Sunday, December 28, 2014

Jakob Friedman Slifker's Bar Mitzvah Dvar - Miketz 2014

We have watched Jakob since his early shofar-blowing
days til now - when he teaches us! mazel tov!
Jakob Friedman Slifker  Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah December 20, 2014

Shabbat Shalom.
When I first learned my Torah portion was going to be Miketz, I was really excited.  I had studied the parasha multiple times in Jewish Day School.  I knew Miketz: the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and grain; his being given control of the food supply in Egypt during the years of abundance and the following years of famine; Joseph’s brothers’ coming to Egypt; Joseph’s holding Shimon captive until his brothers returned with the youngest, Benjamin.  I knew the story of how Joseph had returned the gold to his brothers in their sacks of grain, making them fear they would be suspected of being thieves.  I knew there’d be a lot to talk about, and I thought I knew the story.  In studying with Rabbi Alanna, however, I found that these stories are only half the deal.  The other half is way more interesting.

First of all, Pharaoh didn’t just give Joseph control of the food supply in Egypt, he actually gave Joseph the power of a king and “only with respect to the throne [was Pharaoh] superior to” Joseph.  In addition, Pharaoh gave him this power immediately after hearing Joseph interpret his dreams.  When I read that I thought: there must be more to this.  Why would Pharaoh immediately give Joseph this power?  He’d only just met the guy, so there’s got to be something else behind his decision.  With these questions in mind, Rabbi Alanna and I went and looked at Breishit Rabba and found some fascinating midrashim (which are rabbinic interpretations of the text). 

In one midrash, we learned about what happened before Joseph’s meteoric rise to power -- in the time between Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and his being granted the power of a king.  According to Rabbi Eliezer, after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh told Joseph, “before I can give you all this power, you need to show me that you know the fifty languages of the world because a king must know all the languages.”  (I don’t know exactly why he needed to know all these languages, but a certain 8 ½ year-old I know suggested that a king has to be able to have control over any people he might meet, and those people might speak different languages).  Our midrash teaches that that night, the angel Gabriel came down from heaven, taught Joseph the 50 languages, and told him what he needed to do to pass Pharaoh’s challenge.  The next morning, Pharaoh tested Joseph and he aced the test.  50 languages?  No problem.  Then Joseph surprised Pharaoh by saying, “but I also know another language.”  He then spoke in the language of his people, Hebrew.  At this point, Pharaoh instructed Joseph not to tell a soul that he knew this language.  Why?  Because Pharaoh did not know Hebrew, and he was concerned that his people would no longer respect him as their king and would rebel.  Joseph agreed to keep this secret.  And it seemed like that was that.  But Rabbi Eliezer wasn’t quite finished.  In the next parasha, we learn that Joseph wanted to bury his father in Canaan (Jacob’s final request) and that Pharaoh refused to let him go.  In response, according to our Midrash, Joseph threatened Pharaoh, telling him, “If you don’t let me go, then I’m going to tell everyone in Egypt that you don’t know a language that I do, which will undermine your power and allow me to usurp you.”

This Midrash brings up something that seems to contradict the stories I thought I knew so well.  In my education at Jewish Day school, I was taught to view Joseph as a hero. Yes, when he was younger, living with his family in Canaan, he shared some dreams that seemed to suggest that he thought he was better than everyone else.  But our lessons didn’t focus on Joseph’s pride, but rather on how these dreams led to his brothers’ mistreating him and selling him to the Ishmaelites.  Quite simply, his brothers were bad, and Joseph’s supposedly selfless actions in Egypt made up for any character flaws.   But I was nine; I was in fourth grade, and this was just another Torah lesson.

Now, as a thirteen year-old, who’s beginning to discover my own opinions, I see Joseph differently.  Rather than viewing him simply as a hero, as a selfless and kind leader, who distributes food to anyone who needs it, I’m left with questions.  Is Joseph really a good leader?  Or is Joseph a selfish, power-hungry man, more interested in wealth and control, than in the well being of his people?

One way of beginning to address these questions is to ask other questions:  Is Joseph really in charge of his own actions? Or is God the one in control?  If God is the one in control, then is God merely a voice in Joseph’s ear directing him or is God moving Joseph like a pawn, controlling everything Joseph says and does?  

The reason I’m asking these questions is because, in reading Miketz in preparation for my bar mitzvah, I noticed that when Joseph was interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, it’s not exactly clear who’s talking -- Joseph or God.  Joseph doesn’t just say, “Well, God told me the meaning of your dreams.”  He talks about God and Pharaoh in the third person, and it’s not clear where Joseph fits in.  Before Joseph explains that the dreams of the cows and the grain symbolize the years of abundance and famine to come, he says, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what he is about to do.”  That’s pretty clear.   After explaining the dreams, however, he then repeats himself, saying, “It is just as I have told Pharaoh.  God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. [...] The matter is determined by God and God will soon carry it out.”  Here, when Joseph says “I,” it’s not clear whether he means himself or God.  Is Joseph equating himself with God, just as his brothers thought he was in his earlier dream about the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him? Or, is God speaking through Joseph to tell Pharaoh what God’s intentions are?

If this lack of clarity reflects Joseph’s desire for power, then it proves my original theory: Joseph is selfish and more interested in power than in the well-being of others.  On the other hand, if God is speaking through Joseph then maybe some of Joseph’s apparent selfishness is not his fault.  His seeming desire for power is really God moving Joseph like a pawn for some greater purpose unknown to Joseph and to us.  Why is God putting Joseph in this position of power?  Why does his being in this position of power allow Joseph to forgive and to help his brothers? … Why do I keep asking questions and leaving them unanswered? 

Here’s my point -- one of the things I’ve realized in writing this D’var Torah and in studying for my bar mitzvah is that sometimes the things I thought I knew contain more layers, more complexity, and more depth than I ever realized.  I don’t yet know the answers to all the questions I’ve posed here -- although I hope they’ll lead to thoughtful discussions among all of you (at lunch).  But what I do know is not to be complacent, and to always be ready to ask questions and to be open to new answers.  As Ben Bag Bag used to say about the Torah, "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it." Part of growing up for me means taking responsibility for myself and my own learning.  I know that in the Jewish community, by becoming a bar mitzvah, I take on the responsibility of myself and my own choices. I need to think about my own choices in terms of selfishness, power, and the greater good -- no matter who’s directing me. I know that I have to take this responsibility seriously because I can’t blame my parents anymore (at least according to Jewish tradition). 

My Mitzvah project grows out of my parasha.  Since Parshat Miketz deals in part with storing and distributing food for the hungry in times of need, I realized that I wanted to do something related to food and hunger relief.  As part of my project, I recently helped organize a food drive through the synagogue for Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger relief agency. In fact, the centerpieces for the luncheon later are baskets we made with the food we collected and which will be donated. For the other part of my project, I worked with the Jewish Relief Agency, or JRA, where I packed and delivered boxes of food to people in need. Why did I do these things? That’s a question that I will answer. I did these for my project for two reasons. First, because Miketz revolves around food and hunger.  But secondly, and more importantly, I wanted to use my power and choices to help others.  According to Reconstructionist Judaism, God doesn’t choose Jews to be performers of God’s commandments, rather it is when we choose to serve God (typically, through the mitzvot), that we are brought close to the Divine.

Maybe Joseph was prideful; maybe God was telling him what to do. At the same time, maybe the whole story of Joseph and God didn’t even really happen.  Maybe it’s just a story. So what really does matter?  What matters to me is that I was influenced by this story to help feed the hungry.  Maybe it’s just a story, but I think all of us should use the Torah to influence us to do good things in the world, to interpret it and to find the lessons that are waiting there for us when we’re ready to hear them.

I would like to take a few minutes to thank all of the people who have helped me on my journey to becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Thank you to all the people who have traveled long ways and in two cases overseas to be here: my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who came in from Boston, New York, and Florida. Gina from California. Gabi from Tel-Aviv. Zsuzsi from Budapest. Thanks to my friends for making me laugh and to my dog, Phineas, for giving me constant smiles. Thanks to my tutor, Rebekah, for making me not completely fail at this, Rabbi Annie and Rabbi Alanna for rehearsals and my D’var, my teachers from PJDS for teaching me pretty much all the Hebrew I know and helping teach me how to think about Torah, and to the whole Dorshei community for providing me with a wonderful Jewish home. And, finally, thanks to my amazing parents who supported me all the way, helped me through all my struggles, and kept me from going completely crazy, so that I could be here today.

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 - by Betsy Teutsch

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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

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!