Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dear friends,
I will not be writing a blog post this week, due to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I hope you have a wonderful day with family and friends; a safe and easy travel if you're heading out on the open road; a delicious feast that leaves you satisfied but not too full; and a weekend filled with gratitude and humility for all of life's gifts and bounty. Happy Thanksgiving!

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Gerber

Friday, November 21, 2014

Tol'dot: The Widening Chasm Between Esau and Jacob

There are no words. That may seem like a strange way to begin a blog post, especially since I am obviously about to try and use words to express my feelings. And yet the fact remains that there are no words to adequately describe how sad, hurt, frustrated, disappointed, angry, and appalled we feel at the latest tragic attacks that struck Jerusalem this
week. As I heard the news on the radio, Tuesday morning, about a synagogue in the neighborhood of Har Nof being attacked by terrorists during morning minyan, I was truly left speechless. What else is there to say? How much more grief can we feel; how much more despair at the prospect of peace; how much less hopeful can we get? And eternally we ask the question: When, oh when, will things improve in Israel? When will we see a breakthrough? And yet, we have no other options but to hope. Ultimately, when you boil things down to the bare facts, you simply have to acknowledge that we are there and they are there. Somehow, and at some point, all the people who live in and around Israel are going to have to find a way to live together. If I let go of that conviction, I don't know what I have left.

As we often do in Judaism, when we have nowhere else to turn for answers, we look to the Torah. It doesn't solve our problems, but it sometimes gives us historical precedent. We mine our history for nuggets of insight into what may be in our future. And I think our parashah this week offers us something to cling to. It begins with the story of Isaac, and then shifts its focus to Jacob. Throughout this reading, we see stories of contention
and peace. Last week, we read about Isaac's struggles with his brother, Ishmael, and yet that Torah portion ended with the two of them coming back together to bury their father, united and at peace. This theme continues in Tol'dot, where Isaac fights with the local population, the Philistines, over water. Isaac and his herdsmen dig wells, the Philistines stop them up and/or drive away Isaac's servants. There is so much fighting, in fact, that at one point Isaac digs a well and calls it "Esek" (Gen. 26:20), which literally means "Contention." But eventually, King Avimelech of the Philistines sits down with Isaac to negotiate a peace treaty. Despite their differences and despite their violent and antagonistic past, the two sides find a way to reconcile. The story concludes: "Early in the morning, they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace." (26:31) Truly a hope for our day that we must never abandon...

Then, the Torah moves to the story of Jacob. Fighting, for Jacob, begins even before he is born. We are told that when Rebecca was pregnant
with twins, the boys struggled in her womb. The conflict continues in life, where the brothers steal from, deceive, and eventually threaten to kill one another. Today, we read this story with great sadness, as it seems to set the tone for an eternal relationship of strife and enmity. Not only arguing and fighting, but seemingly the total lack of empathy for the other. How could we possibly imagine sitting at a table and negotiating, when all we feel is hate and righteous indignation? It's THEIR fault, THEY refuse to talk or compromise. And our differences and grievances feel so ancient, so irreconcilable, as if they indeed have persisted since before we were in the womb.

And yet, Jacob and Esau DO find a way back to one another, to kindness. When Jacob flees his home in the dead of night, and Esau curses his brother's name and vows to kill him if they ever see each other again, it certainly feels like an irreparable breach. Nevertheless, somehow they mend. Is there then no hope for us? We feel like crying, these tragedies hurt so much.
We are like Esau, who cries to his father, when it seems he has no blessings left for him: "Have you but one blessing, father? Bless me too, father!" (Gen. 27:34) We have to believe there are blessings in our future. Despite all the evidence to the contrary. We simply have to. What else can we do? On Wednesday morning, in our own morning minyan at Ohev Shalom, we struggled to respond to the most recent attack in Israel. We turned, as we so often do, to the words of our tradition, to the prophet Jeremiah. "Hear the word of Adonai, O nations; spread the word in distant lands, and proclaim: 'The One who scattered Israel will gather them and protect them as a shepherd guards his flock'... Their souls will flourish like an abundant garden; they will grieve no more. Then shall maidens dance in delight, young men and old together, and I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them and relieve them of their sorrow." (31:9-12) Kein Y'hi Ratzon - May it be God's Will for this to come true for us all... and soon.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of Israeli police in Har Nof synagogue courtesy of Reuters on
2. CC image from Hartuv cemetery courtesy of deror_avi 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of 
√ėyvind Holmstad on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of the prophet Jeremiah courtesy of Inductiveload on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chayei Sarah: My Name is Not Eliezer

Around the synagogue, you'll sometimes hear me say, "Why ruin a perfectly good question... by trying to answer it." I use that a lot in my Bible class, it makes its way into sermons and discussions on Shabbat, and surprisingly, I find myself saying it in other contexts as well. So what does it mean? Well, pretty  
much exactly what it sounds like. To me, questions are MUCH more interesting than answers. Questions make you think, make you wonder; they may even open your eyes to new possibilities, new avenues of consideration. Answers end discussions. They produce finality: "Ah, now I get it. Oh well. Let's move on to something else." Questions force you to stay, to grapple, to ponder. And sometimes I really don't want to lose that wonderful wrestling match, that delicious enigma, by trying to offer a simple and conclusive answer. Exhibit A: Our Torah portion this week tells a lengthy story about Abraham's servant, but NEVER gives the guy a name. In fact, it goes out of its way NOT to name him, even though he is clearly the protagonist in our story. Why? Ok, I'll tell you why. Here's the answer:

Nope! Fooled you. No answer here. Come on, people! What did I JUST finish saying?!? Now, mind you, there is no shortage of OTHER Torah commentators who will answer this question for you. They will tell you 
that his name is Eliezer, because we see elsewhere in Genesis that Abraham had a servant by that name. They will tell you that it isn't necessary, because it's assumed. Or maybe it's irrelevant. But I purposely don't want to turn to such easy, simple, straight-forward answers. Let us, for just a few moments, sit with the discomfort of simply not knowing. I feel we MUST stop and acknowledge that the text of the Torah purposely creates awkward sentences, bends over backwards, and goes out of its way to leave this servant unnamed. Why would we ruin that by simply calling him "Eliezer," or shrugging our shoulders and saying "Who cares?" I care. And, if you're still reading this, I suppose you do as well.

I imagine - though I'm not certainly not positing a conclusive answer - that the Torah text is trying to deemphasize his role in this saga. The servant is an instrument, a tool, 
a vehicle for delivering a message from God. Abraham sends him to find a wife for his son, Isaac, and God directs his path. Perhaps if we named him, we would also want to give him credit for his incredibly successful mission? And the text is trying to suggest this was all pre-ordained. Rebecca was destined to marry Isaac, she just needed to be located, be made aware of her fate, and be brought to her intended... and "Someone" made all that happen. P.s. it's God, NOT the human in the story...

But this all could have happened in many, many other ways. Why the need for an anonymous character, and why be so EMPHATIC about his anonymity? Again, I don't want to answer this question. I want us all to consider it, to ruminate on it. Are you and I 'the servant'? Should we be 
viewing ourselves as vehicles of God, working to make the world a better place on behalf of the Almighty? Is it meant to remind us of the Unseen Hand of God that permeates all our lives? Or at the very least, all the stories of the Bible? Perhaps we can read this as telling us to look for God in unexpected places, to see the Divine in the people around us, because anyone and everyone COULD be a Messenger of God. They just don't know it themselves. Maybe. Or maybe you have your own suggestion, and perhaps you can share it with me? Just remember, we aren't looking for The Answer. We aren't searching for solutions. That would ruin this perfectly wonderful question. And I know that would make our friend, the servant, "Eliezer" very unhappy.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Martorell on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of File Upload Bot (99of9) 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Unipro on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dellex on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 7, 2014

Vayera: A Lot to Embrace

Sometimes the Torah knows us better than we know ourselves. I don't (necessarily) mean each of us individually, but the Torah DOES understand the human psyche... and often better than the rest of us. 
I think we see this especially when we realize that the stories in the Torah aren't really about the people in the Torah. We frequently get caught up in the details, focusing on Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, or Moses' style of leadership, or God's choice to punish or praise. We spend so much of our time deliberating about the specifics, when really the text is trying to reach out and connect to each of us, right here, right now. Maybe it's just accidental that we miss this point... or maybe we genuinely DON'T want to hear what the text is trying to tell us.

I've been wondering about this in regards to this week's Torah portion. The narrative of our parashah switches back and forth between two protagonists, Abraham and his nephew, Lot. One story depicts 
Abraham welcoming in guests, the next shows Lot (sort of) doing the same. Abraham argues with God; Lot argues with God. Abraham makes questionable decisions as the head of his household; Lot - ditto. So I feel it's quite clear that the text wants us to juxtapose the two of them. It almost URGES us to do so. But it is perhaps less clear that the text is also, somewhat unsettlingly, looking PAST these two characters, and kind of staring right at you and me. We are still meant to compare and contrast them, but we are also invited to see them as aspects of ourselves. 

Abraham is the hero. He's the guy we want to be. He has perfect faith (most of the time), he is hospitable, he is (sometimes) noble, and he demonstrates other admirable qualities as well. But he IS also flawed. Just flawed enough that we feel we can identify with him and consider ourselves humble in doing so. The Binding of Isaac was a bad decision, 
right? See! He makes mistakes too. He is human. We can all aspire to be Abraham, because he sometimes falters but gets back up; he loses faith but regains it and keeps moving forward. He is, in many ways, an accessible role model. But we've got Lot in us as well. That's the part we don't like to see. Lot is cowardly. He makes horribly bad decisions, like offering his two daughters to an angry mob instead of his visiting guests. We can't really make sense of Lot. We can't excuse his behavior, and if we're even willing to read his story and discuss his choices, we reject them. But we are, perhaps, so angry with Lot and so condemnatory precisely BECAUSE he represents an ugly and unpleasant side of ourselves. Who wants to face that?

The Torah sees things we don't want to see. But they are there, nonetheless. And rather than trying to vanquish that which makes us uncomfortable, we might consider embracing it instead. I'm certainly 
not saying this is easy to do! Yet the Torah is willing to present Lot as a part of our story, just as much as Abraham. Are we able to do the same? Can we contain Lot's difficult emotions, tendencies, ethics, and choices, and learn to be kind and caring to that side of ourselves as well? When we relegate our inner Lot to the recesses of our psyche, it festers. We need to shine a light on it instead, and accept that we too have the capacity for Lot-ness. But we CHOOSE not to act on it, and push ourselves to be better. Let us work hard to accept ALL parts of ourselves - the heroes, the villains, AND the pitiful nebuchs (losers) - and strive for greater harmony and wholeness. I know it'll make us all understand ourselves a whole LOT better.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Aavindraa on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "The Parting of Lot and Abraham" courtesy of Leinad-Z
 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Dodgers91501 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Mysid on Wikimedia Commons