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
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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.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Mourning the Dead

Once again, gun violence leaves us breathless, and leaves some of us dead.
We have reached a point in our nation where, when we see an American flag at half-mast, it is no longer clear to us why. There is so much death around us, so many incidences of murder by gun. And once again this week we are in mourning, this time for the violent deaths of innocent people at prayer, including the very young.
This week our parashat hashavua begins with a death announcement.  Sarah, first matriarch of the Jewish people, is dead. Before we reach the end of this parashah, we will also read of the death of Abraham. The first Jews, gone – and further gone, the sunny vision they had once shared of the life before them. Sarah died in the area of Hebron, and a sensitive reader will note that Abraham is described as “coming to mourn” – the question provoked, of course, is “coming from where?” And indeed, a thread of midrash considers the possibility that Abraham and Sarah had separated; it is suggested that the trauma of the Akedah had caused Sarah to end their relationship.
And here Abraham is now, an old man who has lived to see that his life’s vision is nearly undetectable in his life’s work, one whose best efforts led to rejection by Sarah, the companion of his life, distance from his son Isaac, and the loss of his son Ishma’el along with Hagar, his mother. He is left alone, with only a faithful servant as head of his household. He was called by a sense of the sacred to a new evocation of that sense in his life – but for what? What is he thinking as he travels the distance to Sarah’s deathbed?
It all seems to be for nothing. Here is the difficult and dark place in which we all may find ourselves at some point: what has my life meant? what does it all add up to? Looking back at regrets and mistakes, it is hard not to see them as definitive, and the lasting meaning of a single human life as a laughable concept. We see the violence that takes so many lives and we may entertain despair.
The light of life in twenty-seven human beings was extinguished on November 5 in Sutherland Springs Texas. The number of mass shootings in the United States in 2017 stands today at three hundred and nine. The number of incidents of gun violence in the U.S. in 2017 stands today at 53,038.  The number of deaths stands today at 13,326. (Gun Violence Archive 2017)
What has happened to the vision we thought we shared in this nation of a good place, a place where we might each pursue life, liberty and happiness? or, at least, a place where we would allow each other the space simply to live? …and is there anything, at all, that each of us can do about it?
The Jewish tradition that Sarah and Abraham began says this: each life is worth the life of the whole world; each life matters. Yes, we have lost untold worlds of potential and promise and love. But in each one of us there is a connection to All That Is – and each one of us carries a world of promise and of potential, too.
Never get numb, we say. Bewail the violence and the dead, as Sarah did and as Abraham did; come to mourn, and to consider the way of this world we share. Know that this will not end soon, and take a moment to appreciate that once you did not know this. And keep looking for the mitzvah that needs doing in each moment, for no matter how the storm rages, there is always the need for a quiet hand to reach out to answer a need. That small moment can save our world, even now, even now.

Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

ז
  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

….

טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.

Shabbat Ki Tetze: Doing Battle In Jewish

The first words of this week’s parashah are כי תצא למלחמה ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to do battle.” When one looks for these words in the Torah scroll, it’s easy to mistake the place, for the same phrase appears three times in a short space of parchment. All three have in common that in this part of the Torah our ancestors are recounting the Jewish way to fight.
Jewish tradition does not shy away from any human behavior; we insist that no matter what you are doing, there is a way to do it according to Jewish ethics. A teacher of mine used to say that there’s even a Jewish way to slide into second base – with your cleats down, and without attempting to intimidate the opposing player off the bag out of fear of harm.
Of course, when we read in the Torah during the month of Elul of “going out into battle” we recognize that much of the struggle against evil is that which takes place inside ourselves. Jewish ethical literature requires during this time of Atonement that we seek out the inimical forces that are part of us, and battle them for control of our hearts and minds – and behavior.
But there is also a Jewish way to behave when we are facing a even more difficult and even frightening opposition. In the current climate of rising hatred and fear, many feel that when some would march in our streets declaring the tenets of their hatred, we must be there to counter that voice and resist that hostility. To do this is to fulfill the mitzvah of going out to oppose the enemy – in this case, not only of our well-being and peace of mind, but also of the peace and well-beingn of our society.
If you are moved to “go out against the enemy” – and yes, people who commit violence with word and act are our enemy whether they threaten us or our neighbors – you are nevertheless not permitted to consider yourself as “going out” from your Jewishness. Thus these three repetitions of the phrase ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to battle” are instructive:
When you take the field against your enemies and they are delivered into your hands, and you see something that you want. (Deut. 21.10)
The parashah begins with this warning, that just because you are caught up in a situation of disorder, you may not take advantage of it. You may not simply take anything you see that you decide that you want. A protest is not a time when ethics do not apply – Judaism insists that you be a Jew at all moments, no matter what the provocation or temptation of your yetzer hara’, your evil inclination.
When you go out as a group against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward. (Deut. 23.10)
This command requires that we look at ourselves and the group we have gathered together in order to go forth and do battle. Related to the warning in last week’s parashat hashavua, we must pursue justice justly – just means and just ends. What is the group’s ethic? its rhetoric? its aims? Who are you allying with, to whom are you adding the strength of your voice and your presence?
When you go forth to do battle against your enemies and you see horses and chariots – forces larger than yours – have no fear of them, for HaShem is with you. (Deut. 20.1)
There’s a moment when one’s group may be confronted with a sense of being overwhelmed by the forces we confront: the scale of the national catastrophe, the hostility of White Supremacists, or the militarized police who deploy tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons against unarmed people expressing their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Just seeing the riot police show up with their armed vehicles offers a moment of empathy with the way our ancestors must have felt when the Hittites showed up on their shiny chariots with their fearsome spears made of the latest synthetic, bronze.
The Torah’s promise does not mean that G*d will protect us from harm in such a case; indeed, members of our own kehillah have been hurt in gatherings since January 20 of this year. The Torah only promises that G*d will be with us when we go out to do battle with evil, meaning that even if we’re harmed, even if we’re arrested, even if we are – G*d forbid – killed, if we have gone forth to the battle with care for ethics both in our acts and that of the group with which we ally, we will be able to rest in the assurance that our intentions and our acts aimed toward righteousness.
In memory of
Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney (Mississippi),
Edward Crawford (Ferguson),
William Schraeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer (Kent State)
Heather Heyer (Charlottesville)
and
too many more

Shabbat Shoftim: Yes, Be Judgmental – Justly

Parashat Shoftim begins with the description of the necessary supervision of an ideal community. First one must have judges, then those who carry out judgments. And of course, judgements must be just – as just as human beings can manage to be. Nuances of law, circumstances of context, and our own internal biases must all be clearly illuminated by careful and thorough thinking, listening, and testing.
Our tradition has developed fantastic teachings for our own every day judgements. On this Shabbat, the first in Elul – when we attempt to become more aware judges of ourselves – I offer you a few guidelines from Jewish ethical teachings:
 
1. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates (Deuteronomy 16.18) 

The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions. (Siftei Kohen)

This insight reminds us to judge ourselves and our impressions justly. Are you about to condemn someone’s words or behavior? have you investigated justly (as you would wish to be investigated?
2. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates . . . (16.18)

Do not judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One. (Pirke Avot – “Ethics of Our Ancestors,” 4:8)

Nothing in Judaism can be judged without two witnesses. In Jewish law, you can’t even turn yourself in. No one can be trusted to testify without corroboration.
3. Justice, justice shall you pursue (16.20)

Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in the pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just.  (Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)

Our tradition insists that the world can be perfected, and that there are no short cuts, no exceptions, and that no one will be left out.
Jewish tradition urges us that our learning must be followed with action. On this Shabbat may we remember that action is also internal: before we can reach out to work on the world, we have to work on ourselves. May you find the support for the work you yourself must do among all of us, doing our work together to make the world, and ourselves, better.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.