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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Randall Miller's Profound Responses to the Har Nof Horror

I was not part of the Har Nof community. My daughter and I were immersing ourselves in the warm love of family, and “Toirah" on our final days in Eretz Yisroel. The close knit community of observant Jews worked well together, in prayer, in babysitting, in sharing a close life in the crowded but comfortable concrete apartment buildings built several decades ago. Amongst these building blossomed lovely Houses of study and prayer. While the community made do with common place if not meager personal belongings and furnishings, their holy places, and their ritual items such as prayer shawls and tefillin were the best that could be obtained. There was ongoing celebration of the sanctity of life, lifting the mundane acts of hand washing and eating into holy acts of offering and receiving. 

From the outside this had always been to me group of “black hats” with side locks, covered women with flocks of children, isolating themselves from the secular world in pursuit of the Divine who infuses everything. From the inside, I was experiencing deep love of family, of community, in the process of healing the World in the only way they knew— through prayer, through study, through acts of loving kindness— every moment of every day, from sun up to sundown from birth throughout life. 

I accompanied my cousin to the houses of worship each day, where we prayed and studied. I blessed and was blessed. I saw the love in the eyes of the young and old who welcomed me wrapped in the shawls and strappings of our faith. For a liberal Jew of the secular world this was full immersion. I felt inadequate to the task as i stumbled over my prayers, and remembered rituals. I was lovingly helped with the finer details of service to the One in humility by rabbis and students. I am loved by an unending love. I am held by a spirit that runs deep through our tradition that I have only scratched the surface of in my 60+ years of living.
Binyamin stayed home for 7am services on November 18th to see me off. I praise God that he did. The sirens went off at 7:10am. A synagogue was invaded during prayer and lives were cut short by terror and horror. Each person is an entire universe, each death signals the end of a personal world on earth, and another deep wound that spreads through the community in ways that we shudder to imagine. My personal family is safe, for the moment. Praise the One for the “coincidences” of the day, the week, the chance meetings. We are here to bear witness, to pick up the pieces, to tremble with awe, and cringe with wrenching pain in the events that have enmeshed us all. 

This in not a new scenario for Jews; it is an age old story. It is a story of many people be they Palestinians, Armenians, Tutsis, Sunnis, or Native Americans. And for our people it is a recurring horror story that unfolds through the ages. I do not place my grief above others. But I am enfolded in it. I am now part of the Har Nof community. I grew up with stories. Now I am living them. I now bear witness to the supreme tragedy of man’s hatred for man. How do I process this? How do we process this? We are told to Teach Peace, and to pursue Justice. We must find a path toward Wholeness to allow the World to be healed in all its fullness and beauty. 

For now, I am still spinning in the maelstrom of grief that I feel for the community that embraced me, and has now torn their clothes in mourning. As we reflect, as we pray, as we turn toward the light of Truth and the Miraculous One who is infused in all things, Let us find the sparks of healing and tear away the shards of hatred and pursue the Wholeness that can be our destiny.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sarah and Hagar: Mistress and Slave, Privilege and Disadvantage

Photo: Lora Reehling
Betsy Teutsch

Vayera covers a lot of territory. My focus today is on Vayera’s power dynamics and disparities, who is privileged and who disadvantaged, in the  relationship of Sarah and Hagar, mistress and slave.  The Torah later celebrates the People of Israel’s liberation from harsh enslavement as our foundational myth, but what we witness here is domestic bondage, more intimate and nuanced, and not questioned -  though commentators have noted the connection between Hagar being an Egyptian and the Jewish people’s subsequent enslavement in Egypt. 1 + 2 Since Abraham and Sarah are the parents of the Jewish people, we look at things from their viewpoint.

Last week in Parshat Lekh Lekha, Sarah invited Abraham to consort with her slave Hagar, to produce an heir for Abraham via surrogacy. Sarah’s slave’s child will become Sarah’s child, problem solved; Hagar seemingly has no agency in this transactional consorting. Hagar conceives – succeeding where her mistress has failed. The relationship between mistress and slave quickly goes south.

The conflict seems to be about Hagar’s behavior towards Sarah, not Hagar’s relationship with Abraham; the text implies little contact between Avraham and Hagar after the deed is done – recall that he is indifferent to Sarah banishing her. (And indeed, most slave-owning men did not need their wives to instruct them to consort with their slave women.)

When Hagar asserts herself and belittles her mistress, Sarah abuses Hagar--quite harshly--even though giving Hagar to Abraham was Sarah’s plan. Sarah complains to her husband; in a very histrionic ultimatum she insists he choose between her and the son.  Avraham is surprisingly passive, given that in this week’s parshah he argues for the saving of Sodom and Gomorrah’s innocents. He basically just shrugs “Whatever” and tells Sarah to do what she thinks is necessary in this matter. Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar causes her to flee. 2 An angel convinces Hagar to return, explicitly instructing her to submit to Sarah’s mistreatment; in exchange Hagar’s is promised that her son will head a great nation.

In Parshat Vayera, Isaac is born to Sarah – a story familiar to us from Rosh Hashanah. When he grows, Sarah sees his half-brother Ishmael playing with Isaac. Originally conceived to be her surrogate son, she now views him as competition for her biological son Isaacs’ inheritance rights. Sarah once again tells Abraham to cast mother and son out, and this time Abraham does so himself, albeit with some reluctance. Ishmael is referred to as HaYeled, “the boy”, though the chronology of the story suggests he is older. Hagar and Ishmael survive, but are permanently banished from the Sarah-Abraham family.

These stories display a complex of privileges conferred by class and gender; race may play a factor, but it is unclear that Hagar, an Egyptian, is a slave due to racial factors. Hagar enjoys a temporary stretch of being superior to her former superior – but then she is thrown out of the system altogether. Hagar enters the canon in large part because of her surprising and vexing assertion of her new-found advantage. She is the paradigm of uppityness. While the text humanizes Hagar and empathizes with her trials in the wilderness, it does not fault Sarah for treating Hagar harshly; it simply tells the story. The jury is out as to whether the tellers of the story think Hagar deserved punishment for not knowing her place or if they think Sarah had it coming.

We all learn our place in the world through constant – if unconscious—reinforcement, socialization, and training. If we are in the majority, and/or in a privileged position, we notice inequities less than if we are in a minority or non-privileged situation. Occasionally there are moments when we become aware of disparities. Here are a few from my relatively privileged life.

·        I am around 4 years old. Our babysitter, a retired farmwife named Mrs. Peterson, is taking care of me; my mother is off doing some volunteer work. Mrs. Peterson takes me to her friend Winifred’s apartment where they and some other old ladies play a card game called Canasta. I have never been in an apartment. Mrs. Peterson tells them that my mum is working the Rummage Sale at the Jewish Temple. They perk up and throw their cards on the table. “Jews’ rummage! Let’s go.”  My mother and her fellow Fargo Hadassah volunteers are very surprised when I appear at the Rummage Sale.

·        I am 7 or 8. My older brother’s room has a funny postcard hanging on the door, “Genius At Work”, with a lot of messy ink blotches printed on it. My sister and I have no such funny postcard on our room. We get the message: Older Brother is a genius. Clearly that is why he just sits at the table after dinner while we girls clear the dishes.
·        I am in 4th grade. Our cleaning lady, a kindly lady named Ruby Summerfeld, must have moved or retired because when I come home for the midday meal  – this is the 1950’s! - my mother is serving lunch to a new cleaning lady. Mrs. Thorstensen weighs about 300 pounds; her breathing is heavy and labored, and she is a bit scary. When I return to school, I make absolutely sure to avoid making eye contact with her son Harlan, my classmate.

·        David and I live in an Upper West Side brownstone. Our neighbors, The Reverend and Patricia Huntington, invite us to Sunday supper. I brief Patricia about our not eating meat. She asks why not, and I explain we keep kosher. She recalls that her grandparents, missionaries in Africa, often encountered people with food taboos. She also mentions that her grandparents’ were very proud to always eat whatever was served to them, even bull eyeballs. We admire a large oil painting hanging in their living room and they fill us in on its provenance. “That’s a scene from Huntington, Long Island – the town is named for some of our ancestors.”  We do not invite the Huntingtons back – ever.

·        It is 30 years later. My cleaning person asks me to recommend a summer camp for her daughters, whose uncle has offered to pay for them to attend. I am weirded out. The only not-Jewish camp I know if is for Quaker hippies and I can’t imagine her daughters socializing with the children of anyone I know.  I mention the name of the camp, Dark Waters, and – uncharacteristically for me - never ask her what happened.

·        Around the same time we are invited to a brunch with physicians, executives in the pharmaceutical industry and their highly-educated wives. In the course of discussion I mention that SAT scores correlate to family income, a fact I had recently learned and found compelling. I am roundly jumped upon. America is a meritocracy! I realize I have just committed a major faux pas.

I was born white, upper-middle class, Jewish, and female. Whiteness and upper-middle class status are both unearned, privileged positions, nationally and even more so globally. Being female is a relative disadvantage, though one can debate how much it is over-ridden by being white and affluent. Jewish is a complex identity, often – but not necessarily-- tied to class and racial privilege, since a majority of Jews are white and financially comfortable, up there with Episcopalians.  Of course we have a long history of persecution and in some places in the world experience very real anti-Semitism, but much ink has been spilled teasing out Jewishness from the other identities we all integrate.

Beneficiaries of unearned privileges typically do not notice them – a major point in the article by Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. They are daily, ordinary experience. Likewise, people in the majority, in whatever situation they are in, rarely notice minorities. Those in a position of privilege are generally clueless about the experience of unprivileged people. Even the Dali Lama confesses he didn’t give a thought to his mother carrying him around on her shoulders for hours every day.

Being privileged doesn’t mean you’re bad – people don’t choose privilege and more than people chose poverty. They generally are born into it and insulated from thinking of it as incredible luck like Ann Richardson, describing George W. Bush: “born on third base and he thought he hit a triple.”

A lot of this discussion is in the framing.  When FairTrade coffee was being introduced, I described the concept to our son Zachary, always an advocate for social justice.  He responded, “Well, I guess the regular stuff is ‘unfair trade coffee’ “.  Not surprisingly, the term Unfair Trade Coffee has not caught on, nor has “unfairly advantaged” taken off as a descriptor of those who enjoy unearned privilege. According to Rav SpellCheck, “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” are words.  “Overprivileged and overadvantaged are not.

While beneficiaries of unearned privilege may be blissfully unaware of it – a privilege in itself –people who are unfairly discriminated against are well aware of it, enduring an unending barrage of undermining actions 3, both subtle and crude.  Masters are often surprised to learn their slaves don’t love working for them and being part of their family4. Sarah’s plan had been that Hagar would gratefully hand Sarah the fruit of her womb and maybe be the baby’s wet nurse, not claim motherhood, agency, and higher status. Sarah seems blindsided when Hagar asserts herself and insults her; one can speculate that Hagar is mirroring the way she herself has been treated by Sarah.

In our world, privileges come in many forms. Here is a short list, and people could add many more. Some members of our community, in fact, have put a lot of work and thought into these issues. In addition to the major disparities of race and gender, there is:

Heterosexual privilege: until recently, and still in most of the world, same-sex couples cannot show off their wedding pictures in the office, talk about their sweeties, and if they kiss their partner in public, they are accused of promiscuity.  These are just a couple of the daily oppressions – there are thousands of them.
Native-born citizens have huge privileges not available to immigrants – knowing the ropes, speaking the language, having the right forms.  Unless, of course, you are a Native American.
Age is a large privilege, until it becomes a detriment. Younger children are intensely aware of the privileges received by the bigger kids. This seems to be plugged into our human nature. Birth order has enormous effects on lived experience.
Education & Literacy confer privileges, and the more affluent you are, the better the quality of education you have access to, along with the length of time you spend being educated.
Military exemption privilege: since our military system is “voluntary”, our safety and rights are defended by those who need jobs and the potential benefits the military provides, in exchange for risking their lives and having no control over where they are deployed.
Fame/Legacy privilege is pretty obvious. Hard work and achievement matter in the United States, but name recognition gets you on short lists. Many have made the observation that the truest form of affirmative action is legacy admissions of mediocre students.

A few questions for discussion:

1. Is Hagar a role model for resistance to oppression, or a cautionary tale that resisters will be punished?
2. Share a time you were aware of your own unearned privilege, or your lack of it.
3. Some of us here are activists on this issue: share ways people can work for a fairer world.
4. Does acknowledging privilege demand that people give some of it up, and is that even possible?
Footnotes: Thanks to Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer for bringing them to my attention.
 1 "Drive out this slave woman and her son" - ["Drive out" appears] thrice in the Bible: "Drive out this slave woman""Drive out the scoffer" (Proverbs 22:10), "When he sends you free, it is finished - he will drive, yes, drive you out from here" (Shemot 11:1) - Drive out this slave woman and her son, and then you will have driven out the scoffer, and because Sara drove Hagar out of her home, she was punished, and her descendents were enslaved and had to be driven out of Egypt.   (Baal Haturim, Bereishit 21:10)

 2 All who have been oppressed can also oppress.
Sarah our mother oppressed her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. Sarah was barren and she wanted a child. She gave Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abraham as a wife. When Hagar conceived and became pregnant Sarah grew lesser in her eyes. So Sarah oppressed her and Hagar ran away, as it says:
"V'ta'aneiha Sarai v'tivrach mipaneyha" (Genesis 16:6)
Pharaoh the Egyptian oppressed our people when they dwelled in Egypt.
The Israelites descended to Egypt and lived there….And the Egyptians treated us harshly and oppressed us; they imposed hard labor on us as it says:
"Vayarei'u otanu mamitzvrim va'y'anunu va'yitnu aleinu avoda kasha." (Deuteronomy 26:6)
This you should never forget: the same word used for Hagar's oppression at the hands of Sarah is used for the Israelites' oppression at the hands of the Egyptians.
Rabbi Tamara Cohen, Mayan Haggadah (following on Nachmanides)
3  Racial Microgressions in Everyday Life – Hat-tip, Nomi Teutsch

4 Masters are often surprised to learn their slaves don’t love working for them and being part of their family – Micah Weiss, Seder commentary

For Further Reading: Recommended by Dr. Andrea Jacobs:

From the NYTimes (suggested by Sue Sussman)

What ‘White Privilege’ Really Means - GEORGE YANCY and NAOMI ZACK

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Beulah Trey on Parshat Noach: the Tower of Bavel

 Beulah Trey
I’ve wanted to do a drash on the Tower of Bavel for a few years. Here are the questions that begin our journey:

§  What does it mean that the story is recounted to us in Parshat Noach, after we hear that people were so bad, that Noach was so good, that all were drowned save the family Noach?
§  What is the significance of the Tower story coming after that strange story of Noach’s drunkenness and the kindness of Shem and Japhteth and the evil of Ham?
§  What does it mean that the story after the Tower is Lech Lecha and Avraham?
§  What does it mean that the people of the flood were drowned and the people of the tower were dispersed?

I’ve always experienced a lot of energy and curiosity about Parshat Noach’s recounting of the Tower of Bavel.  Two thirds of the way through the Torah’s recitation of the descendants of Noach come 9 pesukim (lines) that tell the tale of the Tower of Bavel.  The story is inserted just before the recitation of the line of Shem son of Noach that leads to Avram son of TerachChazal suggests that the story of the tower is the last of the creation stories.  Right after this story we turn to learning about Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham).  We turn from the story of our universal creation to the story of our people’s beginnings. The Tower of Bavel is the story of the creation of the peoples of the world. It is the story of how the people settled the earth. 

After the flood, all the people, all together, same language, same words, roam the land.  They find a place to settle.  They build their city complete with the tallest tower in the world, by definition a skyscraper.  God – or the embodiment of holiness – is aware of this and says out loud – If this is how they act when they are one nation and one language …. Literally lo yibzar mahem col asher yizmu laasot commonly translated as “then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” An alternative translation that remains true to the Hebrew is “if this is what they do when they have one language then nothing will prevent them from setting things like this in motion again.” In other words, they will keep going down this path that will not lead them to holiness … And so God confounds their speech and scatters them over the face of the whole earth and they stop building the city and settle the earth to presumably have a better chance at holiness.   The next story is the particular story of Avraham’s relationship to holiness.   

Every commentary I’ve read suggests the people were evil, arrogant, and psychopaths.  A Midrash tells of the people caring more about the loss of a brick than of a person.  I find myself curious about the people, curious about God.  What is their story?  What is God’s part?  Every year I search for a commentary with a different view; a voice that doesn’t see this as the story of an angry God and a people behaving badly. I’ve yet to find one. I want to know the people’s point of view. I want to understand God’s part in this outcome.   The parsha never says God is angry; it is the rabbinic commentary that suggests the people are evil and God angry.  An alarm in side me goes off when one side is too right and the other too evil.  What if there is another way to understand all of this?

So let’s start here.  Judaism, in fact all religions, are about our aspirations to holiness.  The term God is the anthropormorphosization of holiness.  Our conceptions of God are metaphors for our understanding of holiness and the bible is full of stories/metaphors about humanities discoveries related to holiness.

The story of the tower of Bavel is the last of the stories about the creation of this world where holiness is embedded in a physical form.  In the first story we learn of the embedding of spirit in earth that forms the human. Vayipach nishmat Chaim, vayihi ha adam lnefesh chayah – God blew into the nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being.  Our creation story is clear -- we are spiritual beings in a physical experience or more accurately we are embodied spirit being.  Our task is to reclaim our relationship to holiness while being in a body.

The second creation story (in the first man and woman are created together) comes to a crescendo as we realize that as embodied spirits we do not know how to distinguish between good and evil.  It seems that evil is a component of the physical and does not exist in the spirit realm.  As embodied spirits, evil is our temptress.  We are easily fooled into thinking that evil is good. Evil we quickly discover is an essential component of being alive. As embodied spirits at the time of creation, we are inexperienced at being alive.  We are inexperienced at ‘living’ with all that is alive – including evil. Is it a coincidence that evil is live spelled backwards?  Our relationship with and to evil is an essential aspect of our sojourn here on earth.  Our relationship with evil is core to our mission to bring holiness into this physical experience (the purpose of a holy life). 

One take on our creation story is that it is a narrative of how we get ‘fooled’ by evil and so get further away from our unification/our alignment with holiness. First we are ‘fooled’ by a snake (we discover we are naked and hide from holiness), then by a beloved (we get ousted from the garden and no longer live with holiness full time), then by envy (we kill or liberate our brother’s holiness and forever are branded as a murderer), then by each other (flooded and drowned to death with only the finest part of ourselves, the part closest to goodness, surviving).

One can almost hear the soliloquy:  Evil is for real and we only come to recognize it as evil when we experience ourselves further from holiness than we were before. We were in the Garden in perfect harmony with holiness and then our curiosity, our desire to know what the snake knew, separated us from holiness.  As Cain, we thought that there was only so much holiness to go around and that we could get someone else’s holiness by killing them. That only led to being marked as unholy.  We then lived together and being together only brought us farther away from holiness. So far away, that there was no way back.  And in a Darwinian move – Noach, the holiest survived. 

The final chapter in the creation story – the final chapter in the tale of how spirit embodied in earth is the Tower of Bavel.  The brick tower to holiness – which we thought was we.  It is about delusions, it is about how we believe we are doing one thing, but actually we are in the grips of evil moving us farther away from holiness.

So after the shock of the flood and discovering that hanging out with each other brought us to evil and destruction – we gingerly cling to each other and wander the earth.  Eventually we feel a little more comfortable and we decide to settle in the land and use the land to build.  We are all one; we are united in our sameness in our comfort with each other in our unity.  And from that unity we decide to build a tower to that unity – one tower reaching up to the heavens.  We will make a name for ourselves.  We’ve forgotten that we are here to integrate holiness into the physical – we become enamored of ourselves, of our sameness, of our likeness, of our ability to create out of this physical dimension.

Holiness, that ever-calling, signaling beacon, that true oneness that is a siren to our souls, recognizes that our mistaken notion of what it means to build ourselves a name (like God), will lead us in a direction that is not towards true holiness.  And so our language is made different and we are scattered to inhabit all parts of the earth.  We are to own our differences from each other.  We are to learn how to find holiness in the differences because when we look only to the similarities we build towers to our selves.

So here is a take on the Tower of Bavel.  It is the final chapter of the beginning of spirits’ sojourn in the physical.  After this narrative – the one that says that there are many different ways to holiness and that it is through our differences that we will be holy – we begin the story of our people’s unique journey to holiness. 

A teacher of mine – Yvonne Agazarian has this to say about how systems move towards holiness – Systems grow, develop and transform through discriminating between the apparently similar and integrating the apparently different.  In other words,  we grow to holiness not by glorying in our similarities or being disgusted by our differences. Rather we grow into holiness by realizing that we are not so similar and not so different from each other.  We are different and one, similar and many.  The more we discover the depth of this truth – the holier our embrace on life and the less our propensity towards evil. 

So what the Rabbis do with the story is call out the evil.  Similarly I want to call out the distortions, the moments when the people in the tale tried to be more than they were.  I want to tease out the layers of truth.  I believe that when truth is layered and people do not struggle with that complexity, evil creeps in.  When I try to stay the same as those around me, I avoid reckoning with the voice inside me that calls me towards being different, more true to what I hear as holiness’s siren.  I want to be able to be open when everything inside me wants to shut down and judge.  I want to hear all sides of the story, really hear.  I want to learn people’s stories, understand how they acted and make sense of the connection between how they act and the pieces of themselves they’ve disowned. I want to understand how all involved are responsible for putting the story into motion.  I want to hold the seemingly irreconcilable positions until I can feel love for all involved, and compassion for our human journey that sometimes keeps us stuck in our love of a version of evil that keeps us from embracing and learning from our shared lives’ journey.

Noach and his sons leave us with a story of one way to deal with evil – when Noach has succumbed to being less than he can be (some say he was drunk, nude in his tent).  The brother that tells the tale is punished and the brothers that do not promote the sin, but rather cover it, are blessed and progeny of both form a union that leads to the Mashiach.  Whenever I tell a story about another whom I have judged, am doing it in a gossipy way – or is our modern version of covering the responsibility to make sense, to find the path to holiness embedded in the false choice of evil and bring that out – as a lesson for myself, and those around me?  Each one of us will have to decide and hopefully in our decision we will discover whether we’ve taken the route of the people who built the tower – and will never get to holiness in that way – or the root of Shem and Japhteth and in our union with others bring light into the world.

Some questions for us:
Where is it that you idolize sameness or similarities?

What differences do you demonize?

What happens when you go deeper to see the differences in the similarities and similarities in the differences?

And if you’d like to get more personal, I invite you to choose someone you know who is different from you in a way that turns your stomach.  Imagine they are in your life as part of holiness’s curriculum – they are in your life to remind you of the Tower of Bavel, to remind you that we will not reach holiness by glorifying how we are the same as others. Rather we will reach holiness/peace by reckoning with how we are different, how we are meant to live in different places, to have our languages be different and to still exist in this world together.  How does that effect your experience of this other?

 In conclusion – I began this dvar because I’ve long played with the idea that contrary to what the Rabbis of old suggest, the people of the tower were not evil and that God was not angry.   My teacher and colleague Rabbi Stone teaches that when something the Rabbis say makes no sense to us – it may be that how we’re reading it is what doesn’t make sense.  After all, he asks, do you really think the Rabbi’s were stupid?  Instead, Rabbi Stone suggests that the language of their time is probably capturing something different than what the language of our time makes of their words.  And so, I am in agreement with the Rabbis. The people who built the tower were evil – they ‘forgot’ that we are embodied spirit beings and became enamored only of the physical.  That is what I know of as evil; it is what we are all capable of.  And God is not angry, but God or source will never go along and will always ‘steer’ us back on course towards holiness. That I think is what the Rabbi’s meant.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bob Epstein on Shalakh Lechah - Humor in the Book of Joshua - a Drash

Humor in the Book of Joshua - a Drash

This week’s Parshah – שלח לך – tells the story of the scouts sent out to explore the Promised Land.  Ten of them came back with tales of fierce giants and brought back a cluster of huge grapes to suggest just how big these giants must be.  Because of their lack of faith, the Israelites were sentenced to wander aimlessly in the desert for another 40 years.
The feckless behavior of the ten scouts, “serious people” in the words of the Tanach, who saw אלהים ‘s wonders, is contrasted in the Haftorah to the behavior of a lowly Cannanite woman, Rahav, who heard reports of what יהוה had done.

Every once in a while, I come across an interpretation in Tanach which astounds me.  Three examples come to mind:
·    - First, that Queen Esther was a bigamist.   חז”ל say she was married to Mordechai and by offering his wife to the unsuspecting  Ahasuerus, Mordechai, according to Rabbinic tradition, committed a sin in order to achieve a Mitzvah.  Amazing!

- Next is King Saul – each time he asks “Who is David” it’s because he doesn’t believe that David is Jewish!  Saul’s obsession with the legitimacy of Ruth’s conversion turns him into a tragic hero.  Among tragic figures, King Saul, in my opinion, towers מִשִּׁכְמ֖וֹ   וָמָֽעְלָה “from his shoulders on up” in heroic stature, flaw and pathos.  Amazing!

- Finally, there is the example from this week’s Haftorah – the conversion of Rahav the harlot into a Jewish hero par excellence.  What amazed me was not that she became Jewish, but how unaware I was of our tradition.  Realizing others in our community may also have overlooked this extraordinary woman, and that there may be other למופת  דוגמאות (exemplars) obscured in our text, I asked Danielle if I could learn today.     After all, Rahav is the first convert to Judaism in the return from Egypt, preceding Ruth by 400 or so years and converted without ever having met a Jew! The Rabbis say she was one of the four most beautiful women in the Mikra and her conversion is regarded as more complete than that of Jethro.
This week’s haftorah describes the preparations for the conquest of Jericho.  Two men were selected to reconnoiter the town.  With the huge Israelite camp just across the Jordan River, the arrival of spies was anticipated by the inhabitants.  What the spies didn’t anticipate was their reception.  Rahav gives them the information they sought:” I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.  And, she famously says:
 כִּי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם--הוּא אֱלֹהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת.
 For the LORD your God is God in heaven above, and on the earth below.

As Rabbi Ian Shaffer of Yeshiva University points out, we can imagine that when the spies recovered their ability to speak, taking their cue from the Alenu prayer, their reply was אין עודThere’s nothing to add – you said it all!

The Rabbis considered Rahav as one of the greatest בעלי תשובה.  I don’t think teshuva here is about turning, returning, or repenting, it means she found the answer- she got it!
Compared to Ruth’s conversion centuries later, Rahav’s presents a different model, not about loving a people, but about understanding God.  That understanding and with it, the realization of the inevitability of the conquest of the land of Israel, led to Rahav’s second extraordinary characteristic: אוהב ישראל:  Her love of the Jewish people.  At the risk of her life, she hid the spies, fed them, misled their pursuers, and planned an escape route.  Even more amazing, Rahav bargained for her life and her family’s, managing to escape when the rest of Jericho was destroyed.
So, here is a woman, living in the late Bronze Age, who runs a business when businesses were few and women’s rights fewer, who is quick-witted, generous, bold and thinks totally out-of-the-box.   A woman, we would say, with alle maylis – all the best qualities.  Amazing.
I’d like to look at the Haftorah through the lens of literary criticism, for it was a story long before it was a text.  Let’s consider the tone.  There are many aspects of comedy in the Book of Joshua – the most outrageous being 40,000 soldiers limping toward Jericho, hands locked together, for all men younger than 40 had just been circumcised.  Picturing Jericho, we can imagine a long white city wall with a scarlet rope dangling from a corner.  The language, especially the double entendres, reinforces the comic elements.
I can imagine, as people are scraping the chulunt  around the campfire, a  Damon Runyonesque character, eyes twinkling when not rolling,  introducing the story of Rahav:
Tonight I’m going to tell you the story of Rahav whose name means broad.  Now Rahav lived in a hole in the wall and you couldn’t miss it because there was a red cord hanging outside the window.  Some people say the cord was to make it easy to find the place and others say it was to get out of town when you just had to get out of town quickly.  Either way – the woman was a genius.  The Radak agreed with Rashi that Rahav engaged in one of the two oldest professions, but while Rashi said it was hospitality, the Radak thought it was the other one.  Rashi said it was an inn and Rahav was a cook and we can imagine the Radak adding “Some inn, some cook”.
Now, if you follow the Radak, you may wonder just how the spies spent the night at Rahav’s house – “what is a Cohen doing in a cemetery”, so-to-speak.  They would have left much sooner (how long can you spend averting your eyes), but for their obligation to dissuade Rahav from converting! I tell you they didn’t sleep a wink.  When they weren’t reciting תהלים (Psalms) they were performing מִצְווֹת.
! סדקים ללא  צדיקים Their righteousness had no chinks.

When the spies returned to the camp and told them how Rahav had saved them and what an 
אשת חיל, a woman of valor, she was, all the חייליםthe soldiersvolunteered to rescue her.  Joshua's biggest problem was getting the soldiers from shouting out their names as they passed under her window.  They were so loud he had to have the shofars blown – that’s when the walls fell.
Rahav continued to show her love for Israel from the time she joined the Israelites.  Wherever she went, you could hear people exclaiming רהב עשתה עוד חיל"”, which can be translated as "has added luster to her glory."
I think the ambiguity of Rahav’s profession is deliberate and serves a comic function. Not that it matters, since the previous behavior of a convert, say חז”ל, is irrelevant.  That question, I think, says more about the questioner’s values than Rahav’s.

1) There is a quote in Tractate Nedarim:  “Had not Israel sinned, only the Chumash and the Book of Joshua would have been given them. “
 If the Bible ended with the Book of Joshua do you think we would understand our story any differently?

2) Are there stories in Tanach which you think are over-looked in our community?

I’d like to conclude with an image from this week’s haftorah:  Rahav twinning the scarlet thread over the cord from her window.  Our tradition speaks of the souls of the צַדִיקִים being entwined.  I think, from time to time we need to look closely at the braid and make sure that all the threads are accounted for.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Barbara Breitman, Yom Kippur 5775: On Forgiveness

Barbara E. Breitman  - 2014
Minyan Dorshei Derekh, Germantown Jewish Center, Philadelphia, Pa.
          When I was invited to speak on Yom Kippur, it was still summer and the war between Israel and Hamas was raging hot.  As I thought about whether I might have something to say on this holy morning, I realized how obsessed I was, not about geopolitics, but about questions having to do with vengeance, trauma and forgiveness. I decided to take the responsibility of this dvar as an opportunity to think more deeply, very aware I was doing so from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States.

            These are my questions: How will these people who have suffered so much at each others’ hands ever be able to live together in any configuration of peaceful co-existence?  What enables people to empathize with the humanity of the ‘other’ after such prolonged violence?  What can we learn from people who have been able to forgive and partner with their enemies and work for peace? Is there any wisdom in Judaism about forgiveness that might be helpful?  What wisdom might there be for us when we face questions about experiences of trauma and the challenges of forgiveness in less catastrophic circumstances? 

            I want to begin with basics from the Jewish tradition’s perspective on forgiveness, recognizing that these principles were not meant for conditions of war.  But in order to ground us in a foundation.  Within the tradition, forgiveness is consequent on repentance.  To become worthy of forgiveness, a person who has harmed another must first engage in a process of teshuvah which entails a number of steps: 

1.      Acknowledge that one has done something wrong
2.      Confess one’s wrongdoings to God and community
3.      Express remorse
4.      Resolve not to transgress in this way again.
5.      Compensate the victim for injuries inflicted and do acts of charity for others.
6.      Sincerely request forgiveness by the victim…with help from community or friends…and do so up to three times.
7.      Avoid the conditions that caused the offense
8.      Act differently when confronted with the same situation.

            Once someone has done teshuvah, we are obliged to forgive. At the heart of the tradition is the idea that forgiveness is an obligation and acting on the demands of that duty enables us to live as a community worthy of God’s presence. (see Elliot Dorff in Dimensions of ForgivenessThe bonds of community are re-established through action rather than a change in feelings.  It is the preservation of these bonds that is central to the traditional perspective.  Forgiveness is not the private emotional process we usually think of today.  I take from this a valuable principle:  forgiveness is a practice.  It is a choice and a decision.  It is not an emotion.

            And yet we know….the practice of forgiveness involves emotional challenges. 
            What makes it hard to ask for forgiveness?

            It is an act of vulnerability.  It means giving power to the other person by needing something from them that might be refused.  It means accepting our own capacity to do harm.  It takes humility and courage.

            Why are we motivated to forgive people who have harmed us

            We know we have harmed others and we want to be forgiven when we are the ones at fault.  Or we want to get past an incident and get on with our lives, not continue to harbor anger and resentment. 

            What makes it hard to offer forgiveness?

            Offering forgiveness is often the outcome of a painful struggle, with rage, fear, ambivalence, and conflict. Forgiveness involves overcoming feelings of hostility and vengefulness.  It involves overcoming feelings of vulnerability.  We have been harmed in a way we were unable to avoid, which has compromised our safety.  By forgiving, we may put ourselves at risk again.

            Offering forgiveness can involve a profound wrestling with good and evil, within our-selves and outside of our-selves.  As one writer expressed it:  “Forgiving involves facing this most difficult of moral and personal challenges:  striving to take the goad from our sides without eviscerating ourselves of our guts—our moral sensibilities, our self respect, our standards of justice and our hope.”  (Steven Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness)  After extremes of violence and trauma, how is forgiveness even possible?

            In a remarkable memoir, a black South African psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission named Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela reflects on her interviews with Eugene de Kock, the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads under apartheid rule.  After witnessing an interaction at the hearings between de Kock and two black South African women whose husbands he was responsible for murdering, who yet offered de Kock forgiveness, Madikizela wanted to understand how remorse and forgiveness happen after mass atrocity.  “How,” she asks, “can we transcend hate if the goal is to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups?  These questions,’ she says, ‘may be irrelevant for people who do not need to live as a society with their former enemies.  But for those of us whose lives are intertwined with those who have grossly violated our human rights…, ignoring the question is not an option.” I was asking the same kind of questions and though I don’t see the South African situation as historically or politically similar to Israel and the Palestinians, I wanted to learn from her.

            Was de Kock too evil or were his acts too evil to be worthy of the forgiveness offered to him, she asks?   In a face to face encounter, Gobodo-Madikezela confronts one of the existential crises that arise when a victim of extreme trauma faces a remorseful perpetrator.  As de Kock expresses what seems to be sincere grief and remorse over what he has done, Gobodo-Madikizela finds herself feeling sympathy for this mass murderer. At that moment, she instinctively touches his hand … but then recoils.  Was she crossing the moral line which allows one to maintain a measure of distance from a perpetrator by actually being able to identify with him? Was she violating her own sense of morality by feeling the human impulse of empathy for this killer?

Reflecting later, she sobs with despair for her suffering as a black woman under Apartheid.  But at the same time, she explains she felt a profound sense of loss about de Kock, “(for) the side of him she had touched (that) had not been allowed to triumph over the side that made him Apartheid’s killing machine.”

            It is an extraordinary quality to be able to empathize with such an enemy…and, of course, this was only possible once de Kock was in prison and the power dynamic between them had been reversed.  When war or oppression is still ongoing, such empathy can be nearly impossible.
            One of the most profoundly disturbing dimensions of this summer’s war was witnessing the ever more deeply entrenched dehumanization between Israelis and Palestinians from both sides.  Dehumanization made ever more intense as the everyday interactions that used to occur between the two peoples before the Second Intifada have become increasingly rare. That is what happens as violence and vengeance suck people into the cycle of kill or be killed, dominate or be dominated. (Embodying Forgiveness)  Empathy, even for the dead children of the enemy, can become a victim of war, as Bob Tabak’s recently posted dvar Torah so painfully named.  Empathy or even attempting to understand the other seems like treason.  This is why peacemakers are often assassinated by their own people.

            Sitting with those thoughts, I was moved to discover the words of a Christian theologian, L. Gregory Jones:   “It is important to analyze and confront our tendencies in modernity…  to see the world either as ‘lighter’ than it is (hence trivializing forgiveness by making it therapeutically easy) or as ‘darker’ than it is, hence believing that forgiveness is impossible or ineffective because violence is ultimately our master.”  I stopped in my tracks after reading that sentence. Has violence indeed become our master? 
            Jones continues: “It is urgent to explore whether there are ways to unlearn and break habits of violence, to stop cycles of vengeance, to cultivate a politics of holiness…. Our commitments to unlearn and break these habits is fragile, even when there is a desire to do so.  If such commitments are to be sustained, they require supportive friendships, practices and institutions that enable the unlearning of destructive habits and the cultivation of holy ones……...” (Bolding mine)

            And so I continued reading to learn more from people who have broken those habits.

            Among the books I read was Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.  In his introduction to the book , Bill Clinton reports Mandela’s answer to the question of how he was able to make the journey from prisoner to peacemaker and president:  “When you’re young and strong, you can stay alive on your hatred.  And I did for many years.”  Then one day, “I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. They could not take those things.  Those things I still had control over.  And I decided not to give them away.  I realized that when I went through that gate, if I still hated them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free.  And so I let it go.”   “To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy (has to) become one’s partner.”

            Mandela’s words echo the wisdom of Torah.  Just weeks ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote on the biblical injunction “Do not despise the Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land”.   “The wisdom of Moses’ command not to despise the Egyptians still shines through today.  If the people continued to hate their ….oppressors, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt but would have failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites.  They would still be slaves, not physically but psychologically.  They would be …… held captive by the chains of resentment, unable to build the future.  To be free, you have to let go of hate.  That is a difficult truth but a necessary one…..Always be ready, Moses seems to have implied, for reconciliation between enemies.”

            Rabbi Sacks continues:  “No less surprising is Moses’ insistence: “Do not despise an Edomite because he is your brother.”  Edom, he reminds us, was the other name of Esau.  The earlier stories from the book of Genesis seem to imply that the enmity between Jacob and Esau would be eternal.  Why then, asks Rabbi Sacks, does Moses tell us not to despise Esau’s descendants?  “The answer is simple.  Esau may hate Jacob.  It does not follow that Jacob should hate Esau.  To answer hate with hate is to be dragged down to the level of your opponent.  When….I asked Judea Pearl, father of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, why he was working for reconciliation between Muslims and Jews, he replied with heartbreaking lucidity:  “Hate killed my son.  Therefore I am determined to fight hate.”

            And this is what I discovered to be the distinguishing and shared characteristic of people who have been able to partner with the enemy and do the hard work of peace-making:  not to see the one who inflicted violence and trauma on them as the enemy, but rather to see the enemy as hate itself.  So simple.  So profound.  So seemingly impossible.  But there are people who do it.

            Several years ago, a Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish probably changed the course of Operation Cast Lead and the bombing of Gaza in 2009.  Dr. Abuelaish was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza.  He went to medical school in Cairo, studied obstetrics and gynecology in Saudi Arabia and did his residency in Israel. He spent years working in Israeli hospitals where, he has said, patients were always surprised to find a Palestinian doctor delivering Jewish babies.  He travelled through check points daily to work and was widely respected by many Israelis. On January 16, 2009, only 5 months after his wife had died of leukemia, Dr. Abuelaish’s home was hit by a bomb during Operation Cast Lead. Three of his daughters, aged 13, 15 and 21, were killed; another daughter, was seriously injured, a niece died and a fifth girl, another niece, suffered catastrophic injuries.  Right after the shell struck, he ran to the room that had been hit. "I saw my girls drowning in a pool of blood," "I saw their body parts… all over the room". Desperate for medical assistance, he called his friend Shlomi Eldar, a presenter on Channel 10 in Israel who happened to be on air at that moment. The doctor’s agonized cries for help in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic were broadcast live throughout Israel. Within an hour, with the help of his Israeli friends, his injured daughter and niece were evacuated from Gaza.    Then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, also heard the broadcast. Two days later he announced the ceasefire.

            Dr. Abuelaish has written a powerful book called:   I Shall Not Hate . In an interview he was asked:  But how is it possible that you do not feel hatred after what has happened to you?  "There is a difference between anger and hate, he explains. “Anger is acute but transient; hate is a poison, a fire which burns you from the inside. ….It is important to feel anger in the wake of events like this, anger that signals that you do not accept what has happened, that spurs you to make a difference.  But you have to choose not to spiral into hate.  All the desire for revenge and hatred does is drive away wisdom, increase sorrow and prolong strife… …I realized that I had two options …:  I could take the path of darkness or the path of light.  If I chose the path of darkness, of poisonous hate and revenge, it would be like choosing to fall into the complications and the depression that come with disease.  To choose the path of light, I had to focus on the future and my children.”

            Even if the enemy has not expressed remorse, this letting go of hatred is a form of forgiveness that is an innovative gesture, breaking open the logic of vengeance and cycles of violence. 

            The organization Bereaved Families was founded by Yitzchok Frankenthal, an Orthodox Jewish business man from Bnei Brak.   Frankenthal’s 19 year old son Arik was returning home from his army base on a weekend pass when he was abducted by Hamas terrorists and never returned.  In 1995, Frankenthal and several bereaved Israeli families founded the Parent’s Circle Family Forum. In 1998 the first meetings were held with a group of Palestinians families from Gaza who identified with the call to prevent further bereavement through dialogue and reconciliation. The connection with the group in Gaza was cut off as a result of the second Intifada, though the work of the organization continues.

             Robi Damelin, whose 28 year old son was shot by a sniper while serving in the Israeli army,  and who works for the Family Forum, says the first words that came out of her mouth when she learned of his death were ‘do not take revenge in the name of my son.’  Robi travels around the world with Palestinian partners to promote dialogue.  One of those partners, Ali Abu Awwad, born in 1972 on the West Bank, was given a 10 year prison sentence as a teenager for throwing rocks but was released 4 years later after the signing of the Oslo Accords.  In 2000, during the Second Intifada, Abu Awwad was shot in the leg by an Israeli settler and his brother Youseff was killed by an Israeli soldier at a check point incident. Together with his mother, Abu Awaad became a member of Bereaved Families Forum.  He reports that he was shocked at his first meeting when he saw an Israeli parent cry: “I never believed that Israelis could cry.  I saw that they could be victims.”   David Shulman, a professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University describes Awwad as one of the leaders of a new generation of non-violent resisters in Palestine, and quotes him as saying:

"The Jews are not my enemy; their fear is my enemy. We must help them to stop being so afraid – their whole history has terrified them – but I refuse to be a victim of Jewish fear anymore".

             AliAbu Awwad has been on tour this fall in the USA with Orthodox Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a passionate Zionist settler who says he has been transformed by his friendship with Ali.  Abu Awwad is coming to Congregation Mishkan Shalom this coming Thursday evening, October 9th and to Germantown Jewish Centre on Friday morning. 

            I cannot begin to figure out the geopolitics of the Middle East.  But I understand human relationships.  I do not know if I would ever be capable of the kind of forgiveness exemplified by these remarkable people, but I know I want to learn from them. At a moment in history like this, on this Shabbat Shabbatonim, I want to take seriously that forgiveness is a powerful Jewish practice.  I want to take seriously that hope is an ethical position, not an emotion.  I want to take to heart Sharon Salzberg’s words on faith:  “the power of faith doesn’t mean we’ve annihilated fear, or denied it, or overcome it through strenuous effort.  ….  It means feeling our fear and still remaining in touch with our heart, so that fear does not define our entire world, all we can see or do or imagine.”

            I want to leave you with the words of two poets.  The first is Jewish, Rabbi Tamara Cohen and the second by Palestinian American, Naomi Shihab Nye.

No Pain Like My Pain (Lamentations 1:12) - for Tisha b'Av 5774/ 2014 

That's how it feels Dear God.
That's how it felt to the lamenters exiled and Temple-shorn. 
That's how it feels to each grief-wracked mother, father, sister, son, family, nation.

                                                                                             הביטו וראו אם יש מכאוב כמכאובי
"Look carefully and see if there could possibly be pain like my pain, like the one bestowed by You upon me."

No pain like my pain, 
no exile like my exile, 
No land my land,
No desolate city like my desolate city.
No heart like my own aching heart.
No fear like the fear of my people.
No genocide like our genocide.
No humanity like our humanity. 
No right like our right.
No wrong like their wrong.
No rage like my rage. 

No pain like my pain,
immediate and raw and righteous, 
ancient and true and etched in our genes by history's injustices.

Dear God, help us look, 
look closer so that we may see
our children in their children,
their children in our own.

Help us look so that we may see You --
in the bleary eyes of each orphan, each grieving childless mother, 
each masked and camouflaged fighter for his people's dignity.

Dear God, Divine Exiled and Crying One,
Loosen our claim to our own uniqueness.
Soften this hold on our exclusive right -- to pain, to compassion, to justice. 

May your children, all of us unique and in Your image, 
come to know the quiet truths of shared pain, 
shared hope, 
shared land, 
shared humanity, 
shared risk, 
shared courage, 
shared peace.

In Sh'Allah. Ken yehi Ratzon. 
May it be Your will. 
and may it be ours.

       - Rabbi Tamara Ruth Cohen

 From ‘Jerusalem’ by Naomi Shihab Nye

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

….A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.