Shabbat VaYishlakh: Gratitude, Not Fear

As Parashat VaYishlakh begins, Jacob survives a confrontation with his brother Esau, from whom he has been estranged for twenty years – a generation, a lifetime, of distance. Jacob has prepared himself for the worst, splitting his family into two camps and sending lavish gifts to his brother in advance – according to the Midrash, he even hides his daughter Dinah in the luggage lest Esau, his disgusting thug of a brother, see her and want to marry her. 

Yet Jacob finds his brother forgiving and welcoming. Upon meeting him, Esau folds him in a loving embrace. What does Jacob make of this surprise? Generations of commentaries have related to this encounter in ways that reveal more about the commentator than the story.

One asserts – with a complete absence of evidence – that Esau’s embrace was meant to kill his brother, and only G*d’s protection of Jacob saved his life. Another insists that Jacob was punished for hiding Dinah, and in so doing manifesting his contempt for the brother who was so different from him, rather than believing that a match between Dinah and Esau could possibly have redeemed Esau, bringing him back into the main narrative of the family.

Unable to believe in the peace that Esau is apparently offering, Jacob makes excuses, falsely assuring his brother they will meet again soon, and then heading as far away as he can get. Jacob settles his miraculously intact family in Sh’khem, where the townspeople seem friendly enough. 

Jacob’s punishment then arrives. As often happens in families, the effect of his behavior falls not upon him but on Dinah. What happens is unclear in the text; Dinah goes out to see the town, and either falls in love and elopes or was kidnapped and raped. The Torah does not record her own feelings about the situation, only those of the men between whom she is caught. 

Jacob’s sons falsely assure the men of Sh’khem that it’s all right, and they then fall murderously upon the unsuspecting some in their beds. Many die in the ensuring conflict, and Jacob and his family flee, wanderers again, this time in their own home country. Jacob’s experience has gone from mistrust of a brother to misunderstanding with an entire community.

Was all of this inevitable, as the plight of homeless wanderers often seems unrelievedly tragic? Or was it possible that Esau and Jacob – twin brothers after all – really could have been reconciled? And that perhaps the tragedy of Sh’khem never needed to happen at all….

In a time of fear it is easy to assume that violence and hatred are around every corner. If only Jacob could have kept in mind the prayer of gratitude with which he traveled to meet his brother: קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת שעשית את עבדך – “I am too small (i.e. unworthy) for all the true kindness You have done for Your servant”. (Bereshit 32.11) If he had managed to maintain a sense of gratitude for all the miracles he had already known, could he have approached Esau with hope in his heart, rather than (just) fear?

Yes, for Jacob the world may have been ending, but he had known so much good until that moment. What shall we feel, those of us who have known so much good in our lives, and still do – gratitude for all the years? or shall we allow it all to be erased in moments of darkness and fear? What evil do we bring upon ourselves and our loved ones because we expect it? What good is murdered in its bed before it can be born?

We may be unworthy, but we have known so much good. On this Shabbat, may your gratitude overcome your suffering.

(Here is an amazing recording of Jacob’s prayer of gratitude by Israeli composer and musician Yonatan Razel: Katonti)

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Angels Among Us

Do we believe in angels? It surprises me how often I am asked that question – that, or another one that asks about the “we” of Jews, and the “supposed to” of our beliefs. When you think about it, the whole idea that you are “supposed” to “believe” is already a curiosity. More, it is a non-sequitur: one believes, or one does not. 

True, any religion sets forth tenets for belief. That is the official level of a religion’s teachings.Then there are the traditional folk beliefs, what you might call the comfortable level, or the superstitious level, of religion. What, then, is the official status of angels in Judaism? In other words, Does Judaism expect a Jew to believe in angels?

Yes and no, and yes again.

Yes: we can clearly see in the parashat hashavua for this week, VaYishlakh, that the Torah does make reference to angels. Or, at least, it looks that way in the English translation. This leads us to a good rule of thumb for exploration of Jewish belief: don’t settle for the translation. As David Ben Gurion warned, “reading the Torah in translation is like kissing your beloved through a handkerchief”. You may not be able to read the ancient Hebrew of the Torah fluently, but remember that there is always more depth than we can access on the surface, and searching out the deeper meaning of a word, a phrase or a belief may be as close to you as inquiring after the Hebrew terminology.

No: the word for “angel” in Hebrew is mal’akh, which translates from the Hebrew simply as “messenger”. Our parashah this week begins VaYishlakh Ya’akov mal’akhim, “Jacob sent messengers.” The plain sense of the Torah is that he sent people from his large encampment, probably young men, fleet of foot, to run before him and carry a message. Why is the very same word then sometimes translated “angels”? It depends upon the dispatcher: if G-d sends a messenger, it’s an angel. Probably with big wings, maybe even breathing fire and smoke (in his prophecies, Isaiah tells the story of just such a vision). Or perhaps simply a being in human shape, such as the messenger from G-d who struggles with Jacob by the Jabok River all night long, and insists on disappearing at daybreak, on the night before Jacob sees his estranged brother for the first time in twenty-some years. Or a perfectly-normal seeming human being who shows up in a field (we never learn his name or see him again) simply to tell Joseph to turn south in order to find his brothers (stay tuned for that one).

Yes: how is an angel a messenger? Our tradition teaches that it’s the other way around: a messenger might be an angel. If we define “angel” as “messenger of G-d” then everyone we meet might be such a carrier of a truth we need to learn. We ourselves are at any moment also such an angel, for we, in our normal human undertakings, are potentially bearing some word, some thought, some message that someone else needs to hear. As one rabbi put it, it is as if:

Each of us is a puzzle, to ourselves as to those around us. We are each a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, and we go through our lives aware that something is missing, but not knowing what it is, nor quite how to fill the holes in our own souls. Then we meet another person, and in the interchange between us, we may suddenly feel that we are more whole than we were. We know something now that we never did before, or we feel a bit more complete in ourselves. Or – and this we will never know – some word, some act, of our own may bring that same sense of being a bit more complete than before to our interlocutor.

Yes, there are winged creatures in our ancient tradition (you are allowed to chalk that up to artistic imagination, you are not required to believe in them), but also quite normal looking messengers also.

Yes, you are required to keep in mind that here are angels among us, and that you yourself are such a messenger, and to live your life aware of that gift that you carry, and that others carry for you.

Thanksgiving, the annual American day of thanks, has passed once again.Thank G-d for Shabbat, when we are reminded weekly to give thanks for all the gifts carried by all the messengers of our lives.

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 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 VaYigash: Who Are You Before You Were Hurt?

On this Shabbat the terrible game ends: brothers stop terrifying brothers, a parent is relieved of a horrifying lie, and we see the cessation of a generational dysfunction, all because of one – or, actually, two – heroic individuals.

The parashat hashavua (the Torah reading of the week) is named for the key act that brings the entire unhealthy structure down: vayigash, “he drew near”. It describes the heroism of Judah, fourth son of Leah and Jacob. When all seems lost and the brothers are convinced that they are to die, or at least to become slaves for the rest of their lives in Egypt, Judah finds the courage and the wisdom that it takes to “draw near” the threatening man who is second only to Pharaoh over all the land. Judah is able to ascertain what to say, and, more importantly, he understands good timing. 

Judah is not the oldest brother – he’s fourth in a long line of twelve. Nothing special about that – but that Judah makes his place special through his willingness to learn from experience and do the right thing even when it might cost him.

Judah risks it all, and he turns the tide. No one dies. And as the terror subsides, the man they most feared turns out to be their long-lost brother, Joseph.

Judah’s heroism is in his willingness to be the one to go first, to step away from the safety of the crowd and to stand for what he saw as just, regardless of the personal cost. The Torah seems here to be inviting us to learn that it is only within the fear that one finds the friend – and that finding the kindred spirit inside the terrifying enemy requires all the strength and wisdom that we can bring to bear.

The second act of heroism is Joseph’s, for he is able to still reach the wounded child inside the angry man he has become. There is no act which requires greater courage than that of being willing to let go of the anger and disappointment, and the days that stretched into years of building his sense of self upon the justification of that anger. Joseph had created in his heart a whole narrative of what had happened to him so that he would be able to go on. The defiant names he gave his children are essentially “I reject where I came from” and “I’m happy here”. 

And then in one moment, he finds the grace to drop it all and let Judah reach across the abyss to touch him, brother to brother. 

The Torah records the final closing of the wounds in the first three verses of the third year’s reading of this parashah, according to the Triennial Cycle:

כח  וְאֶת-יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו, אֶל-יוֹסֵף, לְהוֹרֹת לְפָנָיו, גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיָּבֹאוּ, אַרְצָה גֹּשֶׁן.

[Jacob} sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to show the way before him unto Goshen; and they came into the land of Goshen.

כט  וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָיו, וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל-צַוָּארָיו, עוֹד.

Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; he presented himself unto him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.

ל  וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם, אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ, כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי.

And Israel said unto Joseph: ‘Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are yet alive.’ (Genesis 46.28-30)

What Jacob sees here is that Joseph has not essentially changed; his “Joseph-ness” is still alive. Judah is the bridge that brings Joseph back to Jacob and all that the Patriarch represents, and also back to a sense of himself within the family, as son and brother. Judah allows Joseph to become whole in himself by restoring his family relationships to him.

In this moment we can see why Judah is the line of future kings of the People of Israel. And we’ve already seen Joseph’s intelligence and greatness. But only in this moment do we see that what we most long for requires being able to find, within the greatness and the kingship, the vulnerable human being who never stops needing the essential human connection of love, and belonging.

It’s still quite dark as we turn the corner after the solstice. There are still many dark hours of human history to make our way through – and we won’t all make it. And there is no guarantee of future results in these past acts of courage. 

But these acts nevertheless stand as testimony to what is, sometimes, possible, everywhere and within everyone: to find the brother within the enemy. To find the hope within the despair. To find the light in the midst of the darkness. After all, where else does one see light, but within the darkness?

Shabbat VaYishlakh: What Message Do You Carry?

Two opposing sides confront each other; one has been wronged and is angry, and the other is guilty, afraid, and feels that it must defend its very life. Ferguson? New York? Portland Oregon last night outside the Moda Center?

No, the situation described is part of this week’s parashah; in it, Jacob and Esau walk toward their fateful confrontation. The wrong has been festering for twenty years; now is the moment of truth.

Esau is the wronged: as our commentators have put it, he was not the right person to carry on the legacy of the People of Israel, so that prerogative, in the form of the Blessing of the First Born, was taken from him by guile, against his well, without anyone even bothering to try to talk with him.

Jacob represents the side in this conflict which clearly has “systemic deficiencies”. He deceives his brother when they are young, he does it again with his mother’s collusion later in their early life, and when he has to escape the “situation” for which he is responsible, he continues to live and act in a world full of deceit in his new surroundings. 

Yet Jacob is not “all bad”; he learns from his very bad mistakes, he struggles with his own inner nature, and he does make progress. In this excellent example of teshuvah that takes a lifetime, he does begin to behave better; he does become a better person. 

And Esau is not “all innocence”; his response to being wronged is not to seek redress but to seek to murder. He may be justified in his anger, yet killing leads only to more killing, and war to more war, when what both sides need is peace, safety and mutual respect.

As we try to understand the outrage and protests erupting all around us in instance after instance of police violence and the suffering of the African-American community, we hear these same ideas voiced in every conversation: the Cleveland Police Department is found to have “systemic deficiencies”. Of course, that does not mean that the police department is all bad. Most police officers are good, and try their best to serve their community. Yet for many generations much hurt has been caused, and teshuvah is clearly necessary. The African-American community and all those who stand in solidarity with them are naturally, righteously angry. Yet anger is destructive, the Rabbis teach; it is the most dangerous emotion of all, and must be channeled lest it lead to sin.

Many years later, Jacob approaches a face-to-face confrontation with Esau. In our parashat hashavua that is precisely the scene, and it echoes the protests which bring protesters and police face-to-face. Years of righteous anger and defensiveness underlie such a meeting; days of brooding, nights of obsessing over possible outcomes. 

What should Jacob do? How might Esau choose to act? In the first verse of our parashah, we read (Genesis 32.4):

ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם.

4 Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

The word for “messengers” in Hebrew is מלאכים, mal’akhim, which is also the term used in the Torah for “angel”. This is because the function of an angel in ancient Israelite belief was primarily that of being a messenger for the word of G-d. For us the coincidence of these two translations offers a significant insight: what seems to you to be simply a messenger sent by someone else to you is actually, just possibly, also someone who bears for you a word of G-d, that is, a message from the Universe that you need to hear.

Jewish mystical speculation suggests that each of us, reflecting G-d’s image as we do, function as messengers to each other, in ways of which we are unaware. Both in word and in act we send the message forth of some truth about the world as it is, or as it should be. And of course, we do so also by the act of inaction, or by withholding a word.

We are told that on the night before the fateful meeting, Jacob is up all night wrestling with a messenger. We are not told what the message is, only that Jacob needs the encounter, yet is wounded by the encounter, and limps forever after. This is the harsh reality: our nation will never completely overcome the racist “limp” inflicted upon us by the slavery our predecessors practiced. But the only way forward is to hear the message, to wrestle with it, not to turn away.

That is what Jacob finally does. He stops running away from the encounter, and he faces Esau. The key is this: what makes the encounter successful, what allows the two brothers to recognize their connection rather than that which distanced them, is the messengers that are sent first.

All of us find ourselves in the position of messenger at some point. Our Jewish tradition obligates us to step forward and recognize our responsibility in social discourse and political action. When you find yourself confronted with a messenger, can you listen? When you realize that you are in the position of messenger, what word are you carrying? By your words and acts, are you taking sides, judging justifications, and reveling in the gory details of anger and fear – or are you helping to bring Jacob and Esau together toward their longed-for reconciliation, toward the peace of wholeness and trust?