Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Va-Yeishev: What Weave Learned From The Torah

Why does the Torah tell us these particular stories? Most of the time we simply read the Bible and discuss its sagas, but do we ever stop and ask ourselves if these tales come with a motive, a hidden agenda? And if so, who's agenda is it, and what are we meant to learn? We know some of the Torah's objectives - like belief in one God, and remembering the Exodus from Egypt - but when you dig a little deeper, there's so much more going on under the surface...

This week, we're beginning to learn about Joseph. He is the new hero in the Torah; carrying on the legacy of his forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The interesting thing is, he's not OUR ancestor. We cheer for him, sure, but we're not descended from Joseph, or his son's Ephraim and Menashe, so it's actually somewhat surprising that he's the protagonist... except for one thing: we're not the intended readers of these stories. In fact, we're living quite a few millenia after the first people who read this as their story. Even though this is never stated in the Torah, most scholars believe the Israelites living after the rule of King David and King Solomon were really the first ones to hear these tales. We also know that after Solomon's rule the kingdom split in half, with two rival countries; the northern kingdom of Israel (a.k.a. Ephraim, or Joseph) and the southern kingdom of Judah. And since both peoples were reading these stories, we find hidden rivalries embedded in the narrative of the Bible.

If you were living in the northern kingdom of Israel, you were probably thrilled that Joseph was the hero after his father, Jacob! At the same time, we also find hints inside the story of Joseph that allude to Judah's prominence, which would have been significant to Joe Shmo Israelite living in the southern kingdom. In the beginning of this week's reading, Judah is described as trying to dissuade the other brothers from killing Joseph. Later on, an entire chapter is devoted entirely to Judah, where he is depicted as forgiving, willing to admit fault, and a good and just leader. Even later in the Joseph story, we see Judah speaking on behalf of all his brothers, even though he was only the fourth-oldest. Joseph is certainly still the principal star of these stories, but someone was also making a strong push for Judah to win Best Supporting Actor.

The reality is, we don't know the true origin of these stories. We can't trace each story back to the start, and we certainly don't know how conflicting loyalties got intertwined into one, single narrative. What we really should learn from this realization is that the two WERE co-mingled, despite their differences. After King Solomon, the two nations were truly alienated from one another. There was no love lost between them, and they no longer felt like one people, with one shared heritage. It would seem, then, that the Torah was an attempt to bring the two sides closer together. It contains elements of each, interwoven into one story, with the ultimate goal of returning the people to a united cohort of Israelite tribes. The Torah itself reflects a desire to bring the Israelites back together. By its very existence, it proclaims unity, mutual understanding, and open dialogue.

Could you ever imagine a book today combining Democratic and Republican stories? Or Palestinian and Israeli stories? Are we, today, able to share our narrative, accept the narrative of The Other, and weave the two together into one story? If your answer to those questions is what I think it is, then I just have one more question: Why not?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Va-Yishlach: I am Man, Hear Me Comment

Is there a difference between how men think and how women think? Can we make such a broad generalization? This question has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and I am finding that it colors how I read this week's Torah portion, and the direction I've chosen to take with my blog post. Whenever we read the Torah, we are also interpreting the text. There is no way of getting around it. We each have a generational bias, a religious bias, a cultural bias, a national bias... and we most certainly have a gender bias. This week, let's explore how our gender affects the way we understand our ancestor Jacob.

One of the most significant moments in Jacob's life comes when he is waiting to meet his brother after 20 years, and he is afraid that Esau is preparing for war. Jacob devises a plan to keep his camp safe, and he then finds himself alone at night, bracing himself for a clash with Esau. That night, the Torah tells us, "A man wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Gen. 32:25). What does this mean? Who is this man, and why are the two of them locked in battle? Along with these questions, I also find myself wondering, what does it mean to wrestle? And here is where gender takes us in two different directions.

Dr. Ellen Frankel, in her book, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah, asks, "what business do we women have doing hand-to-hand combat with supernatural beings? Could anything be more ridiculous than to imagine Leah or Rachel going to the mat with God?" This comment highlights two important ideas; both of which, I believe, reflect a feminine perspective. First, the question of whether fighting can resolve a conflict. In The Psychology of Men's Health, the authors tell us that, "the expression of rage if personal possessions or status is threatened, is seen not only as typically male, but in some situations encouraged and admired."

Men might be more likely to resort to physical violence rather than express emotion or address underlying fears or insecurities. I don't think most women would agree that a fight can truly solve a conflict, and thus they choose not to interpret Jacob's encounter as a purely physical one.

Which leads to the second issue, namely the real vs. metaphoric understanding of this story. Women might prefer to interpret it as metaphor, e.g. when Nechama Leibowitz says that the "man" is Esau's guardian angel, coming to attack Jacob's spirit. Men, on the other hand, are often quite comfortable with the idea that Jacob was actually fighting with someone. Rashi, in a comment on this story, tells us that, "such is the manner of two people who make strong efforts to throw

each other - one clasps the other and twines himself round him with his arms." And finally, in a new commentary called The Modern Men's Torah Commentary, Rabbi Peter Knobel writes, "when Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger who might be either angel or his brother... the supposedly unphysical Jacob demonstrates his physical strength. Jacob matures; he uses both his mind and his physical strength." Several female commentators understand the fight as a metaphor, which is why they accept that it leads to growth. Male commentators also see Jacob maturing, but do not find it strange that a physical fight could lead to maturity.

To me, it's simply fascinating to realize how much of ourselves we project onto whatever text we

are reading. We cannot help but use our own experiences, memories, and predispositions as a lens and a filter onto the world. This is not a bad thing, mind you. The only problem I see is when we pretend this isn't true, when we delude ourselves into thinking there's such a thing as impartiality. As long as we can be honest in our own commentary, and accept that we constantly insert ourselves into the world, this can be a great thing. We learn so much about the commentators who came before us when we see their writings as a biography of their lives.

How do you feel about my interpretations of Jacob's midnight mêlée? Do you agree or disagree, and would you prefer to talk it over or let your fists do the talking? Either way, and whether you want to or not, it might say more about you than you realize...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Vayeitzei: How Could It Be Wrong, If It Worked For Jacob, Joseph, and Cliff Huxtable?

Throughout the Book of Genesis, the theme of family takes center stage. Not necessarily in a life-is-grand, they-all-lived-happily-ever-after, Cosby-family sort of way, but rather in a more troubled and complex form, much more similar to our own lives. Abraham had to navigate jealousy and rivalry between his two wives Sarah and Hagar, and Isaac had to contend with three family members scheming and plotting around him. We now move on to Jacob, who truly has the toughest time of all... but also has the most to teach us about family relations.

To begin with, Jacob meant to only
marry one woman, but somehow wound up with her (Rachel), her sister (Leah), her hand-maiden (Bilhah), and her sister's hand-maiden (Zilpah). Now here's where the "fun" really begins. For nearly a full chapter of the Torah, we never see any of the characters interact in a loving or even mundane way. All we hear about are struggles for Jacob's affection, and the birthing of children as pawns in a chess game. The wives even go so far as to name their children according to their emotions at that moment, starting with Leah's son, Reuven, meaning, "Now my husband will love me" (Gen. 29:32). Yikes!

Our Torah portion spans 20 years, and we hardly hear of any positive interactions between anyone; the wives don't speak to one another, the children don't speak to one another, and Jacob barely talks to any of them. Things aren't looking good for this rapidly expanding family, but then something changes. There is a moment when Jacob seems initially to be speaking at his

wives, perhaps delivering some sort of sermon, as he waxes poetic about his relationship to God. But as it turns out, he is asking them for advice. And not only do they tell him what to do, they speak in unison, which indicates that they might be getting along again. They are no longer talking past one another; they are communicating.

As the family saga progresses from here, we see that they hit major road blocks whenever they don't talk to one another. A generation later, Jacob's sons loathe their youngest brother, Joseph, and feel tremendous rage and jealousy towards him. The Torah tells us, "they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him" (Gen. 37:4). When they communicate, however, problems are resolved. We are constantly reminded throughout Genesis, and specifically in the lives of Jacob and his son Joseph, that silence leads to trouble and distrust, while open dialog resolves conflicts and strengthens bonds.

Isn't this true for us today as well? Our lives aren't much like the Cosby Show either, but practically every episode of every sitcom on TV starts out with someone telling a lie, getting in trouble, and gradually realizing that telling the truth solves all their problems. It's a good plotline, because it has made sense to audiences since the time of the Bible, and it still resonates with us today. Communication and open dialog are the first (and

sometimes only) tools that help us resolve the sticky situations we get ourselves into. Family dynamics are fraught with challenges; just ask our patriarchs and matriarchs! But the Torah also gives us the means to solve problems and see the blessings in our lives, we just have to be open to hearing that message. Are you?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tol'dot: It takes two... and one of them is YOU!

"A great empire will be destroyed."

If you're a military leader about to head into battle, receiving such a prophecy could be terrific news! ...or it could be horrible. That was certainly the case for King Croesus of Lydia, who consulted the famous Oracle at Delphi about whether he'd be safe to wage war against Cyrus of Persia. He received this very prophecy, and decided to attack. Sure enough, a great nation DID fall... except it was his own! Pretty tricky, that Oracle.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, a teacher of mine, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, recently made me

aware of a very similar delphic prophecy in this week's Torah portion which I had never noticed before. Our reading introduces us to the notorious sibling rivalry of Isaac's two sons, Jacob and Esau. Before they were even born, still in their mother's womb, the two of them battled it out. God declared to Rebecca, "Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). Based on this proclamation, Rebecca favors her younger son, Jacob, and helps him "borrow" (I'm trying not to say "steal"...) his brother's intended blessing.

Rabbi Diamond points out, however, that the phrase, "The older shall serve the younger," is actually quite ambiguous. There is a Hebrew word, difficult to translate, which helps distinguish the subject from the object, and it is missing in this prophecy. If it had said, "Rav Ya'avod ET Ha-tzair," we would know for certain that the older was destined to serve his brother. But as is, it could be read, "The older, the younger shall serve." Hmm, like the Oracle, the Bible has a few tricks up its proverbial sleeve.

The lesson we learn here (besides a healthy distrust of oracles) is the importance of a

partnership between God and human beings; between destiny and action. Part of our fate is decided, but a significant part is left up to us. We make choices every moment of every day, and these affect the way our lives play out. God told Rebecca that one child would dominate the other, but she took charge of her own life, and the lives of her sons, and made that prophecy come true the way it made sense to her. We must do the same for ourselves.

We ask God for direction, not because God is in the driver seat, but because God provides the best GPS on the market! We still have to make the right choices in order to get from point A to point B. Prayer works the same way. Rabbi Diamond says, "When I ask God for wisdom I am not asking for God to miraculously transform me into a genius or a sage. I ask for the wisdom to see the ways in which God has already placed before me opportunities to become wiser, whether they lie within or around me."

How do you pray? What do you ask for in your prayers? If you've

asked God for a sign, or a message, I would still recommend exercising caution. You may get a response, but YOU are still going to have to figure out how to interpret that sign for yourself. Taking it at face value could wind up getting you in trouble. Just ask King Croesus...