Friday, December 20, 2013

Parashat Shemot

            The book of Exodus, like much of the Torah, has plenty of details that are difficult to comprehend. One literary example is the first mention of Moses’s father-in-law, Reuel. Why is he called Reuel here and later he is called Yitro or Jethro? The rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah reconciled this name change along a conceptual difficulty of their own. They were concerned that our great leader Moses should seek refuge with a Priest of Midian, a spiritual leader of non-Jews, an idolater. So the Midrash explains that Jethro had made teshuvah and turned from his ways and embraced the one true G-d. G-d accepts Yitro’s teshuvah, and he becomes Reuel, a “friend of G-d.”
            This Midrash answers one question about the text itself, but opens up the conceptual difficulties of the next paragraph even more. The king of Egypt died, and the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice of them. Why was G-d able to so readily accept the teshuvah of the Priest of Midian, but took so long to redeem the people of Israel? What was G-d doing during all the years of slavery and infanticide before G-d heard the moaning of the Israelites and took notice of them?
            We know from the scene at Mt. Sinai when G-d tried to reveal G-dself to the whole people, that the people as a whole were unable to accept Divine revelation directly to them all. They begged Moses to go up to the mountain and bring the information back to them. G-d frightened them. In order to free the people from slavery and lead them to the Holy Land as a holy people, G-d needed a point person, a leader to go-between other humans and the Divine, Moses. Moses has a unique insider-outsider status that makes him the perfect candidate even from the Torah itself. Additionally, the rabbis took great pains to fill in the gaps of his life, starting from his conception, to illustrate that Moses was destined to be the one to lead the Jewish people toward salvation. Yet, even great destined Moses was not easily or immediately able to accept the voice of G-d or the Divine mission. When G-d called to Moses, G-d said, “I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob.” In most places when G-d reveals G-dself to others in the Bible, G-d says “I am the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Why did G-d need to also say, “The G-d of your father” to Moses? The Midrash says it is because G-d spoke to Moses in his father’s voice, so that it would be a familiar and comfortable sound for him. Thus, G-d needed to quickly say, “I am the G-d of your father,” so that Moses would not think his father was actually talking to him from beyond the grave. I think a similar modern Midrash is crafted in the Prince of Egypt by having Val Kilmer voice both Moses and G-d in the scene. Either detail come to explain that, although the Torah doesn’t say what G-d’s voice sounded like, or in what manner G-d communicated these words to Moses (was it telepathic? Did the voice come from the burning bush? From the air?), the ancient rabbis and the makers of the Prince of Egypt are in agreement that G-d probably only speaks to us in voices we are able to recognize and listen to. Sometimes, that might mean G-d disguising the Divine voice to literally sound familiar, as it did for Moses. Sometimes, that might mean the Divine message coming through another human, as it did for all of the other Israelites who had to believe and follow Moses.
            When times are hard, sometimes the way forward seems impossible, and it’s easy to wonder where G-d is at those times. Maybe the answer to all your problems will be Divinely revealed and you will discover that you are Moses. More likely, you will discover that you are among the people of Israel, and that the strength of G-d is the strength of the community, of each other. Maybe G-d doesn’t whisper words of comfort directly into your ear, but G-d speaks to you through voices you are able to recognize and hear, the voices of your loved ones and members of your community who are here to support you. Remember that the word teshuvah actually does not mean repentance, but to return, and that if you return to your community, your friends, maybe even your faith, you may find that you too have become a “friend of G-d”, like Reuel, also known as Yitro. And even if it feels like G-d has not taken notice of your troubles, your loved ones have, and through them, G-d will lead you back to comfort and strength. May you always find yourself open to hearing the Divine message and redemption in the voices of those you love, in the voices of your community, and in your own voice. And may you find freedom. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Parashat Vayechi - 'Tis a Fearful Thing

            This week’s Torah and Haftarah portions tell us a lot about how our patriarchs and ancestors thought about death. Early in our Torah portion of Vayechi, the Torah says that “the time drew near for Israel to die,” and when Jacob summons his son Joseph, he says, “I will lie with my fathers … and you shall carry me to their grave.” The medieval commentator Rashi makes sure to point out to us that if Jacob had said, “I will lie beside or next to my fathers” then it would be unnecessary to say, “you shall carry me to their grave,” because then it would be obvious Jacob means physically next to them. By saying “I will lie WITH my fathers… and you shall carry me to their grave,” Rashi is letting us know that “with” means that Jacob knows his time of death is near, and he knows he will be reunited with his loved ones in the world to come, and also, he’d like his physical resting place to be in the family plot.
            Similarly, with the Haftarah this week, the text says, “And the days of David drew near that he should die; and he charged Solomon, his son, saying: ‘I go the way of all the earth; you shall be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man’.” It appears that King David also knew when his time was near, and although it doesn’t say anything about his faith in the world to come, as with Jacob, it shows that he is aware that death is a natural part of life. Both Jacob and David bless their children and pass on a sort of living ethical will. They have hope for the future of the Jewish people in the next generation and they appear to die in peace. Even Joseph, whose death scene at the end of the parasha is much quicker, appears to know when he is dying, and he takes the time to tell his brothers that G-d will surely remember them and return them to their land, and that they should take his remains with them when they go, as he also would like to be buried in the family plot.
            Our prayer book has many great poems and readings in its section for the Mourner’s Kaddish. Among them, is one that says:
It is a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, hope, dream:
to be--
to be,
And oh! to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
a holy thing,
a holy thing
to love.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings a painful joy.
'Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing,
to love
what death has touched.
I know death can be a difficult topic. It can be a scary and painful part of life, but as King David acknowledged, it is a part of life. Sometimes it is natural, and sometimes it is unfair, and it is almost always very sad. When I was eleven, my uncle David died at about this time of year. Though it was technically a natural cause, it was sudden and he was young. This past week was his birthday, and in two more will be his deathday and this was his favorite time of year. So he’s on my mind a lot throughout every December, although less and less each year. To remember him, this thing that is impossible to not do, brings a painful joy. But it is a holy and human sort of painful joy to remember our loved ones who have passed. It is, as King David said, the way of the world, and we pray and hope that they are all with their other loved ones who went before them, as Jacob says. I pray and hope that none of you have to feel that sort of pain anytime soon, and that in the meantime, I pray and hope that you all be sure to tell each other how much you care about one another, and what sort of life you want the other to have. Teach these lessons and give these blessings every day, because unlike Jacob, Joseph, and David, we don’t always know when the time draws near to give those final speeches. May the memories of our loved ones live among us, instructing us on our way of living, helping to find meaning in the mystery of eternal life. And may G-d grant us all peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Parashat Vayigash – Post-Thanksgivikuh Blues

            Shabbat Shalom! I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and a joyous Chanukah. I know I did! I was able to be home with my family for Thanksgiving and the first four nights of Chanukah, I spent the fifth night with the Youth Group, and even last night, the honorary or unofficial tenth night of Chanukah, I got to be here with many of you, lighting candles and eating latkes. But now, Chanukah is really over. And yet, the “holiday season” is just beginning.
            There are many debates, arguments, tensions, as well as joys that surround the “holiday season” that will either be especially clear or completely non-existent this year. Will people stop worrying about being P.C. and just say “Merry Christmas” all December, since Chanukah is over? Of course, that leaves out Kwanzaa and Solstice and possibly other holidays I don’t even know about this time of year, so we can probably still count on hearing “Happy Holidays” even though ours is over. That’s ok, though, being wished happy for a holiday you don’t celebrate doesn’t have to be offensive. You still want to be happy that day, don’t you? What about towns that have compensated for the Jews feeling disgruntled about the town Christmas tree by putting up a town menorah? Did they put them up on time or will they put them up with the Christmas trees? Will store windows have menorahs and dreidels up in their “winter decorations” all through the “holiday shopping season”?
            Of course, none of this really matters. The way both Chanukah and Christmas have become celebrated and somehow parallel in the celebrations is mostly about commercialism, which is also not necessarily bad. Getting and giving presents are fun! Chanukah decorations are cute! Christmas trees are pretty! But none of those things really get to the essence of the holidays, and it really shouldn’t matter so much how our non-Jewish neighbors address this “holiday season” in our post-Chanukah December. If they do try to act like the holidays overlap this year as they often do, it’s nice to feel included. If they don’t, we know we already had our lovely Chanukah celebrations and gave our gifts, so who cares?
            But for me, these questions really get back to the big question that is always at the forefront of identity making for me: Am I an American Jew or a Jewish American? Which parts about American culture speak to me as a Jew and which don’t? Which parts of Jewish culture make me feel different from other Americans and which don’t?  The American ideal is often referred to as a “melting pot,” but that’s no good, because it requires us to all melt together and be the same. The beauty of America is that we end up more like a cholent, a stew, a chili. We blend together, lose some of our original form, but basically keep our shape, remain distinct. The United States allows American Jews or Jewish Americans to choose where to put their emphasis. You are an embraced part of the American culture, but if you’d rather feel “more Jewish” than “American” – whatever that means to you – that’s ok, too. And yet, American culture does have a fairly strong Christian influence. Despite our forefathers’ quest for religious freedom and their own humanist leanings, many people have tried to shift politics in a Christian direction, declared this a “Christian nation,” and insist that wishing someone a “happy holiday” is a direct attack on Christmas and an affront to this country. It’s hard sometimes to navigate those sorts of discussions as an American Jew or a Jewish American.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph has reached his position of power in Egypt. By the end of the portion, it says, “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.” We learn from many places that “We were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and it calls to mind the years of slavery. But first, we were welcomed strangers. It’s not a perfect metaphor for the “holiday season” in American culture, because we really don’t like to think of ourselves as strangers at all in the United States, and because, you know, what happens next in Egypt is not going to happen to us here. We are equal citizens, and everyone has the same rights and privileges and protections, and Jews as a people have been here almost as long as the Christians. But we always were and still are a very small minority. In New York, and especially in Brooklyn, we live in a relatively dense Jewish population, and we’re still in the minority. To some degree, being a minority will always leave us somewhat on the outside, because to some degree, majority rules. That’s democracy, that’s capitalism, that’s life. The group with the most numbers and the loudest voices control the situation. As long as we’re welcomed strangers, I say we enjoy this “holiday season” as outsiders. Although many of us may still have Christmas plans with friends and family, there’s a certain level of peace to know that our holiday, the one we really have to prepare for, is over. For the most part, we can just sit back and enjoy Christmas carols and sales, without worrying about the big family celebratory dinner menu and did we remember to buy enough candles this year, amid all the shopping madness. And may we all simply have a happy December.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Parashat Vayeishev – Talking to G-d

Once I was at the hairdresser with my mother. I don’t remember exactly when, but given that I haven’t gone to a “hairdresser” in years, I had to have been somewhere between 16 and 20. As the hairdresser was doing my hair, she and my mom were talking about religion. I was quiet so that I would remain still while my precious hair was under the scissors. At some point in the conversation, my mother told the hairdresser that I talked to G-d. The hairdresser said, “Well, I think we can all talk to G-d if we open up our hearts.” True. My mother responded, something to the effect of, “No, I think Elizabeth converses with G-d and knows more than she tells us.” Not true. I remained silent and never addressed this with my mom, until very recently. By now, she had forgotten about it and just kind of laughed it off, didn’t know what she had been thinking. I will never know where she got that idea from, or how long she held that belief about me.
Often in the Torah we do see one-on-one conversations between G-d and people. G-d spoke to our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and when we get to Exodus we’ll see G-d speaking to Moses, too. But G-d does not speak to Joseph. Perhaps Joseph speaks to G-d, though. The first mention of G-d in Joseph’s story is in chapter 39 of Genesis, when the Torah says, “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, Pharaoh's chamberlain, chief of the slaughterers, an Egyptian man, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and whatever he (Joseph) did the Lord made prosper in his hand.” The Tanhuma, a book of additional stories and commentaries on the Torah, adds that “the Lord was with him” means “the name of heaven was frequently in his mouth.”
Though the Lord is with him in Potiphar’s house, Joseph still ends up getting thrown in jail. But there, too, the Torah says, “the Lord is with him”. When in prison, he interprets the dreams of the royal cupbearer and baker, and he attributes the interpretations to G-d. But again, we are never shown G-d speaking to Joseph the way G-d did with Joseph’s father and grandfather and great grandfather, G-d never explicitly whispers dream meanings into Joseph’s ear. While, Abraham and Noah can be (and sometimes are) credited with being the world’s first faithful, because when G-d tells them to do something, they do it, no questions asked, I think Joseph’s faith can be a lot more meaningful to us in our modern day, when we know G-d does not speak to us the way G-d spoke to Noah and Abraham. As the hairdresser said, we can all talk to G-d if we just open up our hearts, we can have the kind of relationship Joseph has with G-d.
Like Joseph, we all have G-d-given talents. Like Joseph, those talents may not always be so easy to use or to get by with. They come with hardships; they don’t always make us popular or rich, or at least not right away. But when times are hard, even if it feels like G-d is not with you, if it feels like G-d has not made you to be perfect, if you are wondering why you keep doing something or feeling something or wanting something that does not seem to be beneficial to you now, do not stop dreaming. Do not stop talking to G-d. Joseph was unlucky at first. But he never lost faith. He believed in who he was and he believed that G-d was with him. Eventually his luck changed, and still he believed that G-d was with him all along. There is great comfort in talking to G-d, even if G-d never directly answers us. In life, there are hard times, when even our best traits will feel useless, but if you “think it, want it, dream it,” as Joseph did, “then it’s real. You are what you feel.” May you all find yourselves always open to a one-sided chat with G-d, may those chats give you comfort and strength in who you are, and may your dreams come true. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Parashat Vayishlach – Missing Frenemies

            I heard some very wise words not too long ago, passed on by a parent, though the words were actually from a clever child. The words of wisdom were, “Sometimes, you can miss someone even if they were mean to you.” We all have had experiences with people who were not nice to us. If you have not yet had that experience, you are very, very lucky, but believe me, your time will come. Now, sometimes, even when someone is bad to us, it’s hard to end that relationship. But sometimes, we manage to do so anyway, for our own good. Or sometimes, you may be separated from someone who was bad to you by happenstance, which can feel like a relief. Or sometimes, the leaving was the bad thing they did to you. But in all those cases, it is normal to still feel a loss. Even through all the harm they caused you, maybe they also showed great kindness at a time when you were in need, or maybe they are really fun sometimes, or any other number of reasons that make social interactions feel good.
            In the case of Esau and Jacob, the Torah shows only struggle. They are both mean to each other, and we see no proof that one was ever kind to the other in a time of need or that they ever had fun together. But it seems Esau still misses Jacob. After all Jacob did to him, he still wants to see him again. Of course, all the commentaries say that this is because Esau still wanted to kill Jacob, but the Torah just says Esau is coming, and bringing his whole camp, to meet Jacob and his whole camp. We know that Jacob is terrified and takes many precautions on the assumption that Esau is indeed coming to kill him, but we don’t see Esau’s intentions or preparations for the meeting. When they do meet, they embrace and cry, and it’s a very joyful reunion. Briefly. Then they go on their separate ways again. There is no intent to join camps, to spend extended periods of time together, they just want to see each other and move on.
            When it comes to missing people that were mean to you, family is a unique case. With most cases, you continue relationships with people who were mean to you, or miss them when they’re gone, because they had some redeeming qualities that kept you attached. With family, sometimes, just the fact that you are related is the redeeming quality. This is a really hard thing to admit, even abstractly, but I think it’s true that sometimes, family members who love each other, don’t always like each other. Jacob and Esau clearly don’t really like each other. They fought with one another their whole lives at home, and when they reunite as adults, they don’t seem keen to spend a lot of time together. But they do seem to love each other. Maybe it’s for the sake of their parents, or because they shared a womb, or just because of some biological pride in their genes that keeps them bound together, but they do. They missed each other. They embrace and cry. They make things right between them, and then they part ways again. Because loving and missing someone doesn’t necessarily mean that they belong back in your life.
            This is probably one of life’s harder lessons. Beside the fact that some people are mean and we don’t like them, there are also people who will be really mean and we do like them, for whatever reason: they’re nice sometimes, they’re funny, they take care of physical or material needs. Or sometimes we will find that the people we love just aren’t that likeable. And it may be healthy to separate yourselves from people like that. But it can be difficult, on practical and emotional levels, especially if it’s family, as with Jacob and Esau. May we find in ourselves the humility and forgiveness that Jacob and Esau are able to muster up for each other in this week’s parasha, but may also find the strength to know when it is time to separate again. And may we always find peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.