Monday, January 30, 2012

Bo Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion we read of the final three plagues: locusts, darkness and the killing of the Egyptian first born.  That darkness must have been really terrible after spending all those days covered with swarming locusts.  That darkness was a torture of memories of prior plagues.

Much of the focus of these plagues is obviously about how we respond to our enemies.  The message is clear.  If they don’t do what is right then bring on the plagues.  To reiterate, we have every moral right to battle our enemies, and even if necessary to kill those who threaten us.  Whether it is Pharaoh, Amalek, Haman; bin Laden, Hamas or Iran we have that moral right.  Clearly Israel and America live by this principle in the current clandestine war against Iran, and in particular against its efforts to build nuclear weapons.

We are however limited in this fight.  We can only kill those who threaten us.  When the military is used as a means to mete out swift justice this transgresses basic democratic principles.  Thus we must carefully use the military only against those who threaten our lives.  That is its purpose; it is that purpose alone that the military serves—namely defense.

But what about our enemies within?   These issues and their related moral judgments only apply to our external enemies.  Although we face painful and wrenching choices in confronting these external enemies, the moral lines seem very clear.  Of course you must defend yourself.  As long as we never lose sympathy for other human beings, we can strike out against those who threaten us.  In confronting these enemies we must always remember that even our enemies are deserving of humanity.  Today we see before us many painful choices, but clear answers.

Then again, what about the questions regarding our enemies within?  If you think about it the remainder of the Torah is all about our internal battles and confronting these naysayers and internal enemies.  After the plagues it was all about how we get along with each other.  “Not so well,” is the Torah’s short answer.  Then again that Torah is still being written.  We are still very much wandering through that wilderness.  Today there is a battle going on for the soul of Judaism.  We are nearly at war with each other over the Jewish future.  Clearly military might cannot be used to achieve our desired ends.  Thus how we face the enemies within our own midst is a more difficult and even more wrenching question.

I am not sure if everyone has kept up with some of this news, so let me offer some sobering illustrations.  In Israel especially the struggle for the soul of Judaism, and the definition of what it means to be a Jew, is reaching a fever pitch and perhaps even a breaking point.  A few examples from the news.  Organizers of a conference on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel.  Ultra-Orthodox men spit on an eight-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed.  The chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers performed. Protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.  Vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.  A distinguished professor of pediatrics whose book won an award from the Ministry of Health was instructed that she could not sit with her husband at the ceremony and that a male colleague would accept her prize for her because women were forbidden from the stage.

To be sure Israel is far superior than its neighbors in terms of women’s rights.  This does not mean, however, that this battle should be forgotten, or the struggle avoided.  There are other examples of the increasing Haredization of Judaism in Israel.  Some extremist settler rabbis have begun to speak about the lives of Jews as more precious than that of others, thereby betraying the Torah’s principle that all human beings are created in God’s image.  Still it appears that the greatest fault line exists over women’s rights.

I do not wish to debate who understands the tradition better and who can cite texts to support their position with greater authority.  I can cite Jewish tradition as to why there should not be such limits on women’s rights.  I can quote some of my Orthodox colleagues who are slowly changing things in their own community (see especially Dov Linzer’s New York Times article for evidence of this).  That as well is not my interest.

What makes me a Reform rabbi is that I can stand here and say that thousands of years of Jewish tradition is wrong and it needs to change.   This is the essence of Reform—we must reform the tradition, we must change it.  In a nutshell, Reform places change front and center.  Our first response is to reform what in our judgment is wrong.  As a contrast our Conservative friends place conserving the tradition first.  Their first response is to preserve the tradition.  Change is a last resort and even then it is dressed up as reinterpretation, or the rediscovery of a minority opinion.

Such distinctions are matters of differences between friends.  Reform, Conservative and Orthodox seek to live as Jews in the modern world.  All attempt to make their way both as Jews and moderns.  Our differences should not be with our Conservative and Orthodox friends.  Our differences are instead with the Haredi, the ultra-Orthodox, who shun everything modern.  They wish to live in a world only of yesteryear.

They wish to define Judaism not just for themselves but for all Jews.  They wish to write liberal Jews out of their world, and even out of the Jewish world.  Some years ago one rabbi said, “Only one who believes in the God of Israel and in the Torah of Israel is entitled to be called by the name Jew.”  Another therefore declared, the world’s Jewish population is one million.  There is no room for pluralism or debate in their worldview.  How are we to respond to these battles within our own tradition and people?

First of all I must say, I will not resort to violence even if they do.  I cannot argue or reason with these ultra-Orthodox Jews.  With a fundamentalist of any stripe reason openness to other opinions is not an option.  The values of ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, and am echad, one people, do not extend to Jews who act or believe differently than they do. 

I must therefore support efforts to bring to justice those who use violence to force their views on others.  In Israel I must support efforts to change the political system so that ultra-Orthodox parties no longer have undo influence over Israel’s political decisions.  I must support efforts to bring the ultra-Orthodox into a modern, working society—no more exemptions from the army, no more exemptions from work in favor of study.  Still these are not my most important responses.

Most important I must remain secure in my identity.  I must not look to the right or the left for approval.  No one can say how I am to live my Jewish life.  If I remain secure in my Jewish identity then it does not matter what others say.  I cannot build my Jewish life on the opinions of others—only on my own.

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman’s new book is called The God who Hates Lies.  In it he argues that both God and the self hate lies.  A Jewish identity is first and foremost built on honesty.  He writes: “The tradition itself, compared by the midrash to living waters, contains powerful and plentiful theological resources for responding to the shifting cultural landscapes of our ever-emerging historical drama.  For too long these waters have sat stagnant, awaiting a community of inheritors, a living tzibur, sufficiently confident, willing, and thirsty to tap into them.”

That is our only answer—to be both confident and thirsty.  Confident in our identity.  Thirsty for a better tomorrow.  I must not rest until that thirst is sated. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bo

The tenth and final plague is wrenching.  Who among us could imagine a worse punishment?  The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare.  It was Pharaoh’s as well.

“In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.  And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30)

Such is the suffering of my enemies. The years in which we now live have given rise to many would be Pharaohs who seek to destroy all that we love.  There are too many who declare themselves our enemies.  Even though much has been accomplished to forestall their designs, we must remain forever vigilant.  Yet I wonder, can we sympathize with the pain of these Pharaohs while still remaining vigilant?

Let us be clear about the moral questions we face.  It is legitimate to kill our enemies.  Our nation’s leaders must continue to make every effort to protect us.  The Talmud admonishes us: “If someone comes to kill you, get up earlier to kill him first.”   Yet there is a moral distinction between the legitimacy of killing our enemies and celebrating this fact.  The celebration of the death of any human being is an act to be shunned.  Judaism teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image.  No one is greater than another because all human beings are descended from the same parents, namely Adam and Eve.  All life is precious.  Every life is of equal value.

We should be filled with remorse that we are forced to kill others in order to protect ourselves.   There is as well a distinction between killing to protect our nation’s citizens and killing to mete out justice.  In a democracy justice must remain the province of the courts not the military.   We have every moral right to kill in order to protect.  We do not have this same right to kill quickly and decisively in order to punish.  The killing, for example, of Osama bin Laden (y”s) was justified because it helps to prevent his minions from attacking us again.  We might never again be victimized by his genocidal aims.

It felt satisfying however because it appeared just punishment for his responsibility in the murder of our fellow New Yorkers, the far too many innocent people who were so ruthlessly murdered on 9-11.  This emotional satisfaction confounds our ethical judgments.  It comes to masquerade as moral legitimacy.  Make no mistake.  Punishment can only be justified when sanctioned by courts of justice, never by force of arms. 

I expect the military to protect me.  I expect judges and juries to punish those who wrong me.

Thus Pharaoh’s pain and suffering appears unjustified.  Forgive my chutzpah but the tenth plague seems unwarranted and overly harsh.  How can any wrong justify the taking of the life of a child, even the child of one as evil as Pharaoh, even the child of the enemy who seeks my destruction? 

These deaths satisfy only our emotional need for punishment at best, and revenge at worst.  The death of these countless Egyptians might be emotionally satisfying, but remain morally illegitimate.  Our tradition of course insists that we not celebrate their deaths.  At our seders we remove a drop of wine to signify the lessening of our joy.   We recognize the suffering even of our tormentors.  But can there ever be enough drops taken from our cups of wine to render this act legitimate?

Today we can have sympathy for the suffering of our enemies while not shying away from what must be done to protect ourselves. We must teach over and over again that it is never a sign of weakness to have sympathy for someone else’s pain.

We sympathize even with the pain of our enemies.  Still we refuse to ask the most important questions facing our age.  Everyday we read in our papers that another was killed in this never-ending war on terror, we must ask was this killing justified?  Did it live up to the moral measure of offering us more protection?  Or was it merely done to satisfy our emotional need for immediate punishment?

These are the questions of today.  Dare we ask these questions of our Torah as well?

Vaera Sermon

This week’s Torah portion is Vaera.  In it Moses goes before Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go free.  It is rarely noted that Moses is 80 years old when he first appears before Pharaoh.  It is interesting that both Abraham and Moses achieved greatness during their older, retirement years.  Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that achievements are not of youth and strength and vigor, but of age and wisdom.  It is only after years of toil and learning that one can really achieve something of historical weight.

We also read of the first six plagues—namely blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle plague and boils.  This is preceded by what might be called dueling magic tricks.  Moses and Aaron compete with the Egyptian magicians, each performing magic tricks to impress Pharaoh.  There is the Bible’s age old favorite of turning a staff into a snake.  And this of course raises the question of magic and miracles.

The first answer is that it is called a miracle if it is our side.  If it is the other guy then it is magic, or even worse, sorcery.  If to our benefit, then it is God’s miracle.  If to theirs then there are only two possible choices.  It is only an apparent benefit.  It only looks like a good thing.   Or it is not a miracle but magic.  Thus miracles are really only a matter of perspective.  Perhaps if we look at something differently it will be seen as a miracle.  This is one lesson we can draw from the portion.  Look at the world differently and you will see many more miracles.  With such eyes even every sunrise can be seen as a miracle.

Finally there is the question about staffs and snakes.  How can a staff turn into a snake?
Do we believe in magic?  Do we believe in superstitions?

The simple answer is Jews do believe in such things, but Judaism does not.  There are so many bendles and hamsas and they are indeed becoming even more popular.  Before I share my views I must offer a measure of full disclosure.  Although I oppose such superstitions as too easy of answers, and Judaism certainly opposes such simple paths, I admit that before my children were born, I placed bendles everywhere.  They were on their cribs and even sewn into some of their clothes and tied to their backpacks.  Although I did not believe in such superstitions I certainly was not going to test the theory on my kids!

I also still recall what Ari’s kindergarten teacher taught him years ago.  Here is that whole story.  I was on my way to Israel during the worst days of the intifada.  I was about to leave on a solidarity mission.  I ended up being there when the Moment Café was bombed and other such horrible acts occured.  Ari was understandably nervous.  His teacher comforted him with the words your dad can’t be harmed if he is performing a mitzvah.  And so his entire class collected money so that I could serve as their shaliach in giving tzedakah.  If they helped to make sure that I was busy performing a mitzvah I would then be protected.

There is this custom of giving tzedakah to someone traveling, especially to Israel.  The traveler is then offered extra protection.  The theory is that they are in the midst of performing a mitzvah and so can’t be harmed.  The rabbis counsel, “Tzedakah tatzil mimavet—tzedakah saves from death.”  Ari’s class would make sure that this theory was given life on my journey.  I refrained from debating this theology at that moment.  It gave Ari comfort and so I supported it.  Even if a superstition, it provided comfort, and so why should I debate it?

I think this is why there are a great many superstitions surrounding death and mourning.  There is the most common custom of covering mirrors.  Most likely its origin is that people used to believe that spirits lived in mirrors.  But really it just adds comfort to follow the tradition’s to do list.  It is also explained that at such times one should not be thinking about how one looks.  Still it is the comfort we seek.

And that in the final analysis is my view about such superstitions and trinkets.  They can give you an extra measure of comfort.  They can grant you an extra dose of confidence.  But they can’t be the only answer.  There is no such thing as a protective bubble.  There is no such thing as an easy, simple answer or path.

Tzedakah cannot save us from physical death.  No one can be rescued from that.  Tzedakah, and mitzvot, and good deeds, can save us from a death of the spirit.  That is always in our own hands.  The protective bubble while tempting is not in our hands.  We can only control how we live our lives.

Tzedakah tatzil mimavet—tzedakah saves us from death is not a theological statement.  It is instead a command.  Work hard so that tzedakah can save you from a spiritual death.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Vaera

“Does kissing a stingray bring you good luck? Or breaking a mirror bring you bad?” a seventh grader recently asked. Thus began a conversation about superstitions. We talked about bendles and hamsas. We discussed the common middle school superstition of placing a spoon underneath your pillow and wearing your pajamas inside out to bring on a snow day.

I challenged our 7th graders to a friendly bet. Knowing the next day’s forecast, I suggested that our students place a spoon under their pillow to make it snow. If it did indeed snow I would donate one dollar to tzedakah for each student. If it did not snow they would each have to bring in a dollar to place in the tzedakah box. They refused the challenge saying, “There has to be snow in the forecast for it to work.” I wondered aloud, “Then why not just watch the Weather Channel?”

I challenged them further. “If you are wearing a red string on your wrist, is it then safe to run out into the street?” One student of course said, “It depends on which street we are talking about.” When I responded the LIE, all responded, “Of course not. That would be really dangerous?” So does a bendle provide a protective bubble around a person? Clearly not, our students agreed.

How then do such superstitions work? Do Jews believe in magic?

“Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent. …[A]nd the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells; each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods.” (Exodus 7:10-12) This week’s portion makes the point that our magic is superior to the Egyptian’s. Their magic is but sorcery. The Torah suggests that magic is what the other guy does. Miracles are what we do. Whether it is God’s hand or sorcery, miracles or magic, grace or superstition is perhaps only a matter of perspective.

Thus we believe in miracles but not superstitions. Miracles reach from heaven to earth. Superstitions suggest the reverse direction. While prayer might move upward, mastery of the divine does not. We cannot control the heavens by the wearing of a string or blue stoned jewelry. We do not invite bad fortune by breaking a mirror. We are not granted a year of good mazel by kissing a stingray.

I asked our seventh graders, “Will wearing a bendle guarantee you 100% on a test?” A wise seventh grader responded, “It might help give you some extra confidence.” There is great truth in this insight. If combined with study and learning, then a bracelet or necklace could indeed help. If it is a substitute for hard work then it is guaranteed to fail.

Superstitions play into the notion that no one chooses the more difficult path. Everyone likes the easy road. The current fascination with Kabbalah, and the trinkets its mystics hawk, is a symptom of our culture’s attraction with easy answers and simple paths. Judaism is anything but. It is instead serious. It is complicated. And yes it is also overwhelming and demanding.

Some of these same 7th graders heard these demands and helped to feed the hungry last month. I don’t know if they wore bendles or hamsas. I suspect some might have even kissed the same stingray that I kissed in Grand Cayman. I do know that their hands were busy for hours baking desserts for the hungry. I do know that their hands were overwhelmed serving the homeless and fulfilling Judaism’s demand that we better our world.

I also know that they did not tire. And that is Judaism—always the hard work, never the easy path, forever demanding, but also promising great rewards, found not in a year of guaranteed good luck, but in a moment of helping others.

Addendum: Here is the picture of your rabbi kissing a stingray. By the way the tattoo is a spray paint tattoo and a result of my very important job as Uncle Steve.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shemot

The moment arrives for all parents.  No longer are they called by their names.  They are known only in relation to their children.  “Oh hi, you must be Shira’s father.  Are you Ari’s dad?”

It was the same for Moses’ parents.  “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son…” (Exodus 2:1-2)  It is not until next week’s portion, after Moses speaks with God at the burning bush, that we learn the names of our greatest hero’s parents.  “Amram took to wife his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses.” (Exodus 6:20)

Interestingly the revealing of this detailed information follows the revelation of God’s name.  Moses of course learns God’s name at the burning bush.  After this moment we then learn the names of Moses’ parents.  There are however even more curious details about names in the opening of the Book of Exodus. Moses is not named by his parents, but instead by Pharaoh’s daughter when she rescues him from the Nile.  “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son.  She named him Moses, explaining, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” (Exodus 2:10)
And finally, the name of this week’s portion is Shemot, Names.  So what is in a name?   And how do we earn the names by which we are called?  The Israeli poet Zelda writes:
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and give by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

What we are called is a mixture of many things.  Our wrongs name us.  Even the mountains name us. The clothes we wear, our work, our simchas, our loves all add to our name.  Our names are not merely words given to us by our parents, or as in Moses’ case, his adopted mother.  They represent an accumulation of all our experiences.

Rabbi Shimon concurs: “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of Royalty.  The crown of a good name surpasses them all.” (Pirke Avot 4:17)  A good name is even better than mastering Torah!

And how is a good name achieved?  There is only one way.  It is through righteous action.  It is through performing good deeds.  A good name must be unqualified.  It should never be “He achieved great things, but…  She had many successes, but remember that one time…”

Still my favorite names are those I earn through my children.  They represent any parents’ greatest successes.  I am happy to be known only as Shira and Ari’s father.  And I imagine Moses’ parents felt the same.  This is why their names were not publicized until after Moses achieved some measure of greatness and after he discovered God at the burning bush.

For parents their greatest recognition comes through their children!  It is because in these names my recognition depends not on my own good deeds but instead upon my children’s.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Vayechi Sermon

This week we read the final Torah portion of Genesis.  In it both Jacob and Joseph die.  Joseph dies at the portion’s conclusion.  Interestingly he is not buried in the land of Israel until the people are freed from Egypt over 400 years later after their slavery.  Jacob however is taken to the land immediately after his death.  The family travels there to bury him in Hebron’s Cave of Machpaleh.

Prior to this Jacob gathers his children together for a final blessing.  His words read more like prophecy than blessing.  Let’s look at a few of the words he offers to his children.

To his firstborn Reuben he says,
Reuben, you are my first born,
My might and first fruit of my vigor,
Exceeding in rank
And exceeding in honor.
Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…

And,
Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen….

At first glance we must admit that Jacob does not offer such kinds words to his sons.  Talk about a father who had unreasonable expectations of his children!  Or perhaps he was just being honest with his children about their faults.  Both of these blessings are actually connected to the sons’ earlier failures.  Simeon and Levi of course attacked Shechem after Dinah was raped.  They took the law into their own hands.

And to the fourth son, Judah, from whom we trace our lineage because it is from the tribe of Judah that we derive the term Jew, Jacob says these words:
You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise:
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you…
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet;
So that tribute shall come to him
And the homage of peoples be his.

Biblical scholars would suggest that these words were authored after the success or failures of the particular tribes could be seen.  They were not spoken by Jacob, but written later as his words.  But our question is not about the historical accuracy of the vision.  It is instead about the insights they offer into personality traits.

The Torah offers strong evidence that the descendants of Levi for example are given to anger.  Moses, the most famous of Levites, is the best example.  He is of course punished for hitting the rock in anger.  He is not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of this.  Is his example the realization of Jacob’s words to Levi?

Our question is thus about character.  How much of our nature is pre-wired?  What of our character is genetics?  We have come to learn a great deal about genetics.  We know that many diseases have genetic markers.  Even eating habits and metabolism have strong genetic components.  (Read last week’s New York Times magazine for more about this discussion about obesity and genetics.)

Are traits such as anger also pre-wired?  I am sure many parents have heard statements come from their mouths that they promised themselves as children they would never say as parents.  Then when they become parents they hear the words of their mother or father coming out of their mouths.  Is this a matter of wiring?  Or is it instead a matter of we can only learn how to be parents from our own parents?

Could it be true that so much of our personalities are pre-wired?  The Torah would seem to suggest yes.  The Levites are given to great anger.  Their fate is written in this week’s portion.  Every Levite who follows becomes living proof of Jacob’s prophecy.

One of my favorite novels, A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr Mani deals with this theme.  Despite everyone’s best efforts in this novel what happens to them appears pre-ordained.  The Israeli author is asking, can we really control our own destiny, can we really write a new history for the Jewish people?

In this view our lives become a futile attempt to fight against our destinies.  I however refuse to believe this.  And despite the Torah’s stories and Jacob’s prophecy, I would suggest that Judaism does not believe this as well.  We can indeed write our own destiny.  Even with the genetic cards stacked against us, even if we are wired to eating too much—or given too much anger—we can escape what is written for us, and write something different for ourselves.

This is the essence of what we are supposed to be doing on the High Holidays.  We don’t just pray and fast on those days.  We are supposed to do much more.  We are supposed to try to change ourselves, to improve ourselves, to write a new chapter for ourselves in a new year.

The temptation is to give in to our genes.  As we discover more and more about our wiring, this temptation will grow even stronger.  I can’t lose weight, we might say, it is in my genes.  My anger is not my fault; it is instead my father’s.  I can’t control myself, it is my addiction, it is written in my wiring.  We must fight this temptation. We must summon the willpower to write our own stories, rather than follow the script written by our ancestors, or that written by our biology.

There is a hidden message as well, concealed in this week’s Torah portion.  We read that Jacob also blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Jacob gives the younger of the two, Ephraim, the more favored blessing.  Jacob places his right hand, in ancient times the hand of power, on the youngest grandson.  This of course is contrary to the laws of inheritance.  It was always the oldest we received the greater blessing.  Joseph objects to his father’s choice, but Jacob insists that it is correct.  It is not because he is blind, as his son suggests.  He in fact sees very clearly.  The younger should receive greater blessings than the older.  Thus the expected story is rewritten by Jacob’s hands.

Most interesting, it is this blessing that we emulate when blessing our sons on Shabbat evening.  As we place our hands on their heads, we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”  In this blessing we even preserve the inverted order.  In each successive generation we affirm that the story is not always written from birth.  It is not wired by birth order, or even genetics.  It can be rewritten by our own hands.  That is what we say each and every time we place our hands on our children’s heads.  We say to our children, “You can write a different story for yourselves!”

Friday, January 6, 2012

Vayechi

There is a flash of anger that runs through Israel’s priestly class.  It begins with Jacob’s children and courses through the tribe of Levi.

In this week’s portion, Jacob gathers his children and grandchildren to his deathbed to offer final blessings.  “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.  Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly.  For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. (Genesis 49:5-6)

Such are the words Jacob offers to his sons Simeon and Levi.  And it is the descendants of Levi who become the Levites and the priestly custodians of the ritual cult.  Weeks ago we read of Simeon and Levi’s rage when they killed Shechem and his followers.  (Genesis 34) The brothers were enraged that Shechem had raped their sister Dinah.  Jacob however continues to worry that their anger will prove to be their undoing and unravel his legacy.

In fact anger can be our undoing.

Even Moses stands guilty of this sin.  Because of his anger he dies with his dreams partly unfulfilled.  He is not allowed to venture into the Promised Land because he lashed out at the people he leads.  When the Israelites clamored for water he strikes a rock and screams at them.  (Numbers 20)

Moses is as well from the tribe of Levi.  Is anger his family’s destiny?

We also read of Phinehas who is so angered by his countrymen that when they begin to follow the practices of the Midianites by offering their sacrifices and “whoring after the Midianite women” that he, like his predecessors before him, kills an Israelite man and a Midianitie woman while they are lying in bed.  (Numbers 25) Is anger and impassioned vengeance the tribe of Levi’s M.O?  Israel’s priestly class appears framed by anger.

Then again perhaps these stories are meant as warnings.  Perhaps the Torah connects these episodes by a family lineage so as to fulfill the warnings of Jacob.  The Torah is a balm against the destiny of anger.   Examine its conclusion.  Its greatest hero dies at the edge of his dream, on the steppes of Mount Nebo, on the boundaries of the land of Israel.  He does not touch his life long quest because of anger.  Check your anger if you want to fulfill your dreams, the Torah suggests.

Still I wonder how much of our destinies are shaped by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents?   How much of Moses and Phinehas are shaped by Simeon and Levi?  Is anger a matter of genetics?  Can we overcome our destiny?  There are times when each of us sees our parents and grandparents in our own actions.  I recognize my father’s rage in my own.  I see my grandfather in my angered silence.

Is our destiny written by our parents and grandparents?  Do Simeon and Levi forever shape their family’s destiny?  Do Jacob’s words seal the future of Israel’s priestly class?  The great Israeli author, A.B. Yehoshua suggests in his novel, Mr. Mani, that we cannot escape what is written for us.  Our lives are a struggle against what is already codified by our ancestors.  We try in vain to wrest new paths against our destinies.

I however continue to believe otherwise.  I see the Torah’s conclusion and Jacob’s words as a warning against the dangers of anger.  It can be our undoing.  The priestly class can become unraveled.  A flash of anger can destroy dreams.  Even when anger is justified, it never serves the future.  “Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless.  I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:7)