Shabbat VaEra: Breathe

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Exodus 6.9)

Traditional Jewish teaching about the escape of our ancestor Israelites from Egypt maintains that it could not occur until we cried out and our cry reached HaShem. One might ask, wouldn’t HaShem already be aware of what’s going on? Isn’t a god supposed to be omniscient? 

It’s not an either/or for Judaism. On some transcendent level, all is connected and everything intersects with everything else; small movements can echo through space and time in ways we cannot predict (this idea is called the Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory). A midrash recounts how, although many people were doing terrible thing, it was the torture of one righteous young woman led to the complete destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In our own day we know how many young Black people are murdered by police; yet it was the murder of one person, George Floyd, in May of 2020 which led to an uprising against state injustice that swept the U.S. 

The mystics of our people insist that this intimate interconnectedness exists everywhere and at all times; it is the condition of Being in the entire Universe (uni verse, not multi verse). But when Moshe, the reluctant prophet, is pushed by HaShem to go speak to the Israelites and let them know that HaShem has heard them, that their cries have caused (finally) the world to move, they cannot hear it.

Pharaoh had succeeded at this stage in making the people forget their dreams of freedom or at least improved conditions, by burdening them with additional hard labour. (Chizkuni, Exodus 6:9:1)

Remember back when the message that drove Western society was do more, produce more, and some of us boasted of our workaholism? Then came the pandemic, which demonstrated for us all that we and the planet could be healthier if we didn’t do so much all the time. But what happened? It’s as if Pharaoh doubled down, insisting that we produce at the same rate with less support. Come back to the office, ignore the pandemic’s effects, work harder with less job security. And to distract from this essential injustice, marginalized communities are singled out for torture: trans people, Black people, Jewish people, drag queens….until we are all so anguished that it’s all we can do to focus.

If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths. (Rashi)

The Pharaoh of our days is that which drives us toward hopelessness and cynicism; it’s too hard to believe that our cries can make a difference against the might of today’s Egypt. It’s too hard not to feel overwhelmed. Some days we feel so constrained by stress that we can’t breathe deeply enough even to scream – much less sing of our hope.

Studying the sources for this parashah I found a curious proverb in connection with this verse about the people being unable to believe in words of a better future.

“There is no benefit to be derived from acacia wood except when it is cut down.”  (Midrash Tanhuma VaEra 2.1)

The proverb is offered to explain that directly after Moshe’s mission fails, HaShem then sends Moshe to Pharaoh, indicating that there’s more, much more, to come: “an old proverb indicating that one must wait until an episode is concluded to learn the result.”

But the proverb might be understood another way. We who feel more like a lonely acacia tree in the wilderness, barren of the ability to produce fruit or even much shade, are not yet without  potential – we may just not have discovered where our hope lies, yet. For some of us, it’s in some kind of sacrifice of ourselves that we will find purpose.

Is it in letting go of the idea that we’ll be “back to normal” in our lifetimes, and considering what a “new normal” might be?

Is in coming to the realization that our lives may be “over” in some way, but the children of our community may yet see a redemptive future?

An acacia tree cut down is no longer alive. And only then is acacia tree’s wood able to create the Ark to carry the most important hope of our people.

To recall the prophetic words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, we may not each get there, but if we are able to remain together and find a way to sing our hope, each one of us can aspire to the exalted fate of that acacia tree. Seemingly alone but yet so necessary to what is most important, each in our own, small way.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat VaYekhi: Deathbed Blessings

Two good things are near to you and far from you, 

far from you and near to you: 

Repentance is near to you and far from you, 

far from you and near to you.

Death is near to you and far from you, 

far from you and near to you.

Kohelet Rabbah 8.17

In parashat VaYehi we read of the death of Jacob, who according to our ancient tradition had at least 13 children (although there is a midrash that states that with each of the 12 songs, a twin sister was born!). The scene is classic: all the offspring gathered around the deathbed.

Many of us will have the opportunity to be at the deathbed of a beloved relative; grandparent, parent, sibling, friend, or, has v’halilah, an offspring. In these moments we feel the pull to be present, and in Jewish tradition it is important to reassure the soul that it will be okay although its lifelong envelope is expiring.

Often it seems that there is something we want to hear – or to say. But how?

It will come to each of us. Imagine the moment when those who love you gather around you as you are dying, looking for some meaningful word. In our parashah, the Torah relates the mixed blessing that ensued when the Patriarch Jacob summoned his children to his deathbed. 

Gather yourselves together and I will tell you what will happen to you in the End of Days. Assemble yourselves and listen, o children of Jacob; listen to Israel your father. (Genesis 49.1-2)

 Jacob did not know how to begin, but began anyway. In his opening words we can hear what he wanted to say. He wanted his children to stay together, to remain an “assembly” that listened to their parents and together carried on the meaning of their lives.

The dying man begins to speak, and his opening words are not pleasant, but they are honest. He gives voice in these moments to that which usually goes unspoken, too difficult to say. It’s not easy: at one point he cries out, “O G*d, I wait for your salvation!” (Genesis 49.18)

After his death, his son Joseph kisses him; in Hebrew kiss is neshek – and it is also armor, which leads us to ask. If there will be a moment of neshek, what will it mean in your life and your death?

The deathbed moment in Jewish tradition may occur long before the moment of death. It is a moment of recognizing, or avoiding, the relationships that matter. You choose the neshek: will your life end with armor, or a kiss? Will you and those around you shrink away from the risks of honesty and openness, and keep your emotional armor strong? Or will you manage to reach through the patterns, and the fear, toward the closeness of the kiss?

Jacob wished to bless his children, but was in doubt whether he ought to bless them since they had caused him so much pain… He turned his eyes and heart heavenwards, and cried out whatever G*d would put in his mouth to say. (Mei haShiloakh commentary on Bereshit Rabbah)

Those with the most unfinished business have the most difficult time with death. One waits all one’s life for someone to say I love you; one never does ask about a long-ago heartache, because it was too painful to bring up, and so the ache remains. There is hesitation on both sides, and why, anyway, expect the pattern of a lifetime to be overcome, just because death is near?

Jacob speaks to each of his children of the choices that have already defined the life of that child for good or for ill. There’s no guarantee that deathbed honesty will change someone’s life. But at the very least, Jacob’s gift to his children meant that they were not left to wonder, all their lives long, what dad might have said.

May this Shabbat be one on which you are able to contemplate Eternity and your precious place in it, and what your life means not only to you but to all those with whom you share meaningful community.

Shabbat Miketz: Ambiguity is Painful

Parashat Miketz always falls during Hanukkah. As such we search it for insights at this darkest, coldest time of the year, and it does not disappoint – more, it can overwhelm. Consider the terrible emotional ambiguity of just one question that arises from study of the parashah: 

“How is it that Joseph, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian official, did not send his father even one message to inform him (that he was alive) and comfort him? Egypt is only six days’ travel from Hebron! And respect for his father would have justified even a year’s journey.” (Ramban, Gen 42.9).

And just like that, the wonderful story of a smart Jew rising to unbelievable power in Egypt is made fraught with emotional distress. Why didn’t Joseph send a note to his dad? Some commentaries answer Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman’s question by suggesting that there was a purpose, either divine or human: perhaps Isaac (still alive?!) knew but realized that if Jacob did not, HaShem preferred to keep it from him for some reason. Or perhaps Joseph calculated that his brothers needed time to repent of their actions, and that time had not yet come (as we will see next week, it took some doing). But in all this, to let his father suffer so?

And so we are left with the uneasy feeling of not being sure how to judge Joseph. Suddenly the figure of this Jewish hero is not necessarily so heroic. People are complicated. The Mayor of Portland is, in his choice to follow in the steps of other elected leaders throughout the U.S. to criminalize homelessness, and Joseph is, when he manipulates a multi-year famine to make free farmers Pharaoh’s serfs as the price of their survival, too.

The snow that has fallen overnight in Portland Oregon, as in many places in the U.S. in the icy storm system that came through, might occur to be simply a beautiful transformation of our surroundings. But for those who are suffering from it, houseless or heatless or both, the simple beauty becomes painfully confused. For those who are privileged to experience snow from beside a warm fireplace or heating vent, how do we navigate the conflicting feeling of guilt that spoils our sense of innocent joy?

The next question is even more personal: why does it matter what we feel? Why not just curl into a little ball of enervation when confronted with such an overwhelming emotional challenge?

Because you matter, and your existence makes a difference. The challenge is to still be you in the world, a spiritually functional you, and not to sacrifice either your awareness of the pain in the world, nor yourself, in the process. 

From our Jewish ethical tradition comes the vital practice of balance. It bids us neither to look away nor to be consumed, but to find a middle position. Come and hear, as our ancestors said: all the beauty and all the pain exist, all the time. We sing psalms of praise for the glory of nature and we follow them with prayers begging relief from the pain of our lives. We are capable of doing both, and in this unredeemed world that is what we are called upon to do.

“On the one hand” and “on the other hand” is an old Jewish joke for a reason. But never forget how the joke ends….”on the third hand.” There’s always a position that balances between the two opposites you behold. As a people that continues to light candles every erev Shabbat despite pogroms, cossacks, and what is worse, betrayal among our own people, we are meant to have regular practice in this realization. We keep singing in the icy darkness, and in this way we keep adding light to the world.

On the one hand, the snow is, indeed beautiful. On the other, the cruelty of U.S. government attitudes toward the vulnerable among us makes the snow deadly for our fellow human beings. And what is our balance? Intellectual contemplation of this reality is Torah study; feeling the emotion of it is prayer; and according to our tradition, the culmination of these is action.

Extend your third hand, the spiritual one that finds the prayer-study balance in action; the one that reaches out to lift the shamash candle to light the others in your Hanukkah menorah. The balance that saves us from despair is expressed in the Jewish mystical tradition as compassion. Take that guilt and pile it up on the altar of your heart, just as our ancestors once knew how to do. Light it afire with your anger at the senseless suffering of so many. Feel that act spur you toward doing what you can, energized by your ability to not only discern but to evoke light in the darkness – for today, you need not give in to sadness. For today, keep feeding the light.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameakh!

Shabbat VaYeshev: Not Home Yet

וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן

“Jacob settled in the land where his parents had lived” – Gen 37.1

The narrative of Jewish history, that is to say the story we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from, is rooted in the myth of a garden. Eden, as the mythical birthplace of humanity, is a place of peace and fulfillment, and, most of all, connectedness. Psychological and mystical insights alike speak of the mothering from which we separate as we learn to stand and walk on our own, but that we miss as a hole in our wholeness from that moment on. The mystics promise that we can experience it again, in precious moments when we lose our sense of separate self and are swallowed up into an endless Oneness; they say that at the very least, we’ll know that feeling of wholeness again at the moment of our death.

This week’s Torah reading, VaYeshev, begins with what seems to be for our ancestor Israel (aka Jacob) an end of wandering, now “settled” with his large family where his parents had lived. He has come home. Throughout the Torah, the land called Canaan then and now Israel is for the Jewish people our Eden.

Yet, as the commentary Haamek Davar notes, this is “the land of his parents.” It wasn’t his home…the blessing of home would not be his until after they experienced ‘exile in a land not theirs’” (Ha’amek Davar, Bereshit 37.1).”

That land, of course, is Egypt, where we will be enslaved for four hundred years. Haamek Davar is noting here that the prophecy Jacob’s grandparent Abraham had experienced has yet to be fulfilled. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה

HaShem said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years (Gen. 15.13)

Just because you’re in a place doesn’t mean it’s home. Conversely, as Haamek Davar goes on to suggest, the place you are in might be home, at least in your generation, if – and here’s the key for us – if it is a place of Torah. 

“If it is a place where we can be rooted in Torah, then it is good to be there. The Talmud declares that in the days of vibrant Jewish learning in Babylon, that place was the best place in the world to be.” (Continuation of Haamek Davar Bereshit 37.1)

It is tragically difficult to see the State of Israel right now as the fulfillment of any Jewish wholeness, while successive governments maintain the occupation of land that should be a Palestinian state, and a known transphobe is appointed supervisor of the Ministry of Education by the incoming coalition. 

A Jewish state is one in which Jewish values are upheld, or at least held up: do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex.23.9). Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion (Zekharyah 7.10). Justice, justice you must do if you would thrive on the land where you live (Deut. 16.20)

We who do not live in Israel are nonetheless tied to Israel by history and by fate. To turn away is a naive choice and one which distances us further from Torah. As Jews we must understand that “this too is Torah, and I need to learn it,” as Rabbi Akiba said. 

It’s not easy to engage in a world full of antisemitism that gets mixed up in legitimate criticism of Israel. First we need to know how to articulate our own sense of paradise lost, and acknowledge the sad sense of separation. That is our current exile, and it will not end until the place where we are – wherever we may find ourselves – is a place of Torah.

I invite you to join me on January 13 (stay tuned for details) to begin to engage in an ongoing conversation, in a safe place, about Israel as the Jewish homeland, and how to balance our longing for its promise with our sorrow for its reality.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Moving Past Anger

וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Gen 33.4)

Rabbi Yannai said, why is [the word ‘kissed’] dotted? it teaches that [Esav] came not to kiss [Yaakov] but to bite him, but our ancestor Yaakov’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Yaakov] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.  Bereshit Rabbah 78.9


Shalom Shir Tikvah Kehillah Kedoshah,

The urge to stay angry is very satisfying. It must be; otherwise grudges would be unknown to the human race. It also must be quite natural, since the prevailing tradition regarding the fateful meeting in our parashat hashavua insists that Esau must still be murderously angry at his brother Jacob for stealing his birthright twenty years earlier. 
The midrash about Esau mostly expects him to be nursing a giant grudge, still angry after all these years.

While we all know that anger is a natural emotion, and that sometimes it is the correct response to a situation, teachers of Jewish ethics nevertheless assert that anger remains the most dangerous of our emotions. Our judgment while angry is unreliable; feelings are not thoughts, nor are they amenable to reason in the heat of a moment. When HaShem gets angry at the Israelites, the consequences are catastrophic; our rabbis warn that we, created in the Divine image, are also capable of destruction through our anger. 

*Two young people reject a third who until yesterday was one of their closest companions in the mutual aid work that defines their lives. Who suffers most? Might it be the people who won’t be helped because those who are not (yet) ruled out of the “in group” are fewer in number, with less capacity to do their work?

*A member of a board isn’t consulted in a big policy decision. Certainly they can choose to claim that their anger is righteous, and they have every right to walk away denouncing the lack of disrespect. Yet wouldn’t it make more sense if years of camaraderie and the sense of getting good work done outweighed one moment of feeling left out?

*A person age sixty is still angry at their mother, for never apologizing for hurts suffered in childhood. The mother has dementia; the offspring will never hear the only words they’ve sworn will end their anger. Over time, tragically, the quest for healing has gone from reasonable to absurd.

We all live in a world of hurt. Jewish ethics teaches us to recognize that our anger is real, yet not to let it rule over us. We can choose not to defined by a powerful emotion, but to bring into our hearts our capacity to think, and learn, and judge, as well. 

According to our Torah, Esau did just that: he grew past his anger by acknowledging, also, that he had a relationship with his brother that he did not want to lose. And so he made a life for himself with what he had. He chose to live in the present, and not permit the past to continue to hurt him. And he welcomed his brother when Jacob got up the nerve to finally come home.

No matter what justifications Rabbi Yannai of the Talmud and others fabricate for the patriarch, in this long-delayed meeting Jacob himself shows awareness of his sin toward his brother. His attempt to make atonement is clearly indicated in the words “please take my blessing”. Take it back, in other words.

קַח־נָ֤א אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֻבָ֣את לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־חַנַּ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְכִ֣י יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹ֑ל וַיִּפְצַר־בּ֖וֹ וַיִּקָּֽח׃

Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (Gen 33.11)

Esau’s response is that he doesn’t need it; he has created his own blessing. He has been able to overcome his anger. Righteous though it may be, he has chosen to move on. This is in line with the teachings of Maimonides, the great Sephardi sage of Al Andalus and Egypt:

כַּעַס וְאַכְזָרִיּוּת הוּא מֵחֶסְרוֹן הַדַּעַת. וְכָל מַה שֶּׁמִּתְרַבֶּה הַדַּעַת נִתְבַּטֵּל הַכַּעַס וּמִתְרַבֶּה הָרַחֲמָנוּת וְהַחֶסֶד וְהַשָּׁלוֹם. עַל־כֵּן עַל־יְדֵי עֵסֶק הַתּוֹרָה, שֶׁעַל־יְדֵי זֶה נִמְשָׁךְ דַּעַת,
עַל יְדֵי זֶה מִתְבַּטֵּל הַכַּעַס וְנִמְשָׁךְ רַחְמָנוּת וְשָׁלוֹם:
(לק”א סי’ נ”ו אות ו’)

Anger and unkindness arise when people’s understanding is limited.
The deeper their understanding the more their anger disappears, and kindness, love and peace spread.
This is why the study of Torah, which deepens the understanding, brings love and peace into the world and banishes anger
(Rambam, Likutei Etzot, Anger 3, 56:6).

Where in your life do you feel anger? What do you need to move past it? May you find the necessary understanding to let go of anger, and allow yourself peace.

Shabbat VaYetze: This is a holy place, and I didn’t know it!

“What if this is the darkness not of the tomb, but of the womb?” – Valarie Kaur, Revolutionary Love Project

In our parashat hashavua a young Jacob is on the lam. He is escaping the rupture of his family relationships, with no clear sense of what he is running toward. He flees his brother’s wrath, his father’s sorrow, his mother’s disappointment. He runs until nightfall, and then he finds a rock to lay his head down on, and sleeps.

The act is curiously expressed in the Hebrew of the Torah:

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Gen. 28.11)

The Hebrew for “his head” is, curiously enough, a plural: רַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו ra’ashotav. None of the classic sources stop to discuss this; they are all too taken with the ladder that will appear in the next verse. But I see here a hint that Jacob is torn; the son, the brother, the human being, all at odds with each other. He is not “of one mind” even with himself. He is at his worst, feeling very small, and here comes the darkness.

We may feel that way as individuals. How small we are against the fear of what we cannot see; how frightening the darkness that grows this time of year, along with life-threatening cold.

It’s a good time to remind ourselves that to name a Jewish community as a kehillah kedoshah, sacred community, in line with ancient Jewish tradition, is an aspirational – and inspirational, we hope – statement. Most of the time in our own little lives, I wager that we do not feel particularly sacred, nor capable of making anything holy.  

But that’s where we are wrong, for as Jews we are taught to sanctify as one of our earlier acts. When a small child watches and learns to participate in the erev Shabbat candle lighting, they witness and begin to be part of a profound act of kedushah, of the act of making holy. You do no less when you speak the blessing in that moment, and in so doing turn a regular Friday night into a special time, set apart in whatever way you choose to end the week. 

To make sacred is to take the extra step of mindfulness. It is to go about your regular day but to see in it the holy moments, waiting to be revealed. For Jews, the world is full of holiness, and we just have to notice it. In the teachings of mysticism, every mitzvah pulls back the veil over a spark of the presence of HaShem. 

It’s religious peek-a-boo, with amazing results: suddenly you are walking through a garden of potential amazement at any moment. All you have to do when confronted by the world is to assert your Jewish spiritual perspective, to ask the Jewish question: where is the mitzvah of this moment? What is the mitzvah I need to do?

Mitzvah doesn’t mean “good deed,” although some mitzvot are indeed acts which reflect Jewish ethics. Many other mitzvot are technical, and they express, very simply, the Jewish concept of the world as built upon learning, community, and doing kindness.

Mitzvah is connection; it asserts your ability as a human being to act effectively in the world. When we come together as a community in that cause, we are a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah. 

There are so many good mitzvot that will distract you from worrying about the dark, and find comfort in doing something to alleviate someone else’s need. Choose one, commensurate with your capacity. Let it lift you up, so that like Jacob, you can wake up in the morning and realize that wherever you are, this is a holy place – and I didn’t even know it.

Shabbat Toldot: It Can Stop Here

Have you ever been vilified? Or known someone who was? We tend to shake our heads over the person as well as the process, decrying “cancel culture” but believing that the lashon hara’ must have some root in truth.

Our parashat hashavua describes two brothers, twins, who are quite different. One loves the outdoors and becomes a skilled hunter with bow and arrow; the other likes to stay closer to the tents, helping to shepherd the flocks. They might be seen a metaphor for the classic clash we detect between hunter and farmer. There is nothing to suggest in the text that one is evil and one is righteous.

Then comes the family dysfunction. The twins’ mother comes from a family that thought nothing of deception, even among family members; the father was traumatized early by his father’s violence, and seems bereft of volition. Is it any wonder that the woman deceives her husband in order to make sure that the twin she loves better is the inheritor, even though he was born second? Is it surprising that the child she favors goes along with it?

The manipulation of mother and son against father and brother is appalling. The Torah describes the grief of the cheated son and the deceived father in heartrending terms.

The surprising thing is that, for two thousand years of Jewish tradition, our ancestors did everything they could through Midrash and superstition to twist the character of Esau into someone who deserved being cheated. And we are left with this curiosity: a people that holds up the ethical concept of lishpot l’khaf zekhut, always giving someone the benefit of the doubt (until proven otherwise), has gone out of its way to defend the indefensible.

Why does our tradition vilify Esau? It’s a story that we tell to ourselves that answers when other inexplicable hurt. Esau, our bigger and more powerful sibling, becomes associated with Rome, and then with Christianity – bigger, more powerful cultures at whose hands we have suffered Exile, persecution and mass murder. Why would brother Jacob be justified in betraying brother Esau? Only in retrospect; only because the absent, innocent Esau becomes symbolic of evil.

There’s no truth to it, except for the truth that we all hurt, and sometimes we weave elaborate stories about why that end up blaming someone innocent. And then there’s so much riding on that story, so much depending upon it, that we can’t undo it. The person is sacrificed to the place we need them to take for life to make sense to us.

This struggle is at the heart of the long and painful series of incidents, fears, hopes and betrayals that characterize the relationship of Palestinians and Israelis over the past century. Historically, we Jews carry so much trauma that many of us consider distrust of outsiders to be a traditional virtue. In Israel and beyond, Jews draw a line between the 1930s anti-British Hebron riots, in which Arabs massacred Jewish neighbors, all the way to Oslo, and the tradition that grows up around old fears creates new expectations of betrayal and of evil. From Esau to the Mufti of Jerusalem, we’ve woven a way to make sense of our fears, and even today when we behold the injustice of the Occupation which our own Jewish ethics tells us is wrong, some of our people are trapped by the old fears. And others speak only words of condemnation.

We who inherit all this can’t rehabilitate Esau’s reputation, and we can’t convince generations of traumatized Jews that their fears are not real. But perhaps we can be the generation that does not continue to live out of fear; the generation that refocuses us upon judging each person l’khaf zekhut, giving the benefit of the doubt.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ariel

An invitation to learn starting December 13 2022: A one-year course on Israel and Palestine

Israel and Palestine: Learn before you Think

The goal of this course is to create a safe learning environment for Jews to discuss and reckon with the complexities of our relationship with Israel. The State of Israel is both the fulfillment of the millennial dream of a homeland for Jews and the cause Palestinian pain and suffering caused by the Israeli government. 

There are very few safe spaces for Jews to wrestle with the right and wrong of Zionism without the overlay of antisemitism that magnifies internalized self-hatred and intergenerational trauma. I invite you to join me in a year-long course which will guide participants through a carefully moderated, mutually respectful exploration of the historical, cultural and spiritual link of the Jewish people to Israel and the tragedy of the ongoing Israeli state’s oppression of the people of Palestine. All Jews and those who are learning to become Jews who come from a place of human heartbreak, not demonization, are welcome.

This year-long discussion will culminate in a study tour of Palestine and Israel led by Mejdi Tours, in order to see in person the people and places we’ve learned about, including El Azariyah, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and  Jerusalem.

For more information stay tuned to an announcement next week.

Hayye Sarah: No One Gets Out Alive

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. (Genesis 23.1)

Literally: “The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.”

All that lives will die. Even you, even me. Despite exercise and diet. While we know that there are ways we can act that are likely to enhance our days, we cannot control how many there will be.

As with all the stories recorded in our Torah, we approach the death of Sarah as a learning moment. As we have lived and died in many different majority cultures during two millennia of homelessness, different times have produced different commentaries.

Talmud (2-5th century Babylonia) whilst Sarah was living, a light had been burning in the tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, there was always a blessing in the dough (a miraculous increase) and a cloud was always hanging over the tent (as a divine protection), but since her death all these had stopped. However, when Rebecca came, they reappeared” (Genesis Rabbah 60:16).

Rashi (11th century France): The reason the word שנה shanah, “year”, is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number: at the age of one hundred she was as a woman of twenty as regards sin — for just as at the age of twenty one may regard her as having never sinned, since she had not then reached the age when she was subject to punishment, so, too, when she was one hundred years old she was sinless — and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven (Rashi on Bereshit Rabbah 58:1).

Midrash (2nd-12th century Europe) The sun of Sarah did not set until the sun of Rivkah had risen, as it is written, “the sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes 1.5) There is no tzadik / tzadeket [righteous person] who disappears from the world until another is born. (Midrash Lekakh Tov, Genesis 23.1:1)

To this we might add in our own day something that we note as important, even subversive, in our own day: her life partner Abraham took the time to grieve. He did not immediately begin to organize Life After Sarah, or even to arrange for her burial site. He sat down next to the body of Sarah and he wept.

Western culture urges us to keep going, not to let death and sorrow disrupt our routine. In so doing it makes death much harder than necessary. On this Shabbat, consider the alternative: follow in the footsteps of your Jewish ancestors, who search the life and death of loved ones for meaning by which to live. And, most important perhaps, mandate time and space to consider our own in the shadow of theirs. May it be said of us when we die, as of Sarah, that she lived.

Shabbat VaYera: Community

Sodom and Gomorrah was a community too…

תָּנֵי רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחָאי, מָשָׁל לִבְנֵי אָדָם שֶׁהָיוּ יוֹשְׁבִין בִּסְפִינָה נָטַל אֶחָד מֵהֶן מַקְדֵּחַ וְהִתְחִיל קוֹדֵחַ תַּחְתָּיו, אָמְרוּ לוֹ חֲבֵרָיו מַה אַתָּה יוֹשֵׁב וְעוֹשֶׂה, אָמַר לָהֶם מָה אִכְפַּת לָכֶם לֹא תַחְתִּי אֲנִי קוֹדֵחַ, 

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught a parable: People were on a ship. One took a drill and started drilling underneath their seat. The others said: What are you doing?! The reply: What do you care. Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?!  

– VaYikra Rabbah 4.6

Does your community help you find light in darkness?

Does your community expand your understanding of what it is to care?

Does your community offer you support when you can’t go it alone?

We all need it as a natural condition of human existence. What is it, then, that makes human community so difficult? Is it the devastating flood of the evil we do, or the babel of misunderstandings as we each seek the language of our personal identity? Is it exterior forces that dominate us, or is it our own incompleteness that makes us feel overwhelmed? Is it that we follow the wrong leader, or that we don’t let ourselves learn?

In the parashat hashavua this week we see Sarah establishing her household in a grove of trees, representing a certain kind of community – it takes a forest. Yet she sees clearly when a situation of too many conflicting needs must be resolved. Abraham sits alone in his tent, but recognizes multiplicity in the holiness he encounters when three strangers bring him one holy word. 

What the philosopher Emanuel Levinas called the “difficult balance” between freedom and belonging, between loneliness and the search for others with whom one can feel safe, is a lifelong effort. In this parashah, Abraham’s brother Lot chooses to join a community in which he may be safe, but is not safe for all. Behind his securely locked door he can pretend not to see that which is done with his tax dollars, but when the community’s evil destroys it, he no longer has a door at all.

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם

Ben Azzai used to say: do not despise any one, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no one that does not have their hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.  (Pirke Avot 4.3)

What community are you a part of? How does it help you to find your distinct language of existence, and with whom do you share enough of that language to feel safe, at least for today? But that’s not enough, we’ve learned – now, apply the Sodom and Gomorrah test: is your safety sustainable? Or does it despise – ignore – certain people and ideas, to its own detriment?

On this Shabbat, take a step deeper into meaningful community. Discern what that means for you. Choose to accept the support offered you, and decide what resources you will offer of your own.  

And when you take that step, may you find to your delight that in seeking to answer your own need, you have become part of someone else’s answer to theirs.

That is the holy community we all deserve, and that we can build together – by sharing your holy light with that of others, we can learn to discern a good path.

Shabbat No’akh: What A Mess

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃

ה said, “I will blot out from the earth humankind whom I created—humans together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Bereshit 6.7)

At the end of last week’s parashah HaShem has come to the conclusion that the world is hopelessly flawed:

וַיַּ֣רְא ה’ כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכׇל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כׇּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

‘ה saw how great was human wickedness on earth—how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. (Bereshit 6.5)

Feel familiar? The campaign season only exacerbates the worst qualities of human beings; they are there all the time. This is why ancient Jewish tradition contemplates whether or not human beings should have been created in the following midrash.

When HaShem said “let us create the human being” the angels fell to arguing about it; one group argued for, one against. “They will be creators of beauty and inspiration” said one; another retorted, “they will bring bloodshed and destruction.” HaShem could not deny the truth of either assertion, so HaShem ignored it…while they were arguing HaShem created the human and said “Look, it’s alive!” (Bereshit Rabbah 8.5)

And now, only a few chapters later, HaShem has decided to destroy it all. 

The attendant issue that bothers many of us is that many innocents were also destroyed. We deflect the real learning of this text by turning against the image of a puppet master god that we create for the purpose: why would a divine being erase the lives of innocent along with guilty? What kind of horrible deity is this?

But that’s a straw god. The resonance of this ancient myth is more subtle. We, created in the Image of HaShem, too easily turn away from truth we do not find palatable and go ahead with what we want – just like HaShem in the midrash. 

And it’s true: sometimes we do lose patience, and wish for the larger problems of our society to just go away. We want to believe in politicians who offer us a certain answer – ideally, one in which we do not have to participate.

According to U.S. law, a religious institution can take up and support a political cause, but not an individual campaigning for elected leadership. I support this idea wholeheartedly because I’m not your political advisor, nor should I be. My expertise, such as it may be, is to try to expand our awareness of the spiritual grounding that should be of a piece with your voting choices. 

The individuals who want your vote come and go. What kind of world are you choosing to build when you choose one or the other? 

We are all co-creators with the Eternal Flow of Life, and we are also co-destroyers. This world is difficult and full of harshness, and we dare not become cynical, becoming just another casualty of it. Just as the classic midrash includes a prayer asking HaShem to be merciful and not angry toward our flawed Creation, so we must look inward and pray for ourselves:

May it be our will that our mercy overcomes our anger.

May our mercy prevail over our other attributes,

And may we act toward all other creatures with the attribute of mercy.