Friday, December 30, 2016

Shabbat Chanukah Sameach!

            Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah! In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph manages to gain his freedom by interpreting the Pharoah’s dreams. He has been imprisoned and left to rot in a dark cell for an offense he didn’t commit, and by the power of God and his prophetic ability to interpret dreams, he has brought light into his own life and that of all Egypt by helping them to prepare for the years of famine that will befall in them in the years to come.
            The haftarah for Chanukah also alludes to dream and awakening a new time of light and freedom. Zechariah chapter 4 tells of an angel waking Zechariah out of a dream in which he saw the menorah in the Temple (the regular seven-armed kind, not a chanukiah which didn’t exist yet). On either side of the menorah in his dream were olive trees, symbols of peace and prosperity. He asked the angel what it meant, and the angel responded, “Not by military might, nor by physical power, but by the spirit of Adonai Tzeva’ot [will the prophesy of peace and prosperity come to the Jewish people].” In the time of Zechariah, this meant looking forward to building the Second Temple, the same one that the Maccabees will eventually rededicate.
However, as Rashi explains, when God says, “By My Spirit alone,” God means that God will bestow Divine wisdom and insight into a human who will help orchestrate what needs to be done. For Egypt, the tribe of Israel, and Joseph, that meant Joseph’s dream interpretations were the Spirit of God. For Zechariah and the Jews yearning for a return to Zion after the first Babylonian exile, that meant the Persian King Darius allowing them to return and allowing some of the royal treasury to be used to resettle the land of Israel. For the Maccabees, it meant learning to fight back and take control of their destinies. In each of these cases, humans still needed to recognize what needed to be done, what was the Spirit of God, and act on it. If Joseph kept his dream interpretations to himself, and chose not to share his thoughts with the butler and baker in his jail cell, then word wouldn’t have made it to Pharaoh that he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. If he played humble and refused to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams for fear of getting them wrong, he wouldn’t have been appointed to an official position in the Egyptian royal court. If Zechariah didn’t prophesy and inspire the Jews returning to Israel to rebuild their religious life, if Darius chose to look the other way on his new subjects, then our people would not have been restored after the destruction of the First Temple. If the Maccabees continued to shy away from active resistance and fighting on Shabbat, then the acts of God couldn’t have unfolded.
There’s an old joke about a man lost in the sea. A fisherman comes by in his little boat and tosses the swimming man a net and offers to pull him to safety. But the man says, “No thank you, God will provide.” He starts to get tired and worried he can’t keep swimming much longer and the coast guard shows up in a helicopter, and tries to airlift the man out. The man says, “No thanks, I know God will provide.” He starts to drown. A dolphin tries to swim him back up to the surface and bring him toward land, but again he says, “I know God will save me.” He drowns and dies. Upon meeting God in the World to Come, he asks, “God, what happened? I did mitzvot and prayed and had faith all my life! Why didn’t you save me?” God says, “I sent you the fisherman, the coast guard, and even the freaking dolphin! What more did you want?”
The lesson here is that to bring ourselves out of the dark and into the light, we need to be able to recognize God’s spirit and use it to help ourselves move toward action. The right thing will not always just fall into place, but will require work and wisdom from ourselves and our communities. May we find in ourselves the strength to take action, the recognition of Divine wisdom, the spirit to know what is right. And may peace and light come to us all. Amen and Shabbat Chanukah Sameach.

Parashat Vayeishev

Wrote this but forgot to post last week:
Shabbat Shalom! In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayeishev, we learn about Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. If you're unfamiliar with the narrative, the entire rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber is available in one free YouTube video.
Joseph's troubles mostly start from his own inability to read a room, but they certainly escalate quickly when he goes to check in his brothers shepherding in Shechem, where they plot to kill him. The Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a, says that Shechem was "a place predestined for evil: in Shechem Dinah was violated; in Shechem Joseph was sold by his brothers; and in Shechem the kingdom of the House of David was divided." There is also a bloody battle at Shechem in the book Joshua as the Israelites concur the Promised Land. That situation and the one in the book of Kings are many generations away and it is hard to say what the connection is. I've tried to find some literary reason for all the terrible things that have happened in Shechem, and also tried to come to some conclusion that helps me understand the continued violence there (Shechem is Nablus in modern-day Palestine). There's no satisfying reason. There's nothing particular about that spot on the geography that makes it a good battle ground or any reason that it should be an important stronghold to fight over.
But for Joseph and his brothers, it's a little odd that they are even still there so soon after they have slaughtered all the men of Shechem. Maybe the place has a presence of violence for them because they have already wrought violence there. I can't speak for all of the evil that seems to emanate from or fall upon Shechem, but for this week's Parasha it might be a case of not learning a lesson. After Simeon and Levi slaughtered all the men of Shechem, is Dinah really vindicated? We never hear from her again so it's hard to assume that she has been truly avenged, that this violence in her honor has helped her in any way. Similarly, after the brothers plot to kill and then decide to sell Joseph, it doesn't solve the problems that Jacob's favoritism of Joseph has caused. Their lives continue to be hard, cast in the shadow of Joseph's loss rather than his presence.
For us, perhaps we can learn from this that revenge is not the same as justice. Sometimes we may feel impulsive and we may lash out against those that cause harm to ourselves or the people we love, but if we cannot learn to curb that impulse, we will only get in our own way to achieve true justice or a fair change to a bad situation. As long as we continue to choose revenge over justice, as long as we choose to perpetuate senseless violence, any place we live will seem like a place predestined for evil. May we learn to not blame a venue for human actions, may we take responsibility for our own impulses, may we hold others accountable in a way that can lead to true change.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Parashat Vayishlach - Revisiting Rape Culture in the Jewish Community

            Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayishlach. In it, Jacob and Esau are reunited. The night before, Jacob wrestles with an angel, earns a blessing and a new name – Israel – and in the morning, his reunion with Esau is better than he could have possibly expected. The brothers embrace and make up for their past discrepancies, their families are introduced to one another, and then they part ways again. Esau takes his family back to Edom, and Jacob takes his to Shechem. In Shechem, the prince of the city, who is also named Shechem, comes upon Dinah and forces himself onto her. After that, we never hear from or about Dinah again. Her brothers avenge her by massacring the entire city, but we don’t know where she is when this is happening or what happens next for her.
            You may recall that a few weeks ago, I came back from my weekend in Philadelphia with some new insights into how internalized antisemitism has simultaneously fed and served to hide toxic masculinity in the Jewish community, and how we often overlook violence within our communities in favor of promoting the narrative of “The Nice Jewish Boy.” Since then, I have seen many friends speak publicly about their own assaults at the hands of Jewish men, including one who said she was prompted to start talking about this issue publicly specifically because of the conversation I had brought up while I was staying with her in Philly, as I was trying to process the insights I was just beginning to develop on this topic.
            Now, Shechem wasn’t Jewish, but he was willing to be. The Torah tells us that after he raped Dinah, his soul cleaved to her and he loved her deeply. He speaks to her heart, and asks her family for her hand in proper marriage, promising an extravagant bride-price. Her brothers, Simeon and Levi, demand that Shechem, both the prince and the whole city, become a part of their family’s covenant with God before they can allow their sister to join their clans. So Shechem, the prince along with all the men of the city, get themselves circumcised, and are slaughtered in their healing beds. Bibllical scholar Yael Shemesh, in her paper “Rape is Rape is Rape: The Story of Dinah and Shechem (Genesis 34),” discusses modern day research on sexual violence and applies it to the Torah text. She says that “injuring another person may violate the moral code of fairness and lead to self-concept distress” and that often times perpetuators of abuse or sexual violence will do mental gymnastics to convince themselves they haven’t really done anything wrong and/or that their actions were justified. In the case of Shechem, Shemesh points out that the Torah only speaks of his love to her, his whispering sweet nothings to her, after he has lain with her. He is now trying to make it all right and legal and family-approved, but that doesn’t mean the initial act, described in a sequence of verbs before these more fully described actions that followed, wasn’t an act of violence.
            I read The Red Tent as an adolescent and was greatly influenced by it. It’s a very well-written novel by Anita Diament, who is an important voice in modern Progressive Judaism. However, as I’ve grown as a person, as a Jewishly-educated woman, and as a feminist, I can no longer accept her midrash as a fair and realistic reading of the text, and I can no longer find feminist empowerment in this romantic re-writing that imagines Dinah loved Shechem back, consented, and ran away from her family after they murdered him. Alice A. Keefe, another feminist Biblical scholar, writes in her paper “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” that those who use Dinah’s silence as consent “reveal only their participation in the old masculine fantasy that women enjoy rape.” I’m uncomfortable saying that Diament is actively participating in such a grotesque thing, so I have started re-reading The Red Tent to more fully assess her midrash with adult eyes. Whether or not Diament is perpetuating rape apologia, though, Keefe’s statement that it is dangerous to read consent into Dinah’s silence rings true. The same friend that hosted me in Philadelpia and was willing to talk about her personal experiences with sexual assault within the Jewish community, invoked the famous quote by author Zora Neale Hurston: "If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it."
            If we read complacency into Dinah’s silence, we are doing the same thing to her. We are silencing all the women who had faced this kind of violence and subsequent disbelief. We are perpetuating rape apologia and continue to make it difficult for women to report, for prosecutors to effectively press charges, for justice to be found. And we are better than that. We, as a Jewish community can do better, and I believe that we will only affect change by talking more openly about this problem. We must be willing to confront violence within our sacred texts and within our beloved Jewish community. It can be so uncomfortable and difficult, but I believe it is the only way to make our communities safer for survivors and potential future victims. May there come a time when there is simply no more sexual violence, and may it start with us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Parashat Toldot

                        Shabbat Shalom. As we approached the winter months, a level of darkness and sensitivity to grief tends to set in for many people. For me, Thanksgiving to New Years hold particular memories and yarzheits, but I know many people find themselves missing their lost loved ones especially at this time of year, even if the birthdays or death anniversaries were in other seasons. I think it has something to do with the shorter days, the lack of natural light, and the cold setting into our bones as winter descends.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, we read the well-known story of Jacob and Esau, twins who could not be more different. Esau is the favored son of his father, a man’s man, a hunter described as hairy and a animalistic. Jacob is the favored son of his mother, a mama’s boy who likes to help with the domestic chores around the house. The story culminates with Rebecca and Jacob conspiring to trick old, blind Isaac into giving Jacob his special blessing he intended for Esau. Esau’s weeping, “Have you not a second blessing for me, Father?” is truly heartbreaking in spite of the midrashic tales of Esau’s sinful and violent nature. Jacob’s trickery inspires great anger from Esau, and he runs away to escape the same fate as Abel.
            But before the incident with the blessing, there is also an incident in which Jacob also finagles to gain Esau’s birthright, the promise of prosperity and the legacy of Abraham’s covenant with God. Sometimes, the distinction between the blessing and the birthright are confused and the two stories get conflated, but there is a lot happening with both incidents and they deserve their distinctions. The Torah tells us that Esau came home from the field, presumably hunting, and he is exhausted. Jacob is cooking a stew, and Esau begs Jacob for some stew, which seems odd that he would be so desperate. Who else would Jacob be cooking for, if not for his own family and household? The Talmud fills this in for us with a Midrash. Jacob was cooking lentil stew, a traditional food for a funeral. Lentils have no mouths, just as mourners often have no words, and they are round, as the circle of life which teaches us that mourning comes to all inhabitants of the earth in time. So when Esau comes in and sees the lentil stew, he recognizes this as the sign that their grandfather Abraham has died. He is hungry and tired from his long day in the field, but his desperation comes from grief. He is heartbroken over the death of his grandfather, and frightened and in shock that such a tsaddik would die like a normal man. He is confronted by the concept of his own mortality for the first time, and suddenly his birthright seems meaningless. If the righteous Abraham could die just like that, then how clearly Esau in his famished and exhausted state must be facing down death. He panics, and exchanges his birthright for the stew.
            In dealing with grief or depression, it is important to try as much as possible to curb impulsive decision making, which may come out of desperation, and may be self-destructive. Of course, once one is in that state, the situation may already be lost. In the case of a fresh case of grief like Esau’s, this is why things like last will and testaments, ethical wills, and the like, unpleasant though they may be to think about, are so important so that we do not leave our loved ones to have to make difficult decisions unguided. In the case of the winter months opening up old wounds, those moments of desperation can be harder to prepare for. It can be random what triggers a grief-laden depressive mood, and it can be hard to know ahead of time what normal day to day functions, like eating, can suddenly feel confusing and disordered. For this, all we can do to prepare is ensure strong support systems. Be a support to your friends and be sure to lean on them when you need it as well. Isaac and Rebecca played favorites among their children and created division between brothers. There were no strong support networks in the family, and they crumbled in their grief. If we stick together as families, as a community, as friends, we can weather any weather the long, dark, cold winter throws at us, and we can manage our fears, grief, and desperation. May we bring light and love, warmth and support, nourishment for the body and soul, into our lives and the lives of others this winter. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.