Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

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

The middle third of the parashah on this Shabbat, Ki Tisa, begins with Moshe on Mt Sinai receiving the Word of G-d in the form of “tablets of testimony written with the finger of G-d.” (Exodus 31.18) At the same time the Israelites, who are waiting below in the valley, become restive. What’s taking so long?

 

For the literally mind-blown Moshe, time had ceased to exist. According to one midrash, for forty days he neither ate nor drank, but simply existed, basking in the Divine Presence. It is the first example in Jewish tradition of a state of being which is now called a mystical experience. Moshe was no longer of this world; as the Israeli Nobel laureate in literature Shai Agnon put it in his story HaSiman, “The Sign”, in words informed by the language of the Zohar, the primary text of Jewish mystical expression:

 

“Thought on thought was engraved, holy thought within my thought. And all the communicated words were etched in letters, and the letters joined into words, and the words formed what was to be said….My flesh crawled and my heart melted and I was annihilated from being and I was as if I were not.” (Agnon, HaSiman, cited by Rachel Elior in Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom, p. 16)

 

Down below in the valley of the shadow of doubt, the Israelites were having no such peak experience. The leader who was their emotional anchor had asked them to wait for him, and in their anxiety, the time cannot pass quickly enough. They are looking for leadership; they are nervous about the lack of communication; in short, they are not feeling serene and trusting. As the Torah relates, G-d was aware of this and the awareness communicated itself to Moshe, who hastened down the mountain to respond.

 

When Moshe returned, things had gotten a bit out of hand, but that’s been well-described and analyzed elsewhere by many; I want to concentrate for a moment on the day of his return. “You said you’d be back yesterday!” said the people who loved him, who had waited for him, and who had quickly turned on him when they felt let down. “No, I said I’d be back on the fortieth day,” said the leader. “I’m back right when I said I would be!”

 

The waiting Israelites cannot relate to the fact that Moshe was having a fantastic experience; they only know that he was not there for them, and they are in pain.

 

Both felt let down; both experienced a sense of being misunderstood, of being lied to, of being betrayed. And both sides, each in their way, were right.

 

Here are several chasms: between mystical experience and the everyday, between leader and follower, between the one leaving and the one waiting to be returned to. It is so easy to get caught up in one’s own experience – which is, after all, paramount by definition – and so difficult to remain aware of those others who are waiting for word. But it is necessary to do so if one would move in the world ethically. Note the description of being close to G-d: “I was as if I were not.” That does not mean that one who is close to G-d ceases to exist; just that one who is close to G-d ceases to be blinded by the ego, the “I”, and is given a new ability to see, and take note of the reality of others.

 

There is a wonderful midrash about staying aware of the feelings of the other:

 

Once upon a time Rabbi Preda was teaching a student when he was told that he was going to be needed for a mitzvah related to tzedakah.

Rabbi Preda taught the student as usual, but on this day the student could not grasp the material as usual.

He asked, “what is the matter?”

The student answered, “from the moment they said to you there is a mitzvah to be done,

I could not concentrate because I thought, ‘now he will have to go. Now he will have to go.’

Rabbi Preda reviewed the material to the student four hundred times.

A Voice from Heaven was heard to ask, “Would you prefer to have four hundred years added to your life,

or that you and your entire generation be assured life in the World to Come?”

“May my generation be given life in the World to Come”, Rabbi Preda answered.

The holy Voice was heard to say, “give him both rewards.”  (BT Eruvim 54b)

 

The essence of Jewish ethics is to be able to put ourselves in the place of others; to empathize with them, not to judge them in their vulnerability. May we be humble enough to be alert to those who are waiting for a word from us, distracted by anxiety and afraid of betrayal, and may we recognize our own needs for reassurance in theirs.

Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One

“Out of chaos He formed substance, making what is not into what is. He hewed enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.” – Sefer Yetzirah 2.6

“Out of chaos He formed substance, making what is not into what is. He hewed enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.” - Sefer Yetzirah 2.6

Note the uncanny resemblance of these “enormous pillars” to the Hebrew letter shin which is used to indicate God’s protective Name Shaddai. The website Students for the Exploration and Development of Space explains: These eerie, dark pillar- like structures are actually columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust that are also incubators for new stars. The pillars protrude from the interior wall of a dark molecular cloud like stalagmites from the floor of a cavern. They are part of the “Eagle Nebula”…a nearby star forming region 7,000 light-years away in the constellation Serpens. (http://seds.org/hst/M16Full.html)