Saturday, January 9, 2021

It's Really About Character

Like so many proud Americans I was shocked and dismayed but Wednesday’s events. To see the Confederate flag marched through the Capital, rioters wearing Proud Boy slogans and QAnon paraphernalia, groups who traffic in conspiracy theories and antisemitism, to see people smashing the Capital’s windows, the mob desecrating the American flag and climbing Congress’ walls as if it were a jungle gym, to stare in disbelief as rioters vandalized our government’s sacred halls while senators and representatives scurried to safety, to read that people were killed and officers were injured and that one then died all on the day in which Congress was supposed to formally recognize the Electoral College votes and affirm Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice-president, and finally, to hear President Trump’s earlier words exhorting the crowd to do such violence, was more than I could take. It was more than I could bear. Never was I more ashamed, and frightened to be an American.

The hallmark of our system is that we have elections, some of which are of course hotly contested, but when they are over one person is deemed as having gained more votes, whether they be elector or popular votes, and he or she is granted the privilege of serving as our president, vice-president, representative, senator, governor, town supervisor or whatever the office may be. The person who earns less votes then graciously concedes and the disappointed among us start working towards the next election and righting the wrongs they believe their political opponent will now unveil.

Senator John McCain offered these words when Senator Barak Obama became President Elect Obama: “I would not be an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone and I thank the people of Arizona for it. Tonight — tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”

That is the system and that is how it is supposed to work. Until now. Until this year.

And so, when things go terribly wrong, I return to the values that I hold dear, I turn to the pages of our Jewish tradition. Here are the truths that Judaism has long preached about and which Wednesday laid bare how lacking we indeed are regarding these core values and how much we need to relearn these tenets.

First of all, there is a right way to argue and a wrong way. We call it machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. We disagree but with respect for those holding opposing views. We do not vilify the other. We do not denigrate those who disagree with us or hold to different beliefs. We don’t call those with whom we disagree words like stupid or criminal. We believe disagreement sharpens our own arguments and betters our community and country. It is not about winning and losing. It is not about besting the other. It is about trying to figure out how we are going to go forward and that means how both the person I am arguing with and I are going to go forward together. That more than anything is what we have lost during these past years.

Leadership furthermore is about service. It is about devotion to the community. It is about dedication to everyone even, and perhaps most especially, those with whom the leader disagrees, and even vehemently disagrees. John McCain understood this. He embodied the idea that leadership begins with character and a devotion to serve others. It hinges on a clear sense of what is right and wrong. For too long we have papered over, and excused, the character flaws of President Trump. We have now seen what their fruits bear. I have always believed, and I would like to think, taught, that so much, if not all, begins and ends with character. It mattered when Bill Clinton was found lacking in his character and our nation then paid for it, and it matters even more now, with Donald Trump.

It appears to me that President Trump views the world, and most particularly his office, not as a matter of sacred service but instead, and you will forgive the metaphor, a candy jar. He sees the world not, as Judaism sees it, a divine blessing, in which we are intended to better, improve and most especially, relieve the suffering and imperfections we see around us, but instead a matter of what can be taken. “Let me grab what I want and what I can.” It is this broken world view that came crashing to a stop when the election results were finally tallied. If the world is only a candy jar from which I take what I deserve then receiving less votes than Joe Biden in the election becomes in such a worldview, not what can I learn from this moment, and how can I do better in the future, but instead look at the injustices done to me. Look at what they took away from me. And it is from here and this worldview that conspiracy theories are spun to explain away mistakes and opportunities for growth and learning and turned instead into injustices done to me by mysterious nefarious forces.

Listen to John McCain again when he spoke about the election loss. He said, “And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.” So much of our precious democracy, and our system, rests on the concession of the losing party, and perhaps as well the graciousness of the victor. But I realize now that the seemingly mundane custom of the concession speech may be the more important and could very well be the foundation stone upon which this precarious system rests. We need the person who received less votes to say, “It was fair.” That’s what John McCain said as well, “My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey,” he said. “The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.” That is what a true patriot says. That is how a person of character speaks. It is long past time making excuses for President Trump’s character flaws. We are paying dearly for them. They have invited antisemites, and conspiracy theorists, to crash down the doors of our nation’s sacred halls. Enough! And so now we must pledge, “Never forget the lessons of Wednesday, January 6th!”

Do we need as well another illustration of Judaism’s message about lashon harah, gossip? The worst kind is called motzi shem ra, the deliberate spreading of falsehoods. Words matter, our tradition reminds us. Words can cause injury. And they did just that on Wednesday. After weeks, and months, of spreading falsehoods that the election was somehow rigged, we saw how words can be transformed into bloodshed. Shame on all the leaders who joined in these efforts, or who remained silent for the past few months. Joe Biden will be our next president. That was determined, loud and clear, by Saturday, November 7th. All the talk about stolen elections and voting irregularities undermines this fragile project called, the United States of America. It may advance a momentary victory, it may further a political career, but in the end, it only further undermines our shared sense of commonality. Such talk invalidates this great, but imperfect, democracy. There really is only an us, and our shared commitment to the legitimacy of each and every vote. We desperately require leaders who will affirm this and say, “I may not have won but I believe in our system.”

Judaism counsels that small, seemingly innocent, lies can grow into outright falsehoods and that those falsehoods can quickly lead to violence and bloodshed. Look no farther than Wednesday for evidence of this truth. Senator Romney, whose politics I continue to disagree with but whose character I greatly admire, said: “We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.” It really is not about winners and losers. It is not about the spoils of victory or the stinging of defeat. It is about us, and that means all of us. When people truly devote themselves to service, to country, to community, or even to congregation, it is only about us and never about just me or just you.

And so, I close with what should now be abundantly clear, the words of one of my heroes, Senator John McCain, who taught us more about who we are in his moment of loss in the 2008 presidential election, than all his victories in senate elections. And that makes sense for man whose character was tested, and perhaps even bettered, when imprisoned for years during the Vietnam War. McCain said: “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

And after this terribly dark and frightening week, it is this very association each of us must endeavor to reclaim. May God grant us the strength to do so.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Conspiracy Theories No More!

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an infamous antisemitic tract written in the early 20th century advancing the conspiracy theory that Jews seek to control the world through a secret cabal. Scholars have long suggested it was written in Russia around the time of deadly antisemitic pogroms in the early 1900’s.

In the 1920’s Henry Ford published 500,000 copies of this tract and distributed them throughout the United States to English reading audiences. Despite the fact that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was long ago debunked, it continues to find audiences and sympathetic ears.

Today QAnon and its followers allege an equally outrageous conspiracy theory. A group of Satan worshiping pedophiles is running a sex-trafficking ring whose goal is the downfall of President Donald Trump. According to QAnon, among the ring’s followers are some Democratic leaders and liberal Hollywood actors who secretly meet in the basements of Washington DC pizza restaurants.

There are of course other debunked and discredited theories out there seeking to explain how nefarious forces stole what many people wanted to happen, namely the election of Donald Trump to a second term. The core belief of such theories is that there exists some mysterious all powerful other out to get the “good guys.” It is now painfully obvious that far too little is being done to protect us against these dangerous ideas.

As Jews we should know the deadliness of such conspiracy theories. Their dangers were on vivid display yesterday when a violent mob stormed the capital and delayed the work of Congress as they were meeting to sanctify the will of the majority of American voters. Shame on the leaders who encouraged them. Shame on the leaders who granted them the space to amplify their distorted views. Their actions sullied the reputation of every American. Let all our elected leaders stand with the institutions they serve, speaking truth against such insidious dissension and the kindling of violence.

Conspiracy theories cannot be refuted by facts...

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Renewing Friendships

As we close the Book of Genesis, and bury our remaining patriarchs, mourning in particular the death of Joseph, and as we bid farewell to the last remaining hours of 2020 with its searing pain and unrivaled singularity--who could ever have imagined a year like the one we just experienced--I wish to offer one lesson gained from 2020. This is what staying home for these many months has taught me.

Sometime in May, my brother suggested (thank you Mike!) the idea for Monday Musings, in which I talk with friends and colleagues for 15-20 minutes. I was a guest on Mike's show before creating one of my own. He is the rabbi of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

The thought is that this program can serve as a spiritual kick start to the week, that our conversations can inspire others or give our listeners ideas to ponder. In a year in which weeks seem to blur into one another and look all too similar to each other, we envisioned that at the very least they can begin with different and varied thoughts.   A meeting with someone from whom we might learn something new can start each week.

The program evolved as time marched forward. I realized that I did not want to debate, or argue, with colleagues. I did not want the experience to be marked by disagreement but instead by discovery. There is plenty of disagreement out there and far too often argument that masquerades as entertainment rather than thoughtful debate. I wished instead to learn about friends' passions and gain insights from their personal journeys.

And I share this not so much as a promotional piece for my program (or Mike's for that matter), but instead as an opportunity to share what I have learned and to suggest that each of us can do likewise and gain similar sustenance from weekly get-togethers with friends.

Start every week with a phone call with a friend, although better to see your friend's face on FaceTime or Zoom. Put the date on the calendar well in advance. Allow yourself the pleasure of looking forward to catching up with your friend. And most important of all, use this as an opportunity to listen to what life has taught these friends. Don't talk about what you miss or how much you wished you could see them. Just listen to their offerings and be open to their wisdom.

I am privileged to be blessed by so many friends, some of whom I speak with regularly and others with whom this program provided me an excuse to rekindle friendships from years ago. Of course, it still pains me that I cannot see them in person and that I cannot even plan my next adventure when I might cross paths with them or even, and most especially, discover new friends on some as of yet, unscheduled journey.

And yet, when I look back on the year, I realize these Monday conversations helped me. I begin every week asking a friend to teach me. Every Monday I wake up and get to drink in the wisdom of others.

I recognize that longing for the adventures, and vacations, of the past and pining after the company of friends and family, as well as the frivolity of the celebrations that brought us together is a privilege and blessing many others might not share (there are far too many who long not for companionship but instead for food, shelter and warmth) and while I pledge to do more to help others, I also recognize that it is these very encounters that serve as the food on which my soul depends.

I miss seeing people in person. I did not need a pandemic to remind me that I am a people person. I am buoyed by the presence of others. And I have little doubt that I may very well start crying when I am able to hug a friend for the first time. I am lifted by community and even by crowds. (Today I even find myself dreaming about the day when I will be pushing through crowds of people in a jam-packed Penn Station.)

It is as if I am lifted in the hora's chair each and every time I am in the presence of others. And so, Monday Musings became my chair. I greeted each Monday morning as an opportunity to be hoisted on high.

I did not expect that when the idea for Monday Musings was first proposed that it would also help to sustain me. When I look back on this past year I have come to recognize that waking up each Monday in anticipation of seeing a friend and catching up with him or her has helped me. And it can help each of us as well.

So, make a list of friends. Schedule a conversation.

And open your heart to the wisdom of friends.

Your week will be transformed by the discussions. Your year might even be likewise redeemed.

Happy New Year! May 2021 only bring blessings of health.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Compassion Rewrites History

After many years apart, and at odds, Joseph and his brothers are reconciled. It is prompted by the elder Judah’s petitions. “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44) Judah appears to be a changed man. 

He now fears that the loss of his youngest brother Benjamin would cause his father Jacob’s death. Earlier he offered no such worry when he and his brothers sold Joseph into slavery and told their father that his beloved son was killed by wild beasts. Earlier Judah and his brothers only exhibited resentment towards Joseph and anger that their father favored him. 

Now they offer compassion. They acknowledge that Jacob shares a special bond with Benjamin, the son of his beloved wife Rachel who died in childbirth. It is this note of compassion that moves Joseph to offer forgiveness. It is their newfound understanding of the special bond one son shares with their father that causes Joseph to no longer to see the pain caused by their terrible deed but instead the good that has now transpired. 

Can good really emerge from terrible deeds? Can future successes redeem history’s errors? 

The Torah reports: “Joseph could no longer control himself…. He said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” Perhaps Joseph has also rediscovered a favored place in his heart for his father. Perhaps he was once angry at his father for doting on him and pushing his brothers toward their near deadly resentment. Joseph continues: “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.” (Genesis 45) 

It is a remarkable transformation. The brothers have changed. Joseph too is a new man. Resentment and anger have become love and affection. All are transformed by compassion and understanding. 

Years of anger, years of seething are seemingly undone in an instant, by a few well-chosen words. I do not imagine their ill feelings are forgotten. 

And yet is appears to be so. “Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45) 

An act of compassion, a newfound understanding can rewrite history.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Genesis of Healing and Reconciliation

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis. This week we find ourselves in the midst of the Joseph story. Our hero Joseph, recently sold into slavery by his brothers, has now achieved power and renown in Egypt. The brothers who think he is a slave in a faraway land must now approach him and beg for food. They do not recognize him. He walks like an Egyptian. He talks like an Egyptian. He, however, recognizes them. And so, Joseph tests them.

Much of Genesis can be viewed through the lens of the siblings it portrays. It is a story about brotherly love, although more often than not jealousy and rivalry. Ultimately the book concludes with a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. There are four sets of brothers.

We open with Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. Cain is so consumed with anger that he kills his brother Abel. The hatred, apparently fostered by God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s, is never overcome.

The next set of brothers is Isaac and Ishmael. They too have difficulty getting along, although fare better than their predecessors. After Isaac is born Sarah banishes his brother Ishmael. They are forced to live apart from each other. And yet they come together to bury their father Abraham. No words are exchanged. After the funeral they immediately go their separate ways. Still there appears a moment of reconciliation.

Next, we read about Jacob and Esau. After Jacob steals the birthright Esau threatens to kill him. Jacob runs from his angry brother. He builds a successful life, again living apart from his brother for many years. Later they are reunited. The Torah offers a tender description about their reconciliation: “Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) But then once again the brothers go their separate ways.

The Joseph story is far lengthier and offers more detail. It occupies four portions. It is the culminating story of the Book of Genesis.

In response to Joseph’s test, he discovers that his brothers have changed. They rise up and protect their younger brother Benjamin rather than betray him as they did Joseph. Joseph is overcome with emotion and offers a model of forgiveness. He states: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” The brothers are dumfounded and unable to speak. “Then Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45) Finally they speak to each other. Joseph and his brothers forgive their wrongs.

Unlike the prior instances, Joseph’s brothers do not part ways after their reconciliation. The brothers, as well as their father Jacob, and their mothers, join Joseph in Egypt. The family is reunited. The brothers speak to each other. They are reconciled. It begins with Joseph’s forgiveness.

Perhaps that is lesson of the Book of Genesis.

Brothers, and siblings, and families, are often at odds. And yet this can change. It can turn. It may take years, or even generations, but ultimately there can be full reconciliation.

Many families are unable to repair divides. They keep each other at a distance. A few, however, can right the wrongs of yesterday. Joseph’s family offers the model of complete reconciliation and repair.

That is the most certainly the concluding note of the Book of Genesis. It might very well be its most important lesson.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Stand Up and Light the Hanukkah Candles

According to rabbinic legend Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil. After the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greek army and recaptured Jerusalem, they discovered the Temple desecrated. They decreed an eight-day rededication ceremony but found only enough holy oil to last for one day. Lo and behold, a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days.

Usually when we retell this story, we imagine the miracle growing brighter with each successive day. On each of the days of this dedication ceremony, the Maccabees must have expected the light to go out or at least the light to grow dimmer. Instead, the light kept burning. And so, the eighth day appears more miraculous than the first.

Yet, the more important, and perhaps even more miraculous, moment occurred on the first day when the light was first kindled. I imagine a debate ensued about whether or not to light that wick floating in the cup of olive oil. Some must have argued against its lighting. Others might have retorted, “Let’s light it anyway and see how long it lasts. Even if it lasts for one day, that will be good enough.” I doubt there were few, if any, who thought the oil would last all eight days or that there was enough oil to last much longer than a few days.

Despite this, someone had to stand up and light the oil. Even though no one knew what to expect, or what the future days might hold, someone kindled the light. Someone had the courage to light the Hanukkah lights on that first night even though evidence and reality argued against it.

It is going to be a hard winter. The news is increasingly dispiriting. We cannot travel as much as we might like or certainly as much as we did in past years. We cannot see all the family and friends with whom we usually gather in December. But we can still light these Hanukkah candles. We can summon the courage of that individual Jew who stood up and lit the oil even though others thought it would never last more than one day. Some most certainly argued why even bother.

Why bother? Because we need the lights.

We require such courage. We are in need of such faith.

This year most especially courage and faith seem in short supply. Is it as simple as standing up and lighting the candles? Yes.

Today we need to be like that individual who lit the first Hanukkah lights. That act represents not a denial of reality but courage and faith in the face of reality. The dangers are likewise real. Uncertainty and risk torment our souls. And yet we can summon the courage of yesteryear. We can rely on the faith of our ancestors.

We can affirm light and life despite darkness and fear.

We can relish in the love of family and friends.

Stand up and light the candles.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Our Questions Are Our Heritage

The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps. “Jacob arrived shalem in the city of Shechem.” (Genesis 33:18) This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, describes the journey from which he arrives in Shechem. It describes our patriarch’s movement from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace.

Jacob, now married with two wives, two maidservants, eleven sons and one daughter, many slaves and an abundance of livestock, sets out to return to his native land. At the same place where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, he sends his family across the river and again spends the night alone. He is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright.

That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality. He wrestles with a being that is described as divine. Unable to free himself from Jacob’s grasp the being offers Jacob a blessing in exchange for his release. This being declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) The being wrenches Jacob’s hip causing him to limp.

Jacob’s new name becomes the name of the Jewish people. Yisrael means to wrestle with God. What a remarkable statement about our people and our tradition! We can wrestle with God. We can question God. In fact, we should question God. While most people understand that questioning is part and parcel to being Jewish, few appreciate that such questioning extends towards heaven. The rabbis called this notion, chutzpah klappei shamayim, chutzpah towards heaven. It is a beautiful and telling concept.

Long ago the rabbis codified action over belief, the duties of the hands over the feelings of the heart. We have books and books detailing exactly which cuts of beef are kosher, when to recite the Shema, even how much we should give to tzedakah. We do not have such books telling us exactly what we must believe. We have many discussions and debates about these questions, but no creeds. We have codes of action not creeds of belief.

It is this embrace of many different theologies that makes Judaism unique and to my mind, extraordinary. I don’t have to have it all figured out. I can still question. I can still wonder. I can still ask: why does God not heal every person who is sick and infirm? Why is there pain and suffering in God’s world?

Questions—and even, or perhaps most especially, questions of God—define us.

Isidor Isaac Rabi, who was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He answered, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. She would greet me with the words, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”

Don’t be afraid to ask good questions. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. Most of all, never think that your questioning makes you less Jewish. In fact, it is what makes you worthy of your name, the children of Israel.

The question remains our most important heritage.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Blessings of 2020

Recently I started giving myself haircuts. (Bring on the jokes!) I soon realized that no one could tell the difference. And so, I declared I will never go to the barber again. 2020 is bringing more than its share of firsts. My 85-year-old father bought a Peloton. (And my mom bought the cycling shoes as well.)  And, he will never again return to the gym for spin classes. I cook more and go out to restaurants far less. I am even thinking of growing my own vegetables in an indoor garden, but so far it is only some mint.

One day we will actually turn the corner and emerge on the other side of this pandemic. I pray that every one of us will emerge with our health intact and that we will not be so scarred that we will be unable to offer each other the hugs our spirits require. I wonder what changes will become permanent. Will family meals regain their exalted place in our homes? Will family movie nights, or game nights, become fixtures of our lives?

Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving will be unlike any other. And while I won’t miss the cursed traffic, I will miss the extended family members that usually gather with us and even the arguments about politics, theology and who best avoided New York’s traffic delays. I will miss the familiarity of it all, of how we never fail to eat more than we should and tell the same stories year after year.

This year, we have a choice to make.

And here it is. We can dwell on who is missing from our small gatherings. Crowds are both a distant memory and a far-off hope. (I really do miss seeing each and every one of you in person!). Or, we can focus on the new-found blessings we have discovered. Everything is smaller and more intimate. Can we rediscover the wonder, and enjoyment, that now sits before us? Will we offer blessings for the intimacy this year offers?

Among my favorite prayers is the almost never used blessing for a king or queen. Our rabbis authored these words to recite when seeing a ruler: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who grants a measure of divine glory to flesh and blood.” What is particularly remarkable about this blessing is that most, if not nearly all, of the kings and queens who ruled over the Jewish people did not deserve any blessings. They persecuted us. They expelled us. They tortured us. The list is quite long.

The rabbis reasoned, however, that it is better to be say blessings and shout praises to God. A soul that is filled with thanks and songs can never truly be subjugated. A spirit that offers blessings can never be defeated.

We have the power to make our own blessings.

Sometimes it is really hard to do—like now, like this year—but it is still within our grasp. History reminds us that we have been through worse. History teaches us that a victorious soul remains within our reach.

Make for yourself new blessings. Relish in them. Give thanks for them—however small and unusual they may seem in comparison to other years and other seasons. I learned how to cut my own hair.

Shout words of gratitude for this year’s blessings!

Friday, November 20, 2020

Seeing Is Believing

The cliché “seeing is believing” is an apt description for a prominent refrain the Genesis stories.

In Genesis 21, for example, we read of Ishmael who when dying from hunger and thirst is miraculously saved by the appearance of a well. “Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.” Then again perhaps the well was there all along.

In Genesis 22 we read, “When Abraham lifted up his eyes, he saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Did God make the ram appear out of thin air or was it there all along and Abraham failed to see it because he was blinded by desire to fulfill God’s command?

Most people read the Bible and think that miracles are akin to magic. God magically provides a well and a ram. In my estimation however miracles are about the lifting up of the eyes. The ram was always there. Abraham only needed turn away from his son, bound on the sacrificial altar, and loosen his grip on the knife.

The well was there all along. Hagar only needed to wipe the tears from her face to see what was already there. Sometimes zealousness and grief prevent us from seeing what (miraculously) stand before us.

This refrain is what makes this week’s portion and its story all the more remarkable. Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac and steals the blessing intended for his brother Esau. The story begins: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27) Jacob prepares a meal for his father and dresses like his brother Esau as his mother directs him and says to Isaac, “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.” The Torah continues, “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.’ Isaac did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so, he blessed him.”

Whereas the stories about Abraham are about opening eyes, those about Isaac are about closing the eyes. Earlier Isaac asks his father Abraham, “’Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’ And the two of them walked as one.” (Genesis 22)

The haunting question about our patriarch Isaac’s life is does he choose not to see? Was he a willing participant to his own near sacrifice? And in this week’s reading, we must ask: did he choose willful blindness?

To have faith in God is to stand in awe, or literally to fear heaven. In Hebrew the words for seeing and having faith are very close and share the same root. What therefore is the relationship between seeing and believing? When is not seeing, as with our patriarch Isaac, a matter of faith and a necessity for life?

When do miracles depend on opening our eyes? 

And when do relationships hinge on turning a blind eye?

Friday, November 13, 2020

We Are All Resident Aliens; We Are All Brothers and Sisters

Heba Nabil Iskandarani recently became a Spanish citizen. The story of how this 26-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, with no state calling her a citizen, acquired a Spanish passport is a fascinating tale.

After Iskandarani discovered that her Palestinian father had Jewish roots dating back to the Spanish expulsion, she applied for Spanish citizenship. In 2015 Spain adopted a law whose intention was to atone for its persecution and forced exile of the Spanish Jewish community in 1492. The law allowed descendants of Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship if they could demonstrate Jewish ancestry and a special connection to Spain. In the past five years, over 150,000 succeeded and became Spanish citizens. Of these 43,000 are like Iskandarani not Jewish.

Iskandarani was able to prove her Jewish roots after uncovering her great-grandmother’s old identity card whose name Latife Djerbi references an island off the coast of Tunisia where many Sephardic Jews once lived. In addition, the family observed the curious Springtime custom of dipping hard-boiled eggs in saltwater. Iskandarani now thinks that what the family called a Tunisian tradition was actually a Passover seder ritual. Her mother also always thought it strange that no one in her husband’s family had Muslim names. Her uncles were named Jacob, Ruben, Moses and Zachary.

And so now, with her Spanish passport in hand, Heba Nabil Iskandarani can visit Jaffa, the city where her grandfather was born but which he fled at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. She remarked that her family’s Jewishness exiled them first from Spain and then their Muslim identity forced them out of the nascent state of Israel. She said, “Quite ironic don’t you think being exiled twice for the exact same reason?” Iskandarani continues to be interested in Judaism and fascinated by her Jewish roots.

The journey continues.

After Sarah’s death in the land of Canaan, Abraham approached the Hittites to purchase a burial plot. He said, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site…” (Genesis 23) And Ephron sold him the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron. It is there that all the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. Only Rachel is buried elsewhere, in Bethlehem.

The term resident alien is a curious term. The Hebrew reads, “ger v’toshav” and can be more literally translated as “stranger and resident.” In some ways this encapsulates Abraham’s feelings and perhaps our own as well. We are all at home and apart. We sometimes feel like strangers and other times feel like citizens. In one generation we feel at home and in another, exiled and without a nation to call our own. We are all indeed resident aliens.

We wander from exile to welcome, from resident to alien.

Heba Nabil Iskandarani’s discovery could have been our own journey. We are more alike than we care to admit.

We are all indeed brothers and sisters.

The Torah reports: “This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at good ripe age, old and contended.” (Genesis 25) His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, apart for many years, at war for generations, come together. While they do not speak to each other, they do participate in one activity as one.

Together they bury their father.

And I continue to draw hope from these stories.