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

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