I am quitting.

January 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

The woman ahead of me in line at the drug store asks the clerk for two packs of cigarettes, specifying her brand and the color of the package.

As the clerk turns back to ring up her purchase, the woman announces: “I am quitting.” The clerk nods dutifully.

“I am going to quit on the first of the year,” the woman continues. It is at this point that I notice the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to her clothing and her hair.

“It’s so I can see my grandchildren,” the woman continues. The clerk gives her a fixed smile, trying to be encouraging, but not really convinced. “You can do it,” the clerk says, feigning enthusiasm.

“I did, once,” says the woman grandly, “for nine months.”

Now, at last, the clerk is engaged: “what happened?”

The woman laughs an easy, raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “My niece and nephew came to visit,” she says, “and took me out drinking. And they smoke. So there you are.” Aha.

The clerk smiles again, but this time she means it: “Maybe this time, then.” And the woman nods; “yes, maybe this time.”

On one hand, we all know that her chances of actually following through on this New Year’s resolution are not that great. According to a 2013 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8 percent of the New Year’s resolutions that Americans make for themselves actually stick.

On the other hand, hope springs eternal. We want that she should be successful. She should pick a date and stick to it. It’s what anyone who has ever successfully quit has done. Pick a date and stick to it.

Change is indeed difficult, because it means changing how we understand ourselves and our world. It means giving up something that has brought us pleasure in favor of something we do not yet know. These things are difficult.

From a practical point of view there are, of course, several things that each of us can do to be more successful when changing our behavior. I can, for example, name three things that will certainly help:

First, one should identify what is driving the behavior. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Addiction? Physical need? It is better to pull at the behavior from its roots.

Second, one should make a plan. What are the times and places of greatest vulnerability? What situations make caving in more likely? What are the greatest obstacles? Identify where things are likely to go astray and make a plan for addressing them.

Third, one should visualize success. The best way to see yourself as capable of change is to visualize exactly what that change looks like. Picture in your head what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like. See yourself living your life differently.

These three actions, taken together, provide practical advice: this is what you can do to change your life. These are things that can be done in the realm of action: identify the roots, make a plan, and visualize success.

But there is another realm as well, a spiritual aspect to the things we do. You can ‘do’ everything right yet still find yourself struggling.

Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous understand this aspect of change particularly well. In fact, one of the key steps of the twelve-step program is giving yourself over to a high power.

But that kind of language can be difficult for Jews, since it sounds sort of Christian. AA is not a Christian organization, but its founders were from that tradition, so its language is written in the Christian idiom. Think about it for a moment: When do I ever, in a sermon or a class, speak of giving yourself over to God? It’s not how we, as Jews, normally speak about theology.

So let me speak to you in our native tongue: the language of the Torah.

In this week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

They think that he is still the same kid who would tell them his dreams and brag about how he would one day rule over them.

As the text relates, “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They do so because they are truly afraid. The kid that they knew once upon a time would have taken revenge. That kid would tattle on them to their father for lesser crimes. Of course he would be waiting to take advantage of their weakness!

But Joseph is not offended or bothered by their assumptions. He has changed.

And so he tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive.

Even in the darkest depths, he says, it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph?

If you want to change your life, you need to have faith. You need to have the faith that it will work out for the good, that it is possible to change, and that you are worthy of it.

In other words, what undermines our New Year’s resolutions is not so much a lack of planning but a lack of faith. All the nicotine gum in the world won’t help if you are convinced that you are unworthy. The smoker in front of me at the drug store will succeed in quitting only if she thinks that she is indeed worthy of seeing her grandkids. That she might be found deserving of this goal.

You must have faith that you are created in God’s image and that you are worthy of love. You must have faith that you are worthy of what is good and right and wonderful in this world.

Because you most certainly are.

Bo

December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century.

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, in response to the portion Va’era, I raised some questions relating to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This week, I wanted to investigate in greater depth Maimonides’ position on this issue.

In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.  Individuals are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for their pattern of behavior.  Providence punishes (in the form of adverse outcomes) those who turn their attention away from God or cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly.  These adverse outcomes are the natural consequences of such actions.

Thus, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence. In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but the outcome should instead be understood as the natural result of the Pharaoh’s decisions.  As Maimonides explains, “…Pharaoh and his followers disobeyed by choice, without force or compusion.”[1] God does not act in the sense of causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.

Maimonides also acknowledges that there are verses in the Torah that “cause many to stumble and think that the Holy One – blessed be He! – has decreed that man shall do good or evil and that man’s heart is not allowed to do as he wishes.”[2] In truth, however, those passages are reporting on the cumulative effect of the individual’s evil actions: Grave sins and repeated transgressions create a barrier to repentance.

In those cases, 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.”[3]

“Because they continued to sin,” he writes, “repentance was withheld” and they could not break the pattern of behavior. It was not God who caused their difficulties; rather, they were the ones at fault. “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.”[4]  The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.


[1] Maimonides, Chapter 8 of the “Eight Chapters,” in Ethical Writings of Maimonides, p. 90.

[2] Maimondes, The Book of Knowledge, 6:1 p. 124.

[3] Ibid, 6:3, p. 124.

[4] Ibid., 6:3, p. 125.

Va’era

December 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.

So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!

What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.

The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’

Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.

In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.

Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?

How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?

We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.

But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Consider the possible implications:

It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?

Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”[1]

In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.

But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?

In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.

Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.

So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.


[1] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.

 

Shemot — Names

December 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Exodus 4:28   Moses told Aaron about all the things that YHVH had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 

It was a surprisingly large crowd. Aaron looked at Moses to see if he wanted to speak first – and then, realizing the nature of his role, stepped forward to address the elders.

“Sons of Israel” – his voice wavered a bit, so he took a deep breath before continuing – “I am Aaron, this is Moses, my brother; the God of our fathers revealed Himself to Moses in a fiery bush at the Mountain of God, in the Horevah area.” He was speaking quickly now, hoping that his voice would not betray his fear. “God has indeed seen your plight and has sent us to bring you out of Egypt.  We will go to Pharaoh – ”

“—Oh yes,” one of the elders interrupted, “and tell Pharaoh that our God wants us to be freed. And Pharaoh will say, ‘who is this God that I should heed him? What is the name of this redeemer-God that you speak of, the God of your fathers?” The elder continued speaking, using a tone that might have conveyed a sense of genuine concern, but also might have been condescension – it was hard to tell. “By any chance did this god tell you his name?” he asked, waiting for an answer, with eyebrows raised. The crowd tittered in nervous anticipation.

“Yes,” said another, picking up on the nature of his question, “did he tell you his name?” – the elder leaned forward to make his point – “was it the God of our Fathers who spoke to you – or was it a demon who has in fact deceived you?”

Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Moses had been so sure of himself that Aaron had not stopped to think that it could have been a demon who sent them. The metallic taste of fear rose in his throat. Was it really God who spoke to Moses? Was it really God who noted our suffering? Does God even exist? And how could we possibly know?

Standing next to him, Moses spoke quietly with his eyes closed: “I am and will continue to exist as I have always existed. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I exist sent me to you.”

And at once Aaron understood. “He said,” Aaron announced, his voice grander now, “‘YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name always and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’”

Exodus 4:30 And Aaron repeated all the words that YHVH had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, 31 and the people were convinced.  When they heard that YHVH had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.

Vayechi

December 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

Theology defines what is possible in our lives: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

For many of us, our theology changes as we grow older. In Joseph’s case, his understanding of God changes and his theology improves.

In this week’s portion, for example, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

“His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They are truly afraid. But Joseph is not offended. He tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph? After experiencing a tragedy like Joseph’s, we do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild.

We also do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. And we do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook. Rather, what we need is a theology that allows us to forgive and rebuild. The best response to a tragedy is to create a world where such kinds of evil are unknown.

Then we might be able to say: what was intended as evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Miketz

November 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, in fact, he is second only to Pharaoh.

If he wanted to, he could have them imprisoned — or killed. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. Do they miss him? Do they ever think of him? Do they ever wish that they had acted better?

After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, sobbing. This process of testing proves to be difficult for him, and emotionally wearing on him. Reconciliation is what he really wants.

As part of his weepy speech, Joseph also says something rather problematic, from a theological perspective. It’s not obviously bad, and, frankly, it’s a pretty common theology. He tells them: ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth.’ 

This kind of theology can wound you. What happens if it does not seem like God has a plan for you? What happens if you face a tragedy that makes you re-think all those carefully constructed ideas? 

That is to say: it very well could be true that God has sent each of us to do a specific set of things. It could be that we are here for a specific reason. It is in fact quite comforting to think that God has plans for us.

The difficulty, however, is when that kind of theology breaks down: what happens when life itself is breathtakingly cruel? What happens when we find we just cannot make sense of it? How, then, do we put ourselves back together in the wake of an unimaginable loss, a great catastrophes, or an overwhelming defeat?

That is to say: the rationalizations might fail us. The narrative might become impossible.

Then what?

Then, ideally, we might come to realize that even in its most extreme situations, even at the worst times, even when the world does not work the way we think it should, our life — the individual life of each and every one of us — matters. Even then.

 

 

“Please heal her”

May 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

Aaron and Miriam speak out against Moses, on account of his marriage to a Cushite woman. It is not clear why there is a problem with her, other than the fact that she is a Cushite. In the Bible, ‘Cush’ is name for Ethiopia, so some modern commentators have assumed it was her skin color.

Personally, I think that is a projection backwards. Frankly, I think it had more to do with her foreignness. In the Song of Songs, for example, it says ‘I am black and comely’ – which would indicate that a range of color was fully appreciated for its beauty. The biblical world was not as fixated on skin color as we are; instead, the overriding concern was with the various tribal cultures: what foods, what languages, and what gods? The foreignness of the Cushite woman is likely the source of their objection.

So, we learn, his two older siblings speak out against Moses, and wonder at his life-choices and gossip about his high position. Are we not as good as him? Do we not also speak to God – and is it not true that God hears us?

As an aside, I would note that it does not seem that Moses was a particularly authoritarian leader, for he faces this kind of challenge to his authority on multiple occasions. And, as we read, the text here emphasizes that he was the most modest among all of those on earth. Folks are always assuming that they could easily step into his shoes.

But, for speaking against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, so to speak, to appear before God: that is, God quite literally summons them and tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special. God speaks to Moses face-to-face. And no one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.

As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.

When Aaron sees her, he assumes that it is a punishment for her sin. The timing would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.

The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.

But notice that Moses does not construct the same story. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill, but rather focuses on the desired outcome: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”

So was her illness a punishment? You might want say to me, if it is not a punishment, then why does God say in the very next line, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days? Let her remain quarantined for seven days outside the came, and then she can return home.”

At first glance, it would be quite reasonable to assume that the disease is a punishment, based on this statement. That is, in fact, how this text is usually understood by commentators. But that is the story that we have created in response to the text. It should be noted that in the text, God never makes that connection directly.

What, then, does the text say? First, let’s look at the spitting metaphor. I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face.

Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?

In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior.

God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.

I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.

What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.

Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.

Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.

Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.

And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’

Anyone who has ever been to Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.

What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate. Resting is important. God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat? Taking a nap on Shabbat is in fact my favorite mitzvah.

Another pearl of wisdom is the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.

And there is another gem: we should note that some of our physical distress has emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.

In other words, the story we tell in the wake of a tragedy will define how well we respond to that tragedy. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: give yourself time to heal.

More than a story about God

December 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Whenever there is a catastrophe, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ I would wish, sometimes, that my fellow-clergy were less confident of interpreting God’s will as a sound-bite for the media.

It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.

The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.

It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.

And there is also the position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being, a statement of belief that tragedy would not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, would all stay clear of us if we were to ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day.’

We had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.

In that case, God plays the role of symbolic placeholder in our prayers. A placeholder the same sense that a ‘zero’ is a placeholder: it holds the space open but is not filled with real content.

Why should we care about theology?

What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman or as an invisible force? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God? Why should we care about theology, especially at a time like this?

Theology defines what is possible in our lives.

To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not.

This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.

So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues. Some of it was his own doing: by all accounts, he was one seriously annoying kid. But his brothers’ reaction was well out of proportion to the reality.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, he is second only to Pharaoh.

He could have them killed, of course, or imprisoned. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, weeping:

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘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.’”

So, when Joseph says, ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth,’ I always wonder, how does he know? This is Torah, of course, so of course he knows. But if he were your brother or neighbor, would you not wonder: how does he know?

Perhaps he cannot prove it one way or another, but his optimism seems to be a useful choice.

But there’s still a problem here: we are still left with that canard, ‘it was God’s will.’ If we accept that the good things that happen are God’s will, do we not have to accept the bad as well? Otherwise, we start creating a dualism in God: this part is the ‘good’ god and this part is the ‘bad’ god.

So let’s return to the Joseph story: as it happens, his understanding of God changes as he grows older, and his theology improves.

In next week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years later. And we see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust. After their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. He is, after all, still that powerful. And did he not test them before they reunited? They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

And what is Joseph’s reaction?

He tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

This is a more nuanced theology than what we saw earlier. Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

So, ask yourself: what kind of world do you want to live in, one in which these things do happen, or one in which they do not? Ask yourself: do we know the reasons why such things occur? Ask yourself: is there something we can do about it?

I will leave it to you to decide whether more or less guns are needed, whether better access to mental health care is needed, whether first-person games like ‘Call of Duty’ create obsessive fantasies or not. Those are social and political questions; they have entered our national debate, as well they should.

Rather, I am here to talk about theology.

Theology is more than a story about God; rather, it is an explanation of our expectations. Should these things happen or not?

Theology defines what is possible in your life: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

A world where these things happen, or a world in which we have the obligation to see to it that they do not.

What we do not need at this juncture is bad theology.

We do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild. We do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. We do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook.

Rather, if we respond by making it a world where these things do not happen, then we might be able to say: what he had intended for evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

Struggling with God

November 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

There is a saying: at twenty-five you have the face that you inherit, but at fifty you have the face that you deserve.  I cannot tell you whether that is precisely true, but it does seem to contain some wisdom.

From midlife onward your life – and your face – both become the sum of your choices. That’s why 25-year high school reunions are so interesting – and so galling. You find out whether those kids you knew then continued on the same trajectory or not, and you learn whether that direction was profitable or not. Some are predictable, and some are a complete surprise.

Jacob is at that point in his life – somewhere in midlife, learning what the aggregate of his life-choices might mean. He has left the service of Laban, having outgrown his position as a servant-shepherd, ready to take on a new role. He is smart and capable, able to serve as the leader of his own clan – so why, he wonders, is he still working for a servant’s wages? No, the time has come for him to take his leave, along with his entourage, which has in fact become a rather large caravan.

But that departure from Laban’s household also means that it is time to return home to face his demons there. And he is worried: going home requires that he face his twin brother, the very same one who vowed to kill him all those years ago. His brother never was one to let bygones be bygones, so this homecoming could be a genuine problem. Jacob is afraid.

Worried about the outcome, Jacob sends messengers ahead of his caravan to send greetings to his brother Esau. But they return to him with the message that his brother is coming out to meet him in person.

That’s not good.

And, the messengers explain, Esau has 400 men with him.

That’s not good either.

Jacob fears the worst. And so he prays. His prayer to God at that moment reflects his sense of desperation:

O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.[1]

Jacob is afraid, genuinely afraid.

But his prayer is not just an expression of fear; it is also a realization. As the modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, his prayer also reflects a sudden insight, an insight gained in the midst of his prayer.

Jacob suddenly realizes the emotional cost of what he had done all those years ago.

As she writes: “Perhaps the suffering of the twenty years’ servitude and exile with Laban, the deceptions practiced on him there had not driven home to him the full significance of the deed of ‘thy brother came with guile.’”[2]

At the time of his deceit, he had not really understood how his behavior would hurt his brother; now, as a grown man, having been tricked himself, he has insight. Pausing to reflect on these experiences, he finally understands the shame and humiliation that his brother felt.

As Leibowitz continues, “Perhaps he still justified the immoral deed by the justness of the end, given the seal of approval in his father’s confirmation of the blessing after the deed: ‘yea, and he shall be blessed.’ He had still not experienced even the shadow of a doubt regarding the rightness of his conduct. Only now through his prayer he experienced a re-appraisal of his conduct.”[3] And he realizes that he has been unworthy of all of the blessings he has received.

And, it suddenly dawns on him just what it must have meant to his brother to have been tricked like that. And he suddenly understands what he, himself, has done. And now, as a result, he has become a fully ethical being.

Hermann Cohen, the neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher from the turn of the last century, argues that genuine morality is born when we understand how the other person feels. Up until that moment, we are not truly making ethical choices: we have no sense of why a given action – such as tricking your brother – might be wrong or unethical. It is when we realize he hurts just like I do that we are able to make moral choices.

In fact, all of ethics can be summed up as follows: I should not hurt him because he hurts just like I do.

But Jacob is like that: sometimes he is ethical, sometimes not; sometimes he is responsible, sometimes not. Sometimes he is able to transcend himself, to gain genuine insight and recognize his part in the drama and act ethically – and sometimes not.

This division within him is evident in one of the most famous passages in the narrative of his life. After sending his clan across the Jordan River, he sleeps alone on the other bank.

Why is he alone? It does not say. Maybe he thinks that if Esau attacks both of the camps at night, he is more likely to survive if he is out on his own. It does not occur to him that his family might want the reassurance of his presence in the camp.

While Jacob is alone, he is attacked. Who is this man who attacks? Why does he attack? What does he want?

When he [the attacker] saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.

Why exactly does this attacker tear the ligaments in Jacob’s hip? It seems like something more than bad sportsmanship. Either that, or angels are sore losers.

However, it appears that the attacker fully intended to kill him. The attacker would have to settle for just wounding him, however, because that is the best he can do. In fact, as the struggle continues, the attacker has to ask Jacob to release him:

Then he [the attacker] said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But [Jacob] answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

This is our first hint that this being might not be a man after all.

English: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Česky...

English: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Česky: Jákob zápasící s andělem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”[4]

Why is it that this being won’t give his name? And who is it?

One possibility, proposed by the rabbinic literature, is that this man is an angel, the prince of Esau. In other words, this angel is what we might call the guardian angel of the people of Esau, and it was Esau’s and Jacob’s angels engaged in battle.  A cosmic battle takes place before the two brothers meet; its significance is to foreshadow that Jacob’s people will eventually win, but at great cost. As Ramban explains: “There were other generations who did such things to us and worse than this. But we endured all and it passed us by…”[5] Ramban and the Midrashic literature would like to have us think that God sees to it that Israel always wins.

But there are problems here with this reading. For one thing, God doesn’t ever give him that promise. And frankly, I don’t think that we should bet on that.

Another possibility – proposed to me by one of my Bible professors some years ago – is that the attacker is actually Esau himself, come to do battle with Jacob. That’s why, when they reunite, Jacob exclaims, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He had thought he was wrestling with an angel, only to discover that angel was really Esau. His brother did indeed try to kill him, just as he had vowed to do, but when he realized that he could not do so he gave him a blessing instead.

There is a certain logic to this reading, in the sense that it allows Esau to fulfill his vow to attempt to kill him, and it resolves the tension of Jacob’s stolen blessing: now Jacob receives the blessing directly from his brother, and the blessing is no longer considered a theft.

It is an excellent suggestion. But in recent months, I have been less enamored of this kind of reading. I find, of course, that each time that I encounter the text, it has something different to say.

This year I am finding a lot of meaning in the tension itself; I have felt a greater appreciation for the Bible’s willingness to leave some things unresolved, am I am a little less willing to collapse the text into a neat resolution.

The narrative does wind on itself, like some sort of DNA helix: certain things get repeated, or handed down, sometimes in precisely the same way; yet in each new version there is also something novel and unexpected.

This episode is one of those repetitions. Jacob yet again, in the hours of darkness, is faced with a deception: In this case, he is wrestling someone who will not tell him his name or his reasons for being there. But this time, when asked, Jacob gives his own name, and gives it honestly: Jacob, the supplanter. The one who will trick you in order to take your place.

And the angel tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Israel literally means he-who-struggles-with-God. The root of the verb is ‘to struggle or contend with’ – but interestingly, etymologically the root is also related to the root for ‘dominate’ or ‘reign’.[6]  So there is a very real sense of struggle here: which will be dominant, the desires of this unruly man, or the will of God?

And so the episode with the angel tells him: No longer are you the one who supplants your brother. No longer are you the one who engages in tricks. You are now the one who struggles with God, with ethics, with all that is high and holy in deciding what to do.

Of course, you are also always still Jacob, the one who seeks the shortcut or the quick win. Yet you are also capable of becoming someone much grander, much greater than that: You are Israel, the one who struggles to transcend himself.

And that lesson has resonance: We all struggle with our lesser nature. We all have to make an effort to choose well, to transcend ourselves. And in that sense, we too are Israel.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling


[1] This is the JPS translation.

[2] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, translated by Aryeh Newman, p. 364.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This is the JPS translation.

[5] As quoted in Leibowitz, pp. 369-70.

[6] According to the Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language by Ernest Klein (Jerusalem: Carta, on behalf of the University of Haifa, 1987): sin-resh-hey is ‘to fight, strive, contend’ (p. 681) and sin-resh-resh is ‘to rule, reign, dominate’ (p. 684). See also the entry for ‘Israel’ on p. 266.

The voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

 

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.’”

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.

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.

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