ourselves driven to punish those who disappoint us in ways that seem to reduce them to the kind of shadow some of us may feel we ourselves are.
Most of us have either felt or can easily imagine the enervation of having our early faith in god-like heroes destroyed. It has been suggested that we ourselves – the people of the United States of America – are part of a great Isaac-generation despair that began with the Vietnam War and sharpened with Watergate. Of course, it is also possible to go back much further, to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, which stained United States society and polity from the beginning.
Jewish tradition offers us a radical teaching in the face of all this demoralization: if you feel betrayed by another person, review your own assumptions. Why is it that you are reacting the way you do? What other choices might you have?
Jewish mysticism teaches that while we may not feel that we can always access a sense of faith – in ourselves, in others, in G*d – we can always act out of trust. Our tradition is full of stories of Jews betrayed by life who, bereft of the feeling of G*d’s presence, insist on it. The Piacezsner Rebbi, who led his people in the dark days of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that even those who feel no faith can reach up to the ladder between heaven and earth and, by sheer force of will, pull themselves toward G*d, and bring G*d’s presence down to them.
Feeling unhappy, betrayed, misunderstood, disappointed? Reach up and pull heaven down into your heart again. All you need is your yetzer hara’s stubbornness, turned toward the lifeline rather than the pit. Then, judge each other, not from a place of demoralization, but from kindness and empathy, and so fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
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Rosh HaShanah 5778 – the Shofar’s call: Get Woke

 Shanah Tovah!

 

Tomorrow we will gather to experience one of the most important spiritual moments of this day that we call Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. That experience is the sounding of the Shofar. Although it may not seem to us to be the ultimate purpose of our sacred gathering, the sounding of the ram’s horn (or antelope, or kudu) is actually the oldest ritual associated with this day.

 

The Torah calls today shabbaton zikhron Teru’ah, mikra kodesh, which we translate as:

  1. a Shabbat-day, meaning a day of rest no matter what day of the week it is
  2. a day to remember the sound of teru’ah, one of the three Shofar sounds we will hear tomorrow
  3. a day for a holy gathering

 

 וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying:
 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן–זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ. Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, the first day of the month shall be a holy day of rest for you, a remembrance of the teru’ah, a day for a sacred gathering.[1]

 

Interestingly, today is not the first day of the Jewish calendar year. When we call it Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, we are asserting the significance of this day. But we get the emphasis wrong: we don’t sound the Shofar because it’s the beginning of our spiritual year: it is the beginning of the year because we s0und the Shofar on this day.

 

Our tradition[2] declares this the day on which the world itself is born, and born again, and born anew. That’s not because we can calculate the physics back to the big bang, but rather, it’s an aspirational statement. An ancient Talmudic story promises us that this day can be the beginning of the world for each of us, and for all of us – if we learn to listen to what we must be able to hear in order to bring about such a blessed renewal – and, apparently, also manage to remember what we have heard. Zikron teru’ah, the remembrance of the sound of the Shofar.[3]

 

But what are we to remember? Our Tanakh attests to the importance of the Shofar at peak moments such as this in our history. Its different sounds all demand attention. The Shofar is a sound of alarm; it declares a moment of great intensity. The sound of the Shofar accompanied the great moment when we became aware of the presence of G*d at Sinai[4] – and according to one old story about that day, the Shofar served, literally, as a wake-up call, since our ancestors had fallen asleep in the meantime.[5]

 

The great Jewish scholar Maimonides, or, as we call him, Rambam, teaches that meaning of the shofar is this: WAKE UP. Or, as it is said on the streets of the United States in these days, it’s time to “get woke.”

 

This term, which is associated with the Movement for Black Lives, is defined as “a cultural push to challenge problematic norms, systemic injustices, and the overall status quo through complete awareness….the phrase itself is an encouragement for people to wake up, and question dogmatic social norms.”[6]

 

Rambam would have agreed. He writes that the shofar calls to each of us saying: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep! Consider your deeds…do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows, and waste their years seeking after that which is empty.” (MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

 

The Shofar calls to us to be sensitive to what is true and what is not. It calls us to wake up to see how we can be socially manipulated, and how our acts, thus influenced, participate in oppression of ourselves and others. The Shofar calls us to wake up to our own potential to act to heal the world.

In short, the Shofar is calling upon us to get woke, to act woke, and to stay woke.

 

  1. Shevarim: Get Woke

 

It is written: * The Presence of G*d was manifest upon Mt Sinai, and the voice of the shofar was heard, sounding louder and louder through the thunder and smoke.[7] *

 

Consider the voice of the shofar, this strange and harsh sound. By Jewish law we are not allowed to mellow the sound by affixing a mouthpiece to the simple animal horn; there is to be no artificial barrier between breath and lips and horn and sound.

 

It’s not easy to make a clear, clean sound come from this simple instrument. It would be so much easier with a mouthpiece, like that from a bugle. But when this horn sounds, it is a sound like no other – it is a sound like the sound of the truth, when you hear it.

 

Sometimes the truth we need to hear is terrible to hear. Ancient midrash describes the shevarim notes of the Shofar, three “broken” notes, as yelalah: a Hebrew word describing the sound of unanswered anguish. This is a cry that echoes in a silent, cold, uncaring void. It is a wail of hopelessness.

 

The midrash offers a painful interpretation of what our people remembers when we hear the shevarim call of the Shofar. This interpretive midrash relates to the Torah reading, the one we find so terribly difficult to understand: the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The Torah relates that Abraham hears G*d commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and at the last moment, his hand is stayed by a messenger of G*d, an angel. A ram is sacrificed instead. The story is terrible enough, but of course there’s more – we need to know where was Sarah? As it is, the next story the Torah relates is that of her death. The midrash fills in, using the figure of the satan, the personification of the evil among us:

When Abraham came from Mt Moriah, the satan was furious that he had failed to realize the sacrifice of Isaac. What did he do? he went off and found Sarah. “Ah, Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world?” She replied, “no.” He said, “your old husband has taken the boy and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness.” Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She …wailed three times, corresponding to the broken notes of the Shofar. Then she died, and Abraham came home and found her dead.[8]

 

In this midrash, the satan creates fake news, causing Sarah to imagine this horrible scene, and as a direct result, she dies, in agony. Sarah imagines Isaac’s death cries, cries of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces. The shevarim is the sound of the living creature that cannot be saved from death. Sarah, also held by an anguish that she cannot survive, echoes his cries.[9]

 

According to the midrash, it is these cries that we re-enact in the ritual of the Shofar. The text concludes that “the Shofar blasts on the New Year transform Sarah’s death into atonement, because the broken Shofar tone is a sound of groaning and wailing.”[10]

 

This atonement comes through hearing, and through remembering. The Shofar calls in the voice of the murdered. The shevarim reminds us that we have heard the hopeless wail of the tragically bereaved – it challenges us to remember that we have heard it, in the world, and in our own community.

 

The Torah’s version of the Akedah seems to offer some veneer of comfort over the horror of the story, since Isaac was saved and a ram was sacrificed in his place. But Sarah was not saved, and in her mind Isaac is not saved, and thus the cry of her despair, and his, is retained in this ritual, as “atonement” for her descendants.

 

The requirement of atonement is that we get woke to the terrible truth: children are dying. The hand that holds the knife is not being stayed. There is no comfort for this pain, and there can be no atonement that allows us to turn away from it.

 

  1. Teru’ah: Act Woke

 

The second sound of the Shofar is the teru’ah. According to Jewish tradition,

 

* It was because of the sounding of the Shofar that the wall of Jerikho fell, as it is written, “when the people heard the kol shofar, they shouted a teru’ah gedolah, a “great teru’ah,” and the wall fell down flat.”[11] *

 

In this account of the fall of Jerikho, the Shofar is sounded, but it is the people who make the sound called teru’ah, the staccato blast that is the second sound of the Shofar. Just as Sarah gave voice to the shevarim, so do her descendants call out the teru’ah. The voice of a mother who died helplessly in a cry of pain is answered here by children who remember that pain, and who call out their response, their connection.

 

Our makhzor includes this line from Psalms about the teru’ah: “happy is the people who know the joyful sound.”[12] In our so far rather horrifying investigation of the meaning of Shofar sounds, we might well be justified in asking WHAT joyful sound? So far the voice of the Shofar seems to evoke nothing but death and destruction.

 

But the teru’ah is a call quite different from the brokenness of the shevarim. The shevarim is a cry of anguish, and the teru’ah, in our tradition, is the sound of a cry of two states of being, both a shriek that knows loss, and a cry that seeks connection despite loss, through the experience of loss.[13] Rather than a cry of helpless hopelessness, it is a cry of pain and outrage. Outrage is, after all, the first step toward changing one’s situation – or the world’s.

 

To cry out in teru’ah is to hear a call of helplessness and to respond; it is to act woke. Acting “woke” is to behave in a way that, according to one source, “is radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”[14] But not so as to sit back in cynical detachment – no, for Jews, acting woke must mean to act.

 

This does not necessarily mean that all will rise up to act together as one. As the teru’ah is made of nine separate notes, so we, as we raise our voices, do not all sound the same. That is why there is such a diversity of organizations that have formed to lift up the voices and concerns of different groups in our society. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts it, there are (at least) four ways of acting woke, just as there are four children of the Haggadah. There are: (1) the one who is overwhelmed, (2) the one who laments, (3) the one who negotiates, and (4) the one who resists. All four face the same reality: “Right now in America, we’re living in dangerous and unacceptable times. It’s precisely in times like these when we discover who we are as a people, as a society, as a nation. We don’t get to choose the historical moment we live in, but we do get to choose how we respond.”[15]

 

To learn from the Jerikho example, to act woke is to do what is necessary to tear down walls. There are stubborn personal walls of believing too much of what we read and hear in our media, in our government institutions, and in our own circles that we call progressive, and just. There are strong political walls built of our assumptions regarding the responsibilities of citizens for the acts of government. And there are massive social walls built out of our habits of work and play, of consuming and discarding, of comfort and convenience.

 

To act woke as an act of teru’ah is to find a way to hear and to remember the terrible shevarim that shatters our comfort, and also to be able to hear “the joyful sound.” It is at one and the same time to seek a compassionate balance between our understandable desire to live happy lives, and the understanding that some are denied that basic human desire. That is the teru’ah, the sound that responds to shevarim with recognition and affirmation, and yet insists on the hope that we can find a way to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, according others the respect and freedom of choice we seek for ourselves. In so doing we are woke if, in the Rambam’s words, we do the work to look beyond the shadows, toward the truth.

 

  1. Tekiah: Stay Woke

 

Now, you may be one of those who is annoyed by the halakha which directs that the Shofar is not sounded on Shabbat. After all, you might say, if the Shofar’s sound is so integral to the meaning of the holy day, it should be sounded no matter what day of the week it is.

 

It is the poignant truth that it was only after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple that the sounding of the Shofar was restricted. According to a 14th century source, there was one place where the Shofar was still sounded on Shabbat until the 11th century, and that was in the community of the great Rabbi Isaac Alfasi. The 19th century Rabbi of Kotzk explained this based on a Talmudic teaching:

 

From the day of the destruction of the Temple, the Holy Blessed One has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakha. The four cubits of halakhah take the place of the Temple, in which the Shofar was sounded on Shabbat; and in the days of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the entirety of the four cubits of Jewish meaning in the world were concentrated in his community.[16]

 

The voice of the Shofar hasn’t been heard on Shabbat since. For us to assert that we ought to blow off a millennium of tradition and sound the Shofar on Shabbat, then, we would have to have the hutzpah to say that the four cubits of meaning in our day are concentrated in our community. Better, maybe, for our hopes for atonement, to maintain the humility of a tradition that reminds us that the world is not yet redeemed, and that we are not yet all woke.

 

It’s not all humility, brokenness, and sin on this day, though. On this day of Rosh HaShanah we hear one more sound, and that is the Teki’ah. Teki’ah is a term used for celebration, as in another Psalm quoted in our makhzor: tik’u bakhodesh shofar, bakeseh, l’yom hageynu, “sound the Teki’ah at the new moon, in its hiddenness, for the day of celebration”[17]

 

It is interesting to note that this verse is not talking about something we can see and celebrate, such as a full moon, but rather the celebration of something which is hidden – a moon mostly lost in darkness because it is yet new. We can’t see it yet, but it is there. Jewish mysticism teaches that “there is an outcry within the heart that the lips cannot speak….this is the meaning of the verse ‘sound the shofar on the new moon, in the hiddenness of our celebration’.”[18] The Teki’ah calls us to celebrate something new, something hidden that cannot yet be fully seen – the answer we do not yet have, the happiness we have not yet seen, the justice we have not yet known.

 

There is a source cited in search of the earliest antecedent for the term woke. In 1940 the Atlantic Monthly ran an interview about a mineworkers strike in which an African American United Mine Workers official said to a reporter, “Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.”[19]

 

At this time of renewal for the world and ourselves, it might well be said that for Jews to stay woke is to be newly open to the horror, as well as the beauty, of this world – to hear the terrible grief in the shevarim, and the teru’ah of responsive hope, and the teki’ah of celebrating that which can yet be. On Rosh HaShanah the Shofar urges us to see that the way to atonement is not through forgetting, nor turning away from pain and discomfort. There’s a reason why most Jewish legends are in the form of quests, and difficult ones at that: justice and wholeness do not come easily to us. Yet these quests all have miraculous moments, when it seems as if all the forces of good support our efforts, if only we make them.

 

There’s a final Shofar sound that we will hear during these days of Awe only twice, once on Rosh HaShanah and once to end Yom Kippur: the Teki’ah Gedolah, the great Teki’ah. * It is said that, at the End of Days, this sound will announce the end of homelessness in the world: “a Teki’ah gedolah shall be sounded, and they shall come that were lost in Assyria, and those who were dispersed in Egypt, and they shall all come home to Jerusalem, and give thanks.”[20]

 

On this Rosh HaShanah let the Shofar call you to remember the joyful sound of being able to respect the reality of both sadness and hope, and to respect their rightful places in your life’s beliefs and practices. Let the Shofar’s call awaken you to rededication to the vision of a world in which everyone is home, everyone is safe, and everyone is free to seek the birth and flowering of the holy potential of each of our lives.

 

It will take a lot of wakefulness to get there from here. There are a lot of walls to bring down, and many tears yet to dry.

 

The Shofar calls to us: wake up. Get woke, act woke, stay woke.

 

Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu, may you be written for a good year.

 

[1] Leviticus 23.23-24

[2] BT Rosh HaShanah 27a, among others

[3] BT Sanhedrin 98a

[4] Exodus 19.19

[5] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 41

[6] Raven Cras, “What does it mean to be Woke?” Blavity https://blavity.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke/

[7] Exodus 19.19

[8] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 32, cited in Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, 124

[9] Zornberg, ibid.

[10] Midrash Aggadah Bereshit 23.17

[11] Joshua 6.20

[12] Psalm 89.16

[13] Yalkut Tehillim 89.16

[14] David Brooks, How Cool Works in America Today”, New York Times, July 25, 2017 //www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/how-cool-works-in-america-today.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

[15] http://www.jewishaction.us/sites/default/files/bend_the_arc_-_4_responses_to_unacceptable_times.pdf

[16] S.Y. Agnon Days of Awe (NY 1948) 80-81.

[17] Psalm 81.4

[18] Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, 345

[19] Redding, J. Saunders (March 1943). “A Negro Speaks for His People”. The Atlantic Monthly171, p. 59

[20] Isaiah 27.13

Shabbat Va’Era: How Does G-d Appear To You?

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, begins in an entirely perplexing way:

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

G-d spoke to Moses, saying to him: ‘I am YHVH;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai but by My name YHVH I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6.2-3)

Now, all it takes is a quick backward glance in the Torah to the stories of G-d interacting with the Patriarchs to see that this declaration is not, exactly, true. The book of Genesis specifically records the Name YHVH in communications between G-d and all three.

So what does it mean to say that G-d was not known by them in the way that Moshe knows G-d? It is easy enough to suggest that each of us knows the sense of a presence of G-d in our lives (or not) in our own way, and so it’s obvious that Moshe, given his special role, would have an entirely different experience of G-d than those who went before him. But there are deeper levels of understanding here.  

In the scholarly discipline of theology this question might be posed as regarding the quality and impact of revelation. Each Patriarch’s experience of G-d is echoed in the later theological insights offered by commentators:

Jacob was the successfully assimilated Jew. He was living far from the Land of Israel and was doing very well – he had become rich, and had wives and children, and no real plans to fulfill the vow he had made as a young man to return home. And then we read: “YHVH said to Jacob, return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you” (31.3).  In response, Jacob packed up his wives, children, a lot of sheep, and other effects, and left the home he had made for his ancestral home.

“They did not know the faithfulness implicit in My Name, since I made them a promise and did not fulfill it” – Rashi (France, 1040-1105). Jacob’s experience of G-d was one in which he could put off fulfilling a promise – or perhaps letting it drop all together. Here is the picture of a distant, or even non-existent, G-d. You can say what you like and not follow up, you can do what you like without worry, because there is no Divine follow-up. Until there is. To his credit, Jacob responded with admirable alacrity when YHVH finally appeared to him in a convincing, commanding way. 

Have you ever known anyone who acted as if no one was looking, and then one day suddenly decided to clean up his act? Now, for the first time, living an ethical life is meaningful in a way that sweeps aside all doubt?

Isaac was in the midst of struggling with neighboring tribes to dig a well that they would not contest, and find room for his family to live and thrive. He dug three wells, one after the next, and each became a source of strife. Finally he moved his tents to the next ridge and then “YHVH appeared to [Isaac] that night and said, “I am the G-d of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you” (26.24). In response, Isaac was able to relax and know that he was home. He built an altar and proclaimed the Name there.

“From this it emerges that the text is a pointer, not to G-d’s Name but to G-d’s meaning” – Isaac ben Moses Arama (Spain, 1420 – Salonika, 1494). Isaac was trying to do the right thing, moving from each well when it was contested, but couldn’t get a break. Similarly, his namesake, Rabbi Isaac Arama, was among the exiles expelled from Spain near the end of his life. We know G-d through the characteristics that affect our lives: those who have good lives know G-d as the Compassionate, those who suffer know G-d as the Stern Judge, and those who are rescued from disaster known G-d as the Protector. 

There are those among us who believe that our experience of G-d defines G-d, a breathtaking inversion of the humility of the Psalmist who asserted: 

David’s Song of Ascent:

O YHVH, my heart is not proud, nor my glance haughty,

I no longer run after that which is beyond me, too wonderful for me

my soul is quiet and still, like a weaned child in mother’s arms;

O Israel, hope in YHVH forever!  (Psalm 131)

In the best-known story of all, a messenger of YHVH calls to Abraham not to slay his son Isaac in the infamous and difficult story of the Akedah, the “binding” (22.11). In gratitude, Abraham sacrifices a ram.

“G-d appeared to the Patriarchs as an expression of the natural order; G-d’s miracles were apparent to them without violating it….[but] the People of Israel [will] know My great Name through which I shall perform wonders for them” – Maimonides (Spain, 1135 – Egypt, 1204). Abraham acted without expecting miracles, and he saw them anyway. 

How does G-d appear to you? On this week in which the idea of revelations of G-d is once again misused to justify the evil men and women choose to do, can you find it in yourself to follow those in our past who taught that appearances may be deceiving, and to assert that there is more that is possible? There is, after all, a new revelation to Moshe, because in this week’s parashah we are offered a new understanding of an inspiration, and support, that will move an empire of hatred, split a sea of doubt, and bring us to a mountain of vision.

Shabbat Toldot: What Are We Teaching Our Children?

This parashat hashavua couldn’t be more timely (it happens so very often that I can’t help but get a bit mystical about it). This week we read of the birth of twins to Rebekah and Isaac, and of the oracle that Rebekah receives when she asks after their – and her – fate:

Two nations are in your womb, 

two peoples shall be separated from your body; 

one people shall be stronger than the other people; 

and the elder shall serve the younger.     (Gen. 25.23)

Esav is born first, followed by Yaakov. And upon this birth order hangs a destiny: once again, for the second (and not the last) time in Jewish history, the first born is passed over in the succession. The way it happens this time is through subterfuge: Isaac calls upon Esav to bring him a meal of the kind of wild game that only Esav, the hunter, can provide, and then Isaac will give Esav, his first born, his “innermost blessing”. But Rebekah hears, and devises a ruse so that Isaac will bless Yaakov instead of Esav.  Which is what happens.

Commentators write that Rebekah was only following G-d’s will as revealed to her in the oracle. Some even implicate Isaac, and say that he was in on the deception. Only Esav is left out of this scenario; Esav, who cries bitterly upon hearing of his loss, “bless me too, Father! don’t you have even one blessing left for me?”  Esav’s cry of pain is still difficult for us to hear. Our commentators say whatever they can to prove that Esav was really the bad guy, he was just pretending to be innocent and hurt.

Just as Ishma’el is first born, so is Esav; and just as Isaac inherits his parents’ legacy, so does Yaakov. And so a family pattern is replicated, which records, even in the sacred text which clearly shows that this is how it should be, that it comes at a terrible human cost.

What is Rebekah teaching Esav, and Yaakov? 

A nine-year-old in a local school accuses a classmate of belonging to “that people which is killing other people and taking their land.” Where does a nine-year-old get such an idea? Who did she hear talking?

Many normal human beings of average intelligence tell me that the only way to deal with “those barbarians” is to “kill them all before they kill us”. Why do we generalize in such a terrifying way? And what has led us to say such a thing?

I am reminded of the old “South Pacific” song: “You’ve got to be taught to hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” We have all been taught some dangerous beliefs. Some of us put our trust in such ideas as the eternal validity of going to war in order to secure peace. Or that only force will restore order. Or that today’s threat must be dealt with on its face, regardless of its cause.

That approach certainly supports the military industrial complex, and it certainly will cause gun sales to remain robust. But it does nothing to heal the pain. It will only replicate it, for another generation. Violence can never end violence. The truth is more difficult, and it rests in what we learn throughout our entire lifetime. This week’s horrors – murder, torture, and exile – are not the impulse of a day. They are the fruit of deep movements within the psyche, long histories of experience, and the lack of an opportunity to learn how not to despair.

How are we to respond? how are we to choose our acts? Jewish ethics tell us that

Every person has within a spark of G-d

Every person deserves to be judged with the benefit of the doubt

Justice can only be pursued on a first-hand knowledge basis

Here’s the challenge: Jewish ethics are not followed only when we feel powerful, righteous and optimistic from a distance. Anyone can be ethical under those conditions!

Let Ishma’el and Isaac teach us what their parents did not learn. The two men defied the estrangement  ordained for them and, as we see in last week’s parashah, they bury their father Abraham together (and hopefully bury some of what he taught them in his own actions). Let Esav and Yaakov tell us what their parents might have said, as recorded in a parashah only two weeks away, when the two brothers meet again after many years of life and learning:

Esav ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept….And Esav said: ‘I have enough, my brother, let that which you have be yours.’ “(Gen. 33.4, 9)

Both Esav and Ishma’el are apparently able to refuse to be overwhelmed by bitterness, even though they have been cheated of what everyone knew was the first-born’s birthright. Esav seems to be able to see that even though he was bereft, now he has enough – he also is blessed. In the course of many years, Esav found the ability to look beyond the destiny imposed upon him and learn something that requires more thought, more emotional maturity, and brings more chance of healing.

We on this planet have much more to learn before we can hear the cry of pain at the bottom of evil. We must keep talking as honestly and compassionately as possible toward each other, and keep trying to help each other forward toward the light at the end of all this darkness.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Is the Torah Misogynistic?

This week’s parashah is called Hayye Sarah, “Life of Sarah”. The name is derived from the first verse of the parashah:

  וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  “Sarah’s life was 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23.1)

This, however, is the beginning of what we would call Sarah’s epitath. In the next verse we are told of her death. In the parashat hashavua called by her name, Sarah does not appear as a living, acting person. She is, however, a powerful memory which shapes the ensuing acts of her husband and son. Sarah is mourned in this parashah, and in this third year of the Triennial Cycle, Abraham’s most trusted servant has gone back to the home country to find the proper wife for their son, Isaac. It sounds like a typical male-centered text, and the story of finding Rebekah is told with, sure enough, permission being granted by the head of the family in order for her to go and marry Isaac.

Modern Jews often struggle with the gifts of our people’s long memory. Among our inheritances is the gendered Torah text, which skews quite clearly male, both in identifying the Divine and in describing the cultural, social and religious practices of the humanity linked with that vision.

I am not saying “cultural, social and religious awareness”, only “practices”. Please note that we have no idea of the extent to which the Torah clearly describes the actual reality of our most ancient ancestors. The Torah transmits the formative narrative of our people, but it does so through the eyes and ears of those who passed the stories on faithfully from generation to generation. The Torah itself hints at this, by using terminology that expresses awareness that the story happened in earlier times, or is in some other way not fully told.

As a female Rabbi I am sometimes asked whether the Torah isn’t just an outdated misogynistic artifact that we must overcome in order for women and men – and all the genders in between the poles – to be treated as equally valuable, equally necessary, equally filled with the Divine. The answer I often offer comes from my teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, who once pointed out to me, many years ago, that rather than be angry at what I knew from the text, it might be advisable to learn more about the text.

That may have been a gentle way to point out to me that I didn’t completely know what I was judging, and he was right. He was also right to challenge me with the following: “Feminists don’t have to find arguments outside the sacred texts in order to rebut them; the texts themselves are diverse enough that you can find whatever you need within them.”

One of our greatest challenges is becoming aware of the assumptions, and baggage, that we bring to Torah. Is there some part of us that wants to stay angry at this central sacred symbol? Do we prefer to stay away from it and the associations we carry? In other words, do you come to Torah only to pick a fight and then walk away satisfied that there is nothing relevant here?

Here’s a case in point. When you look carefully at the story of Rebekah’s engagement to Isaac, you will see that the head of the household which gives permission for her to go is actually female. You can see it in the Hebrew grammar of the text. It seems as if perhaps someone telling the story later, or perhaps the scribe who first wrote it down, must have assumed that the story was meant in a patriarchal context, and so some words were changed. But they weren’t changed thoroughly enough, and you can see the fingerprints of the change all over the story. And then there’s the fact that Rebekah is asked if she agrees to go. She is not sold, or sent away against her will.

And when Rebekah arrives, it is a signal event for the family:

וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. “And Isaac was comforted after his mother[’s death].” (Gen. 24.67)

Whatever role Sarah played in this more patriarchal culture than the one she and Abraham came from, she is clearly so central a presence that nothing will be right until there is once again a woman in her place. Attack it as you might, this is not a misogynistic story.

There’s much more just like this in the investigation of this endless book. You’re invited to dive in any time. What you find may dismay and infuriate you at times, but you will also find uplifting courage and kindness – and best of all, you will be challenged to grow.

May Torah always beckon you toward, and support you in becoming, your highest spiritual self.