Friday, November 20, 2015

Parashat Vayetzei - Mussar

            Every fall, my school has a retreat in which we spend three days together in study and in community. It is off campus and away from our homes, where we truly live together, sharing three meals and prayer services together daily, in addition to study sessions and a cabaret. It is a great time. This year, our retreat was on the theme of Mussar. Mussar may be translated to mean ethics, but it’s more than just being nice to each other or living a moral life. It’s about learning where your own strengths and weaknesses are, and learning to fix them so that you can be a better person, serve others more fully, and live a more thoroughly moral and honest life in every way. In preparation for this, the week before retreat, our retreat organizers shared a video: “The Making of a Mensch.” One of the things mentioned as possible avenues to mussar is learning when to be more patient and when to be impatient. I have spent a lot of time in the past learning to be more patient in social justice. I used to be angry all the time at the state of the world, and wanted to know how to fix it, all of it, right now. I learned to be patient, to see success in small victories, to appreciate the ways in which the world is better now than ten years ago or sixty years ago or 600 years ago. As a whole, humanity lives longer, healthier lives. We have amazing advances in technology, including medical technology, we are more connected to one another than ever before, and xenophobia is definitely less normal than it once was.
            Unfortunately, it is still fairly common. People still discriminate against others based on their differences, and plenty still carry out hateful and violent acts based on these differences. And many, many more react in indifference. When those we perceive to be like us are discriminated against or experience violence, we show solidarity and empathy. When the same things happen to those we perceive as different from us, we ignore it, or worse, if those perpetrated those acts of violence are a part of our in-group, we defend it. When we find ourselves in 2015 still living in a world where people are hurt just for being who they are and too many turn a blind eye to ongoing injustices, it is time to get a little impatient. In 2015, we don’t have time anymore to put up with systemic oppression or indifference to war. We’ve come too far in our understanding of these problems to allow them to continue.
            In this and next week’s Torah portions, we see Jacob dawdling. Avivah Zornberg writes in her commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, brings a Midrash that “insists that the root of all Jacob’s vicissitudes [misfortunes] on his return to the Holy Land is the problem of delay, that dangerous space of unawareness that separates the vow from its fulfillment.” He spends over fourteen years in Laban’s camp, acquiring capital and personal fulfillment. The time, says Torah of the first seven years and Midrash of the second, flies by for him as though it were only a few days, because of his love for Rachel. But meanwhile, the rest of the world keeps turning and for them, time is moving at a real pace, and Jacob is not doing anything to create goodness. Abraham welcomed strangers and argued with God for justice. Isaac was willing to allow himself to be sacrificed for God. And what has Jacob done, other than sleep and get married and tend sheep? He’s not a nice brother, he deceives his father, he is unloving to one wife and insensitive to the one he does love. He doesn’t acknowledge God until God comes to him in a dream, and he doesn’t interact with strangers. Where is his mussar?

            Eventually, after things start to fall apart a bit with his family in the next parasha, he does get going and fulfills his promise to God, allows God to continue the promise to Jacob and all the descendants of Abraham. For so many of us, it takes personal tragedy or at least a tragedy that hits close to home to wake up and realize how much time we’ve been wasting, to get going and fulfill the promises we made to ourselves or to our friends and families and communities, or to God. Let us not wait anymore. Let us feel some impatience. May we feel spurred awake today to take action toward improving the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

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