Shabbat VaYeshev: Minority Status

Hanukkah begins on Sunday December 2 at sundown. We always find it in proximity to the parashat hashavua which we study this week, VaYeshev. The word means “he returned” but we might also read it as “here we go again.” One month after the massacre of our fellow Jews joined in Shabbat prayer in Pittsburgh, we prepare to kindle Hanukkah lights with a somewhat sharper sense of our minority status and its implications. The tiny little light we begin with on the first night shines this year against a very dark night.
VaYeshev recounts the experience of Jacob, Leah, Rakhel, and their families, a large camp of kin who travel with flocks and herds, camping outside of the city walls of Shekhem. Their experiences of the people of Shekhem are varied: some take advantage of their helpless immigrant state, others apparently try to befriend them – but no trust grows between the two groups. A violent end to the story forces the camp to move hurriedly away, and they resume their homeless walk.
One enduring lesson of this parashah is the difficultly of minority status. Our ancestors wandering in medieval Europe knew this well: their survival always depended upon the whims and moods of others. In our own day, we who have passed as white and participated in the hegemony of this nation have recently awakened to the fact that our own whims and moods have defined the lives of targeted minorities in our own midst. We have recently been reminded that we are also vulnerable, in a very powerful way. Not long ago we were going about our lives, as oblivious as possible to unpleasantness happening not far away. We should be grateful to Black Lives Matter and many other justice-based organizations for welcoming our support, now that we’re starting to wake up, and for their leadership in discerning what paths might best help targeted minorities survive in our own day.
For us Jews, Hanukkah brings us the lesson every year that to survive as a minority means to be awake to the sources of our strength. The Books of the Maccabees (not included in the Jewish canon) chronicle the experiences of a happily assimilated minority – the Jews living in the Greek empire – coming under pressure to renounce distinctive practices. We ourselves know this pressure, in a more subtle way, when we are socially snubbed for being Jewish, or for not eating certain things, or for not celebrating certain holidays. In a city in which the public school system has ruled the Christmas tree to be a non-religious symbol and therefore suitable for school hallways, clarifies for us the local impact of the fact that we constitute only two percent of the U.S. population.
The Jewish experience as a minority has been summarized as developing in three stages: (1) the demarcation of ghettoes expressed the attitude “you cannot live among us as Jews’; the expulsions demonstrated (2) the declaration that “you cannot live among us.” Finally in the twentieth century we saw the ultimate declension: (#) “you cannot live.” To our horror, in our recent relative safety we have lost track of the fact that it is not only against us that these statements and their attendant violence have been perpetrated, and now we see that even those of us who were able to separate ourselves from the violence once done to us, now done to others, are no longer able to secure that separation.
We are back there again, feeling unsafe because we are Jews. There is no satisfaction in the voices of those who say “I told you so,” only resignation and sadness. Let the Hanukkah lights this year illuminate what we must learn:
One candle sheds a very small light: we will not be safe if we attempt to keep only ourselves safe.
One candle is quickly blown out unless it finds protection larger than itself: we cannot depend on our own resources alone.
As each night of Hanukkah passes, may the growing light inspire us to consider how we might work with other minorities for the safety of all.
And may that light shed the necessary illumination, so that we are able to see each other, and the support and strength our tradition offers us when we come together.
Advertisements

Shabbat VaYetze: Can You See It?

Our ancestor Ya’akov, or Jacob as he is called in English, is the most fully developed, most flawed, most human character of all the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Jewish tradition. Named, basically, for the word “heel” in Hebrew because he was born holding his twin brother Esau’s heel, he acts the part throughout his youth. Just like the serpent in Eden, Jacob goes low, undermining his brother’s connection to the family and undermining his father’s inheritance plans. His deceit causes him in turn to lose his place in the family, and at the start of this week’s parashah he is on the run, far from home and afraid for his life. Paradoxically, although he is clearly not a pious or an ethical person, it is in this moment that a divine vision is given to him: G*d pulls back the veil of normality, and Jacob sees a link between earth and heaven, and messengers (the Hebrew word often translated “angels” actually means messengers, divine or not) of G*d going back and forth.

This year we are reading the third year of the Triennial Cycle, and so we study the end of this parashah. Jacob is returning home. His time with his mother’s family has been, characteristically, ethically fraught: his father in law tricks him and he does the same in return. Still deceiving, complaining himself of being cheated, after twenty years Jacob is running away again. When he left his home, he was alone and lost; now two matriarchal camps, those of Leah and Rachel, travel with him.

Laban chases him, catches up to him, and the two confront each other: “you cheated me!” “You lied to me!” Finally, they agree to stay away from each other, and Laban goes home. Although, we note, there is no discernible improvement in Jacob’s character, he then, once again, meets messengers of G*d.

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם לָבָ֜ן בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְנַשֵּׁ֧ק לְבָנָ֛יו וְלִבְנוֹתָ֖יו וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֶתְהֶ֑ם וַיֵּ֛לֶךְ וַיָּ֥שָׁב לָבָ֖ן לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃
Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and daughters and bade them good-by;

then Laban left on his journey homeward.

וְיַעֲקֹ֖ב הָלַ֣ךְ לְדַרְכּ֑וֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים׃
Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.
(Genesis 32.1-2)
Why is Jacob once again visited by divine messengers? Can we understand that this time, as well, they indicate his ability to see a connection between his own messy life and the holy inherent in the world? Our teacher Rabbenu Bahya asserts that “these are the same angels that Jacob saw at the beginning of the parashah, he already knew them!” They were at the edge of Israel, welcoming him back just where they had bid him farewell. Nakhmanides points out that Jacob is nowhere near the Biblical (or modern) boundaries of Israel at the time of this story.
Yet it seems that these are in essence the same messengers, reminding Jacob of something he had seen before and inviting him to see it again, and to understand that, all these many years later, it is still a true vision. There is holiness inherent and a link between heaven and earth always potentially discernible in our lives. Often hidden under the mess (especially hidden in the case of Jacob’s behavior), just as the mystics teach, these sparks of light nevertheless still glow.
On this Shabbat, may you deepen your ability to appreciate the vision of those around you who seem to you to be unworthy of the awareness that there is a link between heaven and earth. Perhaps it was that repeated vision that finally allowed Jacob to become Israel, a more mature version of himself who at least, at last, could limp his way toward the realization that to struggle with a messenger of the holiness in our lives is finally a struggle with ourselves to let ourselves see it, all around us.

Shabbat VaYekhi: Your New Day’s Resolution

Taking advantage of what is, interestingly enough after all, only an arbitrary way of calculating a turning point in the counting of our days (why not solstice?), this is the time of year when our society focuses upon the idea of making new year’s resolutions.
Jews practice a variation of this idea on Yom Kippur, when we are meant to consider the ways in which we have missed the mark for which each of us aims as we attempt to live as our best selves in the world. But you may be interested to learn, or be reminded, that our people also instituted a monthly mini-Yom Kippur as part of our regular weekday morning prayers. It seems that our people recognize that once a year review and effort toward change is not likely to be effective. This raises the question of what sort of approach might be most effective.
שוב יום לפני מתתך – “Repent one day before your death.” Pirke Avot 2.15
The Talmudic Rabbi Eliezer offers this answer in Pirke Avot (the title of a Talmudic compendium that might be best translated “ethical soundbites of our ancestors”). It is recorded in later levels of Talmudic discussion that other Rabbis take up this teaching thus:
Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
Repentance and death are fascinating traveling companions. Thus, in parashat VaYekhi, our parashat hashavua, [Torah reading of the week], there is an interesting coincidence that brings several theological strands of Jewish culture together as the Patriarch Jacob, Yaakov ben Yitzkhak, dies at a very old age. Surrounded by his children, he speaks a final word to each. It is the kind of word that is not spoken every day, but it is a communication that each needed to hear. In this act of deathbed repentance, with each message to each child, Jacob turns away from the distractions of life and back, at the end, toward the essential parent-child bond.
This kind of repentance comes from the use the Hebrew word here, shuv. This verb is the imperative form of the word we know from Yom Kippur – teshuvah. In the Torah it is used to mean to turn around and go back, i.e. return. Jewish ethics understands here a return to one’s best self after straying from that path. For a people wandering a wilderness, staying on the path to the next oasis really was life and death, and so, perhaps, influenced our sense not only of our path – halakhah, but also the fact that sometimes one loses one’s way, and that it is vitally important to return to the right path – since one’s life depends upon it.
We might respond that it’s not really likely that we will die when we stray – but no one knows how long we each have to live. To “repent one day before your death” is to spend that day in the conscious realization that it might be your last. What would you like your last act to be? your last word?
The immediacy of it is striking when we consider the ways in which live our relationships obliquely, saying “later” and “when I have time.” Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that we may not have time later. When you are hiking, this is manifestly the best way to stay out of trouble: each day, check your path and make sure you return from whatever accidental straying you may have done. When you are making your way through a daily morass of fears and challenges, the ethical imperative to take one day at a time may be just what we need in order to stave off the feeling of being overwhelmed.
None of us knows how long we have. On this Shabbat, I encourage you to ignore the invitation to make a new year’s resolution in favor of making and re-making, every day, this new day’s resolution: repent – return, reset, reconnect with your best self, your loved ones, your community, your world – one day before your death.

Shabbat VaYetze: Give Me Children Or I Will Die

This week’s parashah finds Jacob leaving home, going to a new community and creating family there. The resonance is obvious here for so many of us, for whom it is natural to expect to create our families and our future in a place different from the one in which we grew up. For Jacob, a short sojourn turns into a generation, during which he marries not one but two women, sisters who are his cousins – his mother Rivkah is sister to their father Laban.
The sisters are close – ancient midrash tells us that they supported each other when the men in their lives were not interested in their well-being, to the point that when Jacob and Laban arranged for Jacob to marry Rachel out of the normal order of things (she is the younger sister), Rachel actually cooperated in an intricate  and intimate deception that resulted in Leah being married to Jacob. (Rachel followed before long.) The Torah demonstrates by way of this narrative that the two sisters have a strong and trusting relationship.
Our text, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah readings, begins on a less happy note: the two sisters are locked in the “baby wars.” Leah is easily having one strapping baby son after another: Re’uven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, in quick succession. Meanwhile Rachel has yet to be pregnant, and, distraught. she confronts Jacob: Give me children or I will die. (Gen. 30.1) Jacob’s response is angry: Am I G*d, to make you fertile when you’re not?
It’s hard to withstand the ancient hard-wiring that moves many women of child-bearing age, to tears, and more, if they are unable to have the children they long for. A famous story about King Solomon describes a woman swapping her dead child for that of her friend in the night; in our narrative, Rachel gives her attendant Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate. In our own day, entire lives are subsumed by the effort to have a child.
As we see in the parashah, marriages suffer as a result, and also the relationships we have with those we perceive as happier than we in the baby context. And in the intensity of the self-absorbed focus that grows into a monster, one sees Rachel’s cry for what it is. Ironically for a book that demonstrates the power of women over and over again, Rachel is depicted as a woman of no worth if she cannot have children.
For many of us who do not give birth to children, either because we cannot or because we did not, this is a troubling message, and not only because it demeans women, turning anyone with a uterus into a single-issue soul. Jewish tradition clearly expects of all of us that we help to raise the next generation; the Shema is incumbent upon us all, not only women and not only those parents who raise children. You shall teach them to your children is meant for the entire extended community – there was no such thing as the unique torture of the nuclear family, with no relatives to share the raising and tending, then. All Jews help to raise the next generation of Jews, which is why paying taxes for a neighborhood school, or supporting universal health insurance for children, is an obligation and a privilege even when we ourselves do not have children.
For some of us, a traditional way to express our lives would be to humbly recognize that it is not G*d’s will that we bear children in our bodies. To let that single fact define our lives as a life-ending disaster would be an insult to the richness of each human life and the undiscovered country we each inhabit, in our homes and on our ways. Each life is always a gift, every day, and the people we are privileged to spend it with are a delight. On this Shabbat may we each speak to the Rachel in our hearts or in our lives with gentleness and understanding, and with encouragement as well, that a wider focus is possible on all that is being born, and all that we can help to nurture and thrive.
…and finally: on this Thanksgiving weekend, observed by so many as an welcome equalizer of all faiths and orientations, it’s important for us to hold two conflicting truths in mind: while yes, for some of us this holiday is a rare opportunity to join in the general celebration, for others it is a yearly reminder of their exclusion from American-ness. On this Thanksgiving, while we complain about all the food, consider how you can support those among the First Nations of this land who have to worry about their food: Food As Economic Development Among First Nations

(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 VaYeshev: Return, O Light, and We will Return to You

This is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, the light of the sun returns to us, slowly, day by day.

Darkness settles on us human beings like an oppressive cloak. Like Jacob and his sons in our parashat hashavua, we might even lose our grip on what’s real, and what’s really important. The darkness of their jealousy causes his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and allow his father to believe that he is dead. The darkness of his grief turns Jacob away from his remaining sons. Love leads to hurt, becomes betrayal, and mires a family in misery.

The wisdom of our ancient tradition does not tell us to avoid darkness – we’ve been around too long to believe in such a possibility. Rather, we are invited to note that the eye has both a dark part and a white part, and it is out of the dark part that we see. (R. Berekhiah b’Rabi, Midrash Tanhuma to Exodus, commenting on Psalm 18.29) Light blinds the eye; it is only in darkness that we are able to see light.

Joseph, cast into the darkness of an Egyptian dungeon, embodies this insight. It is not by betrayal and hate that he is able to climb up out of that darkness. When he is offered success in Egyptian terms, he consistently applies the ethical terms he learned from his own tradition to those opportunities. His steady honesty leads toward blessings he can see in the greater light that dawns for him and, ultimately, for all Egypt, as he is able to use his position to create public policy to forestall the worst effects of a multi-year famine.

Some of us have been cast down into our own dungeons of darkness, flirting with despair and with helplessness, in these dark days. It has been harder to remember to be gentle with those we love, and kind to those with whom we share our communities. It is not only personal grief that turns one inward and can lead to more hurt than necessary. It’s not easy to find the strength that Joseph had, to banish the darkness through steady connection to one’s ethics and honesty. 

How did Joseph manage it? What allowed him to see the light in the midst of the darkness that surrounded him? According to our tradition, it was because he never forgot the place from which he came and the people who came before him. He was able to see much more than light; because he remembered who he was and where he was from, he was able to see light’s Source.

We are taught that each of us is a reflection of G*d. That does not mean that we look, physically, like G*d. What we “see,” in the reflection that is each of us, is not carried on the wavelength of visible light. It is memory that communicates the resemblance between Creator and Creation. Memory is not a personal reverie; it is a collective, pulsing river of light, carrying the story of who we are, back and forth, all life long, creating us and forming G*d. Each individual’s memory illuminates a small part of the darkness that surrounds us.    

And so Hanukkah comes to remind us, just exactly at the right time, that darkness is nothing but an invitation to believe in our ability to kindle light, and to see in that light much more than the present reality it illuminates. Our Havdalah candle tomorrow evening leads directly to the kindling of the first light of the Hanukkiyah, as if already to encourage us to see how the spark becomes a bigger flame when we remember all the Hanukkah holidays that have come before, and all those who kindled light before us.

This, we pray, is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, may light of our own kindling return to us, slowly, day by day.