Friday, January 3, 2020

Parashat Vayigash and the Superman/Teen RomCom Affect

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayigash, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. The opening verse of Genesis chapter 45 tells us that Joseph sent everyone else from the room before breaking down in tears and telling his brothers the truth. Rashi comments on this that his need for privacy in this moment is to shield his brothers from shame. Later commentators add that the shame would presumably be about the whole backstory coming out in their emotional confrontation and people knowing how awful the brothers had been to their compassionate stateman. However, Rashi doesn’t clarify himself, so it seems just as likely to me that he meant the absurdity that they do not recognize their own brother would be shameful.
            Joseph and his brothers haven't seen each other in many years, and now he's in Egyptian dress, presumably with the headdress and kohl and everything, obscuring his looks. So it is fairly understandable that they do not recognize him, though he recognizes them right away. Yet, the scene calls to mind a meme I saw recently on the Facebook page Heimish Humor.

 This also reminded me of teen movies where the "ugly girl" takes down her pony tail and puts in contacts and everyone is like "Whoa she's hot?!?!?!?!" While it may not rise quite to that level of incredulity that the brothers don’t recognize Joseph, it still seems yet another act of selfishness that blinds them to the truth in front of them.
Just as they were caught up in their own feelings when they were young, taking out anger that really should have been directed at their father onto their kid brother, just as they lashed out violently when they perhaps could have taken Joseph under their wing and taught him to stop being a brat, they are again now too caught up in their fear and immediate needs to truly see the man before them. It seems to me that while their concerns around the famine and taking care of who they think are their only remaining family members are extremely valid, they also could be using this supposed newfound empathy and humility that they exhibit toward Jacob and Benjamin in the aftermath of the family’s grief over Joseph to see their situations more clearly, to recognize the full humanity in everyone around them, to really see Joseph standing in their direct eye line.
It's important to take care of ourselves and prioritize certain needs over others, but we all have our moments when we get too much in our own feelings to recognize the people around us. Let's make 2020 a better year of community building by striving to look past the glasses, the pony tail, the Egyptian dress and may we all see the superheroes, the beauty, and the loving siblings that stand beside us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Parashat Vayishlach

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayishlach, in which Jacob and Esau are reunited. The brothers haven’t seen each other since Jacob stole Esau’s blessing and cheated him out of his birthright. Esau had little reaction to trading his birthright (material inheritance) but was very hurt and angry about learning Jacob had stolen his blessing (spiritual inheritance). He threatened to kill Jacob and Jacob ran away. We don’t really know what happens with Isaac, Rebecca, and Esau in the time between throughout the latter half of Parashat Toldot, after Jacob runs away. The story continues to follow Jacob, and we see him falling in love with Rachel, marrying Leah, marrying Rachel, amassing healthy flocks of sheep, amassing children, and just generally being quite blessed indeed with the things that were considered marks of success at that time.
A few years ago, I wrote a drash on Parashat Toldot about how Esau reminded me of Rubeus Hagrid from the Harry Potter series. Last year, when I was totally bit by the Harry Potter bug in the run up to our Fantastic Beasts event, I was excited to reprise, but for some reason I can’t remember now we didn’t have services or I didn’t give the drash on Shabbat Toldot. But, some of the thought process still works for Parashat Vayishlach, and in the run up for Sunday’s redeemable villains event.
You see, in the Harry Potter series, Hagrid is described as massive, hairy, of ruddy-complexion, and intimidating. He’s never described as a villain, per-se but it’s clear that many other characters in the books believe him to have a sinister past, think his fascination with magical creatures is dangerous, are afraid of his size, and so on. When we first meet him at the beginning of the series, he is not allowed to use magic and is relegated to being the groundskeeper at Hogwarts due to his expulsion from the school during his own teenage years. We find out in Book Two it’s because he was framed for opening the Chamber of Secrets, and when the real culprit is found out and Hagrid is allowed his magic back and a job at Hogwarts, the true nasty characters like the Malfoys try to get Hagrid fired and sent to prison for endangering students again! We see him through the eyes of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, who keep their faith in him and know it’s only because his heart is too big that he gets himself into these scrapes, not because he is trying to hurt people.
In the Torah, Esau is described as large, hairy, of ruddy-complexion, and a fearsome hunter. He is depicted as a villain throughout classical rabbinic texts, and we are made to believe that his skills as a hunter translate to him being bloodthirsty, violent, and eager to kill humans as well. Our tradition justifies the trickery of Jacob and the devastating favoritism of their mother, and victim-blames Esau at every turn. If hunting makes Esau so terrible, then why do any sympathetic Biblical characters eat meat? How could Isaac be justified in asking his son for some game, if Esau is not justified in going out and killing the animal? Why is it so wrong for Esau to be impulsive and easily distracted while it is praiseworthy that Jacob is calculating and manipulative? My teacher, Dr. Ora Horn-Prouser posits that Esau had ADHD, which means Jacob totally took advantage of his brother’s learning disorder and the rest of the family, including all their descendants through the millennia were like, “Yea that sounds fair.” Esau is a classic villain in deep need of redemption. His anguish after the blessing trickery rings out loud and clear when he cries, “Have you no blessing left for me, Father?”
Flash forward to this week’s parasha. Jacob is still terrified that Esau wants to kill him. He separates his camp, in case they are attacked, so that his whole family and flock will not be wiped out. He also sends emissaries ahead toward where he hears Esau is coming from, to bring Esau gifts, peace offerings, and reparations. When the morning comes that they are to reunite, Jacob has his largest sons walk at the front of their entourage with him, as a show of force. Esau, on the other hand, walks alongside his wives. He falls upon his brother in embrace, and he is eager to introduce Jacob to his family. He also has gifts for Jacob, and the two families have a lovely afternoon together. Then they go their separate ways, and we don’t seem to ever hear from Esau’s clan again. There is a general belief that the Edomites that the Israelites later encounter are Esau’s descendants, and the prevailing Rabbinic metaphor for the early Christian Church is Esau, but we never see Esau and the twelve sons never seem to encounter their first cousins again.
Esau is no villain. He is a misunderstood man. He is easily judged by his large and gruff appearance, and his clearly justified anger is depicted as unreasonable and violent. Jacob may be our direct ancestor, and the man whom God clearly favored, but he’s also a deeply problematic hero. In fact, like all good anti-heroes, he devolves more as time goes on. At first, he is his mother’s pawn and a simple young sibling trickster. But he goes on to play the same favoritism with his children, with disastrous results; he turns a blind eye to both his daughter’s assault and the resulting genocide his sons commit in her name; he buries his beloved Rachel hastily on the side of the road instead of bringing her to Machpelah where his family is buried, where he and Leah will eventually be buried. He’s no Walter White, but he does have a noticeable decline in his behaviors.
On Sunday we will look at the Maccabees and others from our traditions through this lens as well. In the meantime, I encourage you to start thinking about all the characters in our Holy Texts and folklore, and consider who has been treated as hero and who as villain. On Sunday, we will try to put ourselves into these stories. If you were an unbiased third party bystander, how do you think you would judge the situation? What if you were Esau’s wife, or an assimilated Hellenistic Jew, or a Canaanite living in Jericho? You might feel differently about these stories than how the rabbis have traditionally taught us to feel.
May we remember to look outside ourselves and look at situations through all perspectives. May we remember that rarely are people wholly bad or wholly good, and almost all conflicts are much more complex than they may appear at first glance. May we remember to reach out peace offerings and reparations to redeem the villains in our lives, redeeming ourselves in the process as well. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, November 15, 2019

Parashat Vayeira

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayera. So much happens in this parasha! Abraham greets some strangers who approach his tent while God is visiting him as he recovers from his bris; Sarah hears she will give birth to Isaac and laughs; Abraham argues with God to try to save Sodom and Gomorrah; the visitors who had been visiting Abraham go on to Sodom and visit with Lot, whose home is then accosted by the xenophobic townspeople; Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed and Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt; Lot's daughters think the destruction of the cities is the destruction of the whole world and they worry they have to repopulate the earth with the one surviving man - their father; Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael; Abraham and Sarah meet King Avimelech and tell him Sarah is Abraham’s sister for fear that the king will kill Abraham in order to marry beautiful Sarah; King Avimelech, thinking Sarah then is unmarried tries to woo her anyway and God intercedes on Sarah’s behalf before anything too racy happens; King Avimelech is impressed by Sarah and Abraham’s closeness with God and gives them land and livestock; then the parasha ends with the binding of Isaac, which we speak about at some length every Rosh HaShanah. Whew. What a juicy Torah portion. 
Pretty early on in the portion, as the visitors are leaving Abraham’s camp to go on to Sodom and Gomorroh, we see God pondering whether to tell Abraham about the Divine plan to destroy the cities: “Now the LORD had said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I know him, that he will instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD to do what is just and right’” (Genesis 18:17-19). Sefer HaBahir, an anonymous work of Jewish mysticism probably from the 11th century but possibly from the 1st century, offers a commentary on this: “Said the divine attribute of chesed (love): ‘As long as Abraham was around, there was nothing for me to do, for he did my work in my stead’.”
Now this is certainly true for the beginning of the parasha, when Abraham is welcoming in strangers for food and washing, and when Abraham is arguing for God to spare the wicked cities if even 10 people can be found good (bargained down from originally asking God to stay the Divine Wrath if 50 good people are found there). However, as the chapters unfold, Abraham gets weirder and harsher. He kicks out his concubine and first born son to potentially die in the desert. He lies about his relationship and allows some creep to openly hit on his wife, and of course the final transgression against his family - he tries to kill his favored son as a sacrificial offering. 
There are countless midrash trying to understand Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and the eternal question that always seems to go unanswered is, “Why was he so willing to go to bat for the wicked strangers in a city he didn’t even live in, and was so silently complacent when it came to saving his own son from God?” One possible answer is that he felt defeated. He tried to save Sodom and Gomorrah but he failed. His nephew and great-nieces made it out alive, but their family is irrevocably broken by the death of their mother and the terrible mistake the young women make once they are safely out of Sodom. Abraham is heart-broken. He has left his home to follow this God that no one else in the world believes in, and now he has seen the havoc that this God can wreak and maybe he is having doubts about the relationship he thought he had with God. 
There’s a sense of inevitability to this sequence of events. Everything works out the way God thinks it should, despite all human efforts to the contrary, for good or bad. As many have posited, it’s possible that Abraham had faith that God would ensure he didn’t really kill Isaac if Isaac was to be the next in line to create this great nation that Abraham has promised to be. Afterall, despite Abraham’s bad decisions with Sarah and Avimelech, God didn’t allow Sarah to commit adultery. And it’s also possible that Abraham believed that even if he refused to carry out the sacrifice that Isaac would somehow be killed anyway and he would have to have yet a third child to carry on his lineage. Afterall, he was already told by God to dispose of one son, and his attempts to turn God away from killing didn’t work for Sodom and Gomorrah. 
I think many of us face moments when we take the path of least resistance because of the seeming inevitability of the situation. Even if we know we are not doing the right thing, whether through actions or inactions, we just keep our eyes down and trudge through, hoping someone else (perhaps God?) will intercede, or that if no one intercedes, it must have been the right thing all along. Yet, we know that causing undue harm is never the right thing all along. I certainly don’t believe that causing trauma to other humans is ever what God truly wants.Sometimes to ensure that undue harm and trauma aren’t happening, that means standing up against God or the status quo and saying, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” We may win some or lose some, but at least we will know that we did what was necessary to knock some holes into the injustice of the world, and when we are successful, we will know that we made much needed repairs to the world’s foundations of justice and righteousness. May we never see injustice as inevitable, harm as a necessary evil, and may we never silently comply with deeds we know to be immoral. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.