Saturday, October 26, 2013

Parashat Chayei Sarah

When the Torah opens on Abraham and his family, he’s already kind of old. He and Sarah are already married, and we don’t get to know how they met or for how long they were married. We know he thought she was beautiful, which is nice, but his love for her is not fully apparent. However, with his son, Isaac, we are told he loves his wife.
The text says that Isaac has gone out to pray in the fields when he sees the camels approaching, the camels that carry Rebecca and Eliezer, his wife-to-be and his father’s servant who has found her for him. Midrash says, “Sometimes a person must go to his soulmate, and sometimes his soulmate comes to him.” The Midrash HaGadol goes on to claim that in this case, Isaac’s soulmate is coming to him, because she is travelling farther, but it sounds to me like they are going to each other. Does Isaac always go out to pray in the fields, rather than closer to home, or did something move him to go out to be closer to his heart’s other half? Either way, the use of the word soulmate shows the weight the ancient rabbis put on their union. This was not just a marriage that seemed good for the family, as many marriages were then, this one was written in the stars. Rebecca and Isaac are soulmates. Another Midrash says that when Rebecca “lifted her eyes, and saw Isaac” she was astounded by his majestic appearance. When she learns that this attractive fellow is her husband-to-be, she covers her face with a veil, presumably out of modesty, so there is no Midrash about how instantaneously he was struck her beauty. Let’s just assume when he did see her, he thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, because we already know they’re soulmates. The Torah itself, without help from the ancient rabbis and their Midrash says explicitly, “And he loved her” (Gen. 24:67).
Love stories are beautiful. In the ancient world, often marriages were not based on love. They were decided by parents for children based on how the families would mesh or who had enough sheep. Even today, there are marriages fixed by parents without love between the couple that will marry. In the Bible, we see others who are clearly in love, but not in such a harmonious way as Isaac and Rebbeca’s marriage. Jacob loves Rachel dearly, but, as we will read in a couple weeks, has to marry her sister first to follow the social rules governing marriage (which did not factor in love). David falls in love with Batsheva, and they are married by the time of this week’s Haftarah portion, but when they meet she is married to someone else! Isaac and Rebecca are simply soulmates, in love from the first, married without extra baggage. We should all be so lucky.
So when someone finds a love like that, it should be celebrated and embraced fully. Earlier this week, our neighbor state of New Jersey joined the thirteen other states that allow for legal, equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal government would have to recognize these marriages, although it left the ultimate decision to allow or outlaw them up to each state. Thirteen is certainly an improvement from zero, and I am thankful to say every state I have lived in (NY, MA, and CT) has already passed this law, but there are still a lot of states to go. On a smaller, community level, the Reform movement and many pockets of progressive Judaism embraces all love, but many don’t. Some Jews speak out on behalf of equal rights for Queer folks, but believe that Jews should marry within the faith. Some Jews are ok with intermarriage, but feel uncomfortable with gay couples. Some don’t like either. It’s really wonderful to be a part of a community that is welcoming of all sorts of relationships and families, but there are still others out there who are not as welcoming. When we encounter them, may we all find the courage and compassion to remember everyone is entitled to their own opinions and gently express our own, to defend the rights of everyone without personally attacking anyone.
And most of all may we all find love.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Parashat Lech-L’cha

9. And Abram traveled, continually traveling southward.

ט. וַיִּסַּע אַבְרָם הָלוֹךְ וְנָסוֹעַ הַנֶּגְבָּה:
Abram/Abraham is often considered the first Jew, which I suppose would make him the first Wandering Jew. It’s an image of Jews that reappears throughout history, generally through a negative lens. In much of European history, Jews were spoken of as outsiders, wanderers that had no real home. In reality, that wasn’t always the case, and it certainly isn’t the case now. Many European Jews at various points in history did really feel very at home in Germany, Spain, and wherever else they lived, and now, we all have homes here in Brooklyn, where especially, Jews are very integrated in society. I, personally, do not have a permanent home in Brooklyn, but that doesn’t leave me feeling like an outsider, wandering around aimlessly. And I don’t think that’s how Abram felt, either.
             G-d told Abram to go out, to leave his father’s house, the land of his birth, to find a place that G-d will show him. Abram goes, trusting in G-d, or in his own internal sense of direction. He is not aimlessly wandering. He is wandering to find something. A Holy Land, a place that G-d will lead him to, a place where his barren wife, Sarai, will give birth. Perhaps he is not just looking for the place, either. Maybe he is looking for a journey that will imbue him with wisdom, teach him some life lessons, build his relationship with G-d. This week’s G-dcast video was a song, sung through Sarai’s point of view, about the journey. She says, “It’s not just a land we are going to, but the journey itself is where we prove ourselves to you. So it’s time for us to leave, and live what we believe.”
            You’ve all probably heard some variation on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” We are all journeying, always. There are so many poems and songs to quote to drive this message home! But Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” says it best: 
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

We are all journeying, always. Some people have really difficult journeys. Some people’s journeys are not so hard. The voyage might be made hard by physical obstacles, or internal ones. Poverty and social injustice can block the way forward. Mixed emotions or complete silence when you really wish G-d would just outright say to you, “Go!” to help you make up your mind can make you feel stuck in one place for two long. But Abram and Sarai went forth, trusting a deity no one else believed in yet, and took a road not previously travelled. We are all journeying, always. May we have the courage of Abram and Sarai to take the road less travelled, to wander in search of something meaningful, and may we find it. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Was Noach a Mean Girl?

            Shabbat Shalom! A wise person once said, “There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don't try to stop it.” And that wise person was Janis Ian, played by Lizzy Caplan in the movie Mean Girls. What would Janis Ian say about Noah, the protagonist of this week’s parasha? He’s clearly not the first kind of evil. The Torah even specifically says he was a righteous man. But he gets special insider information that the world will be destroyed, and unlike what we see from Abraham in a couple weeks (spoiler alert), he does not argue with G-d about that decision. He does not try to warn anybody. He just does exactly as he’s told.
            One of our great medieval commentators, Rashi, says of Noah’s so-called righteousness, “Among our sages, there are those who interpret this as being in praise of Noah: If he was righteous in his generation then certainly he would have been even more righteous if he would have been in a generation of righteous people. And there are those who interpret this as a condemnation: In relation to his generation he was righteous, but had he been in Abraham's generation, he wouldn't have been regarded as anything.” G-dcast, the great animated shorts of the Torah and some commentary, points out that, just as there may be two kinds of “evil” people in the world, there are also two kinds of “righteous” people in the world: Those who follow G-d and do exactly as they’re told, and those you try to go above and beyond to really make the world better. It seems that being the second type of “evil person” – one that sees evil and does nothing – and the first type of “righteous person” – one that follows the word of G-d and minds his or her own business – could be the same person, as we see in Noah. But then, and not to get ahead of ourselves, it seems that one person could be both types of righteous, and do something perceivably evil at the same time as well, as we will see in Abraham. He fights G-d in order to save Sodom and Gomorrah, but is willing to follow G-d’s instruction to sacrifice his own son? Maybe the lessons here are that there are no real “evil” or “righteous” people. There are just people. Sometimes we do good, sometimes we do bad, and sometimes we just do. Eventually in the Torah, we will get to our holiness code, in Leviticus, which teaches that we shouldn’t really “just do,” as Noah did. No longer is it really ok for us, as Jews, to stand idly by the destruction of our neighbor. But, at the same time, none of you should singularly feel that the weight of the world’s problems rest on your shoulders or that you must devote you whole lives to always saving others. That’s a great, noble way to live, but it’s not wholly practical. Sometimes you must take care of yourselves, too. Sometimes we do good, sometimes we do bad, sometimes we just do. That’s human nature, and while Jewish values teach us to be ever striving more toward actively doing good, once in a while, everybody slips us, and no one should feel that that makes them “evil” or strips them of some “righteous” title. There aren’t wholly evil or righteous people, just people.
            For as much great narrative there is in Parashat Noah, Noah himself is kind of a boring character, who just does exactly as he’s told, and I happened to be of the camp that considers him righteous by virtue of not doing evil as his contemporaries were doing, that considers him not righteous by the standard of Abraham’s generation. Let’s not be boring like Noah. May we all come to terms with the complexities of morality and humanity, and just always do the absolute best we can, whatever that may be. Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.