Thursday, December 27, 2012

Va-Yechi: What Did You Say?

When do you suppose the exact moment was when we shifted from, "Hey, I just talked to God." "Wow! That's amazing!! What did God say???" to "Hey, I just talked to God." "What kind of medications are you currently taking?" Was it the Enlightenment? Did it start as a
jaded 20th Century thing? Somewhere along the way, we gave up believing. Not only did conversations with God become improbable, they became cause for bringing in straight-jackets and nice, young men in clean, white coats. Part of the problem, I would say, is the set of attributes we've ascribed to God. We imagine that, if God spoke to you, God probably told you what to do, and you obviously have to follow it blindly; so now you're a danger to society, because you aren't thinking for yourself, AND you're hearing voices. But what if that isn't how God operates? What if the problem isn't THAT God speaks, it's how we assume God would HAVE TO speak. When in reality, that isn't God's style at all. What might that mean for our ability to listen... or just do more of the talking?

This week's parashah is the final section of the Book of Genesis. We have reached the conclusion of a long family story, and we're now reading about the deaths of Jacob and his son, Joseph. And in this moment, we have the opportunity to learn something from each of them, as we're invited to compare and contrast how they chose to live their lives. A professor of mine
at JTS. Dr. Deborah Miller, wrote a fabulous D'var Torah on this very topic. Dr. Miller points out two fascinating inverse trajectories. On the one hand, Joseph learns from his mistakes and grows as a person throughout his life, while his father, Jacob, continues a lot of his deceptive ways. Even on his deathbed, Jacob once again shows preferential treatment towards one child over another, as he insists on blessing Joseph's younger son, Ephraim, before the older, Menashe. Yet at the same time, even as Joseph matures and Jacob does not, God seems to speak to Jacob a whole lot more than to Joseph.

Dr. Miller writes, " every turn, at every transition in [Jacob's] life, God has been a living, encouraging presence for him... And in Joseph’s life? God never speaks directly to Joseph, yet Joseph always refers to God, defers to God, and attributes his attainments to God." In this
dichotomy, which one would you say 'speaks' to God? One of them has the open lines of communication, but seems to learn nothing from the experience. The other feels God's constant Presence, but couldn't really claim that God had ever 'spoken' to him. So we really need to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be in communication, and relationship, with God? Why do we assume that hearing the voice of God will lead to forced action and incontestable direction in our lives? It seems, rather, that FEELING God's love is what makes the difference, not hearing a loud, booming voice out of the sky.

Jacob gets to wrestle with God. He gets to chat with God, learn from God, and even receive direct reassurance and comfort from God. But Joseph's life is infused with Divine peace and acceptance. He lets go of anger and revenge, bitterness
and indignation. Joseph sees that only God is truly in control of our fate, and we cannot pretend to determine our own destiny or that of anyone else. Rather than asking ourselves the question, 'Does God speak to people today?', perhaps we should really be pondering HOW God speaks to us, and what type of guidance we are really looking for. Because if it's Jacob's hand-holding and guarantees, no, I don't think we're going to find it. But if it's Joseph's feeling of confidence and acceptance, a source of strength to help us find our own way through life, I have no doubt it is available and accessible right now. You've just got to be open to it... and you've got to do most of the talking. 

Happy New Year!!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy KNOW MALTA by Peter Grima on Flickr

2.CC image courtesy of CircaSassy on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of ganesha.isis on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of on Flickr

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vayigash: Judah's Speech To Us All

The Torah loves its big sermons. God delivers one or two, Abraham and his servant each speak at length, and in fact, the entire Book of Deuteronomy is really one long soliloquy from our favorite prophet,
Moses. It's a good reminder to us all about the incredible power of speech. This week's Torah reading, Vayigash, begins with a tremendously impassioned appeal from the ancestor who lent his name to the Jewish People, Judah. In addition to being eloquent and heartfelt, there are fascinating clues hidden inside Judah's plea that speak to us as modern readers. And especially right now, we need to heed the message that Judah is trying to teach us.

Last week's parashah ended on a cliffhanger: Joseph - still disguising his true identity from his brothers - manages to convince them to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt. There, he lays a trap to force the brothers to abandon Benjamin in Egypt, and return home to a (soon-to-be) devastated father. That Torah portion
ended, and this week's reading opens with Judah begging Joseph to take him instead. I think it's a beautiful speech, yet despite having read it many times before, I noticed something this week that I'd never paid attention to before. The whole appeal is only seventeen verses long (chapter 44, verses 18-34), yet Judah manages to squeeze in fourteen uses of the word 'father' (Av); thirteen mentions of the word 'servant' (Eved); twelve instances of either 'boy' (Na'ar) or 'younger brother' (Ach Katan); and another six times each the words 'brother' (Ach) and 'my lord' (Adoni). And the end result of his heart-wrenching supplication is that Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. So what do we make of Judah's words?

In context, these words make a lot of sense. Judah appeals to a superior ('my lord') and makes himself look very humble ('your servant'), and he emphasizes again and again the touching relationship between a father and a young son, appealing to Joseph's humanity and kindness. 
But if we take a step outside this story, the word for 'lord,' 'Adoni,' is almost exactly the same as one of our most holy names of God, Adonai. And 'Av' (father) is also used to describe God, while we often depict ourselves as 'servants of God,' The speech is directed at us; all of us reading it here today, in (almost) 2013. In the presence of God, striving - as we should - to be worshipers/servants who follow God's laws, how do we treat our brethren? In particular, how do we look out for the Ne'arim, the young children in our society? Judah is trying to prove to this Egyptian ruler that he is responsible, that he will sacrifice his own well-being for this youngster, and that he is a man of his word. He may convey his sentiments with words, but he backs them up with action, with resolve. 

And what about us? How do we back up what we say with earnest deeds? In the past week, we have heard so much about 'real change,' and a rededication to stricter gun laws, better background checks for weapons' licenses, more concern for the mental health of all our children and adults, and a deep reexamination of our culture of
violence. The talk has been plentiful, but what now? How can we demonstrate that it's not just speech, that our wholehearted commitment to the next generation is real and sustained? Our words can indeed make a difference, just as Judah's paved the way for a happy ending to this Biblical story. But we cannot hope for a happy ending to ours without pledging to do more than just speak. And in our case, the stakes are even higher. We aren't just pleading for the life of one child; we labor to free us all from the prison of violence, and there's simply no time to waste.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy karindalziel on Flickr

2.CC image courtesy of gruntzooki on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of :-) Lee J. Haywood on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of craftivist collective on Flickr

Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown: A Prayer on a Horrible Day

Chaverim - dear friends,
Today is a difficult day for everyone. I know that we are all hurting for the innocent people of Newtown, CT, and we are feeling scared and vulnerable ourselves. I don't know if this will, or can, help, but I wanted to share with you a prayer that Rabbi Menachem Creditor wrote earlier today. It doesn't give any answers, but I felt that it expressed some of the anguish and pain I feel today. I hope it helps you make some semblance of sense of this as well. Let us all pray for peace, safety and security, and an end to the gun violence that plagues this nation.


Rabbi Gerber

A Prayer in Wake of a School Shooting
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
in mourning and solidarity with the community of Newtown, Connecticut

Your children and teachers 
are dead and wounded. 

Our souls are burning with anguish. 
Until When, Adonai?! (Ps. 6:3)
How long must we fear?

You have given us the tools of progress, 
and we wield them to hurt.
Our plowshares have jagged edges,
and children are dying.

We have sinned.
And we continue to sin.

We have not done what we can.
We could have saved precious lives
by changing our ways
and we have not.
Your children, our children,
dead and wounded. 

We ask You, Adonai, for
the strength to face what numbs us,
the strength to hear the screams,
the resolve to not let our vulnerability make us feel powerless. We are not.

For we, Adonai, we are your images, 
and we are being erased.
We are erasing ourselves, 
and in so doing we are erasing You.

We have so much accursed power.
It is the curse of this power,
and the sin that waits by the door (Gen. 4:7)
that leads us to permit evil, 
which is the same as doing it ourselves,
which is the same as erasing the Holy Name.
Your Name.
Dear God, this hurts so much.
Teach us, Guide us, 
Make us save each other.

Dear vulnerable images of God, 
here and everywhere,
we pray that you, 
in God's Name,
and in the name of those souls we have lost,
remember that comforting each other might come first,
but the need will come again if nothing changes.
We can master this evil. (Gen. 4:7)

May this world know no more hatred and violence.
May people live in peace.

And let us say: Amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mikeitz: In Search of a Reason

Every year, when the holiday of Chanukah comes around again, I inevitably hear from people that they feel a need to 'defend' themselves to Christians. 'No, this isn't the Jewish Christmas!' 
By which we mean that it isn't as 'important' to us as Christmas is to them. Though what's really fascinating about this to me - having spent a fair amount of time with my Christian colleagues in the clergy - is that Christmas isn't really as religiously significant to Christians either! Their primary holiday is actually Easter, and many Christians feel that Christmas has become incredibly commercialized and materialistic, which leads to such campaigns as 'Keep Christ in Christmas,' and '[Don't forget] the Reason for the Season.' When you really get down to it, I don't think the two struggles, for Jews or Christians, are really all that different.

An extension of the complaint I hear about explaining Chanukah to non-Jewish neighbors is how 'Americanized' the holiday has become. I know, I know, it used to be SUCH a simple and innocent holiday (in our flawless childhood...), and Hallmark, Toys R' Us, and Zales came along and ruined it for us. But the commercialization has also kept our holiday alive, hasn't it? 
It's kept
 it vibrant in the minds of children, families, and our neighbors, and it's certainly in no risk of disappearing anytime soon. My point is, it's a mixed bag, and all things evolve and change. Some people think it's terrific and others think it's horrible. What's truly ironic, in my opinion, is that this tension is actually at the heart of the message of Chanukah itself; the interplay between religion and society, between sacred and profane. The heroic Maccabees actually incorporated many Greek practices into their reign, while still remaining distinctly Jewish. The medieval sage, Rav Ovadiah Sforno writes about the elevated middle light on our Chanukiah, the Shamash, and how all the other candles should shine towards it. He explains why this is important: "extremists on both ends of the spectrum need to focus on the middle road, which is symbolized by the central light of the menorah." Sforno is reminding us that there needs to be a balance of the religious and the secular.

This sentiment creates a perfect segue into our Torah portion. You see, Chanukah always falls on one of the
parshiot that deal with the life of our ancestor, Joseph. Rabbi Danny Nevins exclaims, "who could be a better exemplar of the challenges of living in two worlds than the grand vizier of Egypt?" Joseph starts out as a lowly prisoner, but then
quickly rises to become the second-in-command of the empire, and along the way changes his clothes, his language, even his name. Yet underneath it all, he never stops identifying as Joseph. Every Shabbat around the dinner table, we bless our sons to be like Joseph's two children, Ephraim and Menashe, because they maintained their Jewish identity, even while being raised in the palaces of Egypt. In many ways, we are both blessing them, our children, and also ourselves. They remain Jewish because we impart our traditions and our values to them, regardless of the society in which we raise them.

Sure, Chanukah has a giant billboard along I-95 and countless obnoxious (I mean, wonderful)
YouTube videos. But we're not the only ones dealing with the tension of wanting to preserve holiness while being overwhelmed by
over-exposure. Nor are we the first ones to deal with this challenge within our own religion! In a sense, we need to embrace the silly with the sanctified, the cheesy with the cherished. It's an inherent part of this holiday, and it's been a part of our heritage since Joseph first tried to figure out how much Egyptian music to let his kids listen to. We're all struggling to find that middle path, to keep shining towards the middle light. It ain't easy, but you know what? I think THAT is precisely the Reason for the Season.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy Shoshanah on Flickr

2.CC image courtesy of skpy on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of upyernoz on Flickr

4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone and a shmaltzy looking Chanukiah in my office window. :-)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Va-Yeishev: It Doesn't Matter If You Find It Funny

The Torah has a really wicked sense of humor. Well, I suppose it's really the rabbinic treatment of Torah that produces a lot of the sarcasm and irony, but I tend to think the humor is inherent in the
text itself. You see, the rabbis 
are the ones who divide up the Torah into portions, what we call 'parshiot' (pl.), and each 'parashah' (sing.) is given a name, usually from the first significant word in that section. But if it's really just based on the first word other than 'the,' 'and,' or 'now,' how come we have a Torah portion called 'The Life of Sarah,' which instantly reports of the death of Sarah? Or, similarly, the Torah portion of 'Vayechi - And [Jacob] Lived,' which begins with the death of Jacob? In my opinion, these are definitely instances of weird, somewhat-morbid Biblical humor. And this week's Torah portion is another prime example.

Our parashah is called 'Vayeishev - And [Jacob] was settled.' It could, of course, just be referring to a geographical statement, sharing with us the real estate choices of our ancestor, Jacob. But I believe it's
also referring to how he felt settled and at ease, having finally escaped the memories of his childhood deceptions, his shrewd uncle, Laban, and his unpredictable brother, Esau. Now he's got his wives, his plethora of offspring, land, and he can finally take it easy... that is, for another minute or two. Just as Jacob is getting ready to kick back and start spoiling his favorite son, Joseph; tragedy strikes. His sons orchestrate an elaborate ruse, telling Jacob that his son has died while really selling him into slavery in Egypt. And it all goes downhill from there. 'Settled'? I don't think so. Very funny, Torah narrative!

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in his Torah commentary, suggests this is indeed quite intentional on the part of the Biblical authors. He calls this a literary device, 'dramatic reversal,' and tells his readers that it was a very popular method employed by Aristotle. Plaut defines it as follows: "Fate thwarts the will of man
by turning the effect of his actions to its own purposes rather than to his." The Torah has in mind another purpose entirely, and does not feel obliged to honor Jacob's desire to finally relax. And by giving the Torah portion this title, the author (or at least the rabbis who decided where one parashah ends and another begins...) is essentially mocking Jacob, and mocking us all for thinking we can dictate our own fate. It is as the Yiddish expression suggests: "People plan, God laughs."

So what is the Torah's purpose then? When we look at the life of Jacob, we see that he cannot get away from his earlier behavior; the deceptions of his youth come back to haunt him later in life. We reap what we sow, whether we want to or not. We cannot control fate, but we CAN live every day with purpose and meaning. Tragedy, illness,
or failure may plague our lives, but if we've supported and helped others in their time of need, they will be there for us. We invest in our families, our community, and our planet, and even though we receive no guarantees of feeling 'settled' in return, we will, at the very least, be as prepared as we could possibly be for the challenges ahead. When we try to fight against destiny, that is when we struggle the most, and we experience heartache, frustration, and indignation. Let's face it; the Torah is going to laugh at us no matter what, and God's probably doing the same. All we can do is laugh along, and make the most of every moment we're given. I told you it was a weird sense of humor!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy OC Always on Flickr

2.CC image courtesy of twid on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of Image Editor on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of chimothy27 on Flickr