Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Genesis of Brotherhood

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 far away 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) And 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.

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Peacemaking, Eventually!

The story of Hanukkah is a story of zealotry.

The Maccabees took up arms against the mighty Syrian-Greek army. They eventually defeat them and rededicate the Temple. Hanukkah means dedication. The Maccabees also battled against their coreligionists who were enamored of Greek culture. In fact the Maccabees first killed a fellow Jew who was attempting to offer a sacrifice to the king.

For the Maccabees there was no room for those who did not think like them. Either you were with them or against them. Either you were fighting with them or against them and if against them, then subject to their wrath. While such extreme devotion provided them with the passion to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds, it also divided the world into two distinct categories, us and them. Eventually everyone called they becomes the enemy.

And eventually, such passion becomes all consuming....

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Who Is Your Esau? Or Finding Better Angels

This week Jacob becomes Israel.

First he prepares to meet his brother Esau after years of separation, anger and distrust. Jacob is nervous about the impending reunion. When the brothers parted years ago Esau was filled with rage over Jacob’s stealing of the birthright. Esau even threatened to kill his brother. Then Jacob was young man, unmarried with no children. Now he is the father to many (and husband to Rachel and Leah). He is a wealthy man. Before the meeting between brothers, Jacob sends his family across a river.

He remains alone for the night.

Jacob was alone as well when he dreamed last week of a stairway leading to heaven with angels ascending and descending the steps. This time, however, he chooses solitude. Was it to contemplate the meeting? Would Esau forgive him? Would the brothers be reconciled?

He wrestles with an angel. Now it is not a dream. This struggle continues through the evening’s darkness. Dawn arrives. The divine being wrenches his hip and renames him, Israel. The name Israel means to wrestle with God.

The identity of the angel remains mysterious. Is it his brother Esau? That is a strong possibility given the day’s next meeting. The Torah offers little clarification: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)

Who is this being? Is it again an angel?

We join the Talmud’s debate. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani argued: The being appeared to him as a heathen. Rabbi Samuel ben Aha (in the name of Rabba ben Ulla) countered: He appeared to him as one of the wise. (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 91a) One rabbi argues that the being is an idolater. This is in keeping with a common rabbinic theme that Esau is synonymous with Israel’s later enemies, most particularly the Romans. Another argues that he is a hacham, one of the wise. Do these two views stand in opposition?

What does this say about our identities? We are of course the descendants of Israel.

In realizing our true identity we struggle with two facets. On the one hand we wrestle with the other, the foreigner. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani argues that Jacob struggles against his enemies. We too battle enemies. We struggle as well to name our enemies. Is it our brother Esau?

On the other hand we fight with what we hope to be. Rabbi Samuel ben Aha sees Jacob as wrestling with a rabbinic scholar. He views the angel in his own image. Is the struggle internal or external?

A truth emerges. We can achieve a new name for ourselves by pointing at others. Or we can find our name by looking within at ourselves. Is the being our enemy? Is it instead the enemy within?

Who are our angels?

With what do we struggle?

Who are our demons?

The struggle continues. We are Israel.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Stairway to Heaven (with Apologies to Led Zeppelin)

When we last met our forefather Jacob he was busy stealing the first born birthright from his brother Esau. He conspires with his mother Rebekah to outwit his blind father, Isaac. Confused, or willfully blind and therefore party to the deception, Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob. Upon discovering this Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah shouts, “Run! Get out of here. Go to your uncle’s home.”

And this is where we pick up the story. Jacob is on the run. He is on his way to Haran (in modern day Iraq) from Beersheva. He is alone. He is afraid. He stops for the night and prays the evening prayers (according to the rabbis). Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. He dreams of the Lord standing beside him. This offers Jacob reassurance.

God promises to protect him. God instructs him that his descendants will become as numerous as the dust of the earth and that the land on which he rests will become his people’s inheritance.

Jacob awakes from his dream and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28)

This story offers clues about how to access the divine. One seemingly small, but significant, piece of evidence can be found in the word “ladder”. In most translations sulam is rendered as ladder. Indeed in modern Hebrew this is the word used for ladder. In ancient Hebrew, however, sulam can also mean stairway.

There are significant differences between ladder and stairway.

Lots of people will not climb ladders and are even afraid of heights. In fact as I grow older I will no longer climb a ladder to clean the gutters. Now, I have to hire people to do this. Even though this was something I did with regularity, and even joy, when younger, I no longer feel confident climbing so high above the ground. A ladder is unsteady. It can be made of aluminum (or I assume, wood in ancient times) or even rope. Ladders require confidence (or perhaps youthful over-confidence) to climb. They demand a measure of courage.

Stairs by contrast are inviting. Everyone climbs stairs. You can run up them or take them slowly. You can even stop and take a rest on a step. If need be, you can take a step down before climbing back up. According to biblical scholars sulam can also be translated as ramp.

This seems a far better analogy for how we can touch God and approach the divine. This is more helpful for how we might bring holiness into our lives. It is not about courage. It is not about confidence. It is much more like the ordinary task of walking up and down steps.

You most certainly have to climb. You have to reach. You cannot sit still. You can stay in the same place. But everyone can do it.

One step at a time. Up and down. Sometimes, back down and then up again.

Stairs are within everyone’s reach. God is within everyone’s grasp.

“Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.”

Prayer of Tears

The poet Mary Oliver writes:

     Poems arrive ready to begin.
          Poets are only the transportation.

I am transported.

It was some years ago that my friend and I were enjoying a casual summer weekend at his pool. As we watched our young children play, we stood and talked in the pool’s shallow end. I casually mentioned a story about his father and a memory I recalled. His dad had wired the house with some sort of intercoms of his own creation–long before cellphones and Walkie-Talkies.

I still remember that moment. I still recall looking into my friend’s face....

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pantsuit Prayers!?

How does one pray to God?

The Rabbis respond. They offer interpretations. They search the Bible for examples. They dwell in particular on Hannah and her prayer for a child. Her words teach us how to petition God. In the Book of Samuel, which we read on Rosh Hashanah, Hannah pours out the bitterness of her soul (I Samuel 1). The Rabbis thought this to be the most heartfelt of prayers: a woman longing to give birth to a child.

Rabbi Eleazer even imagines Hannah saying:
Sovereign of the Universe, among all the things that You have created in a woman, You have not created one without a purpose, eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to work, legs with which to walk, breasts with which to nurse. (And I would add: a mind with which to think!) These breasts that You have put on my heart, are they not to nurse a child? Please, give me a child, so that I may nurture life. (Berachot 31b)
We read this week about Rebekah. She too has difficulty conceiving. Unlike Hannah, she does not pray for a child. Instead it is her husband Isaac who prays. Here, the Hebrew word “to pray” is not the usual l’hitpalel – often interpreted as to examine oneself – but va-yae’tar, to supplicate. The former connotes looking into one’s soul as one reaches toward God. The latter implies the more familiar image of falling on one’s knees and calling out to God.

And so Isaac prostrates himself in prayer. Both Isaac and Hannah’s prayers are answered. Each is granted a child. The prophet Samuel, who later anoints King David, is born to Hannah and Elkanah. Rebekah and Isaac are blessed with twins: Jacob and Esau.

When does Rebekah pray? Only after she conceives. She prays when she is in pain and the children struggle in her womb. She challenges God with the words, “If this is so, why do I exist? And she went to seek (l’drosh) the Lord.” (Genesis 25:22) Rebekah actively seeks out God. The image is not like that of Isaac and Hannah. Rebekah stands before God and demands that God explain her struggle. Why does it hurt so much? Why do these children fight with each other?

She calls God to account. What chutzpah! And God responds to her prayer with the words: “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

The response to Hannah’s prayer is a child. To Rebekah’s prayer, God offers words. God answers Rebekah’s prayer with a promise that comes to shape the destiny of her children and her children’s children. Rebekah takes these very words to heart when she instructs her son Jacob to trick Esau out of his rightful inheritance and blessing. (Genesis 27) The trickery that she masterminds is her human attempt, however flawed, to live up to the words she hears. Although she might appear conniving, and perhaps even devious, she actively struggles to fulfill God’s words.

And this is our hope as well – to struggle to live by God’s words, to discern what God wants of us. The difficulty is that while the words themselves might appear clear, what we make of them is not so obvious. We must interpret. God does not tell Rebekah how, when or where – only what. This is why we, like Rebekah, depend on study and interpretation (drash!). When we seek God, and what God wants of us, we therefore look to the Torah.

As Jews we scrutinize these words of Torah in order to decipher God’s purpose. And as Jews we must try to live by our understanding of God’s Torah.

If you desire words to live by, pray like Rebekah. If you want miracles, pray like Hannah. The choice is yours: you can be the passive recipient of God’s miracles or the active participant in shaping your destiny and the history of future generations. That is Rebekah’s mighty example! And that is the model I choose to emulate.

Telech l’drosh – go and seek God in the words of Torah. Go and interpret God’s words. Go and follow the example of Rebekah.