Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Vayechi: The Year of the Tribes

Happy New Year, everyone! As I sit here on Wednesday, counting down the final hours of 2014, I find myself looking ahead to some 
exciting plans for 2015. But before I get to that, I just want to note that this year the cycle of Torah readings coincides nicely with the Gregorian calendar. This doesn't always happen, because the Jewish year shifts around a bunch, but right now we happen to also be concluding the Book of Genesis. The final Torah portion of 2014 is therefore Vayechi, meaning "And he lived." A very fitting, one word end-of-year blessing for us all, no? L'Chaim! As it also just so happens, the subject of our Torah reading this week fits perfectly in with my very exciting project for next year here at Ohev Shalom.

Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis is sometimes referred to as "The Testament of Jacob." It consists of all the final blessings he offered to his twelve sons on his death bed. 
Perhaps unwittingly, the symbols by which Jacob blesses (and curses...) his sons are later solidified as the enduring images of the tribes of their descendants: The lion of Judah, the ship of Zebulun, the serpent of Dan, the deer of Naphtali, and of course, the wolf of Benjamin. They all became the family crests for their future tribes and remained so for centuries; and they were first spoken in this week's Torah portion by their father, Jacob. In 2015, Ohev Shalom is embarking on a major art project, commissioning twelve incredible portraits that will adorn the walls of our main sanctuary for decades (and centuries?) to come.

An incredible artist in Philadelphia, Heather Bryson, is working with a member of Ohev Shalom, Douglas Lieberman, to spend the next year creating depictions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, based on the images described in Genesis and Deuteronomy. I want to take a moment to 
acknowledge Charlotte Snyder, who is underwriting this project. Without her generosity, none of it would have been possible. Not only will each picture be one-of-a-kind, but Heather and Dug are also inviting members of our congregation to help construct the different portraits. I myself have already participated in the assembly of the first piece, and it's truly an incredible experience. Not only will these magnificent images depict our ancient heritage, but will also represent our community through the efforts (and artifacts...) that we'll contribute to the project! I also know that it will educate our congregation about the symbols that Jacob bestowed on his children; making them come alive for us in a tangible, beautiful, personal new way.

Heather is already hard at work on the tribe of Reuben. If you would like to learn more about this amazing project, and/or would like to get involved, please let me know. Each piece 
will take a month or two to complete, and we'll be dedicating them in pairs every few months over the course of the next year. For now, I just want to share with you my excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead. It is true that rabbis often struggle to find ways of making the Torah come alive for congregants, grappling with how to make the text and imagery mean something in modern-day 2014... er, 2015. As I read Jacob's blessings this week, at the threshold of a new year, I cannot help but feel that over the next twelve months, it will be just a little bit easier to find meaning in the ancient Tribes of Israel.

Happy New Year!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Sketch of the oryx (?) of the tribe of Menashe by Heather Bryson
2. Sketch of the wolf of Benjamin by Heather Bryson

3. Sketch of the serpent and scales of Dan by Heather Bryson

4. One portrait completed! The olive tree of Asher by Heather Bryson. Can't wait to see it on our walls...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Shabbat Chanukah/Mikeitz: What the Glow of Our Candles Can Achieve

A few days ago, my daughter, Caroline, and I were getting home from our daily commute together. We carpool. As I lifted her out of the car, she looked up and exclaimed, "Moon!" We stopped for a minute to talk about the full moon, and to sing a couple of songs about it. And then, she reached up to grab it. Of course, she was unsuccessful, because, you know, it's the moon. But then 
she turned to me and said, "Daddy do it." I indulged her and tried a couple of times to nab it, but then explained to her how high up it is, and why we can't reach it. I'm not sure she got it. Later, after I recovered from this overdose of cuteness, I reflected on just how human she was being in that moment. Don't you think we all, as kids, at some point reached up and thought we could lasso the moon? Everyone learns it's impossible (without NASA), yet we ALL do it. It also occurred to me that this SHOULD happen. If, by some Chanukah miracle, I DID reach up and grab the moon, Carrie wouldn't think twice about it. She'd hold it in her hand, then eventually drop it like every other toy or novel shiny object. The fact that we can't reach it, that it's so high up and unobtainable, means it will remain mysterious to her. And hopefully, she'll keep reaching for things beyond her grasp, keep aspiring and trying, even when things seem totally inaccessible or impossible. And this, to me, is really the message of Chanukah.

One very famous Chanukah debate took place 2,000 years ago between two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. In short, Shammai wanted to light all eight candles on Day One and then diminish, while Hillel wanted to begin with one and increase. Guess who won. But I recently read a 
great interpretation of the underlying reasons for each rabbinic position. Both rabbis understood that it's hard to stay excited about the holiday for all eight nights. Let's face it: The first day is exciting, we sing the songs we've missed for a whole year with great gusto and enthusiasm. The presents are great, the latkes and donuts taste terrific. Flash-forward a week... the motivation's petered out. We're down to sock-presents, and the thought of more oily food is a little nauseating. And it's possible that (heaven forbid) some people "forget" to light them on the final night, or skip a couple in the middle. The point is, according to Shammai, let's have our Chanukiah reflect our current emotional state; I'm excited NOW, let's fire 'em all! But Hillel takes a different approach.

Hillel says we should push ourselves to grow in enthusiasm. We should reach for something that's a little harder to obtain. It's easy to get excited on Day One. But religion is really about challenging ourselves to do more, to be more than we are at 
this very moment. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes: "[Hillel] believes that if we do not inspire man with his potential and give him a taste of what could be, he will not even strive to achieve higher goals." The Chanukiah is a symbol. Among other things, it represents the presence of miracles in our lives, but miracles WE must work to bring about. It's a reminder to us to bring light and goodness into the world. And we cannot just sit back and wait for it to fall into our laps; we need to strive and work hard for it to happen. 

JTS, my alma mater, writes about this as well. In a statement about healing in our community and Chanukah, they write: "As we celebrate Chanukah, we are reminded of the rabbinic instruction to increase the light over the course of the holiday. So too we need to increase the light 
in our communal lives so that we can see clearly the faces of our neighbors and public servants." It's hard to affect change. It's hard to imagine that some of the rifts in our country and in our communities can be healed. It's like reaching up for the moon; it's impossible. But can we stop striving? Can we really just give up, light all our candles right now, and finish the celebration early? No way. We need to keep pushing. We have to force ourselves to try harder, to care deeper, and to insist on change in our society. Chanukah is the festival of action, not just the festival of light. We should take that message to heart... and keep a lasso handy. 

Happy Chanukah!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of courtesy of Roadcrusher on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Roy Lindman 
on en.wikipedia
3. CC image courtesy of Trinitro Tolueno 
on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Djampa on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 12, 2014

Vayeishev: What's YOUR Story Doing Here?

When we, as Jews, pray, we like to identify ourselves to God. In part, perhaps, it is our way of saying to God, "Hineini," "Here I am - me, (insert name here) - ready to be in relationship with you!" But in part, 
it is also an opportunity to link ourselves back to previous generations of ancestors who we KNOW that God liked. So, by association, we are hoping that God will like us too. That may sound funny, but it's the truth. We begin the Amidah, arguably our most important prayer, by stating, "... our God, and God of our ancestors; God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob (and in many Conservative synagogues, including ours, we also add our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah)." Other prayers refer to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, yet others refer to King David, King Solomon, and Samuel. Basically, we're saying, "If you liked them (and heard their prayers), I hope you'll like me too (and hear MY prayers), because I'm related to them." And we know who our ancestors are, right? I mean, the Torah is pretty clear. Now, the Torah is ALSO quite clear about who our ancestors are NOT. And yet, it tells their story as well. Take, for instance, Joseph.

You and I, we are not related (by direct line anyway) to Joseph. His two sons were Ephraim and Menashe. Both became tribes in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was eventually defeated by the Assyrians. Everyone was dragged into slavery, and Ephraim and Menashe became two of the much-lamented
Ten Lost TribesThe rest of us - basically the over, overwhelming majority of modern-day Jews - are either descended from the tribe of Judah (merged with Benjamin and possibly Simeon) or the tribe of Levi (if you're a Kohen or a Levite). So that's a VERY brief history of tribal affiliation within Judaism, all meant to lead me to this point: The last 14 chapters of Genesis deal primarily with the story of Joseph. His is essentially the culminating story of the entire first book of the Torah, and he therefore appears to be the book's ultimate protagonist; 14 of 50 chapters deal with his story, more than a quarter of the book! And... he is not our ancestor.

I say this because our Torah reading this week, being the 2nd triennial cycle, is a brief break in the narrative of Joseph. We've been introduced to him, the plot has begun to heat up, we're enthralled... and right then the author detours. We spend an entire chapter on the story of Judah 
and his (sort of) daughter-in-law, Tamar, before eventually returning to the epic of Joseph. When you look at the flow of Genesis, B'reisheet, it feels like this Judah-story is indeed a deviation, a side-step. It's a literary technique to heighten the drama of Joseph, while the story of Judah itself is inconsequential. But it isn't really at all! Judah IS our ancestor!! He's the guy we should be focusing on. Moreover, this story adds a truly essential puzzle piece in our history, because it explains the birth of Peretz, who is the progenitor of King David! I mean, honestly, how could THIS story be inconsequential?!? (And if you'd like to learn more about this fascinating little tale, please join us on Saturday morning, Dec. 13th, at 10:00 a.m. for an in-depth discussion on Judah and Tamar over bagels and lox!)

It is striking to see how the Torah can focus on Joseph over Judah. This book was eventually held in the sole possession of Judah's descendants, in the Southern Kingdom, and they could easily have rewritten the plot to emphasize Judah and demote Joseph. But they didn't. Because we don't only tell our own story. We give 
voice to Hagar, Esau, and Bilaam, all characters who are NOT directly in our ancestral line. They are sympathetic even; sometimes more so than our actual heroes! We hear them out, we add their history to ours. Today, we often struggle to do this. We like to hear voices that agree with us, that share our viewpoint. Why listen if we disagree? Why incorporate a perspective that differs, even clashes, with mine? But often, we must. Because their outlook will expand ours; their objections will force us out of our small box and actually make our own arguments more cogent, nuanced, and honest. To merit the legacy of our ancestors, to be able to truly say to God, "Here I am; hear my prayers!", we need to include Joseph's story in ours. Then God will hear us praying, and maybe we'll even hear ourselves better as well.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of the Hebrew word "Hineini," meaning "Here I Am."
2. CC image courtesy of Fraxinus Croat 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of ReubenGBrewer 
on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Mehmetaergun on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Vayishlach: I am Man, Hear Me Comment (repost)

If This American Life can do it, why can't I? This is a "rebroadcast" of a post I wrote on this week's Torah portion in 2010. Enjoy!

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 throweach 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 weare 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...