Friday, December 2, 2016

Parashat Toldot

                        Shabbat Shalom. As we approached the winter months, a level of darkness and sensitivity to grief tends to set in for many people. For me, Thanksgiving to New Years hold particular memories and yarzheits, but I know many people find themselves missing their lost loved ones especially at this time of year, even if the birthdays or death anniversaries were in other seasons. I think it has something to do with the shorter days, the lack of natural light, and the cold setting into our bones as winter descends.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, we read the well-known story of Jacob and Esau, twins who could not be more different. Esau is the favored son of his father, a man’s man, a hunter described as hairy and a animalistic. Jacob is the favored son of his mother, a mama’s boy who likes to help with the domestic chores around the house. The story culminates with Rebecca and Jacob conspiring to trick old, blind Isaac into giving Jacob his special blessing he intended for Esau. Esau’s weeping, “Have you not a second blessing for me, Father?” is truly heartbreaking in spite of the midrashic tales of Esau’s sinful and violent nature. Jacob’s trickery inspires great anger from Esau, and he runs away to escape the same fate as Abel.
            But before the incident with the blessing, there is also an incident in which Jacob also finagles to gain Esau’s birthright, the promise of prosperity and the legacy of Abraham’s covenant with God. Sometimes, the distinction between the blessing and the birthright are confused and the two stories get conflated, but there is a lot happening with both incidents and they deserve their distinctions. The Torah tells us that Esau came home from the field, presumably hunting, and he is exhausted. Jacob is cooking a stew, and Esau begs Jacob for some stew, which seems odd that he would be so desperate. Who else would Jacob be cooking for, if not for his own family and household? The Talmud fills this in for us with a Midrash. Jacob was cooking lentil stew, a traditional food for a funeral. Lentils have no mouths, just as mourners often have no words, and they are round, as the circle of life which teaches us that mourning comes to all inhabitants of the earth in time. So when Esau comes in and sees the lentil stew, he recognizes this as the sign that their grandfather Abraham has died. He is hungry and tired from his long day in the field, but his desperation comes from grief. He is heartbroken over the death of his grandfather, and frightened and in shock that such a tsaddik would die like a normal man. He is confronted by the concept of his own mortality for the first time, and suddenly his birthright seems meaningless. If the righteous Abraham could die just like that, then how clearly Esau in his famished and exhausted state must be facing down death. He panics, and exchanges his birthright for the stew.
            In dealing with grief or depression, it is important to try as much as possible to curb impulsive decision making, which may come out of desperation, and may be self-destructive. Of course, once one is in that state, the situation may already be lost. In the case of a fresh case of grief like Esau’s, this is why things like last will and testaments, ethical wills, and the like, unpleasant though they may be to think about, are so important so that we do not leave our loved ones to have to make difficult decisions unguided. In the case of the winter months opening up old wounds, those moments of desperation can be harder to prepare for. It can be random what triggers a grief-laden depressive mood, and it can be hard to know ahead of time what normal day to day functions, like eating, can suddenly feel confusing and disordered. For this, all we can do to prepare is ensure strong support systems. Be a support to your friends and be sure to lean on them when you need it as well. Isaac and Rebecca played favorites among their children and created division between brothers. There were no strong support networks in the family, and they crumbled in their grief. If we stick together as families, as a community, as friends, we can weather any weather the long, dark, cold winter throws at us, and we can manage our fears, grief, and desperation. May we bring light and love, warmth and support, nourishment for the body and soul, into our lives and the lives of others this winter. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, November 25, 2016

Parashat Chayei Sarah: Happy Thanksgiving

            Shabbat Shalom! I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving, enjoyed your turkeys and your family time and maybe some football. Thanksgiving gives us much to enjoy, and is a beautiful moment to stop and think about all we have to be grateful for. However, I think most adults know by now that the origin story of Thanksgiving is a myth, or at least an anomaly of peace in what was otherwise a violent relationship between white newcomers to this land and its natives. It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with before, especially in my adolescent vegetarian days. “How can we all sit around a big dead bird and celebrate the genocide of the Native Americans?” 16 year old Lizz would ask. The family dinner part got easier when I started eating poultry again, and eventually my involvement in other forms of activism allowed me to feel like I talk about genocide enough, I can set aside this day for family and gratitude without thinking too hard on its origins.
            This year, a Facebook friend weighed in on the annual leftist agonizing over Thanksgiving by offering a vision that really touched me. He said he likes to think of the myth of the Pilgrims and Natives getting along and sharing their bounties as a goal of what this country could be. Maybe it happened once and maybe it never happened at all, and maybe we haven’t learned the lesson yet, but we could learn it. We could learn to get along, to welcome in strangers looking for a better life, to meet those offering help with gratitude and not greed. We could have a country of equal partners looking out for each other and sharing our thanks. And as American Jews, we can learn how from our ancestors and our Torah.
            At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham addresses the Hittites, the specific tribe of Canaanites that he lives among, saying, “I am a ger-toshav, a resident alien, living among you. Sell me a burial plot among you so that I may remove my dead for burial.” They respond to him with great mercy and respect, telling him he may have whatever plot of land he considers best for his burial. He chooses the Cave of Machpelah and its owner immediately offers to give it to him. Abraham refuses to take it for free, and weighs out the proper amount of silver for the land owner. All the people in this business transaction are polite and considerate of each other’s feelings, needs, and concerns. Imagine if all business transactions and all acts of mercy for someone in need were this honest and open-hearted.
            This week, water protectors at Standing Rock are under siege. Water cannons are being unleashed on them in below freezing weather. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades rain down on real live Native Americans while we celebrate a holiday supposedly about the peace between them and the newer settlers of this land, and all in the name of business. America has not yet learned the lesson of the Thanksgiving myth, we have not yet learned to emulate our father Abraham or his Hittite neighbors willing to give away good land for his sacred purpose. But perhaps, in the coming weeks, as the season of giving descends on American capitalism, as the Festival of Lights approaches for us, we can find the ways we can open up our hearts a little more, shed a little light in the dark world, and be a little kinder, a little more giving, and more welcoming to the strangers, the poor, the orphan, the aggrieved. And may we find ourselves soon in peaceful harmony with all our brothers and sisters of this earth. Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Parashat Vayera: Religious School-led Shabbat service

Shabbat Shalom! In this week's Torah portion of Parashat Vayera, both of Abraham's children face near death. His first son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, face dehydration in the desert after Sarah has cast them out of her home. But an angel of God appears to Hagar and assures her that all hope is not lost. Ishmael will also grow up to be a great man and a father of a nation, just as we know was promised of Isaac. "Look up," he tells her, and behold she sees a well of water. Was it there the whole time, a hidden oasis she had overlooked in her weariness and despair? Or had God made it appear with the angel? The great medieval grammarian and Biblical Commentator Rabbi David Kimhi, also known as RaDaK offers both of these possibilities as equally likely options. A few hundred years later, the Italian Rabbi Sforno concludes for us, “God granted her the instinct to look for water in the place where she would find it. She had been blind previously so that her eyes had to be “opened.”
Following this episode with Ishmael, is of course the infamous Binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take his precious son, his favored one, to a place that God will show him (familiar words for Abraham). This time however, the place that God will make known to Abraham is not a holy promised land, but rather a mountain on which to sacrifice Isaac. Once there, an angel of the Lord appears just in time to save Isaac. Is this the same angel who appeared to Hagar just as she was giving up hope for survival of her son? Is this the guardian angel of children in distress? The Talmudic gladiator-turned-sage Reish Lakish claimed that names and personalities of angels came back with the exiled Jews from Babylonia, and that there’s no reason to assume identities of these “messengers of the Lord” that the Torah speaks of.
In any case, whoever the angels were in each of those scenarios, it is clear they were sent by God to interfere before these children of Abraham could end up dead. And it is clear why to those who study Torah. Although the circumstances for their near-death experiences seem to be set up by Divine intervention in Abraham’s life and we might question why they were all in such predicaments in the first place, we do know that the promises to Abraham cannot be carried out without them. Abraham’s future is destined through his children, just like the children of this community are our future.
So, as we honor the learning of our Religious School tonight, and we honor a student becoming a Bar Mitzvah, a new adult in our community, we also recommit ourselves as adults, teachers, parents, and leaders of this community, to do everything we can to look out for the children, our own and others. We promise to protect them from harm, to teach them ways of Torah, and to celebrate all their successes, together.
May we see our youth grow wise, our community grow strong, and our future be as bright as those same stars that Abraham’s descendants are promised to emulate. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.