Five Things Rabbis Know

October 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

  1. There is more to this world than meets the eye.

    It is possible, of course, to have an empiricist view of the world, in which the only things that are possible are the things that can be seen and measured. But when one spends enough time in this unique space, helping families and individuals make the transition from one kind of life-stage to the next, one starts to become aware of how much energy there is that goes unseen but is indeed felt.

    In my own experience, I am most aware of this reality when in the presence of the dying. In the last stages of the process, a dying person appears to be able to negotiate both realms at once: they speak to persons living and dead, often in the same conversation. It can be difficult to watch, but it also seems somehow holy. Wave it off as projection if you wish, but there is certainly more here than meets the eye.

  2. Faith is not a constant thing.

    Life can be wounding when you least expect it: an unforeseen tragedy, an unforgivable betrayal, or an unwelcome diagnosis can waylay the best of us. Even rabbis experience doubt.

    Nonetheless, having worked with people across the spectrum of practice and belief, I can tell you this: those times when you feel the least religious are also the ones when you need religion most.

    In other words, if you find that you cannot connect to God, then at least connect to the community.

  3. It is likely that your understanding of God will change as you grow older.

    A child’s understanding of God usually involves a bearded king on a throne, based on a literalist reading of the metaphors in the prayer book. But the intention of those prayers is to address that which is grander than all images and greater than all ideas.

  4. The Bible is wilder and grander than you remember.

    It is also much earthier than you would expect. Many thoughtful and intelligent people find themselves turned off from the Biblical text on account of its most vocal representatives – the people who are willing to selectively quote from its harsher moments without internalizing the message that we should not oppress others, especially the weakest among us.

  5. Forgiveness is possible.

    For most people, the source of their greatest regret is one of those moments when they have lacked the courage to do what is right. Usually, they could not bear to admit to themselves the full truth of the matter and papered over their guilty conscience with small lies: it didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that bad. No one knew. The consequences that flow from that kind of mistake are what hurt most, sometimes excruciatingly so.

    Nonetheless, there is such thing as forgiveness, real forgiveness. It feels like pure sunshine on your up-turned face. It is what allows us to heal and grow.

 

 

 

Shoftim

August 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

Let me tell you a story. It is not my own story, but I will tell it as if it were. I do not know the author, as I heard it on the radio:

Once, some time ago when I was waiting for my train to arrive, I decided to stop in the little shop there at the station and buy a newspaper and a package of sandwich crème cookies.

After handing the cashier some cash, I took my purchases and found a place to sit down. I opened the sandwich crèmes and took out the first cookie, then set them down on the little table next to me and started to read the newspaper.

A few minutes later a man sat down next to me with his own newspaper. But, to my surprise, after unfolding his paper, he reached over and took one of my sandwich crèmes. Just like that! Without asking or seeking permission, he just helped himself.

I was aghast. Not knowing what to say to him, I decided to show him: these are MY cookies. So, looking him straight in the eye, I reached over and very slowly and deliberately took the third cookie out of the package and ate it. Right there in front of him.

What did he do? He looked at me right back and took the fourth cookie from the package! And ate it! Right there in front of me!

So, of course, I took the fifth cookie – and the sixth, just for good measure, so that he couldn’t eat it too. And he just stared at me, like I was the one being rude.

Finally, it was time for his train, so he gathered his paper and left – silently and angrily, without so much as a thank-you for the cookies!

I spent the remaining ten minutes before my train arrived pretending to read the paper, but really having an extended conversation in my head: can you believe the nerve of this guy?! I can imagine my friends nodding in sympathy as I describe the story. Has he no shame?

And then it was time to go, so I gathered up my things, picking up the various sections of the paper – and there, under an unread section of my paper, was my package of sandwich crèmes…with one cookie missing.

What I love about this story is that each party in this little drama was just so convinced that he or she was right: I am the one in the right, and you must be the one in the wrong. Because if we do not agree, and I know I am right, what other conclusion is possible?

As a matter of course, we are only very rarely convinced that we are being anything less than righteous.

This week’s portion, Shoftim, admonishes us to be righteous in multiple ways: For example, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

These various instructions are, of course, necessary components of an effective court system. The process must proceed without corruption for justice to be possible.

But the difficulty that we face with these passages – at least, when we read them in the synagogue – is that it is very easy to decide that they do not relate to us. After all, you and I are very rarely called upon to try to create a new court system.

Not often does it happen that a new society is formed, such as that of the Israelites. The drafting of our country’s constitution is one of them. But that is a singular event in American history.

It is rare that a society requires that all of these things be determined de novo. Most of these kinds of changes are evolutionary, growing organically from the existing structure. It is not often ‘in the course of human events’ that we have to state our basic principles.

So we assume that this passage does not apply to us.

But, as my little story this evening illustrates, our natural tendency to automatically assume that we are right does not mean that we are also necessarily righteous. In fact, it could be that very same conviction that we are correct that is leading us astray.

What are we to make of this?

To answer, let us look at a famous passage, the one that appears just after the discussion of what to do with lying witnesses: “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst. Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

In context, the text is arguing against showing pity for the one who lies, taking an exacting vengeance against him.

I would say that it is possible that the biblical world understood that phrase literally, given what we know about Ancient Near-Eastern culture. But that literal reading is definitely not how the rabbis understood the verse.

The rabbis’ interpretation was that ‘an eye for an eye’ meant ‘the destruction of an eye should be compensated, in an amount that reflects the worth of the use of that eye.’ As they argue: if you take it literally, you run into problems. What if the one who put a man’s eye out only had one eye of his own? Putting out his eye would leave him blind, which is not the equivalent to losing one eye. Yet he still must be punished! So, they reasoned, make him pay for the loss of the eye.

They have a point. When you look at the biblical text in the context of the Ancient Near-Eastern culture, you notice that there is something different about the Israelite approach. In the code of Hammurabi, for example, there is a different punishment for harming a nobleman than for harming a slave. It was a harsher punishment if someone put out a nobleman’s eye than if someone killed a slave. And it was a more lenient punishment if the offender was a nobleman than if he was a slave.

So, in that sense, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ is indeed a step forward. And, sensing that, the rabbis made it even more humane.

Lest we think that the disparities in Hammurabi’s codes are a thing of ancient history, we should keep in mind that such things still do happen. For example, in this country, the prison term for crack cocaine (which is a poor man’s drug) is many, many times greater than for an equivalent amount of cocaine powder (which is a rich man’s drug). The disparity is consistent with the ideals of the laws of Hammurabi, in that the rich are given much better treatment. So, in that case, the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ would actually be an improvement.

It is also relevant that this section also appears alongside the rules for cities of refuge in the case of manslaughter. It would seem that the aim of the Torah is to create distance between the immediate hot-blooded reaction to a great wrong and the community’s formal response to it. Rather than blood vengeance, it is substituting a court system and cities of refuge and measured responses to harm; it is specifying how to make certain that the process unfolds appropriately, without a lynching.

The rabbis, in turn, build upon that foundation by gutting most of the laws calling for capital punishment, substituting other forms of redress. We are to use this text metaphorically as a guide in our daily interactions.

I would like to leave you with one last thought, something to think about as we move toward the High Holidays: That is, in our everyday interactions, it seems to me that we would do well to remember the principle of ‘an eye for an eye.’

That is to say, we should seek to avoid overreacting to a small slight; to avoid holding a large grudge for a small mistake; to avoid punishing those that we love for the little things that go wrong in the course of the day. Don’t get unreasonably angry over small things. We should seek to create some distance between our immediate hot-blooded reaction and our ultimate response.

The best way to do it is to use ‘I feel…’ statements. Specifically, when you have been wronged or slighted or things have gone badly, tell those around you how their actions have affected you in a direct way: when you do [X], I feel [Y]. It is much more effective than accusations like ‘you never listen to me…’ or ‘you are always so selfish…’ or the like.

In the case of the cookies, the problem was one of escalation: instead of stopping the action to find out why that person was acting in such a manner, a series of assumptions were made. And it does not take a great leap to imagine that things could have become much worse.

Rather, imagine what would have happened if the speaker had said, ‘sir, when you reach in and take a cookie from this package, I feel like you don’t respect the fact that I paid for it and intend to eat it myself.’ What would he have said?

Our tradition advocates a metaphorical reading of an eye for an eye: a small reaction for a small slight. And for the really big offenses, create cities of refuge and a court system: create a break between the reaction and the response, seek out witnesses, and find an impartial judge.

Re’eh — See

August 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

My grandfather – my mother’s father – was killed at the hands of a Nazi. He was a private first class in the US Army, and went missing in action on February 28, 1945, just outside of Germany during the Battle of the Bulge.

His name was Lyle Munger; he was an expert horseman; he trained polo ponies for the Hollywood stars. He was not very tall, but he had a gorgeous smile; he was known to be quiet but with a quick sense of humor. He was the adored younger brother of a whole gaggle of sisters. I never knew him.

A family member heard the story from a member of his unit: Lyle was shot by a sniper while standing guard at night, during a moment of calm in the action. It felt personal. He did not need to die that day; no tactical advantage was gained by his death.

I do not know if the person who shot him was a Nazi, or merely an everyday German who was swept into the hysteria of war. It does not really matter. That German soldier put on his uniform that day, and he loaded his gun. Both of those actions are choices.

I mention that point because it’s important. If you are willing to commit violence on behalf of a racist ideology, you no longer have the option of claiming that you were an unwilling victim of fate.

My grandfather met his daughter, his only child, just once, on a break between tours of duty. We have a picture of him holding her, when she was nearly two, and squinting into the sun, looking a little overstuffed in his uniform after weeks of home-cooked food.

My grandfather is buried in the Netherlands, in one of the enormous graveyards that hold the US servicemen and women who died in action but whose remains were not shipped back to the US. We visited his grave – my mother, my father, my brother, and I – while I was in college; it was the first time she had seen it. Among those who have lost family in the war, we are lucky in that regard: too many do not have a grave to visit, or a date of death to remember.

Finding the grave of an American serviceman in that cemetery takes some patient hunting; there are thousands buried there. You must use a map. It would take you days to find it blindly. It is simply overwhelming to see the acres of grave markers stretching out in all directions.

On that day, I felt, for the very first time, that keen stab of loss. My grandfather had always been just a name to me, but here was a physical reminder of all that could have been. He could have been someone I knew and loved. He could have been someone who taught me to ride or showed me how to fish. He could have been my grandpa, rather than a name.

It seems to me, however, in light of the events of the past weekend, we should be clear on this point: never once has it been said in my family that his sacrifice was in vain. Never once have we thought he should have done something other than answer the call to arms.

Nazism is evil. It was the right thing to do. We should always resist the call to suppress and destroy another group: a race, a religion, a people, a gender, an orientation, a way of being. To accept the negation of another person’s life is to engage in violence.

One of the difficult facts of the Holocaust is that even a nation as cultured a history as Germany can descend into brutality, and even a people as acculturated as the German Jews can be targeted for genocide. The veneer of civilization does not change that basic fact.

In confronting the Holocaust, we find that we have to let go of the sense that culture will serve as a brake against the worst in human nature. It can happen here.

Cruel words, flyers, and acts of hate can escalate – but they are not inevitable. An environment of hate can be resisted. It is not necessary to go down that path.

We are the ones who decide which model we will follow: will our society follow pre-war Germany’s example, listening to demagogues? Or will our society follow wartime Denmark’s example, deciding that we have a responsibility to engage in rescuing the oppressed?

We should keep in mind that this decision-making is not a singular event, like an election every four years. It is, rather, a choice we make daily. Do we allow brutality? Do we support slavery? Are we sure that our hands are clean?

We should never be casual about human suffering.

We now live with the awareness that our narrow range of experience does not predict the full range of what is possible. Humans are infinitely clever.

In the negative sense, that awareness means that we must acknowledge that the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation.

Let me say that again: the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation. Do not for a moment doubt that this statement is true.

In the positive sense, however, the reverse is also true. The power to transform the world is within our grasp.

The power to transform the world is within our grasp.

What is needed, therefore, is a cautious yet tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be. We can be better than this.

We must be.

Blessed is the Lord, our God, who gives us the power to transcend ourselves.

Devarim

July 27, 2017 § 1 Comment

We begin a new book of the Torah this week: Devarim (‘Words’), as it is known in Hebrew, is named after one of the first words of the book. In English, it is known as Deuteronomy (‘Second telling’) because Moses retells the story of the Israelites’ adventures and mishaps, recapping the past forty years.

But who was this man Moses? Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar of Jewish law, was one who held Moses in very high esteem.

At the outset, Maimonides argues, Moses’ experience of prophecy was not fundamentally different from the other prophets: All prophets have exceptional understanding, character, and training, and all receive their prophetic understanding through an angel or in a dream.

As Maimonides writes in the Guide of the Perplexed, “Even in the case of Moses our Master, his prophetic mission is inaugurated through an angel: And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord in the heart of fire [Ex 3:2].”[1]

But Moses was a man of unusually high character, training, and intelligence (but not a divine being) who perfected himself so that he ultimately became a prophet of the highest rank.

Thus, Maimonides argues, Moses eventually transcended the usual limits, and achieved the highest possible level of human intellectual understanding.

At this point, Moses became like an angel, for he did not require food or drink for 40 days. And, in that regard, Moses’ perfection is not replicable. We can only get so far on our own intellect, Maimonides says, and then we have to defer to Moses.

Moses is singled out of this kind of praise on account of his extraordinary accomplishment: he was able to achieve union with the Active Intellect – the lowest sphere of the divine – to transmit a perfect reflection of the Divine Will.

Rather than using one’s own imagination to determine how to act, or rather than looking to nature to provide an example, Maimonides suggests that studying the Five Books of Moses provides the key to understanding God’s will.

What is interesting here is not Maimonides’ support of the tradition of divine transmission of the Torah, but the fact that he explained it in the context of Aristotelian philosophy, which was the science of his era. The Active Intellect is an idea taken from the work of Aristotle, adapted to the context of our Biblical heritage.

It took Spinoza, the disgruntled ex-communicated Jew from Spain, someone who spent his days grinding lenses in Amsterdam at the dawn of the modern era, to suggest that maybe it was Moses who created the laws himself.

“…after the Hebrews had gone out of Egypt,” he writes, “they were no longer bound by the right of any other nation, but were permitted to constitute new rights at will and occupy the lands they wanted. For after they had been freed from the intolerable oppression of the Egyptians…they again acquired their natural right to everything they could do, and each could resolve anew whether he wanted to retain or, in truth, yield and transfer it to another.”[2]

The Hebrews, in other words, had been able to free themselves from Egypt and establish their own self-governing nation. Note here that Spinoza does not say that God freed them from Egypt – he sees this event as their own doing.

“But at the first meeting,” Spinoza writes, “they were terrified, and on hearing God speak were so thunderstruck, as to deem that their last moment had arrived. Full of dread, therefore, they approached Moses anew as follows: Behold we have heard God speaking in the fire, and there is no cause why we would want to die. Certainly this immense fire will devour us. If the voice of God is to be heard by us again, we will certainly die. You, therefore, go and hear everything said by our God, and you – not God – will speak to us. Everything that God speaks to you, we will obey, and we will execute it.”

It should be noted here that Spinoza considers revelation to be the unfolding of reason, so what is terrifying them is not the fire on the mountain but the full weight of having to make all of these decisions by themselves.

Thus, Spinoza concludes, “By these words they clearly abolished the first compact and transferred their right to consult God and interpret his edicts to Moses absolutely.”[3]

In Spinoza’s mind, they went from a democracy to a theocracy and that has been the source of the problem. As someone who had been excommunicated from his community for engaging in free thinking ideas such as these, it is not difficult to understand his pained reaction to Moses.

Interestingly, when the academic study of Judaism first became a possibility in the universities of Europe, two separate groups can be identified: those who felt a kinship with the works of Maimonides and those who felt a kinship with the works of Spinoza. You could learn quite a bit about a person, in fact, based on the singular preference for Maimonides or Spinoza. Both were groundbreaking rationalist philosophers who read the Bible in radical ways. But one sought to preserve the tradition while another stood outside of it.

Personally, I tend to prefer Maimonides because he viewed reason and faith as compatible. As he taught: if a contradiction is found between what we learn from science and what we learn from the Bible then you should interpret the biblical text metaphorically. But Spinoza’s comments also get to the heart of the matter as well: some parts do read like they are all-too-human, and we be wary of totalitarian thinking in a religious guise.

 

 

[1] Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed. III:45, p. 576. Pines notes that the verse’s word order is altered by Maimonides.

[2] Benedict Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, 17.4.1-3.

[3] Spinoza, Treatise, 17.5.1-5, pp. 196-7.

Matot-Ma’asei

July 25, 2017 § 1 Comment

In the context of the Biblical world, a verbal pledge or a vow – a neder in Hebrew – is a binding contract. It has the same force as the written contracts we have today. In a pre-literate society, a vow is your word and you do not retract it, come what may. Breaking a vow carries with it the threat of heavenly punishment. We see a vestige of this practice, in fact, when witnesses solemnly swear with their hand on a Bible before they testify in court.

A young woman may make a vow, but it may be canceled by her father at the time he learns of it. As the text states: “If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth, and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her, since her father restrained her.”

So (in the Biblical world) her father has the power to cancel her vow at the time that he hears of it. Similarly, a husband has this power of annulling his wife’s vow: “Every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband.”

His ability to annul her vows is a key reason as to why she is not allowed to be a full witness in court case: her testimony might be overruled or swayed by her husband. How can we know what she says is true?

Interestingly, however, this situation only applies to married women: “The vow of a widow or of a divorced woman…whatever she has imposed on herself, shall be binding upon her.”

I find this point interesting, because it shows us that the key problem with a woman’s vow is not the fact that she is a woman. It’s her relationship to the men in her life that creates the problem with her vow.

In the Biblical world, a woman is dependent on the goodwill of the men in her life to be supported in a household.

Specifically, in a Biblical marriage the balance of power is tilted in favor of her husband. He may have multiple wives, and he may divorce her. She, on the other hand, may not have multiple husbands – not all at once, anyway – and she does not have the power of divorce, except under very specific circumstances. In the Biblical world, he has all of the power in the relationship.

The Bible tries to make her less dependent upon him by ensuring that she receives a ketubah amount – essentially, a lump-sum payment of alimony – so that she does not starve when she gets divorced. But this is not a situation where community assets are divided equally.

Furthermore, she does not have the same access to wealth prior to her wedding. If she has brothers, they receive the full amount of her family’s inheritance.

But once she becomes a widow or a divorcee – once her wealth is her own, she has a modicum of self-determination. Then she may make a vow and have it stand.

How has the world changed since then? For one thing, in the modern context, we start from the assumption that the two partners in the relationship – regardless of their gender – are equal. From our perspective, therefore, women are considered to be self-determining, and they may not be overruled by their spouse whenever they take on a vow. That might not sound like a lot, but it becomes critically important when it comes to the ability to bear witness. It means that women can take on the roles of men in leading the community, such as being counted in the minyan, the quorum of ten Jews needed for a prayer-community.

As for the Reform movement, the decision to count women in the minyan was made in 1845, which was the formal ratification of a policy that started in 1811. The first American rabbi to count women was Isaac Meyer Wise in 1846.

 

 

Growth

December 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

Did Jacob deserve what happened to him?

Last week, we read how Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing intended for his brother Esau. Jacob dressed in Esau’s clothes, brought his father a dish such as he liked, and repeatedly insisted that he was his brother Esau.

When the trick is discovered, Esau vows to kill him as soon as their father dies. So their mother Rebekah makes up an excuse to send Jacob away.

Penniless, homeless, and alone, Jacob flees his father’s house, hoping to be taken in by his uncle Laban.

As he arrives at his uncle’s household, he is relieved to be among family again. He bursts into tears when he realizes that Rachel is his cousin; when he is brought back to the house, “He told Laban all that had happened, and Laban said to him, ‘You are truly my bone and flesh.’”

I imagine that Laban recognized his sister’s handiwork and understood precisely what had happened. So he stays with his uncle for a while. At first, it appears to be a mutually-beneficial arrangement:

“When he had stayed with him a month’s time, Laban said to Jacob, ‘Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ Laban said, ‘Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.’ So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.”(the JPS translation is used throughout)

It’s a lovely idyllic story up to this point. But Jacob is not one to recognize his family’s patterns. He is not savvy about how he might be manipulated against his will. When the time comes to secure his reward, it turns out that Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter.

Laban tricks Jacob into working for him for 14 years in exchange for both of his daughters in marriage. The trick, of course, was that Jacob only wanted to marry one of them. But Laban arranges for a substitution of one sister for the other, neatly reversing the trick that Jacob pulled on his father: in the blindness of night, the older is substituted for the younger, to create a new reality that cannot be undone.

Did Jacob deserve what happened to him?

He has made some poor life-choices up to this point. His mother has dominated him for all his life; it is not a surprise that he has no defenses against his uncle’s trickery. He does not see it coming.

And when his two wives engage in a desperate battle of fertility, he does not have the personal resilience needed to navigate that rivalry. When Rachel confronts him with the evidence that he has been giving Leah son after son, he shrugs off her sense of hurt, saying, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

And when Leah ‘buys’ his services with a crop of mandrakes, he is perfectly willing to go along. He is not one to rock the boat, or to object when others make decisions for him. He is happy to go along and get along.

In many ways, Jacob had been inheriting his family’s patterns: in his family, it has always been better to invent a lie than face the truth.

And this set of truths about Jacob – that he is non-confrontational; that his is unwilling to force an issue; that he would rather trick someone than admit the truth – are what make his later actions so surprising.

Eventually, Jacob figures out how to rise above himself, to move past what had been holding him back.

Jacob realizes that Laban is taking advantage of him and makes a plan to leave. Rather than taking action unilaterally, he realizes that he needs to talk to both wives together, to get their support as well. One gets the sense that this conversation is a difficult one for him to have:

“Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field, where his flock was, and said to them, “I see that your father’s manner toward me is not as it has been in the past. But the God of my father has been with me. As you know, I have served your father with all my might; but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. God, however, would not let him do me harm. If he said thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop speckled young; and if he said thus, ‘The streaked shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop streaked young. God has taken away your father’s livestock and given it to me.”

He has not ever been honest with them about his relationship with Laban. It is not clear to him how they will respond. One gets the impression here that they have never had a conversation like this one before.

As it turns out, his wives have their own grievances against Laban. They are all for leaving Laban’s household. They are so much in favor, in fact, that they speak as one:

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just as God has told you.’”

What does their speech mean? How have they been cheated here? As the daughters of a tribal head, they each should have been given to Jacob in marriage with a dowry.

If Laban had been trustworthy, if he had negotiated in good faith, then Jacob would have paid a bride-price to marry each woman and then all (or at least some) of that bride-price would have been put aside for his new wife. The purpose of the dowry was to give her alimony: it would be used to pay for her support if he were to divorce her.

So, instead of giving his daughters as wives, it turns out that Laban cheated them as well. Laban sold them as concubines rather than giving them the full status of wives. He pocketed Jacob’s wages instead of doing the right thing by his daughters.

It is a rare moment of truth for this family, and it pushes them to grow in ways they had not thought possible. Jacob will leave, go back to face his brother, and gain the new name of Israel. And his wives, in turn, will stop engaging in their baby war, each seeking to outdo her sister in status. They will grow from this experience.

We learn quite a bit from this story, from their failings and their attempts at redemption: first, we learn that the task of living is to learn how to transcend ourselves, our lives and our limitations, in order to leave a worthy legacy for the next generation. It is both the hardest possible task – and the most necessary. There is no truth without growth, and there is no growth without truth. But even more importantly, we learn: sometimes the hardest conversations are the best ones to have.

To have a voice

November 30, 2016 § 1 Comment

This week we have our family service, which means that there won’t be a formal sermon. So, for the blog, I thought I’d pull from the archives. This sermon on parashah Toledot is from four years ago:

The experience of losing my voice this week has had me thinking a lot about the power of speech. The ability to ‘have a voice’ – in the sense of being able to speak for ourselves – is indeed critical to our sense of self-worth.

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear the story of Rebekah’s ruse: Isaac is ready to give a blessing to one of his sons. The exclusive nature of the blessing would seem to indicate that it has some legal weight; perhaps Isaac is ready to retire from his role as head of the household. One presumes that he had been leading his family clan for some time; there is no mention of the transfer of power from Abraham to Isaac. Perhaps after the binding and near-sacrifice, Abraham was no longer interested in formal ceremonies. But Isaac was willing to engage in the custom of giving his sons a blessing as he retires. His son Jacob and his grandson Joseph will do the same when their turn comes.

Isaac had always favored Esau, his outdoorsman son, and he tells him to make a festive meal for just the two of them, and they’ll talk. Esau, however, is not a man of many words; he says one word in their brief exchange (the Hebrew word for ‘here I am’) and he leaves, ready to go into action. He is a powerful man and a skillful hunter. He speaks rarely, and in nearly every conversation he speaks of death. There is something about him that makes people tremble, a quality that puts others on their guard.

Rebecca is Isaac’s wife. She has no voice, at least when it comes to her husband. She speaks in whispers, of controversies and of plots. As we read, “Rebekah had been listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with the Lord’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you.’” (I’m using the JPS translation throughout)

Jacob, in turn, tries to tell mom why this is a Very Bad Idea, but when he does, he gives the wrong reason: he doesn’t say ‘Mom don’t try to use me to trick my father and my brother.’ Rather, he’s worried that they will get caught. Her irritation is evident in the text as she exerts her power over him in her response: “But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”

Then there is the scene in which the son attempts the trick. Though the scene could certainly be played straight, there is an element of comedic farce: for example, exactly how hairy is this brother if they have to use sheepskin to mimic his arms and neck?

When Jacob comes in, more or less dressed as a sheep, his father Isaac asks who’s there:

[Jacob] went to his father and said, “Father.” And he said, “Yes, which of my sons are you?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.”

But Isaac is not convinced. He objects that Esau could not have made it back that soon:

Isaac said to his son, “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.”

That’s the first objection voiced. Now he’s sounding really suspicious:

Isaac said to Jacob, “Come closer that I may feel you, my son-whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him.

That’s the second objection voiced. Imagine what that scene would look like if it were hammed up with over-acting. Played broadly, it’s actually pretty funny to picture the old blind father patting down the sheepskin on Jacob’s neck thinking it’s really Isaac.

But he’s still not fully convinced:

He asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And when he said, “I am,” he said, “Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.” So he served him and he ate, and he brought him wine and he drank.

That’s the third objection voiced. But even after dinner he expresses his doubt:

Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come close and kiss me, my son”; and he went up and kissed him. And he smelled his clothes and he blessed him, saying, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.

That’s the fourth objection voiced. And again the farce: Just how stinky is Esau if he’s that distinctive in his smell? You could imagine the father sniffing Jacob deeply, making an exaggeratedly sour face and then declaring – oh yeah, that’s Esau all right!

Which of course makes you wonder: maybe the father knew all along?

Here is another question to consider: who is the villain, and who is the hero in this story? You can argue plausibly for any two. I have seen a variety of commentaries, and they don’t all agree as to who is right and who is wrong, nor do they agree as to the reasons why. It’s not so simple, is it?

If we look at this text through the lens of the Rabbinic literature, for example, we will notice that the rabbis treat the two boys as archetypes, with Jacob as the people of Israel and Esau the nation of Rome. From their perspective, Rome’s endless brutality more than justified the trickery. In their version, Jacob the hero is always right and Esau the villain is always wrong.

If we look at this narrative through the lens of family dynamics, we will notice that the preferential treatment Abraham showed for one of his boys appears here again in Isaac’s treatment of his two sons. And these family dynamics get repeated endlessly: Just as Jacob tricks his brother, so too will he be tricked a pair of sister-rivals. The lesson here is that we tend to recreate our family dramas, down to the small details, carrying them from generation to generation. In this reading, Rebecca and Isaac bear the blame for not being more self-aware. And there are no heroes.

If we look at the story through the lens of feminism, we will notice that Rebecca is hidden, unable to venture out, unable to speak for herself. She must rely on subterfuge and reside in shadows. Her use of trickery is an expression of her weakness in the face of the more powerful male. Here Isaac is the one who is wrong, the patriarchic villain, and Rebecca is the hero for getting what she wants even in a position of relative powerlessness.

The story has neither hero nor villain, just people behaving badly. You are the one who picks the hero, the one with whom you identify, and you are the one who chooses the villain, the one whom you disdain.

But the story also hides a deeper pain, which is why it is so endlessly interesting to us. Why is it that this family can’t talk to each other? Why does Rebecca feel the need to manipulate her younger son in order to trick his father into giving him recognition? Why does the older son keep getting duped by his brother and his mother?

What happens in these situations – what drives folks to engage in these elaborate schemes – is the belief that they will not be heard.

I have used this example before, but it is apt: let’s say you are swindled and you take the guy to small claims court. You prepare your case, organize your papers, and practice your speeches. You are going to explain exactly how you were wronged. You are going to have your day in court. And when the day comes, before you even get to speak, the judge summarily rules in your favor without hearing the case. Would you feel satisfied with that result?

To a large extent, we would rather be heard, even if it means that we might lose our case.

We all want to be heard, on our own terms, in our own voice. So, in listening to this story – and to the stories you hear as you go into your week – ask yourself: who is not being heard? Seeking out that voice and the perspective that it represents might go a long way toward relieving unresolved pain. It’s not always possible, of course; just as I have lost my voice this week, others too can lose the ability to give voice to their perspective. But do try to listen. We all want to be heard, on our own terms, in our own voice.