Shabbat Toldot: Naming our Transgender Children

Today, Friday November 20, is Transgender Day of Remembrance. During Portland’s observance (last night on the eve of the day) we called the names of those who were murdered in the U.S. during this past year for no reason other than their transgender identity. 

We remember them, and mourn the loss of these irreplaceable Images of G*d. They existed in all their personal created glory, and we refuse to let them disappear into the void of nonexistence. We say their names. 

In Hebrew, the verb for “read” is קרא k.r.’ which also means to ‘say out loud.” In ancient Jewish tradition, to read was to speak audibly; there was no “silent reading.” The power in naming is in hearing as well as seeing. The first humans became partners with HaShem in the act of creation by naming the creatures that they encountered. To name is to bring fully into existence; to name is to recognize relationship between the namer and the named.  

To name someone or something is to declare that there is reality here. Here is a reflection of the All in the part.

We are sometimes wary of naming, sometimes afraid, and sometimes simply insensible to what we have not recognized. Peeling back the interpretive layers of what we assume, we can find astonishing depths.

The Torah is often astonishingly coincidentally relevant to our own circumstances, and this week is one of those times. Last week in parashat Haye Sarah we watched Rebekah, daughter of Betuel, as the center of the narrative’s action, from welcoming the stranger to deciding her own future. This week in parashat Toldot she is still the focus as she acts to decide the future of her family – and the Jewish people. Judging by her acts, Rebekah behaves more like a patriarch than Isaac.

But we don’t tend to see that; our ability to see and to name Rebekah as head of her family is hampered by our assumptions. She must be a wife and mother, and any other impression must be an exception to the rule.

But what if we recognize her full reality, and Isaac’s too? Mystical speculation on the nature of femaleness and maleness led to the insight that Isaac was transgender:

It is known that when Isaak was born, he was born with the soul of a female, and through the Akedah (the binding) he got a male soul … this is known according to the Sod (Secret/Mysticism) of the cycling of souls – that at times, a female would be in a male body, because of gilgal (the cycling of souls) [Or HaHayim, 18th century Hasidic commentary]

Ancient Jewish tradition is conversant with much more than a rigid gender binary. The research of Rabbi Elliot Kukla shows that at least six gender expressions were part of normal life and legislation in Talmudic times (listed below).

We can only talk about what we recognize; we are able to name only that with which we are in relationship. Let this be a cautionary lesson as well as an encouragement: even as we are taught to learn and recognize and interact, so we are unable to do so if we do not have the opportunity to have naming experience. We can’t name Rivkah if we don’t really know her. Let this Shabbat be a chance to learn more about the glorious spectrum of gender identity and sexual expression throughout our world, and the Jewish ways we learn to respect all Created Beings.

hazak hazak v’nithazek, may we be strong and strengthen one another!

shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

________________________

  1. An androgynos has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics, and there are 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE). 
  2. A tumtum’s sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishnah and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes. 
  3. A person identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile is called an aylonit (80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes). 
  4. A saris is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis (156 references in Mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes).
  5. Nekevah, usually translated as “female.” 
  6. Zakhar, usually translated as “male.”

Shabbat Lekh-L’kha: Making Light in Darkness

(image: close up in Torah scroll of Genesis 1.4 ויבדל אלהים בין האור ובין החשך G*d divided between the light and the darkness.)

Shalom Shir Tikvah learning community,

It’s getting darker every day now. How shall we trust our footsteps when we can’t see them? Where is the light that will dispel this hoshekh, this unnatural darkness that weighs us down?

This week we see that Abraham had precisely the questions we have.

As we make our way through the second year of the Triennial Cycle we move into the details of the more famous stories which make up the title images of each parashah. In the case of LekhL’kha, there is a famous introductory image of the fearless Abraham leaving everything familiar behind and setting off into a completely unknown future. 

This year, however, we are in the weeds. Abraham is a transient, a homeless wanderer, a landless stranger in a strange land in which he has had to fight to keep his family safe. Abraham and Sarah have no children, and no sure sense of their future. 

Then one day, the Torah relates in our parashah, the Presence of HaShem comes to Abraham:

אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הָיָ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם בַּֽמַּחֲזֶ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד׃ 

Some time later, the word of HaShem came to Abram in a vision saying “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י 

But Abram said, “O HaShem, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?” (Genesis 15.1-2)

The commentator Rashi explains that the word ערירי ‘ariri “childless” here really means “rootless.” The further implication in ancient Hebrew is that all one’s work is for nothing unless one creates something that outlasts one.

That ancient anxiety which defines the meaning of one’s life as that which outlives it has turned many of us into builders for the future, and even we Jews, who are taught that there is no sure existence other than this one, occupy ourselves in planning for the future and peopling it, in our imagination and, for some of us, with our offspring.

But what do we do in uncertain times when the future is not assured? If our work is only for the future, how can we possibly value the present moment for itself?

The haftarah for Shabbat Lekh-l’kha seems to speak directly to us in these moments of existential uncertainty: 

לָ֤מָּה תֹאמַר֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וּתְדַבֵּ֖ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל נִסְתְּרָ֤ה דַרְכִּי֙ מֵֽיְהוָ֔ה וּמֵאֱלֹהַ֖י מִשְׁפָּטִ֥י יַעֲבֽוֹר׃ 

Why do you say, O Jacob, Why declare, O Israel, “My way is hid from HaShem, My cause is ignored by my G*d”? (Isaiah 40.27)

Isaiah underscores what HaShem is trying to say to Abraham in the parashah: Trust is All. And so we ask, trust in what?

Not the future, which is uncertain. 

Only in ourselves, and each other, and our shared path – a three-part strength that creates a light strong enough to dispel the darkness around us.

All our lives are rehearsals for the moment when we need to know in our souls what to do and why. I’ve always felt that Jews are particularly lucky in that we have a spiritual mandate of doing and connecting which is always inviting us in. (When I lived and worked in Ukraine in the mid 1990s I met post-Soviet citizens who no longer knew who they were; the Jews with whom I lived knew exactly who they were, and what they could do.)

Community gatherings for learning and prayer and doing kindness can become meaningful in themselves to you, not for some future purpose but for blessing this day with the light that you yourself can create.  Through your engagement in the mitzvot that structure the acts and ethics of Jewish life you create the light of meaning not only for yourself, but for the person next to you who needs it as badly as you do. 

Now matters. This moment is all. What is the mitzvah you can do right now? If you do not know, ask. Believe in your ability to bring light to us all enough to ask.

Abraham went on after the moment of questioning the meaning of his life. He learned to trust in the path he was on. Because of this, we are taught, he became a source of light not only for his companions but for the Source of Life, as we see later in this same parashah:

וַיְהִ֣יאַבְרָ֔םבֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥יםשָׁנָ֖הוְתֵ֣שַׁעשָׁנִ֑יםוַיֵּרָ֨איְהוָ֜האֶל־אַבְרָ֗םוַיֹּ֤אמֶראֵלָיו֙אֲנִי־אֵ֣לשַׁדַּ֔יהִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְלְפָנַ֖יוֶהְיֵ֥התָמִֽים׃ 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, HaShem (finally) appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am the Source of your Creativity. Walk in My ways and you will be whole.”

And the Midrash explains that what HaShem was really saying here is this:

בּוֹא וְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנָי

“Come, and light the way before Me.” (Bereshit Rabbah 30)

The multi-wick flame of the havdalah candle reminds us that our shared lights are brighter than any individual can generate. Come, and let us light the way together.

Parashat Korakh: Uprising Time

Five days before this Erev Shabbat, summer time began with the solstice; the perfect balance of day time and night time.

Erev Shabbat Korakh is the 103rd day of Coronavirus Time. We don’t yet know what that balance will be.

Thursday night Portland saw the thirtieth day of street demonstrations, among the street gatherings that have taken place all over the world against the police violence and brutality that led to the murder of George Floyd and far too many others. 

Jewish tradition has a question of balance for us in this time of uprising. It is this: what is the meaning of your anger? What is the purpose of your actions?

Two thousand years ago in a discussion on our parashat hashavua, the Rabbis distinguished between uprisings such as the one led by Korakh, who gives our parashah its name. Not unlike those of us who harbor differing opinions about the nightly clashes between marching protestors and the overarmed and undertrained Portland police department, our ancestors looked to the motivations of the uprising.

Are those who lead the protest focused on forcing change for the good? Or are they looking only to their own need?

The Rabbis developed a doctrine called makhloket l’shem shamayim, which we might best call “disinterested argument” although that translation certainly lacks the charm of “a dispute for the sake of heaven.” Either way, the question here is whether the one disputing is using their leadership for a noble purpose or a base purpose.

How do we know? Personal motivation cannot be judged as clearly as actions. The Rabbis conclude that the truth will out:

כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם.

אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. 

וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ: 

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; 

But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. 

Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. 

And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. 

Mishnah Pirke Avot 5.17

Our tradition has never condoned destruction for its own sake; neither in the police violence that has terrorized so many Black and Brown lives, nor in the responses of people who feel that they are unheard and dismissed, and so they turn to destruction. But how shall we judge those who decry vandalism of buildings or statues, and have yet to act to demand that Black Lives, human beings, must Matter more?

The commentaries and interpretations of the story of Korakh in our parashah recognize that the slogan of his uprising was a true statement: “all of the people are holy!” That is our banner as well, all of us who condemn murder at the hands of the police state.  Why then is Korakh’s uprising condemned?

Look closely. Korakh was already in power; a Levite of the Kehati family, already as close to the inner circle as possible, with enough access to the corridors of power that one has to wonder what more he could possibly have needed? The Rabbis see that Korakh wasn’t really leading a revolution; he only wanted access to even more power and prestige.

His was not a makhloket l’shem shamayim, and thus it was doomed to fail, even if there had been no spectacular, Biblical method of downfall. The cost of such a selfishly motivated uprising is, poignantly, the same as the good fight well fought: many innocent people are hurt in the process. 

It is inevitable that in a holy cause, a dispute for the sake of heaven, there will be some Korakh types involved. Our ancestors never made the mistake of condemning all uprisings simply because some are misguided, and all are painful. They knew that change does not come easily, and spoke of the hevlei hamashiakh, the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” which are inevitable when something is being born.

May we be clear sighted and compassionate despite the uproar, and learn to discern the holy within the tumult. It is there.

Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: Trust or Fail

In these days of many kinds of prayers, let us consider the nature of Jewish prayer. Jews pray in highly specific ways, teaching us by way of this mindfulness practice a Jewish ethics of existence.

The first kind of prayer we see demonstrated in our siddur, our makhzor and any other kind of prayer compilation is תהילה tehilah – praise. It is the expression of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the “radical amazement” of being alive. The morning prayers, for example, remind us to be aware of and grateful for our body’s abilities, of just waking up alive.

The prayer of praise captures that moment when you stand on a mountain top and see the beauty of all that is, and know your place in it. That mountaintop is experienced in parenting, in friendship, in community, in love.

The second kind of prayer is בקשה, bakashah – seeking. It is to see the beauty from the mountaintop and seek the link to that beauty through the ethics and obligations of our days. The vision is wholeness, and the bridge we seek to build to it is the mitzvot of justice and kindness we are taught to fulfill.

Bridge-building is difficult and dangerous, marked by thankless effort, uncertainty and fear. This is true whether one lays bricks across a cavern or reaches out, step by step, to challenge injustice. The one unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine the most important building material of all: trust.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors had come so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance; it would be many years of wandering before that bridge would finally be built.

Only three weeks ago on Shabbat we marked Shavuot, the moment when our people stood at a mountain and saw, for once clearly, the meaning of their lives. That moment was marked by fire, by lightning and thunder and the blast of the shofar. It was probably terrifying. Such moments of naked exposure to truth probably always are.

From that mountaintop we have been privileged in these days to see a vision of justice for the United States. Dr Martin Luther King Jr taught us that the road is long and there are no guarantees that any one of us will get there. Not unlike the wilderness generation, many of us have not been taught to trust, and it is terrifying to recognize the might of the evil unleashed among those of us who are Black and Brown. 

On this Juneteenth of 2020, we are privileged to experience the presence of G*d in history and event. The building of the bridge to a better world has made some progress, and that brings us to our third kind of prayer: הודאה, hoda’ah – gratitude.

Little by little, each in our own way, we carry forward our people’s memory of the vision we had on the mountaintop: of community, of justice, and of wholeness. May we be true to it, and trust it in the uncertainty and fear of our days. 

Shabbat shalom and Happy Juneteenth!

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat BaMidbar: Now It Gets Scary

Have you begun to ration your news consumption yet? Many of us are finding it the only way to get through a week in these strange and stressful times. Just scanning headlines can feel as if one is absorbing blow after blow of disappointment, concern, anger, and yes, of fear.

One source of guidance – I do not say consolation – in these days is the knowledge that our ancestors have been down this path before. Somehow, those who came before us developed the discipline, the courage, the ability to continue to give Shabbat all the respect of focused Jewish practice in the face of worse situations than ours. In fact, it becomes a kind of special Jewish resistance to refuse to let the fears of the moment overwhelm the legacy of a lifetime.

The fourth book of the Torah, which we begin to read again this Shabbat, is called BaMidbar. The parashat hashavua is therefore also called BaMidbar, since the name is derived simply from the first recognizable word of each section of text.

BaMidbar is translated “in the wilderness.” (The Hebrew is so much more evocative than the English name “Numbers.”) In this endlessly repeated paradigm of Jewish existence, something compels us to leave the encampment at the foot of the mountain where we have taken refuge since leaving Egypt. We set out into an unknown future, heading for a destination that it turns out none of us will reach. The uncertainty of each day is compounded by emotional blows: repeated outbreaks of violence, fueled by the unrelenting stress of fear.

Our ancestors wondered as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai: Who to believe? What path to follow? How to stay safe? And how to survive the blows of chance that will continue to fall? Later generations have had reason to ask the same questions, and now it is our turn.

The time of their wilderness wandering did not at first seem that it would be long. Geographically, the land of their dreams was not a long journey away. But things don’t always work out as planned. There’s an old Yiddish (of course) expression for that: mensch trakht, Gott lakht, “human beings make their plans, and G*d laughs.”

I imagine a G*d laughing not derisively at our naïveté but sadly, the way that Jewish humor is a form of laughter through and despite bitter tears. We make our plans, we look forward to a happy, sunny, or at least safe future for ourselves and those we love.

We who take refuge in plans, we don’t like uncertainty. It is anxiety-provoking and unpleasant. The wilderness of BaMidbar is difficult and fearsome, and seems to take a lifetime to traverse. Whether it actually did or not, it felt like an unending horror. 

The discomfort of uncertainty is nevertheless necessary if we are to move. The anguish of frustration and fear is the spur that we need if we are ever to arrive at that place which is the other side of the wilderness. And, just like love, we cannot avoid uncertainty, anxiety, and fear if we would live a full, meaningful life.

Where are we going? On an endless, uncertain, frightening journey. We don’t know where it will lead. 

We cannot have the reassurance that our plans will be realized. All we can have is the eternally present experience of our ancestors which flows through us all, whether we were born or chosen into this people. 

We can only hold hands (masked and gloved for now!) and step forward together, into the uncertainty, into the future. 

We are taught that for our people, the way forward is together: kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh , all Israel stands in support of each other. (Babylonian Talmud, Sh’vuot 39a) 

And we are taught that in this struggle we Jews find our greatest meaning: if the uncertainty never ends, so also our Torah – source of the meaning that supports the structuring of a life – will also never end for us.

Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? 

To teach us that if one does not surrender oneself to the wilderness, 

one cannot understand the words of Torah. 

And to teach us that just as the wilderness is endless, 

so is the Torah without end. 

(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana)

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat BeHar-BeHukkotai: The Torah of Tokhekhah

COVIDלֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of them. – VaYikra 19.17

On this Shabbat we come to the end of the book VaYikra, Leviticus, and we are confronted by a difficult section of the Torah called the tokhekha, “reproof.” We already learned a few weeks ago the mitzvah above, that rather than be angry or condemning of another person because of their behavior, one should find a way to speak up.

This has been called the most difficult mitzvah of the entire Torah, and not for the reason one might immediately infer. Yes, it is difficult to confront someone whose behavior is causing distress to oneself or to others, but that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is if your attempt to repair a breach causes one which is greater.

In these days of frustration, of anger – even rage – at the politicization of so much that should not be, one of the greatest challenges is that of remaining loyal to the vision we each have for ourselves as ethical human beings. 

When we are confronted with official callousness towards deaths caused by COVID-19 or by state violence, when against our better judgement we tune in and watch a presidential press conference, when reading the news about some group that protests its inconveniencing blindly using high-sounding rhetoric, it is difficult not to run afoul of the mitzvah of tokhekhah. 

We might find ourselves wanting to descend into hating those who hate, and dismissing as worthless those who seek power and profit at the expense of many lives. And here is the real challenge.

Judaism teaches that every human being is born holy. Each one of us reflects the light of the divine. When we deny that, we undermine our own ethical strength in these days.

A story:

A Jew, badly used by her employer, fell into the self-serving trap of complaining endlessly to everyone she could about the bad behavior from which she suffered. Finally one day her interlocutor responded: “He must be in so much pain to be so cruel.”

She was brought up short. A new perspective opened before her. Rather than sinking to the level of responding to negativity with her own negativity, she began to reflect upon the possibility of feeling sorry for the boss who had caused her so much grief. His behavior was, after all, pathetic. She realized that it was a two-way dance, and that up to that moment, she had been, all unwittingly and feeling the victim, willing to play her part in it.

From that day, even though she continued to work for him, her boss never again hurt her the way he had. His behavior did not change; her willingness to accept it did.

The real danger of evil people is that they drag us down, slowly and by self-righteous degrees, to their level of human interaction. This is the failure of tokhekhah. The only way to rebuke someone without failing is to cling to the standard we’ve set for ourselves, no matter the temptation to “fight fire with fire” or to “give as good as you get.”

Stay focused on the pure, clean light within you. Let it seek out the spark of light in all life that surrounds you. This is the ethical work of our days.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel