Friday, December 29, 2017

Happy Almost New Year! Parashat Vayechi

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayechi, in which we read that “The days drew near for Israel to die” (Genesis 47:29). Jacob gives his sons and two of his grandsons (he just never learns to stop with that overt favoritism) blessings and requests that he be buried in the Cave of Machpelah with his parents and grandparents and with Leah.
The great gladiator-turned-esteemed-rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said of the beginning of this parasha, “The days of the righteous die, but they do not die. It does not say, ‘Israel drew near to die’ but that ‘the days of Israel drew near to die’” (Midrash Rabbah). We learn from the that the spirit of the righteous and their good deeds linger, even after their earthly days have passed by.
As we approach the new year, and the days of 2017 draw near to closing, what will linger and come into 2018 with us, and what will pass by? What deeds of righteousness have we accomplished in this year, and what earthly mistakes have we made? Of course, as Jews, our new year and our season of repentance and renewal happened already just a few months ago. But as modern Westerners, we live so much of our lives by the Gregorian calendar, and it’s worth taking stock of our lives and actions at any opportune moment. I’m not big on “New Years Resolutions” per se, but as we cross the threshold of one year to the next, let us take the time to reflect on our choices and deeds.
If 2017 were our last year on Earth, would Reish Lakish’s commentary apply to us? If not, what can we commit to for 2018 that it may be true in a year’s time? What can we accomplish as ordinary people to earn the title of “righteous”, to know that our legacy will outlive us and that our name and deeds will live on forever? Of course, there is no one right answer. Each of us must make our own choices. Each of us must decide what is possible for our personal circumstances, what is right for our personal morals, what makes the most sense for our personal lives. For example, I personally would not choose to show the overt favoritism that righteous Jacob shows for Rachel, Joseph, and Joseph’s sons right up until the day he dies, leaving his other children to still fear Joseph’s potential narcissism and wrath once their father is gone. But Jacob made that choice and was still considered righteous, and Joseph did let go of his narcissism and wrath, and all the children of Jacob managed to live out their days in Goshen in relative peace and family harmony.
So it worked out alright for that family. You need to decide for yourself what will work out best for yours. Transitions in life, in year cycles, moments of reflection, are key opportunities to reassess and make these decisions anew. As the days of 2017 draw near to their end, may you be blessed with righteousness and family harmony. Amen and Happy New Year.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Parashat Vayigash: The Struggle with Embarrassment

                Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, we see Joseph finally revealing himself to his brothers and the ensuing bittersweet reunion. After hearing a heartfelt speech by Judah, Joseph sends away the guards in the room, bursts into tears and tells his brothers who he really is and what has been going on with all the interrogations and false accusations.
            One of our ancient rabbis of the Midrash, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman comments on Joseph’s choice to be alone with his brothers for this grand reveal, “Joseph put himself in grave danger, because if his brothers had killed him [as they had planned to do once before], no one would have known whom to blame. So why did he say, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me?’ This is what Joseph thought: ‘Better that I be killed than I humiliate my brothers in front of the Egyptians’.” A variety of Jewish texts draw from this that sparing others humiliation is as important as saving lives.
            I felt a struggle with this reading as I first read Rabbi Samuel’s comment, though. It seems clear in the text that the Egyptians know that Joseph is a “Hebrew”. In the previous parasha, there is a strange explanation of Joseph eating alone when he feeds his brothers, because it was the custom of the time that Hebrews and Egyptians could not share a meal. Joseph would not sit down with his brothers to eat because then they would know he was not Egyptian, but he was not allowed to eat with his guards because they did know he was not Egyptian. Given that the Israelite clan at this point is relatively small, wouldn’t the Egyptian guards be able to put two and two together and recognize that Joseph was related to these Hebrew sojourners seeking food? By subjecting them to his tests and trickery, hasn’t he already humiliated his brothers in front of the guards?
            Generally speaking, I feel great sympathy for Joseph’s actions. His brothers have been truly terrible to him, even Judah who is sometimes crediting as “saving” Joseph for suggesting they sell him into slavery instead of leaving him to starve to death in that pit. I think it’s pretty reasonable that he is tormented by conflicting emotions when he encounters them again, and that lashing out and subjecting them to some embarrassing experiences is not the worst reaction he could have had.
After thinking through my gut reaction to the story in light of Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman’s commentary, I came to this conclusion: we all go into our fight-or-flight-animal-instinct mode sometimes and say or do things we might quickly regret. In that moment of facing our own complex and highly charged emotions, do we double down and lash out harder, or do we try to minimize the hurt we are causing and attempt some reconciliation? Sometimes it may be too difficult to do the latter, especially if there is a true concern for safety involved. But if the conflict is with someone we love, someone we feel truly tied to, perhaps it is better to try to be like our brother Joseph and take a step back. Try to minimize the humiliation we cause, even if we are reacting from a place of our own hurt. May we all find reconciliation and comfort this Shabbat and onward. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Chanukah - Miketz

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Chanukah Sameach!

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, Joseph and his brothers are reunited again, although his brothers do not know it yet. He appears to them as the grand viceroy (who knows what a viceroy actually is? I looked it up - A viceroy is a regal official who runs a country, colony, city, province, or sub-national state, in the name of and as the representative of the monarch of the territory) of Egypt.

He recognizes his brothers as they come to him in search of food, but they do not recognize him. So, he decides to mess with them a little, after all they did at one point try to kill him and then decided he was of more use to them alive and sold into slavery. He calls them spies and asks them some interrogative questions, in which they reveal they are 10 of 12 brothers. "One is no more," they say, "And the youngest remains with our father." So Joseph gives them some food, but demands on meeting the 12th brother, and keeps Simeon in the meantime as collateral.

Reuben, the same brother who didn't want to kill Joseph in the first place all those years ago, now reprimands his brothers for the predicament they have gotten into. Jacob will surely not let the second son of his favored wife out of his sight, not after what happened to the first one (Joseph, whom he thinks is dead), and now they've also lost Simeon. He tells his brothers in Hebrew that this is punishment for them for their treatment of Joseph, and they think the Egyptian viceroy cannot understand them, but Joseph takes note of Reuben's admonishment.

Once they do manage to convince Jacob to allow Benjamin to go back to Egypt with them, Joseph decides to trick them again, but framing Benjamin for stealing his cup. That is where this parasha ends, but the next one starts back up with Judah singing a nice Calypso song about how Benjamin is honest as coconuts*. After Judah's heartwarming profession of loyalty to Benjamin, Joseph tearfully reveals himself.

I was talking with a student this week about how Joseph reads the behavior of Reuben and Judah as evidence that all 11 brothers have learned to be better people since throwing him into that pit, and that they are all ready to be forgiven. The student said there was no evidence that the other siblings cared, and they were probably just going along with it to get the food.

In the end, though, it doesn't really matter. The kindness and maturity of Reuben and Judah are enough to earn this fractured family some peace again. Just as the shamash provides enough light for us to see by and has a flame strong enough to light the other candles, the willingness of just these three brothers to reconcile is enough to brightened up aging Jacob's life again and ignite forgiveness and love between the whole family.

This Chanukah, be the Shamash, be Reuben the peacemaker, be Judah the loyal. Bring light into dark spaces, ignite love among friends and family, and hold onto your strength to help carry others through complicated times. Pass your light on, and allow the warmth of others radiate back at you. And together, may we all drive out hardship and darkness, to live in unity and peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Human Rights Shabbat - Parashat Vayishlach

Shabbat Shalom! So much happens in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayishlach! First, Jacob prepares to reconcile with his brother, Esau. He separates his clan: in case Esau attacks one, the other will be safe. Then he separates himself from them both, and sets up his own camp alone. While he is alone in the night, a man comes upon him and attacks him. They wrestle until daybreak, and the man dislocates Jacob’s leg from the hip socket. Even in his pain, Jacob manages to overcome the man, and holds him down until the man gives him a blessing. Rather than a straightforward blessing, the man tells Jacob, “You shall now be called Israel, one who wrestles with God.” In the morning, the confrontation with Esau goes so much better than Jacob could have imagined, with both men embracing and crying and exchanging gifts. After this brief and joyful reunion, the families go their separate ways again.
The next thing the Torah tells us is about the assault on Dinah, a violent sidenote about the children of Jacob in a story that otherwise completely revolves around him. The Prince of Shechem loves Dinah and lays with her and there are many takes on how this union unfolded. Regardless of her consent, however, the Prince did not have her father’s consent, and that is where the true assault lies. Angered by the lack of propriety and respect for tradition that the Prince has shown, Dinah’s brothers decide to commit genocide against all the men of Shechem. The narrative ends abruptly with Jacob and his sons arguing briefly about the slaughter, and then Jacob swiftly pivots and seems to decide this is the perfect moment to tell his family about the experience with the angel and his new name. Israel’s clan travel onward, and his beloved Rachel dies on the road. He buries her where she dies, leaving her as the only matriarch or patriarch not buried at Machpelah with all the others. Lastly, we encounter a strange single sentence inserted between Rachel’s death and the genealogies that close the parasha. “Reuben lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard about it.” Though we are not given any more information, we are left to imagine the family strife that this union stirred up, in a family already so given to strife.
The stories of Reuben and Dinah in this parasha seem very different, but they have two things in common. They both are examples of family expectations of relationships being violated, and they both offer very little information about how the people involved in the relationships actually felt. When the Torah writes about Dinah, it is clearly far more concerned with the insult the Prince of Shechem has committed against her father and brothers than it seems to be about her own consent. Anita Diament interprets this in her novel, The Red Tent, as evidence that Dinah loved the Prince back and wished to lay with him, but her family was insistent about the sort of relationship she must have. Although I generally disagree with the narrative that Dinah consented, I think it’s possible to consider for the moment and see the act of violence her family commits on her behalf as a lesson against family expectations. Reuben’s side note perhaps teaches the same thing. Reuben is the oldest of the 13 children, and Bilhah is the youngest of Jacob’s women. They may be closer in age to each other than any other people they have met in their insulated lives, and it may have been a beautiful love story. We know absolutely nothing about their relationship, or the relationship Bilhah had had with Jacob, and yet we are given this tiny piece of information, hinting at the disruption that their union caused in Jacob’s camp.
Family members can hope that their younger loved ones find the kind of partner that they think is best, but they cannot, or at least, should not, force that. Whether that means expecting partners to be the same religion as your family, take on your traditions, follow your rules, or it means keeping apart unions simply because you don’t like it, or it means expecting only heterosexual partners, none of these are realistic goal or fair impositions. The heart wants what it wants, and seeing as there is such an amazing diversity of humanity out there, it seems impossible that everyone will fall in love with someone who fits perfectly into their birth family structures.
When Jacob wrestles with the man at the beginning of the parasha, one interpretation has been that he is wrestling with himself, and in overcoming that fight, he has wrestled and formed a new relationship with God. We must all wrestle with ourselves at some point or another in our lives, and that wrestling may leave its lasting affects. However, it may also bring us closer to God. One might wrestle with themselves when they have to confront their own homophobia to accept when someone they love comes out to them. One might wrestle with themselves when they are ready to come out. One might wrestle with themselves when deciding how to pursue justice and equality when it has been denied. If we wrestle honestly, and find that at daybreak, we are ready to face justice with love and confidence in our true selves, then we find ourselves face to face with God - just as Jacob tells Esau that seeing his forgiving face is seeing the face of God.
May we all wrestle in the attempts to bring greater Tikkun Olam - repair of this world - into our communities. May we wrestle to uncover our truest selves and be proud of our identities. May we wrestle to ensure inclusion and equality for all people in our communities. May we wrestle to help those we love overcome the stumbling blocks that have been put before the marginalized in our community. And may we find at daybreak, we are face to face with Divine justice, holy love, and righteous welcoming. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A New Blessing for Parashat Toledot

Shabbat Shalom! I've told you all before about my soft spots for some of the Biblical "villains", and Esau is no different. Although the vast majority of rabbinic literature paints him as a monster, I've always thought he had an unfair reputation, and in rabbinical school I had the opportunity to hear some midrashim (especially modern) that explain some of his behaviors and choices in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Toledot.
The parasha is about the births of twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob is the favored son of their mother, Rebecca, and Esau is the favored son of their father, Isaac. Esau is the first born, with Jacob immediately following him out of the womb holding on his heel. Thus, Esau the elder is supposed to get the birthright and the blessing, the physical and spiritual inheritance of Isaac. Yet, as we see again and again throughout the stories of Genesis, destiny subverts the norms of the day, and Jacob the younger manages to weasel both away from his brother.
There is so much to say about all of this, but this year Esau's cry toward the end of the parasha is really sticking in my kishkes and filling me with empathetic sorrow for Esau. When Esau enters his father's room/tent to approach his death bed and receive his blessing, Isaac realizes he has been tricked into giving the blessing to Jacob and at first he acts defeatist. Esau wails a loud and bitter cry, "Bless me, too, Father! Have you no other blessing for me?" It's just so heartbreaking.
So Isaac reaches deep inside himself and finds a second blessing. But it's clear that the blessing Isaac musters up for Esau is such a second-place blessing. It's pretty objectively worse than Jacob's and it's not the one that was meant for him in the first place. Jacob is blessed with the blessing of HaShem, the promises God made to Abraham that continue to be passed down through this line to the Israelites. With this blessing, comes a particular relationship with Holiness, which now Esau seems to be completely barred from.
I know different people have different relationships with the Divine and different pathways into their Judaism, but no one should be barred from it this way, told that because they were not in the right place at the right time, now they have missed the chance to access their spirituality. It is not infrequent that I hear from people who didn't finish their Hebrew school studies and now they think it's too late for them to learn, or that they're lesser Jews because they didn't have a B' Mitzvah ceremony, and from converts who are made to feel like they don't truly have a Jewish neshama because of some happenstance of their birth, and from other reasons of identity that have caused so many to have been cast out of their religious communities.
I hope because you are here, you already know how wrong that is, and know that you are still entitled to your own spiritual journey. I hope because you are here, you feel welcomed and ready to learn and pray and explore your relationship with Judaism and God.
But just in case, I have a blessing for you, and it's not Isaac's second-rate, war-mongering blessing for Esau. You belong in the Jewish community. You have a right to your own relationship with the Higher Power of your understanding. There is no sexuality, gender identity, race, class, education level, or any other reason that gives anyone else the right to withhold from you the blessings of our ancestors and our peoples. May you always feel safe and loved here, may you feel warmth of the Divine Presence on the coldest days, and may you feel a sense of peace with your Judaism. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.