Shabbat VaYigash: Stepping Away from the Past, Shaping the Future

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – William Faulkner

The denouement of the Joseph saga occurs at the beginning of this week’s parashat VaYigash. The great dramatic moment comes when Judah courageously steps forward. He does so to accept the burden of the family’s great hidden sin: that of the brothers’ selling Joseph into slavery and hiding it from their father.  Judah gives himself up for the sake of them all, but especially for the father who, tragically, does not have it in his heart to ever be able to repay or even recognize this gift of love and family responsibility.

Judah’s act has been seen primarily by Jewish tradition as the proof of the extraordinary nature of the tribal line associated with him, the royal one; that of the once and forever line of the kings of Israel. His willingness to step first into a breach reminds one of Nakhshon ben Ammindav, his descendent, who is unafraid to leap into the Sea of Reeds even before the waters are miraculously parted during the Exodus from Egypt. 

Jewish tradition looks for family resemblances in this way, echoes and answers that reverberate over many generations. This is in line with ancient Israelite belief that we are all connected, and our acts affect each other over time and space. To understand the universe in this way is to see that we act within a sense of

אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲון אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י

“A passionate holiness, within which the sins of ancestors 

reverberate onto their descendants 

for three, and even four, generations” – Exodus 20.5

Judah is the great grandson of Sarah and Abraham, the grandson of Rivkah and Isaak, the son of Leah and Jacob. His life reflects not only the brave boundary crossing of Abraham but also the trauma of Isaak’s Akedah, Jacob’s theft of birthright and blessing from Esau, and the massacre of the men of Shekhem by his brothers Shimon and Levi. His step forward is a step away from all that inchoate pain, and toward wholeness. It is breath-taking, because Judah here is both wounded and whole. Where his father limps and lies, Judah strides toward the truth.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ז״ל attributes the reinterpretation of the past which becomes possible at this point to Joseph, who offers the brothers the perspective that instead of guilt at their own acts, they should see Joseph’s presence in Egypt as HaShem’s doing, for a higher purpose.

But Joseph’s generous reshaping of the impact of the years of suffering cannot take place until Judah takes the fateful step. Not unlike many of us, who limp through life in inherited pain until one day we are able to break the pattern, Judah steps out of and away from the family path. 

Today is Asarah b’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet. This day has been observed as a (minor) fast day for many generations of Exile, because on this day over 2500 years ago the Babylonian Empire, besieging Jerusalem, breached the walls. It was the beginning of the end. How could we know that all these years later the day would be scarcely relevant, as Jerusalem is rebuilt and so much has happened to soften that past horror?

We cannot erase the past, nor can we bury it. Both our Jewish tradition and any good therapist will agree: if you do not recognize your past consciously, it will demand your recognition subconsciously. All we can do is act now to set that past in a larger, redeeming perspective. As long as we live, such acts – we call them mitzvot – are constantly possible. Each small act of kindness, of wholeness, of love, defies the darkness of our isolation from each other in this 9th month of pandemic. And it will redeem our perspective in ways that will define these days in ways we cannot possibly imagine now.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Becoming Whole By Becoming Oneself

There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in – Leonard Cohen ז״ל

In this week’s parashah, the eponymous ancestor of the People of Israel is given the name Israel. The deceiving, conniving, too smart by half Jacob has apparently achieved some kind of transition.

The people Israel has for two thousand years developed our sense of identity as a people through learning the lives and lessons of our ancestors. In order to do so, those of us who are not male (or the other things the text might be seen to assume are normative) have had to learn how to do Midrash – to look beneath the surface of things – in order to relate to the essential humanity beneath what seems to be a patriarchal text.

Patriarchal but not without matriarchal moments; heterosexual but not without its moments of queerness; spiritually uplifting sometimes but more often a tale of mistakes, venality, and “stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”*

Jacob this week is stumbling toward his destiny, a trail that leads directly to his brother Esau, whom he has cheated and lied to, and then run away from. In so doing he becomes a paradigm of the necessary steps we still know we must take in order to achieve atonement; at-one-ment, reconciliation not only with another but, in the process, becoming more whole in oneself.

Such work requires difficult struggle. This week’s Torah recounts that struggle one night, which has been variously understood by many of us over the generations: the Torah itself refers to “a man” but the prophet Hosea says it was an angel (Hosea 12.4-5). Our Rabbinic Sages declared that it was Samael, whom they called Esau’s “guardian angel” and a source of evil (Rashi, peace be upon him, Gen.32.35).

Isn’t this just like ourselves? As the people, so the individual: before I finally locate the blame appropriately on myself, I will blame everyone else for my fault. My yetzer hara’ will convince me that I myself am blameless but just unlucky. These stages of denial lead me away from seeing how much I really struggled with the evil of blaming others, because all I see is the evil I have experienced.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, peace be upon him, taught that Jacob’s real problem is that he does not know himself, and does not value himself. That is why he steals blessings and birthrights. But our tradition rules that you can’t bless HaShem with a stolen lulav on Sukkot; our people has learned that stolen blessings are really useless. A blessing only applies to the one who fits it.

This week Jacob wrestles, really with himself in all those guises: the “angel” is his better nature, the “samael” is his yetzer hara’, the evil impulse we all feel and struggle with. Jacob wrestles with Israel, the person he is meant to be, most of all. 

It’s not so easy to grow. It’s terribly difficult to apologize, and make amends. But it is also incredibly powerful.

Jacob returns to Esau by stages. First he sends to Esau the material blessing he took, a gift of hundreds of sheep and goats, cows and camels and donkeys. Then, when he meets him, he returns the blessing of primacy: “be lord over your brothers,” (Gen.27.29). Jacob bows repeatedly to Esau, calling him “my lord.” 

And Jacob leaves that place of denouement in peace, which is to say he is whole, although he is limping from the struggle to become himself. Our ancestors learned that there is nothing as whole as a broken spirit, and that the truly repentant stand in a higher, more discerning place than those who have never struggled.

May it be a Shabbat of peace and wholeness for us. Hazak Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

________

*Churchill, according to Sacks

Shabbat Behar: Between the Peak and the Valley

mah inyan shemitta eytzel har Sinai?  This is the classic Jewish form of the question you might recognize as “what does that have to do with all the tea in China?” or “what’s Hecuba to you, or you to Hecuba?”

“What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?”

This week’s parashat hashavua is named Behar, for “on the mountain”, i.e. Mt. Sinai. The first topic mentioned among the many mitzvot of this parashah is shemitta, a seven-year cycle of Shabbat rest for the agricultural land, the fruitfulness of which the ancient Israelites depend for their very lives. The shemitta command teaches that everything needs a Shabbat, not only the people and animals mentioned in the Shabbat mitzvah we repeat in our prayers every week on that day, but also the land itself.

Here we are, deep in the details of the Book called VaYikra (Leviticus), learning law after law, deriving social and personal ethics, hearing stories to illustrate the cost of transgression. In our minds, we’ve left the Sinai moment – that moment of thunder and awe and revelation – far behind. This is precisely what leads to the question: “what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” Asking the question is a way of saying that there is no apparent connection between two issues or concepts raised by one’s interlocutor.

But shemitta has a lot to do with Sinai, in the way that real life does maintain a link to the rare special moments that we experience as different – as different from everyday life, one might say, as the valley is from the peak. We live our lives in the valley of every day life, not on the mountaintop. Yet we would not know one from the other without the balance of both in our lives.

The same is true of Torah: elevating, beautiful commandments like love your neighbor as yourself, and difficult aspects such as the seeming acceptance of human conditions that we find barbaric. One of them, slavery, is legislated in this parashah. Why, we ask from our liberated place in the world, does Torah not simply abolish slavery?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an explanation based upon the difference between chronological (Torah) and logical (philosophy) understandings of life:

There are profound differences between philosophy and Judaism, and one of these lies in their respective understandings of time. For Plato and his heirs, philosophy is about the truth that is timeless (or, for Hegel and Marx, about “historical inevitability”). Judaism is about truths (like human freedom) that are realized in and through time. That is the difference between what I call the logical and chronological imaginations. The logical imagination yields truth as system. The chronological imagination yields truth as story (a story is a sequence of events extended through time). Revolutions based on philosophical systems fail—because change in human affairs takes time, and philosophy is incapable of understanding the human dimension of time. The inevitable result is that (in Rousseau’s famous phrase) they “force men to be free”—a contradiction in terms, and the reality of life under Soviet Communism. Revolutions based on Tanach succeed, because they go with the grain of human nature, recognizing that it takes time for people to change. The Torah did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a process that would lead people to come of their own accord to the conclusion that it was wrong. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; to see the full article, click here.)

The Torah’s truth unfolds like a flower, which means that our own interpretations and understandings are as significant for our age as those in the ages that came before us. We often live in the breach, rather than in the fulfillment, of a mitzvah; truth takes time and experience in balancing the peaks and valleys of real, flawed human existence. The Jewish understanding of truth grows, embracing more and more seeming paradoxes until we reach a point where we can see that there are no paradoxes; there is only multi-layered, ever shifting, always limited human perspective.

What is not clear today beckons us onward, as long as we remember that we do not see things as they are, but as we are. And so we must continue to learn, and grow, so that we can see. Everything teaches of chronological truth, and everything connects to everything else – even shemitta at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Shabbat VaYekhi: What Makes a Good Song?

We’ve arrived at the last weekly parashah of the first book of the Torah: the book of Creation, of beginnings, of the kind of stories that are meant to answer the essential questions. How did the world come into existence? How did you and I? How did the Jews become a people? and less happy questions as well, such as Why do people kill each other? The stories of Genesis are Mythical in their necessity. We want to know how and why our existence follows certain paths, with choices and eventualities we might not have chosen ourselves had we the choice, and way too much pain besides.

This week we are reading nearly the entirety of the next to last chapter in the Book Bereshit (Genesis), chapter 49. The entire chapter consists of Jacob’s final words, which have come down to us in the form of what is often understood as the blessing of the twelve tribes in the persons of their eponymous ancestors. Although the text does not say so, Jacob probably spoke in song, just as Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our Rabbi, his traditional appellation) will sing as he takes his leave of his people, and life, on the other end of the Torah. There, at the end of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the Torah will call Moshe’s final words a song.

When we look closely, we see that Jacob’s last song is not exactly a blessing. It is more a declaration of character of each of the twelve sons who become progenitors of tribes. It is also, of course, a description of the tribes as our tradition knows them (and in that way we can understand retrojected elements that are clearly not contemporary). It is a complex song, full of Jacob’s feelings about his sons, and so it expresses chagrin and pride, love and resignation. It’s not an easy song to hear – but it is honest.

What makes a good song? In an opera or musical, the best songs are not simple in subject matter; and often, the most beautiful songs include harmonies, different voices pitched in different ranges and even rhythms. A good song is just a cacophony if it is mistimed, or when the singers are not in sync with each other – but a good song sounds like a miracle of beauty when everything comes together just so. The same is true of a good music jam session – musicians sensitive to each other, each contributing, each welcoming of the other’s contribution.

A community’s expression of itself is similar. We sing a song that belongs to each of us but also to all of us, each of us in our own way. It’s not always an easy song: we clash sometimes. Someone’s voice is not in sync, someone gets outsung (or does the outsinging!), someone’s timing is well-meant but not so good….

The song that Jews sing in community is full of life: disagreements, good and bad days, pain, happiness, grief, pleasure, impatience, and much more. Just look at our Talmud and the rest of rabbinic literature.

The author of the halakhic (legal) code Arukh haShulkhan, Rabbi Yekhiel Epstein, points out that those same rabbis who argued all day long about the finer and larger points of law also insisted that eylu v’eylu divre Elokim Hayim, “these AND these are the words of the living G-d”. (Hoshen Mishpat, Introduction). And “this is one of the reasons the Torah is called ‘a song’ – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.”  (From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Torah as G-d’s Song).

A good congregational song is not always pretty. That is, if it is a good song, because a good song is honest. Like Jacob’s final song, it has dramatic curves, flashes of pain as well as happiness, and the occasional diva. A good song is one that helps us explore our Torah inheritance, to speak our personal truths and learn our community truths from each other. It’s a process that, over time, offers us the opportunity not only to make beautiful Jewish music together, but to fulfill our obligation to find our voice in the harmonious song of Torah that only we can make together.