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 Pinhas: The Three Weeks

This year, Shabbat Pinhas is the first Shabbat of the Three Weeks.

 

These three weeks are the least auspicious period in the entire Jewish year, leading up as they do to Tisha B’Av, the day on which, two thousand years ago, the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Our people began a two thousand year Exile of homeless wandering, stateless immigrants, without rights, escaping one persecution only to find another, over and over again.

 

Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, there are those who have suggested that Tisha B’Av should be superseded by celebrating the homecoming of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day.  Yet old traditions die hard, and it is much more like us to mine them for the continuing relevance they offer – thus, it has been suggested by religious Zionists that Tisha B’Av now becomes an opportunity for a collective Yom Kippur of the State and People of Israel.

 

Simply put, Yom Kippur is a time of mourning the destruction we contribute to by our individual human behavior, as well as resolving to  atone; Tisha B’Av is a time to mourn our behavior as a people, and to seek atonement on a national level.

 

We are a people; when one Jew acts, all Jews are implicated, for good and for ill. To understand this is to see the need to look closely at events as they transpire, and consider what action we might take on behalf of our people’s well-being and ethical conscience.

 

The first day of the Three Weeks is Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, marking the day the Romans breached the outer walls of Jerusalem and began their relentless destructive march toward the Temple Mount. All that was left when the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried was the retaining wall; a section of that became the famous “Wailing Wall” at which Jews would weep for the home that was lost.

 

We are taught that Jerusalem was destroyed by sin’at hinam, “baseless hatred” toward each other and others beyond our people. Not just violent hatred, but also the quieter but no less destructive postures of cynical indifference, callousness, and turning away.

 

In our own day, the outer walls are breached by our own kind of sin’at hinam: by our community infighting, by the fear that makes us pull away from trusting each other, and by our cynicism and despair.

 

For two thousand years since the destruction, the bad energy of these Three Weeks has caused Jewish communities to avoid scheduling happy events during this time; no weddings, no young person called to the Torah for the first time.

 

In our own day, Tisha B’Av has become a stark reminder that nothing lasts, and that small acts of evil undermine the institutions we once believed in. According to the Rabbis’ teaching, it was a small act of public humiliation which triggered the destruction of Jerusalem and all Judaea. In this way they remind us that every act can, in a small but real way, bring about a better world – or lead us toward misery and death.

 

This year consider some way in which you will spend these weeks in awareness of the sadness of all that is destroyed, all the lives that are lost. Cease to do, or change in some way, a practice that normally brings you joy and comfort between now and Tisha B’Av. Let that small reminder, cumulatively over this time, show you the true power of the way we spend our days, and re-inspire you to acts of compassion, of kindness and of justice.

Shabbat Devarim: It Gets Worse

An ox knows its master and an ass knows where the food is; but Israel does not know, my people is thoughtless.”  (Isaiah 1.3)
 
The haftarah for this Shabbat gives the Shabbat its name: Hazon, “[prophetic] vision.” It is always chanted on this Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem which caused the Jewish people to be exiled for two thousand years.
For the last three weeks we will have heard the chanted words of warning: turn back to the right path, don’t you know what your behavior is risking? And now on this Shabbat we will hear
Your land is a waste, your cities burned down; before your eyes, the yield of your work is consumed by others….we are almost like Sodom, another Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1.7-9 excerpted)
The prophets of ancient Israel did not tell fortunes, they foretold the ethical consequences of behavior. These prophecies are put in front of us at this time because tomorrow evening will once again be the 9th day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar, that day on which Jerusalem was destroyed.
It is Jewish practice on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction and the loss, and to consider how we as a people might have acted differently. It is not the way of the teachings of our religious tradition to look at destruction and blame someone else. Even as on Yom Kippur we consider our individual actions and their effects, on Tisha B’Av we look at ourselves as a people. On both days we fast and mourn; on both we seek wisdom to build a better life.
The story is recounted in the Torah of a person who discounted the public humiliation of another person, and how one thing led to another, and because of the fact that people responded to each other with assumptions based in distrust and fear, finally Jerusalem was lost. The striking aspect of the story is that it was a Jew who allowed another Jew to be hurt which started the deadly cycle. And so we learn from this tragedy that big bad things begin with small bad things; that when one’s attitude about the world is suspicious and self-involved, we all end up suffering from the social debilitation that occurs when everyone becomes self-involved.
The problem is called sinat hinam, “baseless hatred.” The Israeli journalist Bradley Burston (whom we once hosted for a standing-room-only talk at Shir Tikvah) in reaction to the Israeli government’s passing of the nation-state law this week, writes that
the Sages taught that the ancient Temples were destroyed [on Tisha B’Av] because of sinat hinam on the part of Jews – gratuitous hatred, hatred without just cause, hatred which does nothing but take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse.
This week it has been one blow after another for us Jews of the United States and the people who love us. From the disaster of Helsinki to the pain of Sheridan Federal Prison to the betrayal of Jewish values in Tel Aviv, we must ask: what have we participated in allowing to happen? In what way have we allowed hatred to” take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse”?
Our tradition teaches that wisdom is the ability to see the consequences of acts, according to our tradition. May we all – you and me, our elected leaders and those whose responsibility it is to tend our planet – become more wise in the days to come.

Shabbat VaYikra/Shabbat HaHodesh: The Small Alef

This Shabbat we begin the book VaYikra, Leviticus. The first word of the narrative is the book’s name, a word which is Hebrew for “[and] he called.” The lack of pronouns indicate that this is a continuation of an earlier story, and indeed the content fits that assumption. We have just ended the detailed description in the book of Exodus of the construction of the Mishkan, the holy place to which Israelites will go when they seek to experience the Presence of G*d. Now we continue with the description of the various kinds of rituals which will take place in that space. And so – who is calling, and who is being called? The simple answer is that G*d is calling to Moshe.
It’s interesting to note in this context that the word is written with a small alef, that is to say that the last letter of the word, the alef, is written smaller than the rest of the word.
Like this:   ויקרא  Our commentators on the Torah find this intriguing; since the Torah is a holy book that speaks to us in a way which is considered to be qualitatively different than usual human speech, this small alef means something. It’s not just a typo. The way in which the Torah is written has been preserved exactly for many years; the Aleppo Codex, the oldest copy of the Tanakh in existence, is one thousand years old, and it also shows this word written in just this way.
Today we on our learning tour of Israel learned from a kibbutznik, a member of one of 284 idealistic socialist communities that helped to build the State of Israel from its earliest beginnings. Yonatan told us that people raised on a kibbutz were raised to know that they were not the center of the universe; that it was not the individual that mattered but the mission, the vision of the community.
It has been taught that the little alef referred to Moshe, and, as such, we can see it as a way of referring to each of us. To think of ourselves in the moment when we are called upon by G*d, so to speak – called out of ourselves and into that which we might be – is to know oneself as very small in just this way – smaller than that which calls upon us, and at the side, not central at all, but yet an integral part of the word. To live for a cause, to feel called upon to participate in something which is greater than oneself, is to give oneself to something which can lift us up if we concentrate on the whole of it, and not upon ourselves.
No system, not the kibbutz movement nor any other, is perfect. We humans will see to that. But on this Shabbat, which is also Shabbat haHodesh, the beginning of the first month of the Jewish year, we are each called upon, vayikra, to see ourselves as a part, as integral, to something so much bigger than us, which can hold us, carry us when we are despairing, and lend us meaning when our own lives challenge that concept. May the new month which is the first month renew for all of us the holiness of each moment of our lives when we see how we are linked to the Life of the World.
To learn more about the kibbutz movement, look here: The Kibbutz.

Shabbat VaYakhel-Pekudey/Shabbat Parah: Holy Tents and Sacred Cows

This week I am privileged to share an erev Shabbat thought with you from Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Soon a group of Shir Tikvah congregational family and friends will arrive and I look forward to greeting them soon at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve come a few days early to see family and friends.
Here in Israel, one enters any communal building and sees that one is in the Jewish state. There are Pesakh haggadot for sale in the bookstore at the airport, Pesakh coloring books for children at the grocery store, and my cousins are already planning their family Seder – for 100 participants! There’s nothing quite like being in the midst of a nation of people who are all looking forward to the ancient Festival of Pesakh as one of the most important family – and national – holidays of the year.
One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Israel today is that, for all the differences caused by two millennia of normal historical developments as well as abnormal events of Exile, to be in Israel now is to be as close as one can come to the feeling of what it is like to feel one’s life to be part and parcel of the mainstream of Jewish life, whether 3000 years ago or now.
This week’s parashah presents us with an opportunity to consider how we might relate to that thought, that each one of us is an integral part of our story. We witness in this double parashah, parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey, the poignant story of our entire people helping each other to pick each other up and go on, together to discover the way to make our way forward once again. What was the direction we were heading before last week’s explosion of frustration, confusion, anger and upheaval?
This week we return to the narrative of two weeks ago, to immerse ourselves in the details of creating the Mishkan, from gold and silver to finely wrought wool and linen to wooden planks and hooks, clasps and sockets. Everyone was involved in some aspect of the work, and it was that immersion in the work itself that healed the rifts. Work that could only be done together – you holding the cloth while I fasten the clasp – reassured us that we could work together. We could, and we can, live together.
It’s true, commentators have pointed it out since there were commentaries on the Torah: where there are Jews, there will be divergent opinions, passionately held. To be immersed in work that one considers holy causes passions to rise, because one cares so much. It has been pointed out that there is only one place in the Torah where the entire Jewish people, gathered together, is referred to using a singular verb, indicating that all the people were of one mind. That moment is no coincidence but full of meaning: vayikhan sham Yisrael neged haHar, “[t]he[y] camped at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19.2) We derive from this verse that we were all one when we knew ourselves to be standing in a holy place, that is, in the place of the mountain where we experienced the Presence of G*d. No matter where we find ourselves within community, the “tent” we raise together is holy when you and I delight in the work we are doing together, as well as the goal, as well as each other.
This happy state, of being of one mind, does not necessarily entail agreeing, or knowing certainty. We are reminded of this by the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Red Heifer. This passage is so inexplicable that even King Shlomo, the wisest of them all, admitted he could not understand it. Committing to the mitzvot does not mean we can understand and explain them all logically, and, similarly, committing to each other need not be understood as some kind of unnatural conformity of heart or mind – or that we understand each other. Only that we understand that we cannot live without each other.
I look forward to bringing you Torah insights related to the learning we will do in the next two weeks here in Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land – not because of some intrinsic quality, but only when, and because, we are standing here together in the Presence of G*d.

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.