Shabbat VaYeshev: Return, O Light, and We will Return to You

This is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, the light of the sun returns to us, slowly, day by day.

Darkness settles on us human beings like an oppressive cloak. Like Jacob and his sons in our parashat hashavua, we might even lose our grip on what’s real, and what’s really important. The darkness of their jealousy causes his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and allow his father to believe that he is dead. The darkness of his grief turns Jacob away from his remaining sons. Love leads to hurt, becomes betrayal, and mires a family in misery.

The wisdom of our ancient tradition does not tell us to avoid darkness – we’ve been around too long to believe in such a possibility. Rather, we are invited to note that the eye has both a dark part and a white part, and it is out of the dark part that we see. (R. Berekhiah b’Rabi, Midrash Tanhuma to Exodus, commenting on Psalm 18.29) Light blinds the eye; it is only in darkness that we are able to see light.

Joseph, cast into the darkness of an Egyptian dungeon, embodies this insight. It is not by betrayal and hate that he is able to climb up out of that darkness. When he is offered success in Egyptian terms, he consistently applies the ethical terms he learned from his own tradition to those opportunities. His steady honesty leads toward blessings he can see in the greater light that dawns for him and, ultimately, for all Egypt, as he is able to use his position to create public policy to forestall the worst effects of a multi-year famine.

Some of us have been cast down into our own dungeons of darkness, flirting with despair and with helplessness, in these dark days. It has been harder to remember to be gentle with those we love, and kind to those with whom we share our communities. It is not only personal grief that turns one inward and can lead to more hurt than necessary. It’s not easy to find the strength that Joseph had, to banish the darkness through steady connection to one’s ethics and honesty. 

How did Joseph manage it? What allowed him to see the light in the midst of the darkness that surrounded him? According to our tradition, it was because he never forgot the place from which he came and the people who came before him. He was able to see much more than light; because he remembered who he was and where he was from, he was able to see light’s Source.

We are taught that each of us is a reflection of G*d. That does not mean that we look, physically, like G*d. What we “see,” in the reflection that is each of us, is not carried on the wavelength of visible light. It is memory that communicates the resemblance between Creator and Creation. Memory is not a personal reverie; it is a collective, pulsing river of light, carrying the story of who we are, back and forth, all life long, creating us and forming G*d. Each individual’s memory illuminates a small part of the darkness that surrounds us.    

And so Hanukkah comes to remind us, just exactly at the right time, that darkness is nothing but an invitation to believe in our ability to kindle light, and to see in that light much more than the present reality it illuminates. Our Havdalah candle tomorrow evening leads directly to the kindling of the first light of the Hanukkiyah, as if already to encourage us to see how the spark becomes a bigger flame when we remember all the Hanukkah holidays that have come before, and all those who kindled light before us.

This, we pray, is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, may light of our own kindling return to us, slowly, day by day.

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Shabbat VaYera: Sodom and Gomorrah

Our parashah this week is VaYera, “he saw”, referring to Abraham, and his ability to see the Image of G*d in a stranger.  

Our reading, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle, brings us to one of the most infamous passages in the entire Torah, perhaps the entire Bible: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or S’dom v’Amora as they are called in Hebrew. It’s an example of how a text that had one meaning was interpreted into a different meaning by a different culture and possibly a third entirely different meaning by yet another, vastly influential culture – perhaps an ancient example of the “fake news” we are hearing about in our day, right now.

Here’s the story: two men, messengers of G*d in disguise as simple travelers, arrive in Sodom toward evening. Abraham’s nephew Lot is sitting in the gate and, seeing two strangers, invites them home with him – a normal act of hospitality in the ancient (and modern) Middle East. It is also precisely the same act that his uncle had just performed with these same travelers the previous day.

But Sodom is not a normal place, and that night a gang of thugs shows up, beating on Lot’s door, demanding that he bring out the strangers. Their intent was not friendly, and Lot refuses to transgress the vital mitzvah of guaranteeing the safety of one’s guests. The messengers of G*d, angels as it turns out, strike everyone blind and rescue Lot and his family from the mob. It doesn’t turn out well for Sodom.

What was the sin of Sodom?

In ancient Jewish writings, the Rabbis only ask a question to settle the answer, so we can glean from this that they already were not so sure what caused G*d to doom the entire city. Working from the evidence of the text, they teach that the sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah, the sister city down the street) was lack of hospitality – the failure to welcome and guarantee the safety of strangers.

“Behold this was the sin of Sodom…She and her daughters had pride, excess bread, and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy” (Ezekiel 16:49)

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow explains that “the people of Sodom insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city. Consequently when a destitute person would come seeking help, they would revoke his right to any welfare–public or private! By doing this they figured they would preserve an elite upper class community who would monopolize the profits that the bountiful land offers without having to distribute any revenues to a “lower class” of people.” 

You may have heard that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexuality, because that’s what another (very influential) culture interpreted down the historical line. But the sin depicted in the Torah is one of violence against the stranger, including but not limited to the sexual violence of rape. By the time we get to the false idea that it’s a text that tells us that gay love is a sin, it’s already part of a deadly game of telephone which has distorted the original meaning in a frightening way: this interpretation moves it out of the moral realm of daily action and into a much narrower definition that implicates a minority, rather than all of us.

Understanding the deeper truth does not erase millennia of falsely caused hatred, horrific in its effects. But perhaps in this way also, learning can help us see the light of a deeper truth more clearly. Let that light flood your own dark places with its promise that, some day, the darkness of every intolerance will be lifted. 

There is a teaching in the Jewish collection of ancient wisdom called Tanhuma in which it is pointed out that the eye has both a dark part, the pupil, and a white part – and it is out of the dark part that we see light.

I invite you to consider how you might increase the light when you kindle your Shabbat candles this evening: perhaps you will join me in adding one extra candle, for the duration. You can begin now, in the wake of the election, to encourage yourself to fight against the darkness of your own fear; you can begin at the inauguration as a sign to yourself and everyone else that you are committed to bringing light to bear against whatever darkness may come. Whatever you do, never doubt your ability to lift up light.

And help us lift a light this Sunday, November 20, on National Transgender Remembrance Day; it memorializes trans individuals who have died because of anti-transgender discrimination and victimization. To learn more go HERE.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other!