Thursday, July 27, 2017

Devarim: What My Stories Say About Me

Everybody has his or her own truth. The notion of an objective reality is a little bit of a myth. Certainly our current political climate makes that unmistakably clear; even the idea of "facts" seems to be entirely in dispute!!
We look at the world around us, we process our experiences, we form ideas of what's going on - and the conclusions we come to may be VASTLY different from the person next to us, experiencing the very same things. In fact, we see an incredible example of this in the Torah, as we now begin the fifth and final book. It may be surprising to see how stories can get so fundamentally reinterpreted, or how seemingly objective facts are changed. But maybe the reason the Torah puts it out on display is for all of us to learn something crucially important: Lean in.

The last book of the Torah is called Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew. It primarily consists of one person's recapitulation of the Exodus story. This is Moses' chance
to give his version of what happened, when, and why. One of the things I find so fascinating about this, is that we have the original version of these events IN THE SAME BOOK! We can just flip back a few pages or chapters to verify what he says, so it would seem pointless to try and change facts. Nevertheless, Moses remembers things a little differently than what we see in Exodus or Numbers. In Deuteronomy, 1:9, Moses suggests that he alone decided he couldn't decide EVERY dispute among the Israelites, even though Exodus 18:17 informed us that Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, was the one who urged him to delegate responsibilities. Later on, he gives himself credit for ideas that God came up with, and also distances himself from embarrassing incidents that earlier texts DEFINITELY indicated were Moses' fault! It's really quite astounding...

So what do we make of it all? For one thing, even Moses has his own "truth." Life isn't experienced in objectivity. We spend so much of our time looking for what's "real" and "definite," because it's hard to accept that everything is subjective, nuanced, biased. Especially when it comes
to moral and/or social issues that we feel - with every fiber of our being - should be agreed upon by ALL PEOPLE, it's challenging to admit that not everyone agrees. So maybe universal acceptance shouldn't be our goal. If that's impossible to achieve, why wear ourselves out fighting to get there? We cannot make everyone see things our way. We can, however, make ourselves known. We can try to help others see us more fully. Moses isn't intending to say "this is how it happened." He's saying "this is how I experienced it." This is HIS reality, and it helps us understand HIM better, not the play-by-play of the events he's describing. And sometimes that's actually a more important insight.

Society teaches us to disregard bias, because it isn't real. Or not real enough. But in actuality, EVERYTHING is biased, we just need to account for it. Moses' story
isn't "fake," it just isn't the only version. And when we know that, we can use the two (or more) different narratives to paint a richer picture, and we can understand the author of each a little better. Their bias is part of the story as well. And so is ours. What you believe about the world, and about healthcare, immigration, the military, foreign affairs, the environment, Israel, religion, and every other issue, it says a lot about YOU, even more than about the issues themselves. So as we keep reading the Book of Deuteronomy, we should see it as an opportunity to understand Moses better. And we should learn from this part of the Torah to see the world that way too. Listen to the news and what the people around you are saying, and see it as a way to understand THEM better. And the way you interpret all this information, the conclusions you draw from it, it says a lot about you yourself as well. If you're willing to listen and learn.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Maria Qumayoo oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Darheim on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of K.C. Tang on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 21, 2017

Matot-Masei: I'll Annul My Own Vows, Thanks.

Oversimplification is a bad idea. And yes, I realize that even that statement was made categorically, so it kind of violates my own maxim. But in MANY situations,
when we try to simplify an issue and define it in terms of good vs. bad, right vs. left, correct vs. incorrect, we get in trouble. "All people in x demographic group feel this way..." "Anyone who says y is wrong." Life just doesn't work that way. There's complexity, grey areas, nuance. I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating. This week, in the Torah, women are the targets of this overgeneralization. As a rule, women simply don't know how to make good decisions for themselves. You see? Look how much trouble we are in already!

The first chapter of our Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins by telling us that if a man makes a vow to God, he is obligated to fulfill it.
This could be in regards to a business transaction, an interpersonal relationship, a military duty; once he makes that vow, he's on the hook to see it through. If a woman, however, makes a similar vow, her father or husband can annul it on her behalf. Why? Because women (supposedly) make bad, rash, emotional - dare we say hysterical??? - uninformed decisions and "need" a man to decide whether the oath was valid or not. I hope I don't have to spell this out, but this argument is INCREDIBLY offensive. It's offensive to women, first of all, but really to everyone! To me, it's an example of the Torah narrative at its most antiquated, patriarchal, and misogynistic. In short, I don't like it. And the only way that it resonates with me, personally, is to see it as a challenge.

We can do better. We HAVE TO do better. No group - women, minorities, the LGBT community - should be defined with broad strokes and categorical statements. We all need to dig deeper, understand the nuance of individual people, families,
communities, and see the complexity that is so fundamental to all our lives. This isn't an ancient problem; it's going on around us RIGHT NOW! We judge and label "the Other" as suspicious, lazy, fake, corrupt, unreliable. And we then become desensitized to their story and the challenges they face. The Torah is goading us to disagree, and to push back: "No! I will not label ALL women, or ALL gays, or ALL foreigners in any one way!!" We need to cast off that yoke and refuse to accept that narrative. And that has to be a conscious, deliberate decision. Oversimplification and generalization creeps back into our minds, if and when we let it. "Those people always..." and "They never..." In a way, the Torah is actually reminding us that we can't let up, we have to remain vigilant and proactive.

Each of us needs to make a concerted effort to learn more, to embrace the nuance and "messiness" of life. Who is "The Other" really? What are the deeper elements in their story and how can I learn something new that I didn't know before?
The Torah provokes us by saying that women - in general - don't get to make decisions about their own actions. You don't agree? That makes you mad? Well, what are you going to do about it? It's not enough to be outraged and say the Torah is wrong. How are YOU going to change that narrative and help others see things differently? There is probably some area where you too make generalizing statements, even just to yourself, about some group of people. Maybe not women or Jews or gays, but SOME group. It is very humbling, and challenging, to confront those beliefs. But that is the work! That is what we have to do. Getting angry and feeling outraged is just Step One. What comes after that is the real question. And it's a hard one to answer...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Joowwww oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of New York Public Library on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of United States Armed Forces on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of LSE Library on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 7, 2017

Balak: Uh Oh, Your Core is Showing!

Being a human being is a complex endeavor. It's no simple matter. Each of us is the sum of so many parts; family history, individual experiences, traumas,
triumphs, loves, losses, genetic material, to name just a few. And as varied, intricate, and multi-faceted as we are, there is also a theme that runs through our lives. At our core, each of us stands for something - or some series of things - and even as we evolve and grow, that locus remains. I invite each person reading this to really think about what your own core might look like, and how it makes itself known in various ways throughout your life. Sometimes it's overt, and sometimes it's subtle and hidden. This week's Torah portion, mainly about enemies of Israel trying to plot our destruction, teaches us something interesting about human nature and how core traits make themselves known... no matter how hard we try.

The name of our parashah is Balak, from the name of a Moabite king who tries to curse the Israelites. But he isn't actually the main character; he tries to hire a prophet to do his dirty work, and that is the guy we are primarily examining.
Bilaam, son of Beor, seems to have been a BIG deal in the ancient world. We don't know much about him, but the fact that the Torah doesn't list his accomplishments is itself a clue that his reputation preceded him. In our text, even God seems concerned that Bilaam might curse the Israelites, which is a shocking concept as well! Bilaam appears to us very powerful, and in his own eyes, he certainly is mighty, important, and ferocious. But he is also petty and greedy. At his core, he is small and ignorant, and no matter how many bells and whistles try to hide that fact, or how many dignitaries pay him tribute, his pettiness comes through nevertheless. We especially see this in the way he treats those "beneath" him: For instance, a donkey.

In Numbers, 22:21, we read a fascinating (and humorous) tale of Bilaam setting off to curse the Israelites for King Balak. God doesn't want him to go, and places an angel with a drawn sword along the road, to block Bilaam's access.
Only Bilaam can't see the angel (some powerful seer he is...); only his donkey can see it. The donkey three times attempts to veer out of the way, but Bilaam repeatedly tries to force the donkey back... and with each yank of the harness he also beats his poor, defenseless animal. Incredibly, God gives the donkey the power of speech, and when she asks Bilaam why he is beating her, he yells at her and says he wishes he had a sword so he could kill her! (v. 29) Putting aside all the fantastical elements in this little vignette, Bilaam is a bully. Compassionless, aggressive, pompous, and in his own estimation, always right. He tries to present himself in different ways in our story - to Moabite dignitaries, to Balak, even to God - but he cannot hide who he truly is on the inside. His core speaks for itself, and it isn't pretty.

We humans are indeed complex. But one thing that is particularly true is that we don't get to tell people who we are; we show them with our actions. Sure, we can redeem ourselves and make amends, we can change direction, grow, and
mature. But even then, we need to DEMONSTRATE our desire to change with our behavior, not with groveling apologies and grandiose promises. It is also true that we CAN choose to say one thing and do another. It's not physically impossible; people do it constantly. Each time, however, we undermine our own integrity, and we chip away at our credibility. There's only so long hypocrisy can persist. Again, think about your own core. Do you like it? Do you want that to be how you are known? Who we are is NOT about words or promises - Bilaam talked a VERY good game... and then he threatened to beat an animal to death. In the end, it's about action, behavior, and results. And I firmly believe it is also about compassion, kindness, and empathy - living those traits, not just talking about them. You can present yourself as the mightiest person on the planet... but if you're also kicking a (proverbial) donkey behind the scenes, then you really aren't so powerful at all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jopparn oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Pharos on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Winslow Homer on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gerrit on Wikimedia Commons