Thursday, December 31, 2015

Shemot, Kiddush and Kaddish

This week we begin the most significant of books, Exodus. While Genesis is filled with stories about our patriarchs and matriarchs, Leviticus with the laws of holiness, Numbers with the tribulations of wandering in the desert and Deuteronomy with a litany of everyday commandments, Exodus contains the most formative of our stories. It is here that we become a people when God takes us out from Egypt. It is this episode that we recount every year at our Passover Seders and every Shabbat when we join together in the kiddush.

And yet the book’s Hebrew name suggests nothing of this significance. In Hebrew it is called: Shemot—Names. On one level this is because a book’s (or portion’s) Hebrew names is given by its first most significant word. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah…” it begins. Not the dramatic beginning one might expect from the most important of our stories. Then again a great drama can unfold from the most ordinary of opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville famously wrote.

Then again what value is hidden within this opening verse? Perhaps it is not the story that the Torah portion begins to relate for us but instead the lesson. We begin our story by remembering our forefathers. This stands in stark contrast to our enemies. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” the portion also relates. Our suffering begins to unfold. It is triggered by forgetfulness. We know many names. He forgets one name.

Thus Exodus begins with remembrance and turns on forgetfulness. And herein lies the lesson. If we remember we cannot never forget who we are or what we are about. Exodus begins with the simplest of remembrances: recounting the names of our ancestors. It is as if to say: name your parents, grandparents and great grandparents. “Blessed are You Adonai our God, God our ancestors: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Rachel and God of Leah…” we begin the Amidah each and every time we gather to pray.

The Book of Exodus turns on the following. We remember. They forget.

The message becomes clearer. Remembering is the secret to our redemption. God commands: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” the Torah repeats over and over and again.

That lesson begins with a list of names.

And it is reaffirmed every time we recite kaddish.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Vayehi, Barnacles and Blessings

Judaism categorically believes that people can change, that they can examine their ways and correct their failings. We do not believe in fate. We contend that our destiny remains in our hands. Otherwise the High Holidays, and the centrality of their message of repentance and turning, would be meaningless. We believe in the possibility of self-renewal. And yet people behave as if we think otherwise.

John W. Gardner once observed in quoting another author: “’The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it's going to live. Once it decides it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.’ End of quote. For a good many of us, it comes to that.”

This week we read about the blessings Jacob offers to each of his children. “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.’ The more we read in the portion the more their destinies appear pre-ordained. Their fates seem bound to prior deeds. His blessings mirror popular sentiment that our character is unchanging.

To his eldest Jacob proclaims: “Reuben, you are my first-born, the might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and excelling in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…” To his youngest Jacob says: “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he consumes the foe, and in the evening he divides the spoil.“ (Genesis 49)

This is not the Torah we teach. This is not the tradition we uphold. We are not barnacles!

And what was Reuben’s sin? He slept with his father’s concubine. One sin, one mistake and Reuben’s destiny is shattered. His good fortune is reversed. His father’s blessing becomes a curse. Where is the forgiveness? Where is the opportunity for change? Jacob echoes popular belief. He gives voice to the fact that too often we bury our heads in the sand, we blame the machinations of others, we offer excuses about circumstances and complain about the troubles of fate. We act as if our destiny is written in stone. Reuben is destined for no good, Jacob declares.

But we are not our forefather’s sons. And we need not be barnacles. Our destiny is not to be found in the stars. No matter how terrible, and seemingly unforgiveable, the sin we can give shape to a new story. Our lives can be shaped by our own hands. They are not written by parents or grandparents. They are not ordained by prior generations.

Where is this Torah to be discovered? Where is the belief that we can rewrite our future? It is found in Jacob’s sons as well. It is discovered when they turn and stand up for their youngest brother Benjamin. They do not allow him to be thrown in jail as they did years earlier with Joseph. It is uncovered when Judah says in effect: “Take me instead.” This is the model of repentance we teach. We can change. We can make a turn. We can redeem even the most desperate of circumstances. We can reshape our lives and renew our souls.

John Gardner again:
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.
We need not live as if we are barnacles. Blessings are to be found in our very own hands.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Vayigash and Suffering's Promise

While Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham jail he penned a letter to his fellow clergy explaining why he thought it necessary to engage in civil disobedience. He criticized their vocal opposition to his efforts saying that religion must serve the cause of justice rather than maintaining the status quo. In King’s lengthy “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he wrote:
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.
These soaring words gain even more spiritual power because they emerge from jail, because they come out of suffering. The essence of King’s message is captured in the words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” A man wrongly imprisoned can better affirm such sentiments. His suffering adds an exclamation point to the words. A depth of meaning emerges from his experience.

We discover echoes of these feelings in this week’s Torah portion. There Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Recall that the brothers threw Joseph in a pit, sold him into slavery where he was again jailed by his taskmasters. And yet Joseph says to his brothers: “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 45:5)

Although Joseph had every right to be angry, and every reason to be unforgiving, he chose instead to see God’s hand in the jail cell that he occupied. He chose to see hope. He thereby redeems his pain and suffering. This is the quintessential Jewish move. We shout blessings at pain. We give thanks despite suffering. Jewish history attests to Martin Luther King’s words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

For centuries we exclaimed that even if the body is imprisoned, even if our people are oppressed, we cannot be defeated if we fill our hearts with songs and our souls with gratitude.

Perhaps only someone who experiences such suffering and pain can change the world. I therefore discover renewed faith in the Malala Yousafzais and the Natan Sharanskys. And only a people who endures oppression can serve as prophets to a troubled and fractured world.

Martin Luther King again writes: “I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”

We continue to sing and pray.

“The goal of America is freedom.”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hanukkah and Hope

This evening begins the fifth night of Hanukkah.

Many are celebrating with the giving of presents and the eating of latkes (or perhaps sufganiyot). Some are also enjoying the playing of dreidel. The tradition requires only the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah preceded by the appropriate blessings. The lights are placed in the window to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah for all to see.

For centuries this holiday was downplayed.  It was simple in its observance. Yet it was profound in its message. Hanukkah reminds us that hope is always possible. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles is about adding light during the darkest times of the year, and throughout the darkest moments of our history.

In the Talmud two great rabbis argue about how best to light the Hanukkah lights...

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Vayeshev and Making History

Jewish history hinges on the Joseph story that begins this week. Because of the jealousy and hatred between Joseph and his brothers they sell him into slavery in Egypt where he rises to prominence. Eventually his family follows him there. The Jewish people then build comfortable lives in Egypt until a new Pharaoh comes to power. As the Torah recounts, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The people are enslaved. Their cries reach to heaven and so God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. The rest of the story is all too familiar.

It turns on Joseph. It depends on the moment Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It also revolves around an unnamed man. Let me explain.

Jacob sent Joseph out to the fields to look for his brothers. He apparently had difficulty finding them. “When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?’ The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.” (Genesis 37:15-17)

If not for this stranger Joseph might never have found his brothers. They might not have sold him into slavery. Then the Jewish people might never have arrived in Egypt and become enslaved there. And we might never have drawn so much inspiration from our Passover Seders and the retelling of our going out from Egypt.

Moses Maimonides suggests that the stranger is an angel. How else could one explain that all of Jewish history, and for that matter world history, turns on his directions? For this medieval thinker it could only be a divine messenger who sets Joseph on the proper course. For Maimonides the stranger could therefore only be an angel.

And yet I would like to think that this man could be anyone.

Perhaps it is the unknown, unnamed strangers upon which history turns. Their names are never known. History books do not even record their deeds. And yet history could never be written without their guiding hand.

Far too many people aspire to fame. They wish to be the ones who write history, whose names are recorded in the history books. They worry about their legacy. They spend precious hours wondering if they will be remembered for good. Yet often it is the unnamed stranger who points the direction. And it is upon their shoulders that history actually turns.

There is more that depends on the unnamed. I might never have noticed these verses, or the mention of this man, if not for the young parents who asked to study this week’s Torah portion in preparation for their son’s bar mitzvah. If not for their eyes and especially their questions, this stranger might have remained hidden from view.

Perhaps it is the hidden, and unnamed, upon which our learning turns and upon which history revolves.

You never know where the directions you offer might lead. You never know where the questions you ask might take others.