September 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

Some years ago, before I became a rabbi, I had the opportunity to go to a URJ Biennial convention, to join 3,000 Reform Jews in study, song, and worship. Even though I was part of a fairly large congregation at the time, I had no idea that it could be so moving to pray with such a large crowd. The Biennials are simply awesome, in the best sense of the word.

Along with all the events, the convention had a hall dedicated to the vendors of every kind. They had every imaginable form of Judaica, from paintings to books, from kippot to challah covers. And, of course, there were vendors for congregational services.

One of the vendors there was a Torah scribe – a Sofer. He was selling his Torah-checking services: a congregation could hire him to come and check their Torahs for missing letters, tears, and other forms of damage. I was fascinated by his work, and he was happy to answer my questions. He patiently explained how the Torah scroll is made.

The scrolls themselves are made of parchment paper obtained from a kosher animal, usually sheepskin or deerskin. The ink is hand blended by the Sofer – he declined to explain how – and then the letters are hand-written using a feather quill from a kosher bird.

To create the smooth, even lines of Torah text, the Sofer etches guide-lines into the parchment. This process that was once done entirely by hand with a straight-edge and a razor; now they have a machine. And, unlike English, in which all the letters ‘sit’ on the line, in Hebrew the letters all ‘hang’ from the line.

A sofer will follow the Masoretic tradition when writing the text. The Masoretes standardized the Torah text, so that all Torahs written thereafter will have exactly the same content, following the same rules of transmission.

The accomplishment of the Masoretes should not be underestimated: note, for example, that the Dead Sea Scrolls – the scrolls that were found in caves near the Dead Sea, that date back to the time of the late Temple period – have a number of variations in the texts, and we are not entirely certain as to why. The Masoretes included some known errors in the text – they made the decision that it is better to keep the error intact than to create new ones by guessing what was the correct version.

Personally, I also like that they gave up on the possibility of perfection. Of course the Torah scroll has small errors in it – that is how life unfolds.

The Sofer writes out the Torah by hand. He will only write the Tetragrammaton – the four-letter name of God, which is the most holy name and is not pronounced – after visiting a mikveh that same day. The mikveh is a pool of water gathered from living waters – either a lake or stream or rainwater – for the purposes of ritual purification. If no mikveh is available, or he does not wish to go that morning, then he can skip the name and write it later, but there is an upper limit as to how many lines he may write beyond that point.

After he is finished writing the whole Torah, the text is checked by another scribe. They also have computers to do this task, but according the Sofer, ‘humans are more accurate than machines.’

The Torah, after it is written out, is attached to two poles, called etzim. These poles are what allow us to roll it in one direction or another without getting tangled. The use of a scroll, in fact, is an old form of technology: it is the form of printing that predates books. If you’ve ever noticed in paintings and drawings of the ancients, they are always reading from scrolls. That’s because books haven’t been invented yet.

Books are medieval; they originate from hand-written folios and then eventually become volumes made on the printing press. The Talmud, for example, is standardized in its printed form in a folio layout, and it continues to be printed that way today. One difference is that each page has a number, with a front and a back, rather than the continuous pagination of books today, because it may or may not be bound together. And each page has a small repetition of the page before it, in order to identify the order of the text.

The act of reading Torah before the congregation is at least 2000 years old, and possibly older.

We have the story in Ezra, for example, of the discovery during the post-exilic period of a scroll of law that had been lost; Ezra records the decision to read it before the congregation of Israel at regular intervals.

According to the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin 21b, “We learn that Rabbi Yose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given to Israel through him. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its script was changed through him.” Ezra specified that the Torah text should be written in the Assyrian block letters – the ones we use now.

Dividing the Torah into weekly portions dates back to the rabbinic period. In this week’s portion, we are told about the procedure for bringing the first fruits to the ancient Temple: the person brings a basket, sets it before the priest and makes a declaration.

The ancient rabbis, writing after the destruction of the Temple, disagreed about what was included in the declaration before the priest. At the time that they were writing – primarily from the second to sixth centuries of our common era — the first fruits were no longer brought before the priest, and they were seeking to preserve a cultural memory of what had happened in the time when we were still in the land.

They were the ones who decided that studying about the first fruits was the equivalent to bringing the first fruits. So, by their logic, in reading this text, you have fulfilled the commandment of bringing the first fruits to the ancient Temple.

Similarly, with regard to the sacrificial offerings that were brought in ancient days: the rabbis determined that the prayer of the heart would be an appropriate substitution. Thus, it is possible to atone for our sins by engaging in fasting and self-reflection on Yom Kippur.




September 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

Created in God’s image, each of us is worthy of honor.

Our Torah portion reminds us that we need to be mindful of the humanity of others, particularly those who are vulnerable: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”[1]

We may well be owed money, for example, but we still have to let the widow keep her garment. Her very humanity is deserving of honor, because she is a creature of God.

Yet the objection may be raised, and rightly so, that you don’t have to believe in God to honor the humanity of others. And, more to the point: if you can honor others without invoking God, then why invoke God? God, it would seem, is superfluous to this conversation.

For example, you might be someone who objects to all the usual names for God, seeing them as idolatries. You may have the sense that there is something out there, perhaps, that is bigger and grander than what the Bible might hold. If that is the case, then, you might be willing to extend your belief that the world has purpose to include the idea that we are here for a reason. You might use this belief as the basis for honoring others.

Or, alternatively: if you cannot believe in God, then you might conclude that our tradition provides a basis for honoring others. That is to say, our tradition is organized around a set of rather demanding ethical commitments. Our tradition argues that each human being, by virtue of being, is worthy of honor.

Or, alternatively: you might conclude, along with the great French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that we must extend this sense of honor in God’s place. Levinas argues that we are expected to fulfill the role of God for each other and extend this gracious honor to others without limits or conditions. If God does not do it, then we must act in God’s place.

In other words, we can reach this end-point of honoring the humanity of others, regardless of whether or not it is grounded in a belief in God. What is most important is the idea that all of us, every one of us, is worthy of honor.

But perhaps you might rebel at that suggestion. You might be offended. What of the abusers, the sociopaths, the murderers, the hostage-takers? How can we find it within ourselves to honor these individuals? And is it not an outrage to even suggest that we ought to honor them?

It is, of course, one thing to suggest that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, or to adopt a non-judgmental attitude regarding the people we meet. But it is another thing entirely to use this approach to excuse the behavior of known killers.

Some might argue that there’s always a hope for redemption, a possibility for repentance. This position, by the way, is very well represented in our High Holiday liturgy. God waits until the very last moment for sinners, hoping that they will repent, calling to us: ‘return, O you wayward children, return.’ As we intone: ‘Lord, it is not the death of sinners that you seek, but that they should turn to you and live.’

But what of the scoundrels, and those whose misdeeds are so great as to outweigh half-measures and simple apologies? You might argue, like Maimonides, that it is possible for a person to behave so badly that they no longer can achieve true repentance. He suggests that the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable. As Maimonides explains: “It is possible that a man might commit a grave iniquity or many sins so that the sentence of the Judge of Truth might be that the doer of those wrongs, done intentionally and deliberately, would be denied repentance.”[2]

“Consequently it can be said,” he writes, “that the Lord did not decree Pharaoh to do ill to Israel, or Sihon to sin in his country or the Canaanites to act horribly or the people of Israel to be idolatrous. All these sins were their own doing and consequently they deserved no opportunity to repent.”[3] In these cases, the magnitude and multitude of the person’s sins has eliminated the possibility for repentance. The pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.

You should know, by the way, that this situation is very rare. Maimonides is speaking of tyrants and other forms of extreme behavior.

Even so, we still must ask ourselves: are these individuals ineligible for honor? Have they gone so far that it is no longer possible to extend that sense of humanity to them?

At this point, we might want to argue for a distinction: there is honor, and there is respect. It is possible to honor the humanity of a person but not respect their deeds.

Many of us have family members or friends who might fall into this category: people who have treated us or others badly, who have abused their power and position to dominate others, or who have created endless drama in their lives and the lives of the ones who try to love them. We know of alcoholics and wife beaters and child abusers; we are aware of thieves of all kinds; we know of those who are untrue.

Honoring someone is not the same thing as cooperating with them.

Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to refuse to be a codependent in the bad behavior. Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to say no: you and I both deserve better than that.

One of the most difficult parts of the approaching High Holiday season, in fact, is this process of self-inspection. Have I acted honorably? Have I respected those worthy of respect, and honored the humanity of all? Have I acted in a way that magnifies the image of God in the world? Have I sought to enlarge the realm of the holy? We should treat each other as holy: ‘you shall be holy for me, as I, the Lord, am holy.’

We all fall short, of course: that is what it means to be human. We should make use of that awareness to grant honor to others as well, graciously, whether or not it has been earned.

Be gentle, forgive easily, and treat everyone with honor — everyone, including you.







[1] JPS translation.

[2] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, transl. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 6:3, p. 124.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

(Major) Injustices and (Minor) Slights

September 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

We all make mistakes. It’s one of those basic truths.
So, the question is not ‘how do we become perfect?’ Rather, it is, ‘how do we learn to learn from our mistakes?’

In our Torah portion this week, it states that guilt or blame is not established on the basis of the testimony of a single witness. Rather, “a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more.” One person’s testimony is not enough; it needs to be validated by the testimony of another witness – someone who can say, ‘yes, that’s what I saw too.’ The idea here is that the court should not easily fall sway to one individual’s interpretation of the events.

There is wisdom in this approach: how the witness interprets events actually matters quite a bit. Let me use an example derived from Max Kadushin’s works on rabbinic thought. If Plonit enters a building, one where Ploni lives, and takes something from Ploni’s room when he is not there, is that a theft?

Maybe. For this action to be a theft, it is necessary to have a whole series of concepts in place. In order for this to be theft, Ploni and Plonit need to be part of a group that has a defined sense of possession and ownership. The group must agree that Ploni has a room and that it is his and that the stuff in it is in his care and he has a right to say ‘no one may take this from me.’

There also must be some kind of working legal definition of theft; a court or forum in which it is possible to accuse someone of theft, and process by which such accusations might be actionable.

So, for example, if your sister comes in and takes one of your blouses from your room, that’s not theft, even if you’d like to see her convicted of it.

It’s not a theft if Ploni and Plonit are married.

If, on the other hand, Ploni and Plonit are strangers and there has been no prior agreement made between them regarding this object, then yes, it is indeed a theft for Plonit to take something from Ploni’s room.

Context matters greatly. You can’t take the action out of context, because the context is what gives it meaning.

So, the witness is actually pretty important, because the witness must not just report what was seen, but also (at some level) be able to construct some kind of narrative regarding the events, to put them in context for those who hear the case.

That is to say, the stories we tell ourselves matter quite a bit.

Sometimes, of course, the narrative that the witness constructs is mistaken or wrong. And sometimes the witness constructs a false narrative. As our text acknowledges, sometimes witnesses lie, and those cases it is necessary to respond. So this is what it says to do in that situation: “If a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests or magistrates in authority at the time, and the magistrates shall make a thorough investigation.”

It says ‘man’ here because women were not counted as full witnesses. The concern was that they could be bullied by their husbands into giving false testimony. But note that this case also requires a thorough investigation by more than one magistrate. You cannot convict on the basis of a single witness’ testimony.

So what happens if the witness is found to be lying? The Bible’s answer is a one-for-one retribution: “If the man who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. 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.”

The ancient rabbis, the inheritors of this text, did not like the implied barbarism of putting out someone’s eye in exchange for an eye. How could that possibly work? What if the person already was missing an eye? What if one man had small eyes and the other had large eyes? This is how their discussion of the subject goes. They decide that clearly it must mean monetary compensation.

It means that they must pay the value of an eye for an eye, the value of a tooth for a tooth, and so on.

In our own lives, we have to decide on an ongoing basis how to interpret the events that occur. Which events are actionable? In the case of theft, it is usually fairly clear as to whether or not you should press charges. But what about the murkier events, the interpersonal stuff that never sees a court of law but that creates a sense of loss? How do we evaluate these events?

Here is what I would propose:

First, determine whether the series of events represents an injustice or a slight. An injustice is when someone of greater power takes advantage of the situation to the detriment of the person in a weaker position.

A slight, on the other hand, is something that hurts your feelings. A slight is when you were not invited to an event when everyone else was.

In fact, the intensity of your hurt is one possible indicator of whether it is an injustice or a slight: an injustice might make you angry or sad, but a slight wounds you. The injustice challenges your sense of reality; a slight feels like a thorn in your side.

If it is an injustice, try to right the wrong. Injustice should be challenged.

But if it is a slight, try to let it go. You might want to talk to the person. But an attitude of forgiveness will go a long way toward resolving the situation.




September 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…”[1]

Set before us, in this week’s Torah portion, is a choice between doing good and doing evil, between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. When it is put that way, it seems so easy, really: you should choose to do the right thing.

Some things are in fact that clear: when you are standing in line at the cash register, it is indeed wrong to take one of the items on the counter and put it in your pocket without paying for it. Perhaps, when you were younger, you had this sudden awareness when standing there – at a moment when the cashier’s back is turned – that you could do something like that. Maybe it startled you, or frightened you: why am I thinking of such things?

But you should know: this awareness that it is possible to do something wrong is actually your moral insight at work. It means, in fact, that you are making an active moral choice. You know better. In the course of your moral development, you will encounter these decision-points and have to choose. And eventually, through the force of repetition, a particular decision-point becomes second nature. It’s no longer a choice but rather a habit to do the right thing. That’s a good thing.

The shoplifting scenario I just mentioned – the awareness that you could take something without paying for it – is one that adults don’t usually have much trouble resisting. Most of us have worked through that temptation and put it aside. Our habits are well-established in adulthood, in favor of paying for what we use.

So let’s talk about how Judaism frames these choices that we make. Judaism teaches that we are born with competing impulses – the impulse to do wrong, called yetzer ha-ra, and the impulse to do good, called yetzer ha-tov. These two impulses pull us in opposite directions. The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is really a Jewish image: the idea that we have these competing views, urging us to make a choice.

Our view is that we have a dual nature. Sin does not always win. In fact, it shouldn’t always win. You are presented with a choice between doing good and doing wrong. And you are expected to choose to do good.

In some areas of your life, that choice is easy. Once you’ve mastered your impulses and grown into adulthood, you don’t need to be congratulated for ignoring the temptations of the candy on the cashier’s countertop: of course you pay for what you take. But there are other places, other points in your life, where that choice is much harder.

Every one of us has a decision-point where it is necessary to make an active choice: Maybe it’s the choice between gossiping and refraining from gossiping. Maybe it’s the choice between fudging the numbers and giving full disclosure. Maybe it’s the choice between giving in to sexual temptation and remaining chaste. Any one of these things has the potential to be a decision-point.[2]

One of those decision-points, for example, might relate to issues of race, class, and gender: how do you approach someone who is different than you – someone who comes from a different background? Do you choose to learn about the other, to find out what makes that person tick, so that you might find common ground? Or do you retreat into stereotypes? Do you assume you know a person’s motivations? Or do you ask to hear a person’s story?

I will give you a hint: if you ever find yourself saying ‘oh, but they’re like that’ you are engaging in a generalization – a stereotype – and haven’t yet done the work of finding out what really is motivating this group’s behavior. Ask yourself: how do I know that’s true? Have I actually ever met someone who’s like that? And did we ever have an extended conversation to learn why that might be true?

We are fed a steady diet of stereotypes in our movies and television shows. If you don’t actually know an immigrant or a migrant personally, for example, it’s easy to start believing the stereotypes, whether you intend to or not.

Judaism’s answer to this difficulty is found in the edifice of the commandments. We have this elaborate list of do’s and don’ts as a way to give us a way to structure our lives. In the midst of the chaos of competing impulses, the commandments provide an external grid by which we might measure our response. We are taught: you should not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

But there’s a catch: it is entirely possible (in the words of the ancient rabbis) to be ‘a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.’ It is entirely possible to oppress the stranger while fulfilling the letter of the law to its outermost details. You can’t just give over all of your moral authority to the law and assume that its literal fulfillment will save you from any wrongdoing. We don’t believe that.

Rather, the Jewish view is that you must save yourself.

As a matter of fact, you must save yourself by working painstakingly through the moral code that you have inherited, deciding point-by-point, decision-by-decision how to act. It’s really difficult work, actually.

But we build a better world in these small steps, in these small acts of moral courage. It’s those moments when you say the right thing or resist the temptation or choose well. That’s how we live a life of dignity and integrity. That’s how we redeem the world.


[1] JPS translation

[2] The idea that we face these decision-points is one that I learned from the Jewish Mussar movement. Mussar teaches how to build character in response to these decision-points so that the choice to do good becomes easier.

Rain in its season

August 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the Torah presents us with a viewpoint that we find challenging.

In Parashat Ekev, we find one of the speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites just before they enter the land of Israel. Even though it is an important text, I am not a fan of its theology.

Here is what it says:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil — I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle — and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.[1]

I have always objected to the tit-for-tat approach advocated here: is God allocating good things as rewards and bad things as punishments? I can think of so many counter-examples as to why this theology simply does not work.

And I am not alone in this approach: this text appears in the traditional v’ahavta recitation but not in the Reform version, on account of its problematic theology. This is one of the parts that we skip.

However, a book by Nogah Hareuveni has caused me to re-think this passage.

Don’t get me wrong – it is still problematic theology to say ‘God will clearly reward you if you do good and clearly punish you if you do wrong’ – that’s not what has changed in my view. Rather, Hareuveni has suggested an interpretation of the text that shifted my understanding of what is being said here.

Noah Hareuveni was the founder of Neot Kedumim – The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel. I visited Neot Kedumim during the year I lived in Israel and found it fascinating. His work has influenced my understanding of the Bible in many ways – for example, if you have heard me speak about the link between matzah and beer, you should know that my interpretation was inspired by his scientific study of Israel’s nature in Jewish sources.

So here’s what Hareuveni had to say about this passage: “On entering the land of Israel, the Israelites were faced with the problem of adapting to very different conditions and farming methods.” In Egypt, crops were watered from irrigation ditches that had been drawn from the Nile River. In Israel, however, the local agriculture “was totally dependent on rainfall brought by wind-driven clouds.” So, he argues, “it could have seemed reasonable to assume that in the land of Israel the rains were controlled by some deity unknown in either Egypt or the Sinai.”[2] New terrain, new agricultural methods, new gods.

So, according to Hareuveni, this passage regarding early rains and late rains is directly related to the difficulties faced in successfully farming the land of Israel.

In Hareuveni’s view, it is not a coincidence that this speech names the seven species, the quintessential list of the produce of Israel. Specifically, Moses tells the Israelites that “…the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey…”[3] The species on this list are there for a reason.

“The common denominator,” Hareuveni explains, among these seven species
“becomes apparent during the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot…During this period, between mid-April and mid-June, the flowers of the olive, grape, pomegranate and date open, and the embryonic figs begin to develop. During this same period, the kernels of what and barley fill with starch. Thus the fate of the crops of each of the seven varieties is determined.”[4]

And, as he explains, “In the land of Israel…[the Spring] season is distinguished by multiple changes and climatic contrasts. Scorching southern winds alternate with cold winds from the north and west. The former bring with them extreme dryness and heat, while the latter darken the skies, generating tempestuous storms, with thunder, lightening and rain.”[5]

In other words, the north wind is needed for the wheat to ripen properly. But if it does not come at the proper time – if it arrives too soon, for example – then this much-needed rain ruins the olive, date, grape, and pomegranate harvests.

On the other hand, the dry southern wind that is rather beneficial for the olive, date, grape, and pomegranates, can yield disastrous results for the barley and wheat if it should scorch them before they ripen.

So, if it is read in context, the main point conveyed in this difficult passage is not that God will reward and punish us for obeying the commandments, but rather, that there is only one God who has created everything, including the northern and southern winds. These opposing winds that ripen the seven species in due time are not two opposing demi-gods vying for power. God, and God alone, is responsible for everything that happens in this world. Do not go astray and start thinking otherwise.

Interestingly, this passage underscores the fact that Israel’s climate is a particularly fragile one. In our era, I worry that Israel is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming and rising oceans.

Which brings me back to the question of theology. When it says, “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late,” – does that mean that careful observance of the commandments will prevent catastrophe? No. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions. Ignoring the environmental effects of what we do will indeed invite catastrophe.

And that may well be the point of the next part of the passage: It says, “Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.”[9]

Perhaps this isn’t retribution – it’s a statement of natural consequences. What you do matters.

So let me propose a different way to look at this text. I would say that pretending that the world works differently than it does – that is, ignoring the laws of science – one is, in a sense, bowing to other gods. Pretending that our actions do not have an impact is not unlike saying there are many gods, each responsible for a specific outcome, and you can get the outcome you want by praying to that god and asking for magic.

Monotheism is the recognition that all of the various things that happen are all interrelated. What you do matters. And will continue to matter. And hoping that some magic demi-god will erase our efforts and make it all better will not save us.

In preparation for the High Holidays, I recommend thinking about this question: what would you do – how would you act – if you lived continuously with the awareness that everything you do really fundamentally matters?


[1] Deuteronomy 11:13-17, JPS translation.

[2] Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, Chapter 1.

[3] Deuteronomy 8:7-8

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. Author’s emphasis.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. Author’s emphasis.

[9] Deuteronomy 11:13-17, JPS translation.

What if

December 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if….? The ‘if’ could be anything: if I had gone to a different school or if I had taken that opportunity or if I had chosen the other option. It’s natural for us to wonder about the paths that were not taken. Robert Frost’s most famous poem addresses this question:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In Frost’s poem, the choice “that has made all the difference” is between two remarkably similar paths with minor variations. This poem has become axiomatic in our culture, as a reminder that small decisions can have far-reaching consequences. One only needs to quote a line to make that point. It’s a pleasing poem, one that reflects a quietly self-satisfied kind of life.

That situation, however, is not what’s facing Joseph right now.

Rather, our weekly portion opens with a dramatic moment in Joseph’s life: his brothers have returned to Egypt, and his half-brother Judah has just come forward to argue on behalf of his full-brother Benjamin’s life. And Joseph must now choose how to respond.

One can imagine what he is thinking as he listens to Judah’s plea: These are the brothers who sold him into slavery; these are the brothers who have arrived in Egypt starving and penniless; these are the brothers who do not recognize him in his Egyptian dress, outfitted as the second only to Pharaoh.

What would his life look like if his brothers had not sold him into slavery?

When he thinks about taking the road less traveled, it’s not a happy musing about alternate options. For him, it’s a dark night of the soul. It’s true that it was a small decision – the decision to go out in search of his brothers on that fateful afternoon – that set off a chain of events that eventually brought him to Egypt. But the big question in his life is not ‘why did I go out in the field that day?’ The big question of his life is ‘how do I move past the trauma inflicted upon me by my brothers?’

And it brings up for us an important question: What happens when the defining feature of your life is trauma of this intensity? How can you venture a definition of your life and your self, when this kind of abuse is the dominant feature?

That event, after all, is a touchstone for every aspect of Joseph’s personality and character. For better or for worse, it is the central defining moment of his life. Any personal narrative that he constructs to explain himself to himself and to others must try to make sense of this trauma. Those who have been marked by this kind of intense pain will understand: he will always be the kid who was sold into slavery by his brothers. It has, in a literal sense, become part of his DNA. Ever after, he will always be just a little bit intense; it’s the scar that this kind of trauma leaves behind.

So his brothers are standing in front of him, the ones who caused him such pain, and he needs to decide what to do. How to respond?

Is it ever really possible to forgive and forget?

It is at this moment of decision that Joseph proves himself to be a person of extraordinary character. It is at this moment that Joseph gives us the most transcendent moment of forgiveness in all of the Biblical literature. Listen to him speak, and learn from his example. This is what he says:

“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” [Genesis 45:4-8, JPS translation]

You will not reproach yourselves, he says, for it was all, ultimately, for the good. As he explains later, I know that you meant me ill, but your evil act has enabled us to reach this place, he says, and has allowed us to experience an extraordinary deliverance. Now go and bring our father close, so that we may once again be united.

I must admit, I find that I am moved by this story every year. There is no ‘what if’ and there is no regret here. There is just the courage to go forward.

What is particularly interesting about Joseph, however, is the fact that he does not minimize what they have done.

He recognizes that this event is part of the larger narrative of his life and he gives it meaning on that basis. But at no point does he fool himself into thinking it was any less hurtful than it was. He is quite willing to engage in the full accounting of what has happened. I think that this point is key: to be able to heal and forgive, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge openly the pain of the past.

But that is why his example is so awe-inspiring; something so awful also set in motion something so extraordinary.

When death wounds us

June 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

We fear death and usually hate to talk about it. We have trouble imagining our own non-existence, and we try not to think about what it would mean to live without those who matter most to us.

But death is a part of life, and is its natural conclusion; we find that we must live with it. We make an uneasy truce with it, trying not to think about it too much.

This week’s portion, however, prompts us to think about it. It is unusual in its concern for death and dying, for it has three separate mentions of death in it:

The first relates to the dying body: we are told, “one who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days.” With our scientific mindset, we think of these rules as a form of hygiene: of course it makes sense to quarantine someone who has been in contact with death. But we should note that it has a ritual element as well: death is uncanny, unnerving us even wen it is not one of our own. The impulse here, therefore, is to segregate the forces of chaos, to keep them from striking the rest of the camp.

Our second mention of death in this portion relates to the death of Miriam. Surprisingly, the text is very terse: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” We have no mention of the ritual that was involved in her burial.

The third mention is Aaron’s death. Here the text is much more willing to elaborate – but some of the details are heartbreaking: “They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

I hope, for Aaron’s sake, that this ceremony was done in a loving and reverent way.

In all three cases, however, the Torah is rather matter-of-fact about death, yet nonetheless unwilling to fill us in regarding the details. For example, was Miriam’s death unexpected? Did the camp bewail her for 30 days too?

I ask these questions because I believe that the rituals that we follow surrounding death are profoundly important. What I have learned in my eleven years as a rabbi is that there is such a thing as effective mourning. [1]

All significant deaths wound us in some way – and that is as it should be, since the people whom we love are profoundly important to us. Grief is a necessary and important response to the gaping hole that is created by this loss.

Grief is compounded and made worse when there is some aspect of the relationship that was left unresolved – for example, when a death is sudden and you don’t get a chance to say goodbye. Or the relationship itself was complicated and you never had a sense of closure.

Effective mourning is what allows you to acknowledge the depth of your loss and grieve it. It also gives you the strength to continue your life even in the absence of your loved one. It’s like the difference between an open wound and a closed one: your loved one. Think in terms of an open wound versus a closed one: effective mourning is what allows the wound to close.

In my experience, effective mourning involves six distinct steps. All of them are important, but they do not need to be done in order. I have listed them here in the order that they appear in the Jewish tradition.

1. You must say goodbye. I have heard a lot of people over the years say that their preferred way to die would be to die in their sleep. Personally, I would rather not: I would rather die in hospice or at home, at a time when everyone was more or less expecting it. That is the kind of death that would allow me to gather my friends and family together to say goodbye.

If you don’t get a chance to say goodbye – if the death was sudden, or took place far away, or you heard about it only after the fact – then you need a ritual to let you say goodbye. I usually advise folks to write down what they would say and then burn what they wrote. The actions of the ritual itself, however, are not as important as their intent. Regardless, you need to find a way to say goodbye.

2. You need to make the death real to you. Our Jewish tradition, in its great wisdom, suggests that we help shovel earth on the casket, so that there is no denying the reality of the death. I will say that there is no sound more disheartening than the dull ‘thump’ of earth hitting a wooden casket. It usually makes the mourners wince. It is one of the most difficult moments in the funeral.

But if you are not able to go to the funeral, or if the deceased was part of a different religious tradition, there are rituals that you can do to make the death real. You can bury something that reminds you of this person. Or cast something into the water or let go of something, such as a balloon or a kite. Regardless of how you do it, the ritual must in some way speak to you symbolically of letting go.

3. You need to summarize the importance of this person’s life to your life. According to our tradition, the ideal eulogy – known as a hesped in Hebrew – is one that makes the loss felt all the more acutely. [2]

If you can’t go to the funeral in person, then you should still seek to read the obituary or the eulogy or write one of your own.

4. You need to let your community know that you have experienced the death of someone close to you, and you need to let your community comfort you. Here our tradition is particularly strong: the kria ribbon – that black ribbon that you tear at the funeral – is a sign among our people that you are in mourning. It symbolizes how your heart is torn in such a way that it can never be the same again.

In this regard, the practice of shiva – observing the seven days of intense mourning – is also profoundly therapeutic, for the whole community pours into your home and tells you how sorry they are for your loss. Usually, after seven days you desperately want to get all of these people out of your house and get your life back. It’s good to know, after those chaotic seven days, that the quiet that follows can be welcome.

I am aware that it’s fairly common nowadays for people to choose to do just one day or just three days of shiva, but I would advise all of you here, now, when you’re not in the midst of mourning, that you really should heed the full wisdom of our tradition. Make it your practice to do the full seven – you’ll be glad you did. Don’t shortchange grief.

5. You need to mark the point when you go from active mourning to returning to your life. In the broader culture of America, mourners commonly return to their jobs and our responsibilities almost immediately – usually as soon as they return from the funeral.

I think that it is a shame we don’t give more time for mourners because it’s an intense process, and it is one that takes time. Our tradition advises us to spend seven days in full-time mourning. That makes good sense.

For the first thirty days mourners are exempt from celebrations of all kinds, and given a wide berth. At the end of thirty days, it is customary to go out of the house, take a walk around the neighborhood three times, and then reenter the household.

At this point, the mourners are entering their new life, their life without this person. I have been a part of this ritual, walking alongside grieving families, and have found it to be very moving.

6. You need some ritual to mark the anniversary of the death. Usually, that first anniversary is particularly hard, but they are all difficult in their own way. When the death was a significant one – a mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, or child – it usually takes about two years to start to feel normal again.

In my eleven years as a rabbi, it has been my experience that there is a correlation between these steps and the sense of completion in mourning.

If you find that there is a death that still wounds you five or ten or twenty years later, it might be that one of these steps remains undone. My advice to you is to go back and ritually complete it, so that it might be possible to heal.

And please know that I am always willing to help. I would be honored, for example, if you called me and asked me to help you write a eulogy for someone who had died years ago. Whatever steps are missing, I am willing and able to help you fulfill them.

Death wounds us, as well it should; these are the steps that allow the wound to close and heal.

This week, of course, also marks the funerals of those who were killed in Charleston last week. We mourn with them. May their families find comfort and strength.

[1] The concept of effective mourning is one that I have developed myself, based on my pastoral training as a rabbi, the unit of Clinical Pastoral Education that I completed at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, and my work as a congregational rabbi. It draws upon the work of authors such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It is, in effect, a statement of my own philosophy with regard to the process of mourning.

[2] See, for example: for a summary of Jewish law regarding hesped.