Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vayishlach and Forever Esau

The Jewish people trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac and in particular Jacob. He is the father of the twelve tribes. In this week’s portion he gains the name Israel by wrestling with a divine being. His brother, Esau, is forever our enemy. According to Jewish tradition our many enemies can be traced to Isaac’s first-born son.

Esau is seen as the ancestor of the Edomites who aligned themselves with the Babylonians and destroyed the First Temple. The tradition as well sees the Romans as descendants of Esau who destroyed the Second Temple and views Jacob’s only brother as the ancestor of our later enemies, even modern European antisemites. The midrash comments: “We went looking for a brother, but instead found Esau, armed and hostile in a very non-brotherly manner.” All our enemies begin with Esau.

There are days, most especially during these past weeks, when my dreams are haunted by this tradition. Must Esau forever be my enemy? Will this enmity continue to be my future? Is this the history that we are condemned to live? I am a descendant of Jacob. My enemies forever bear the imprint of Esau. Our brother exclaims, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)

The world, however, appears to reverse this narrative, casting Jews and Israelis as the oppressor Esau. Mahatma Gandhi, a hero to many young college students, once wrote that only the Arabs were the rightful inhabitants of Palestine. He viewed the Zionist settlers as colonialists. He advocated that Jewish settlers practice non-violence in order to win over the hearts of the Arabs. Ghandi also thought that the Jews of Germany should follow a similar practice in response to what was in 1938 the emerging Nazi onslaught.

His views were of course dangerously naive. Zionism is about the willingness, and historical necessity, but not I pray inevitably, of defending Jewish lives in the face of enemies bent our destruction. Ghandi refused to divide the world into friend and foe. Our lot, we have learned, is far different. I am Jacob. My brother remains Esau. Then again perhaps the world should not be divided into such polarities. Perhaps we require different categories, and no longer either Jacob or Esau. If I view everyone else as Esau, and my enemy, do I then participate in damning my people to this eternal cycle of violence, hatred and war?

The Jewish philosopher and founder of Hebrew University, Martin Buber, responded to Ghandi by saying that that no land belongs to any people. “The conquered land is, in my opinion, only lent even to the conqueror who has settled on it—and God waits to see what he will make of it.”

Buber, unlike the majority of Zionists, argued for a bi-national state, a state with a shared place for Jews and Palestinians. It is a vision of Zionism long since discredited by the overwhelming majority of Israelis. How could such a state then have a decidedly Jewish character? Still there must always be a place for Arabs within a Jewish and democratic state.

This Sunday, we will mark the day (November 29, 1947) on which the United Nations argued that there should indeed be a place for Palestinian national aspirations, not within the Jewish state, but instead alongside it. Decades of war, terrorism and bloodshed suggest this is impossible. These past weeks cause our hearts to understandably become hardened. As we read about more youth, about Ezra Schwartz and Hadar Buchris for example, the prophetic vision of the wolf and the lamb becomes even more distant and that of Jacob and Esau becomes increasingly more real. We become despondent. The philosopher Martin Buber refused to lose hope.

And so we continue to ask, “Even after the knife attacks, the deaths of young students and the public calls for our destruction, can we still find hope?”

“And Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)

The Torah offers a measure of hope.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Vayetzei, Paris and Fears

Fear is insidious. It wears at our hearts. It gnaws at our loves. This is the goal of terrorists. Those who murder in their metastasized faith’s name seek to destroy our values and our enjoyments by these random acts of horrific violence. They attack the ordinary and everyday.

We mourn the brutal murders of over 129 souls in Paris, and 43 in Beirut, as well as the daily slaughter of innocents throughout the Middle East and Africa. We must not forget that what was perpetrated in Paris occurs on a daily basis in Syria. Over 100 people are killed every day in that country’s civil war, often in a similarly gruesome fashion. In Israel Palestinian terrorists continue to attack with knives. Today in Tel Aviv two Jews were murdered while praying and another three elsewhere in Israel.

We live in frightening times. Terror can be debilitating...

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

In addition I continue to remain steadfast in believing the words and prayers I offered at a recent 911 Memorial Ceremony.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Toldot, Blindness and Faith

One of the central questions about our forefather Isaac’s life is what he sees. Is he truly blind or does he prefer to close his eyes to reality? His life is framed by the Torah’s words: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27)

It is an important question for our own lives as well. Author Margaret Heffernan writes:
Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. (Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril)
The Torah concurs. This week we read that Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob rather than his rightful heir Esau. His wife Rebekah conspires with Jacob, cooking Isaac’s favorite dish and urging Jacob to ask for the first-born’s blessing. Jacob approaches his father and lies. He says, “I am Esau your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” Isaac asks some more questions. He has some wine and eats Rebekah’s brisket. (Ok, maybe it wasn't brisket.) One wonders: does Isaac not recognize the taste of his beloved wife’s cooking?

The story mirrors an earlier tale. The questions sound familiar. In the Akedah, as Isaac and Abraham are walking towards Mount Moriah, Isaac asks, “Father! Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham responds, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering my son.” (Genesis 22) Does Abraham also lie? Does he instead believe, as later transpires, that God will stay his hand at the final moment?

More importantly what does Isaac believe? Does he choose not to see the truth; does he choose blindness over embracing the zealotry of his father? Heffernan reiterates: “So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial.” The ancient rabbis do not embrace such an interpretation. They cannot. They see Isaac instead as a willing participant. Moreover they calculate that Isaac is 37 years old at the time of the Akedah. In their view Isaac and Abraham embrace God’s demand as one. The Torah states: “And the two walked together as one.” Their devotion is unified. One harrowing rabbinic legend even goes so far as to suggest that Isaac pleads, “Father, please bind me to the altar so that I do not spoil the sacrifice.”

And yet we live in a time of religious extremism, when parents appear to embrace the sacrifice of children on their faith’s altar. I do not know how else to see what we repeatedly view on the news. The command to Abraham becomes horrifying when read through the lens of contemporary events. We want to shout, “Isaac, open your eyes! Find a different path!”

How can we walk a different road? How does one continue to find meaning and healing in faith when confronted by such horrors? When does devotion become zealotry? I am left wondering, again and again. I continue asking. I embrace questioning. I choose to welcome uncertainties.

Heffernan continues:
It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia.
When we retreat from seeing, when we find comfort in the like-minded and are assuaged by conforming arguments, the scales begin to tip away from a reasoned faith. When we turn from a religious devotion that is at home with questions to one that is only filled with certainties we begin to walk towards fanaticism. Then piety too easily becomes zealotry and faith is transformed into something harrowing.

Perhaps there remains an answer to be uncovered. It emerges in the opening of eyes. It is awakened by seeing.

There is a solution for a world beset by religious monstrosities. It is discovered in the very same pages that give rise to the questions and even, I hesitantly add, the horrors. The Torah responds:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw…” (Genesis 22)

This is what God desires all along: to lift up our eyes and see for ourselves. Things are only certain when we choose blindness over seeing.

Truth is only beheld when we become one with uncertainty.


I would like to thank Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for this post's inspiration. Take an extra 15 minutes to watch Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Chayei Sarah, Swimming and Mourning

In memory of Susan Sirkman
In honor of Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman


“And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her…” (Genesis 23:2)

Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, a colleague and friend, who recently lost his beloved wife Susan to cancer made a telling comment about mourning. He said, “Emotionally there are times when it just hits you like a wave. That’s what mourning is. It’s a wave. But you get back up. You catch your breath. And you recognize that you can still navigate the waters.”

I find myself pondering this image. I remain enamored of the ocean and its waves.

It occurs to me that the waves only knock you down if you stand at the water’s edge. If instead you plunge into the ocean and run into the waves you cannot get knocked down. You have to swim beyond the shoreline. There you will find a spot where the waves do not wash you off your feet but instead gently rock you.

To someone who is tentative about the ocean or about swimming this may seem counterintuitive. The temptation is to run from the beach and its waves. Who wants to get knocked down over and over again? The impulse is to discard all keepsakes and memorabilia. It hurts too much to look at our loved one’s things. The pain and loss can at times make it impossible to get up. It becomes inconceivable that you can ever enjoy the ocean again.

Swimming into the waves requires some effort. Discovering that spot where the waves caress you rather than overwhelm you requires strength.

The ocean is always moving. It is unpredictable. The waves change each and every day, each and every hour. That magical spot, somewhere out at sea is different with each passing day. How can it be found? How can it be held on to? How does one gather the courage to venture forward into the crashing surf? How does one master such swimming if it is never the same? Every loss is unique. Every day is different.

People offer clichés, they suggest that time heals. It does not. They say such words because they do not know what else to say. Here is what I have come to learn. Over time the mourner figures out where to place the remembrances. You discover how to move forward without your loved one and with only the blessing of memories and the gifts of the stories you shared.

Over time you discover that you are a stronger swimmer than you imagined and that the waves are perhaps no longer so intimidating.

You long to find that spot where memories gently rock you.

Each time the waves are different. Finding the strength to swim must be discovered anew, each and every day.

Yehudah Halevi, the medieval poet, who risked his life to travel from Spain to the land of Israel, speaks of the sea and its waves. He writes: “Let not your heart tremble in the heart of the sea… Now the sea and the sky are pure, glittering ornaments upon the night. The sea is the colour of the sky—they are two seas bound together. And between these two, my heart is a third sea, as the new waves of my praise surge on high.” (The Poet Imagines His Journey)

Time does not offer healing. The gaping hole will always remain. The loss cannot be replaced. It cannot be filled with something else.

There does, however, come a day when the waves no longer appear so frightening and the sea appears instead inviting. There comes a day when its caress is welcome and the cries and the tears no longer feel so debilitating. There comes a day when praise and gratitude begin to emerge once again.

There comes a day, perhaps, when one’s heart is filled with thanks for the years shared, however long or even however short, and words of gratitude begin to emerge from our lips.

“Then Abraham arose from beside his dead, and spoke…” (Genesis 23:3)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yitzhak Rabin z"l

20 years ago today Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  That Saturday evening remains a dark stain in Jewish history.  

The reluctant peace that seemed nearly at hand in those days now seems even more distant.  In fact Rabin's greatest strength was that he did not wrap the Oslo Accords in messianic hopes but in the realistic aspirations of a soldier-statesman and the practical needs of the State of Israel.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he read a poem by Yehuda Amichai, written years earlier in 1955:
God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grownups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood. 
But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench. 
Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.
In Rabin's world view compassion was apparently a gift from one human being to another.  Amichai also participated in the ceremony.  He read the poem "Wildpeace."
...Let [peace] come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
Rabin, however, was never given to such dreaming and utopian visions.  This was his greatest strength.  This was why so many Israelis placed their hopes for peace on his shoulders.

At the peace rally at which he was murdered everyone joined in singing the famous peace song, "Shir LaShalom."  This song was composed in 1969 and became the unofficial anthem of Israel's peace movement and in particular Shalom Achshav-Peace Now.


The song was not without controversy.  In fact Generals Ariel Sharon and Rehavam Zeevi (later assassinated by Palestinian terrorists during the Second Intifada) banned the troops under their command from singing it.  This partly explains why a bloodied copy of the song's lyrics was found in Rabin's pocket.  He was unfamiliar with its words.

His reluctance, his apprehension, and even his distrust of Arafat and Palestinian leaders' intentions on the one hand and his conviction about what was in Israel's future interests made him unique among Israel's peacemakers and leaders.  He signed the accords because he believed this was the only way out for Israel, this was the only way for Israel to remain safe and secure, this was the only way for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.  Here are his sentiments in his own words:
Permit me to say that I am deeply moved. I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace. This government, which I am privileged to head, together with my friend Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance – a peace that will solve most of Israel's problems.

I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here – and they are many.

I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks for peace. In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence. Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated. This is not the way of the State of Israel. In a democracy there can be differences, but the final decision will be taken in democratic elections, as the 1992 elections which gave us the mandate to do what we are doing, and to continue on this course.

I want to say that I am proud of the fact that representatives of the countries with whom we are living in peace are present with us here, and will continue to be here: Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, which opened the road to peace for us. I want to thank the President of Egypt, the King of Jordan, and the King of Morocco, represented here today, for their partnership with us in our march towards peace.

But, more than anything, in the more than three years of this Government's existence, the Israeli people has proven that it is possible to make peace, that peace opens the door to a better economy and society; that peace is not just a prayer. Peace is first of all in our prayers, but it is also the aspiration of the Jewish people, a genuine aspiration for peace.

There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us, in order to torpedo the peace process. I want to say bluntly, that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians as well: the PLO, which was an enemy, and has ceased to engage in terrorism. Without partners for peace, there can be no peace. We will demand that they do their part for peace, just as we will do our part for peace, in order to solve the most complicated, prolonged, and emotionally charged aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This is a course which is fraught with difficulties and pain. For Israel, there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war. I say this to you as one who was a military man, someone who is today Minister of Defense and sees the pain of the families of the IDF soldiers. For them, for our children, in my case for our grandchildren, I want this Government to exhaust every opening, every possibility, to promote and achieve a comprehensive peace. Even with Syria, is will be possible to make peace.

This rally must send a message to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people around the world, to the many people in the Arab world, and indeed to the entire world, that the Israeli people want peace, support peace. For this, I thank you.
These were as well his last words.  His sentiments reverberate in my heart: "Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated."

We are today even farther from peace.


Shalom chaver!

May the One who brings peace in the high heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel--and to every being on this earth.

I continue to pray.

I stubbornly cling to hope.