Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Haftarat Vayeitzei: Thank You, Uncomfortable History!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I always enjoy this time of year; especially the sense of community that seems to pervade the entire country, as we all celebrate a
holiday of gratitude and giving thanks together. Thanksgiving has become a very "simple" occasion, focusing mainly on turkey dinner, football, family, fall, and acknowledging the blessings in our lives. And yet, we all know that the origins of this festival are much, much more complex, and frankly troubling. Furthermore, not everyone today feels included in our joy, and when we assume that ALL Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, we leave them feeling invisible and forgotten. But history is hard to accept. It's messy, often vicious, and frequently embarrassing. However, when we pretend it never happened, or refuse to confront it, it actually has very harmful effects on us today. This week, our Torah portion and its Haftarah want us to learn this important lesson well.

The Haftarah for Vayeitzei comes from the Prophet Hosea, who begins by quoting a story directly from our parashah: "Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep]." (Hosea, 12:13)
Indeed, our Torah portion tells the story of our ancestor, Jacob, who fled his parents' home, worked for his conniving uncle, Laban, got married, and had children. Already in Hosea's time, around 760 BCE, the story of Jacob was ancient history. But the prophet compares the Genesis story to his own time period, suggesting that his fellow Israelites are like Jacob, surrounded by idolaters, but (hopefully...) protected by God. It is a technique used many times in Jewish history; extracting themes and concepts from old stories and making them poignant and relevant to a modern-day audience. We do this even today - at Pesach, Purim, and Chanukah - retelling the stories in order to learn from them, not just because they're entertaining.

I look around at society today, and I see a lot of people reluctant to talk about our dark history. Here in the United States, we are plagued by a history of racism,
xenophobia, and trampling on (or attempting to extinguish) the narratives of another. But the REAL damage comes from our refusal to LOOK at this history. We keep repeating the same errors and perpetuating the pain, because we sometimes think it would be better to just "let it go" or "get over it already." History doesn't work like that. When we try to forget it, it continues to punish us; like a nightmare that won't go away. I have always felt that one of Judaism's strongest attributes is our relationship with history. We never forget, but we also don't obsess over history as being the ONLY thing that matters. We carry our stories with us everywhere, BUT we also use them, actively, to inform our world and our actions TODAY!

Hosea retells the story of Jacob to remind his audience that God is still with them. Right afterwards, however, he uncomfortably chastises his contemporaries for straying into idolatrous practices. And when, hundreds of years later, Hosea's writings were read as ancient history, those readers knew
that Hosea's community was destroyed by the Assyrians. And they tried to learn from the stories of Jacob AND of Hosea. Today, we benefit from several additional generations, and several more layers of narrative. Despite all these cautionary tales, we sometimes still ignore our history. And we do so at our own peril. We have much to be grateful for, and we should celebrate with family, turkey, and football. At the same time, let us also speak of the Native Americans who were here before the pilgrims. Let us pledge to combat racism and cultural erasure, and work diligently to live WITH our history, in all its forms and iterations. Then, perhaps, real healing can begin, and we will have SO much more to be thankful for in years ahead.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Triggafinga on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Davric~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Xic667 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of "The Historian," courtesy of BirgitteSB on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 10, 2017

Haftarat Chayei Sarah: Kings, Politicians, Comedians... But Really All Just Predators

This Haftarah is terrific. It fits nicely with our Torah portion, because the parashah tells of Abraham passing on the mantle of leadership to his son, Isaac, and how the succession was fraught with challenges and obstacles.
Our Haftarah, from the First Book of Kings, lays out the story of King David's death, and how Solomon became the eventual successor - though not without challenges and obstacles of his own. The story is riveting; describing how Batshevah, Solomon's mother (and our story's heroine AND underdog), just barely managed to make her son king, sneaking in a victory against a much more powerful rival. It's got intrigue, plot twists, betrayal, high drama, and an exciting finish. And I'm not going to talk about any of it. There's something else in our Haftarah - more minor to the text itself, but painfully poignant for all of us today - that I feel I need to highlight instead.

What do we know about King David? He's good with a sling shot, he plays the harp, he's a poet, he's a mighty warrior, and he's a good looking guy. Oh, and he's a serious womanizer. Even if you don't know A LOT about David, there's a good
chance you've heard that he had lots of wives, that he kept adding MORE wives, and you may have even heard the infamous story of David going so far as to kill a man to steal HIS wife. Hey, that was the era he grew up in, ok? It was just what monarchs DID back then. (Yeah, right...) But our Haftarah portrays a very different King David. By now, he's an old man. The rock-slinger is long gone, the warrior king is history, and even the harp is lying dusty in the corner. And yes, his womanizing is behind him as well. However, the text doesn't just let that last narrative end quietly, with dignity and grace. Instead, the text seems to want to offer bitter irony, and perhaps even karma, coming back to bite the skirt-chaser-in-chief.

Our Haftarah begins by saying that David is old. And what sometimes happens in old age? Circulation isn't what is used to be, and the text tells us he couldn't get warm, no matter how many blankets they put on him.
Then, eyebrow-raisingly, his servants try an "unusual" technique to warm him; they have a young virgin brought to the king to sleep in his bed. However, the narrator is then painfully and embarrassingly explicit; making sure to tell you that A) They did not have sex, and B) David still couldn't get warm. Karma, we might say, has come back to haunt him. His libido was SO powerful when he was young. Yet it also led him astray, very much to his own destruction, as God was furious with David for stealing Batshevah from another man. Now, all of that has been stripped away from him; no wives are there to warm him or hold him, and even this young maiden can't provide comfort. David is utterly alone.

I doubt I really need to point out parallels to you, or highlight ways in which this is relevant to us today in 2017. Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Roy Moore, and most recently Louis CK - to name just a few of the powerful, famous, influential men who took advantage of women for decades.
Some even (allegedly) preyed on boys and young men, as in the case of Kevin Spacey. It seems as if every day new celebrities, politicians, and others are being publicly shamed - rightfully so - for the harm they caused others. Our Bible has tried to teach us a lesson about people like these, but sadly there are many who just don't listen. God lambasted King David for his indiscretions, and then our narrator added another twist of the dagger, by humiliating him at the end of his life. These sexual predators do not deserve our sympathy or our forgiveness. Their behavior is as inexcusable today as David's was 3,000 years ago. Hopefully, their collective falls from grace will help usher in a new era of equality, respecting other people's bodies and rights, and not abusing power. I know that this disgusting behavior has been going on for - literally! - millenia. But let us also remember that the exposure of these heinous acts has a long history as well, and now it is OUR turn to demand better behavior and to bring these reprehensible crimes to light. It's time for all these King Davids to get down off their thrones; their reign has ended.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jordi Roqué on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of PetarM on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image "Marooned" (made me think of solitude...) courtesy of Jappalang on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Ebrahim on Wikimedia Commons