Friday, November 28, 2014

Parashat HaShavua – Parashat Va-Yetze

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone:
They paved paradise and put in a parking lot.”
            “Jacob left Beer-Sheva and set out for Paran” (Genesis 28:10). Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob does not just “go”, he “leaves.” At the end of Parashat Toledot, both his parents tell him to “rise and go”, with a meaning of “flee”. But the beginning of Parashat Vayetzei does not say, “So he went/goes” or “He fled.” It says: “He left.” He left behind his tangible absence among his remaining family members, and he left behind the struggle and the pain that he caused. Rashi questions the use of this word, and answers it with what Avivah Zornberg calls a “classic midrashic response.” He says, “This tells us that the ‘leaving’ of a righteous person from a place makes an imprint [Zornberg’s emphasis]. As long as the righteous person is in the city, he is its glory and light and majesty. When he leaves, its glory, light and majesty are evacuated.” Zornberg, in her commentary The Beginning of Desire, “The imprint, the full awareness of the indispensable person, is known only after he has removed himself from his place.”
            Last week, the Academy of Jewish Religion held its annual retreat, this year on the topic of “Torah and Terra: Jewish stewardship of the environment.” We spoke a lot about climate change and unstoppable destruction we’ve already put forth into the atmosphere. Climate change science has been discussed for at least 20 years, but only now is the mainstream starting to care. Only now are we starting to realize that we have already passed the point of no return. We can still make changes, make a difference, save the Earth, but the carbon we’ve already emitted is enough to cause irreparable damage. The globe is already warming, the ice caps already melting, the waters already rising. We are losing shorelines. Without drastic changes on a governmental and international level, life as we know it could be over by 2100 (not to say the world will end, but that life will be unimaginably altered to adjust to the new face of Earth). This is the lifetime of the generation being born now. People who are already alive will see the devastation we have created for them. Even with drastic changes, we could find large swaths of land under water and innumerable species extinct by 2100. But we, as a human race/species, don’t seem to be making moves to make those drastic changes in time. We won’t know what we’ve lost til it’s gone.

            Zornberg, with the help of Rashi and the midrashists, continue in a more hopeful vein: the void that Jacob creates is within him as well, and is necessary in order for him to cleave to his mate. In order to find and attach himself fully to his wife, Jacob must separate himself from his family, from his place of origin, from “previous identities and fixities.” Perhaps we, too, can find something new to cleave to in the absence of life as we know it. Maybe we need to be faced with the paving of paradise before we can fully embrace the trees and the birds and the bees. Maybe only after we’re left with the void of our current coastlines will we be able to better develop – with clean building, recycled and recyclable resources, and carbon-free energy – more of our currently uninhabited land. Maybe being forced to move inward and shift boundaries will force us to make peace with our neighbors and create global cooperation in the name of saving what’s left of our planet. More than just hope and speculate, let us work toward any of these options, work toward cleaner energy and ways of development, urge our policy makers and fuel providers to listen to our rising need for drastic change, and work toward peace with those who may be very close neighbors competing for fewer resources in the not too distant future. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Parashat Toldot – Torah and Terra

My d'var Torah from Monday night's ma'ariv at the AJR retreat on Torah and Terra. I was told that my delivery was brilliant, so I apologize that those simply reading it may be missing out on key moments of understanding. 

            We all come to this retreat with varying levels of knowledge and observance. Some of us may be learned environmental scientists, or dedicated Jewish-Environmentalist activists, and others may be completely new to the concept of conservation or Biblical laws that dictate we care for nature. But we wouldn't be having the retreat on the topic of Torah and Terra if we generally consider ourselves to be a community of experts on the topic. Personally, I consider myself an environmentalist, and I’m going to guess many of you are in a similar camp. I recycle, I turn off lights when I leave a room, I use reusable canvas shopping bags, I participated in the People’s Climate March. However, I still enjoy a nice bubble bath or a long hot shower, I use all kinds of electronics and do not own anything solar-powered, I don’t grow my own food or even know where most of it comes from half the time, and I have not helped to organize, promote, or otherwise contribute in any meaningful way to environmentalist activism. But I still get to tell people I’m an environmentalist, because I believe that environmentalism is good, right?
            “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands.” In this week’s parasha, Isaac asks in many ways for identification of the son who brings him his meal and awaits the blessing. The last of which is the declaration, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands, and he discerned him not… so he blessed him.” The commentary Matnot Kehuna says that the voice of Jacob is “one of indirection and cunning.” Jacob’s very name is derived from the root meaning “crooked”, “indirect”. Jacob speaks knowing that his deeds are duplicitous, that who his voice reveals him to be and what his hands reveal him to be is not the same person.

            Sometimes, we speak with our true voices, while the actions of our hands reflect untrue representations of ourselves. It may be that in our heart of hearts, we all want to be true environmentalists. We speak as the person we see ourselves as, an idealized version of our ethics. But we act out in the way that is convenient. We masquerade ourselves to impersonate those we see around us, knowing full well that it’s not right, because it is the easiest way to get what we want, what we think we deserve. It would be really hard work to be so mindful of our carbon footprint that we actually make a difference on a global scale! Ain’t nobody got time for that! Meanwhile, we see those around us validating this. Like Rebecca scheming for Jacob in the kitchen, we’ve got governments heaping a solitary option for fuel on us, and shielding from our view the devastation it causes. We can hope things turn out alright for us, like they do for Jacob. That speaking as one person and acting out as another will not cause us any real harm. But the science would disagree. Rather, let us find a way to pull off the goatskins and unify our hands with our voices, and act in accordance with our words. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Parashat Chayei Sarah - There can be no light without darkness

             Just this week I found myself reflecting on a difficult time in my life, a time when I was facing feelings of suicidality, a time when I felt abandoned by my Jewish community, a time when I questioned my point and purpose in life, a time when I wondered what and where God was. The reflection focused on overcoming those feelings, finding peace again in a different Jewish community, reuniting with God and myself, and feeling a sense of intense liberation at having gone through that and come out the other side.
In her commentary for this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, Avivah Zornberg recalls the same midrash from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer that I wrote about in this year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, and a hand full of others like it. Satan appeared to Sarah, or perhaps Satan in the guise of Isaac appeared to Sarah. Satan told Sarah that Isaac was killed by his own father on Mount Moriah, or perhaps Satan-Isaac told Sarah that Abraham had raised his hand to kill him but the angel stopped him just in time. Maybe Sarah didn’t hear the end of the story, so great was her anguish, and maybe she did but was anguished anyway at the idea that if not for the interference of the angel at just the right moment, her husband would have killed her son. At any rate, in hearing this news, however much of it she heard, she let out wails and cries of varying sounds, corresponding to the sounds of the Shofar, and then she died.
            Zornberg’s point of bringing all these midrashim, unlike my point at the High Holy Days of remembering her cries and those of other women and children in distress, is to show us the “impossibility of full joy in this world” (The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Vertigo – the Residue of the Akedah). Isaac and Abraham have just undergone a horrible experience in Parashat Vayera with the Akedah. Their relationship will probably never recover (in fact, in the Torah, we never really see them speak to each other), and they are each undoubtedly deeply damaged psychologically from it, but still they succeed. Abraham proves his worthiness and devotion to God, and Isaac gets to live: a happy ending to that story, only to be undercut by Sarah’s death as a direct result in the opening of this parasha. Zornberg goes on to speak of the nothingness we encounter in life, the way in which we only find true meaning after accepting this meaninglessness of our lives, or the way in which we experience anxiety and vertigo, uncertainty and panic, if we do not accept this. She uses the phrase “the unbearable lightness of being” as the source of Sarah’s death, but I think this same phrase well-captures what I felt as rebirth after the time of my life described above. Tyler Durden says, “It is only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything”; Avivah Zornberg says, “[D]oubt, interrogation, absence, anguish create the possibility of freedom”. It was this unbearable lightness that caused me to feel like I could float above my world, my depression, my negligent Jewish community. It was only after I accepted that maybe there is no meaning to the world, that perhaps God’s generosity is darkly shaded and roughly textured, that I felt liberated to experience my own generosity to myself, to find new meaning in a self-created world that recognizes and embraces one’s own darkness. As Zornberg says, “To know the brokenness, the hollow resonance of the Shofar, is to sharpen one’s hearing for the affirmations of faith.”
            After Sarah’s death from her unbearable lightness of being, the parasha goes on to tell the tale of Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca. Rebecca is found by a well, and Abraham’s servant recognizes her as the correct woman for Isaac by her radical kindness. She not only gives him some water, but carries water to his animals as well. Her life and her soul are characterized by this light, this goodness. When she follows the servant back to Abraham’s homestead, she sees a man on in the fields meditating as they approach. She asks, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant answers, “That is my master”. So she covers herself with her veil, suddenly feeling bashful in front of her soon-to-be husband. Midrashim famously attribute this to Isaac’s embarrassingly good looks, her humbling in front of this great man, and their true love. Zornberg draws a different conclusion. She says that Rebecca sees Isaac praying in the field, sees and hears the anguish in his prayers, broken up over his mother’s death, and perhaps holding survivor’s guilt as the indirect cause of her death, and she experiences “confusion, doubt, and suspense.” She has never seen this sort of darkness in her “sunlit world of hesed”. They build a life together, though we are left wondering how well these two people, who essentially live in different worlds, can relate to one another?

            Some people don’t ever experience this darkness. Some may but live in denial, in that troubling state of vertigo that Zornberg describes. Some live through it, embrace it, and push past it. We internalize the meaninglessness of life and choose to go forth anyway, and create our own meanings. We are all given birth and death, some of us just want some say in between, even if it ultimately doesn't matter. There is an intense sense of liberation at being able to accept this, that Sarah was unfortunately unable to experience. For any that find themselves on this threshold, forced to face unbearable truths or nothingness, I urge you to push on, to find a comfortable place to sit in that void and wait for light to return. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Parashat Vayera

“And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre … and he lifted his eyes and looked and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door and bowed himself to the ground.”
What does it mean for the Lord to appear to Abraham? What does it mean that when he looked up, three men were already standing next to him? Why did Abraham run to meet them so enthusiastically? In just this short passage, we are able to open ourselves up to a world of questions and potential answers, midrash and meaning, and life lessons.
            First, how does the Lord appear to Abraham? In Lech-Lecha, we read that God speaks to Abraham, but there’s no explanation on how they interact, where the voice comes from, how Abraham experiences God. Here we read that God appeared to Abraham. Abraham saw God, in some way. Some midrashists believe that because this parasha immediately follows the details of Abraham’s bris, God is paying a Bikkur Holim visit, keeping Abraham company as he heals. This midrash helps to emphasize the honor of Abraham as he rushes up to meet the strange visitors. He was hanging out with God, and turned away to greet strangers! We learn from this that greeting weary travelers is of utmost importance, a real mitzvah!
            So, who were the weary travelers? Another midrash suggests that two are the angels that travel on to Sodom and Gemorrah later in the parasha, and the third is God. The progression of the introduction to the parasha, saying “The Lord appeared… and Abraham looked up and saw three men standing by [literally, upon] him” is meant to suggest that the three men and the appearance of the Lord to Abraham are the same thing. Further reinforcing this is the way the men appear. Abraham does not seem to see them approach, he simply looks up and there they are, right by his tent! And this is the desert, there were no trees for them to ninja rope down from or shrubbery to hide behind and sneak up on him. There’s only sand. They appeared out of nowhere. This teaches us the importance of welcoming in strangers without glorifying Abraham’s earnest honor. He did not walk away from God to greet the men, he greeted the men and in doing so, greeted God! It seems he even knew that the men were representatives of God, which makes the importance of greeting them obvious and not necessarily something deserving of praise. However, we might not know when God or angels are in our midst. We learn from this that we should be welcoming to everyone, because we might never know who we are leaving out if we don’t. Beauty and the Beast teaches a similar lesson, so if you feel unconvinced by this midrash, you can always just watch the opening scene to the Disney movie and learn basically the same thing.
            So why did Abraham run to greet the three men so enthusiastically? Was he trying to make a good impression on important visitors? Was he trying to show off his inclusivity skills to God? Was he just a really nice guy? Was he just bored and eager for new faces and stories, perhaps information from whence the travelers came? In the end, it doesn't really matter. Any of these are good reasons to greet new people. Make good impressions, build networks, make friends, gather fresh anecdotes and information, spice up your life with new experiences, be nice to people who may feel left on the outside. These are all things that can be accomplished with a simple hello and a handshake. So, Hello!


Lech-Lecha - Go Forth

“Once or twice in a lifetime, a man or woman may choose a radical leaving, having heard Lech L’cha – Go Forth. God disturbs us toward our destiny by hard events and by freedom’s now urgent voice which explode and confirm who we are. We don’t like leaving but God loves becoming. Blessed are You, HaShem our God, who chooses Your people Israel in love.” (Mishkan Tefillah, Shabbat Morning service)
            Avivah Gotlieb Zornberg, in her book The Beginnings of Desire, presents to us a tension of Parashat Lech L’cha. Abraham is sent forth from his home, the land of his father, to a place he will not know until the “light falls on it with a difference”, that is, when God shows him that this is the right place. Zornberg points out that to go on a journey without a clear destination is madness, and Abraham must be a madman to embark on it. However, she also shows us that this madness is necessary, a new step in creation toward life as we know it. Playing with the same root letters that make up the very different root words for “tear” and “barrenness” (k’riah and akirah), she suggests a total rootlessness for Abraham and Sarah – or Abram and Sarai as they are at that point. They have no children, nothing giving them root and causing them to stay in one place, nothing extending their family tree, so they are able to tear themselves away from what they have known. In this journey where they are torn and rootless, they finally stop on the Promised Land, the first time it is promised; they are promised blessings and descendents, roots and branches for their family tree. In doing so, they are able, as Zornberg puts it, to “create entirely new paradigms of reality.”

            It is a paradigm we still live within today. Most people do not just leave their parents’ homes when it is time to cleave to their spouses. They leave when they feel the need to discover something new, to find or reinvent themselves. Whether the call comes directly from God or from the urging of a good friend or from within, we have come to realize that our own betterment, “enlargement”, real understanding of the world comes from destabilization and re-stabilization. This idea is not unlike Zornberg’s reading of Genesis. Adam and Eve were exiled as punishment, Abraham was sent away from his home in search of blessings, both were hardships, and both created new ways of living, life as we know us, a richer, fuller life of meaning. In Abraham’s new paradigm, we must simply create that new life of meaning for ourselves.