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.
Advertisements

(next week) Shabbat VaYehi: What’s the Last Word?

Our parashat hashavua this week concludes not only the Book Bereshit but also the saga of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and that entire generation. One of the most fascinating passages in the parashah describes Jacob, on his deathbed, and his last words to his sons. Although we refer to the scene as Jacob’s deathbed blessing, the words he offers are surprisingly prosaic and not so much about blessing as a recognition of the character of each son.

What our commentators find most interesting, though, is the unanswered promise implied by the first verse of the story:

 וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם, בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים.

Jacob called to his sons, and said: ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. (Gen.49.1)

After this statement, one might expect Jacob to begin to foretell future events, perhaps to speak with his children of the slavery and eventual redemption of their descendants, or of future glories and struggles even further down the path.

But he doesn’t. A midrash explains that he was about to, and the Shekhinah appeared at the foot of his bed, rendering him speechless – and when he recovered, he had forgotten what he was about to tell. Telling the future, even if you can see it, is, we see, not part of Jewish tradition, but leads to a sort of unfair “gaming of the system.” Life is meant to be lived by devotion to down-to-earth, every day Jewish ethical behavior. One need not worry about tomorrow’s events if one is living a life of thoughtful mitzvot and compassionate acts as much as one can, day by day.

There is another way to understand the story: there need not be a gap between verse one and the continuation of the parashah at all. In a very real way, Jacob was telling his children what would befall them, not by telling them which horse might win at the races next Tuesday, but by describing to each one of them the character s/he had developed. In other words, the future is not something that happens to you while you wait passively for it to occur; the future is that which we experience as a result of our choices, and the impact they exert on the complex web of phenomena happening all around us, at all times.

Reuven broke basic rules of the home early; Simon and Levi were the type who maim animals for fun. The future which each one of them could expect would be indelibly marked by the acts of their past. Judah struggled and grew morally: as he himself awakened to a higher self, even learning to say “I was wrong, she was right” we might hope for leadership from him marked by the ability to respect others equally to the respect he expected for himself.

What will your last words be? It’s not such a strange thing to consider, since we are creating the self who will speak them every day of our lives, with each act and word. Everyone has a last day marked by the choices we’ve made – both as individuals and as communities, even as nations. No one, and nothing, lasts forever, and there is a greater ethical good in focusing on living each day with integrity, rather than letting ourselves sink to venal levels in fear that our days will not be long enough.

Fear is not a guiding light. It summons none of us to our best selves. Fear of the other is not a foreign or a domestic policy; whether the fear-mongering be from the U.S. president-elect or the Israeli prime minister, we as American Jews know this: either Jewish ethics are applicable in all circumstances, or they aren’t really ethics. The things we believe in will either strengthen us through this darkness, or they aren’t really beliefs. 

May our last words reflect a life of principle and of integrity. May we live our days, as best we can, as we want to be remembered – each and every one of them. And may we live them in a supportive community that allows us to deepen those beliefs until they will hold us through the worst of times.

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

 

Shabbat Nitzavim: What We Owe

Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading of the week) begins with quite a compelling scene: the entire Israelite community, gathered together on just the other side of the Jordan River from the Land of forty years’ struggle and search. The parashah begins with “you are standing this day, all of you, before G*d….to enter into the Covenant which G*d is making with you this day” (Devarim 29.9-11, excerpted).

This is already a curiosity; after all, didn’t we do this, back at Sinai, forty years ago? What does it mean to enter into the Covenant now, on the plains of Moab, on the cusp of the Land?

Our parashah goes on to specify that “not with you alone is this Covenant made, but also with those who are not (yet) here.” (Devarim 29.13-14, excerpted) This detail led our ancestors to question: how can the generation of the wilderness make a Covenant with G*d that implicates us as well? How can that be valid? 

In his Torah commentary, the medieval Sage Abravanel of Aragon explains that “there is no doubt that if a person receives a loan from another, that the duty of repayment falls upon that person, and on that person’s descendants. Just as children inherit property, so they inherit debts, even if they were not alive when the debt was incurred.” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim p. 299)

The Jewish Covenant with G*d is not a gift, he said; neither is the Land associated with it. The Jewish people inherits our position in trust. Something of our ancestors’ commitment falls upon us, and something of that wilderness wandering is our inheritance as well. We owe G*d a debt of gratitude, argued Abravanel.

What do we owe, and to whom? At this time of greeting a New Year, we feel the absence of those who are not here to share it with us. Recollect more deeply and you may feel the echo of many past generations, all of whom upheld some responsibility and knew some sense of indebtedness for that which they had. We are born into a world we did not make, and would too easily accept it as a gift. But it is not a gift. We are born into a Covenant reality and in each generation it falls to new hands to pass it on, to pay it forward.

The generation that stood at the Jordan learned this on the plains of Moab: their parents and grandparents stood at Sinai, and they themselves also stood before G*d, though they were not at Sinai. Or perhaps because they understood in that moment that when they stood together in Covenant, that place – wherever they were – was Sinai. The same message is offered to us every year during the holy day of Shavuot, when we stand, again, at Sinai, wherever we are, and hear, once again, the words of Covenant, and of our eternal indebtedness.

This week we marked the death of Shimon Peres, the last of the founding generation of the State of Israel. One more generation passes, and as Amos Oz asked at his funeral, who will now take up his cause of peace? Who will count themselves indebted to the Covenant he tried to uphold?

To those who planted trees, the fruit of which we eat, we owe our sustenance; to those who built roads, we owe our ability to go where we will. And to those who created the conditions within which we were born, and raised, and learned, and grew – to that village, of whatever size, in which we lived in a Covenant relationship that allowed us to thrive or at least to survive, we are indebted.

On the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur there is a tradition to visit a cemetery, to reflect upon those who came before us, and faithfully discharged their part of the debt we all owe. It cannot be paid back, but only forward – by tzedakah, by gemilut hasadim, and by asking not “what is owed to me?” but rather, “what can I do to give back in gratitude for the gift of my life?”

Shabbat VaYetze: Trans Torah on Trans Day of Remembrance

On Shabbat VaYetze we read of Jacob’s leaving his family under threat of death from his brother. His escape is hurried and frightened, and his path traces an ironic reversal of Abraham’s, as Jacob has to leave his family home, the homeland promised to his grandfather’s and father’s descendants, and his people just to survive.

At this point in the story, Jacob is alone, hunted, and vulnerable. He will survive and thrive, and he does so because he successfully transitions from who he thought he was to be, in order to find who he was really meant to be. In the process he will become so fundamentally different that he will become known by an entirely new name. But this new sense of self, and the ability it will bring with it to reconnect to family and to create his own family, is a long, difficult struggle.

It could have been much different. In his lonely vulnerability, Jacob could easily have been killed. This parashat hashavua is well suited to today’s date. Today, November 20, is recognized as International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to commemorate and honor people who are murdered for being who they are – because their gender identities do not fit within the constrictions of their cultures. Although there are records of people throughout history and around the world who lived outside of the gender binary (a polarized construction of ‘masculine males’ and ‘feminine females’), in our own, less tolerant place and times, these people are subject to scrutiny, oppression, discrimination, assault, and sometimes even murder. 

Why take a day to focus on something so heart-wrenching, when there is so much to celebrate about transgender visibility and wellbeing? We can see famous actors, musicians, and athletes share their gender-variant lives. The White House hired the first openly transgender staff person, and President Obama included trans people in his ‘State of the Union’ address. This year Oregon became one of the first states to ensure that trans people can benefit from medical coverage they were previously excluded from receiving. Multnomah County made a commitment to gender-accessible bathrooms. And out and proud trans people play vital roles within our shul. 

But in 2015 alone, 24 trans people, disproportionately women of color, were murdered due to transphobic violence. Worldwide, one trans person is murdered every three days. In the United States and in other countries, the people who bear the brunt of societal discomfort with ‘atypical’ gender expression are overwhelmingly trans women, those who live partly or completely outside of the male sex they were assigned at birth. These women are often poor, often people of color, forced outside the safety networks that many take for granted. Trans and gender-variant people are more likely to be ostracized from their families, discriminated against at work and school, living in poverty, profiled by police and dragged into criminal systems. 

As we know, and can see playing out on the national stage, religious communities have a powerful opportunity to influence either the welcome and affirmation of trans and gender-variant people, or their rejection and marginalization. Our Jewish tradition recognizes the reality of people who lives outside of the gender binary – but most of us are never told those stories. Nor should we really need to hear them in order to finally learn the basic lesson that G-d created all of us, and we all reflect G-d’s image, equally precious beings, all needed to bring about the better world we long to live in.

According to our tradition, Jacob had to journey to Haran, where his grandfather lived (with a name which also means “anger” in Hebrew) and through Mt Moriah, where his father was almost killed by his grandfather. Although he may have left home to try to escape his family, Jewish teaching makes clear that we transition from who we are to who we are meant to be only by walking a path which leads through, not around, those from whom we inherit so much of the puzzle of who we are.

All of us transition in our lives; all of us weather changes in our world. Like Jacob, we have a long, difficult road before we truly become the Israel we are meant to be: unafraid to be compassionate, aware of our own strength, with no further need to be angry – and able to fully love.

Shabbat Noakh 5776: Raging Seas

These are difficult days. The bad news from Israel, and from so many other places of hurting and hatred, seems to come in waves, deep ones. On such a day as this one feels as if one might drown. The imagery of Jonah’s cry is gripping: The waters compassed me about, even unto the soul; the deep was round about me; the weeds were wrapped about my head. (Jonah 2.6)

This is the week of parashat Noakh, the parashah of the Great Flood. We read that human beings have descended into a Hobbesian nightmare of khamas, anarchic, murderous, pointless violence. Regretting the creation of humanity, G-d chooses to erase the work, by eradicating human beings, and tells Noakh that the creation of humanity will then begin again.

Sometimes, reading this story can make one wonder if the khamas we have seen in our own time is not similar. Where do we rate, on a Flood scale? The Rabbis of antiquity had no doubt, and they formed our prayers and taught our myths accordingly: we should all be wiped out, if G-d were to adhere to the strict Divine attribute of Justice. 

Here is the prayer: During Yom Kippur, this is the essence of one of our most powerful prayers, in which we basically say: we know that we don’t deserve this world. We know that we are as guilty as the generation of the Flood, and You should wipe us out – but please don’t. Please forgive us; give us another chance to do better.

Here is the legend: The world would have been wiped out long ago because of our sins, if it were not for the presence of the Thirty-Six righteous ones, the Lamed-Vavniks. They do not know who they are, but it is for their sake that the world is allowed to continue.

Most of us may never meet a lamed-vavnik, and most of us most certainly are not of that number. But the Rabbis elsewhere assert that even if we are unable to complete the work of righteousness, we are nevertheless not free from doing our part. 

So when the days are difficult and the floodwaters of despair rise “even unto your soul”, consider one act which is always within your power, even in the midst of much violence, hatred, and despair:

And G-d said to Noah: “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them” (6:13)

Why was the generation of the Flood utterly destroyed, but not the generation of the Tower? Because the generation of the Flood were consumed by robbery and violence, while amongst the generation of the Tower love prevailed.  – Bereshit Rabbah