Sunday, December 9, 2018

Vayigash (Higher Ground)

Who is the hero of the Joseph story, which comes to a climax in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash?  The most obvious choice is Joseph himself, who, upon revealing his identity to his brothers, forgives them for the cruel betrayal they showed him as a youth.   Yet there is another, more flawed and less likely, candidate: Joseph’s older brother Judah.

In one of the longest and most heroic speeches in the Torah, Judah sacrifices himself for the sake of his father Jacob and his younger brother Benjamin.  Decades after his complicity in selling Joseph into slavery, Judah proves himself a changed man.  He has suffered enormously, losing two sons.  He has also transgressed—and publicly acknowledged his failings.  Judah transforms his personal pain and shortcomings into profound spiritual growth.  As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein notes: “This is the measure of Judah's greatness: his tragedy becomes the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.”

The Rabbis refer to Joseph as HaTzadik, “the righteous one.”  He is a powerful and important figure in our tradition.  But his righteousness renders him a little remote and distant.  It is hard to relate to, and engage with, Joseph.  Most of us connect more easily with Judah, the deeply imperfect man who wrestles with his moral choices and grows from his struggles.  The midrash recognizes his greatness by pointing out that his name, Yehudah, contains all four letters of God’s Name, (yud-hey-vav-hey)—and is the origin of our shared name, Yehudim, Jews.  Judah is also the progenitor of King David and, by extension, the messiah.  The messianic hope for an age of peace, justice, and compassion can only be realized if we, collectively and individually, commit ourselves to the kind of self-reflection and spiritual growth that we learn from Judah.

Stevie Wonder points us in this direction in his classic song, “Higher Ground.”  He opens:

People keep on learning
Soldiers keep on warring. . .
Powers keep on lying
While your people keep on dying
‘Cause it won’t be long

Like Judah, we frequently fail—warring, lying, dying—and yet we keep learning.  The human calling is to grow from our mistakes.

The chorus, which repeats several times, expresses this challenge:

I’m so darn glad he let me try it again
‘Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on trying
Till I reach my highest ground.

This could be Judah’s theme song—and ours.  We fail, time and again—and through our failings, with openness and courage, somehow find our way.  Let us be grateful for second and third chances—and more—and strive, through them, to reach highest ground.  Indeed, because it is so hard-won, that ground is even more exalted.  As the Talmud teaches: “Those who sin and repent stand in a higher place than those who never sinned.  We feel that in our bodies with Stevie Wonder’s song, where the funky groove moves inexorably toward that aspirational chorus.

The greatest heroes are not born but are always in the process of becoming.  This is Judah’s—and Stevie’s—blessed legacy for us.


Mr. Menorah-head (Chanukah) 5779

As their favorite season drew closer this year
The Jews down in Jew-ville lacked Chanukah cheer
They all loved this holiday, boychiks and maidels
They longed to light candles, eat latkes, spin dreidels
To gather their families, from lands far and wide
To sing “Rock of Ages” and eat stuff that’s fried

But 2018 brought such sorrow and starkness
The Jew-ville Jews felt overcome by the darkness.
In a nation asunder and bleeding at heart
There were too many villains to know where to start

With no single scoundrel to bear all the blame
The grim events mounted, too many to name:

There was angry division, greed and despair
Tantrums on Twitter and rage everywhere
Murderous shooters and racist attacks
And taunts of Fake News to obscure all the facts

Huge killer storms and death-dealing fires
Couldn’t sway EPA’s science deniers
Jobs that don’t even approach living wages
Kids torn from parents and cast into cages

The poor-they got less, and the rich—they got more
We sold out our allies for tyrants galore
Like Putin and every corrupt Saudi royal
Whose evil’s forgiven because they’ve got oil

Bigotry prospered, with hateful aggression
Thanks, in no small part, to voter suppression

Corporate leaders who claimed to lean in
Turned out to be just more bad masters of spin
As Facebook and Russia connived to implore us
To blame all our failings on Jewish George Soros

Now all of the shtetl was filled with dismay
Would a hero arise who could still save the day?

Every Jew down in Jew-ville, each boychick and maidel
Held hope Lucy Latke and Dana the Dreidel
And brave Gershon Geltbag might get them un-mired
But as it turned out, they had all just retired

All hope seemed to fade as the day it grew dimmer
But off in the distance, the Jews saw a glimmer
It moved toward the people, quite quickly it sped
Yet the light did not shine on Menorah-head’s head
Yes, although their brave hero had clearly returned
His bald head was dark where the candles once burned
And boxing Reb Moishe, his side kick of old
He stood in the shadows, forsaken and cold

The people cried, “Save us!”—their hero said, “No—
We must all work together if we want to grow
I’ve come to deliver a critical warning:
It’s time to give thanks and to quit all your mourning

It’s true Jew-ville’s broken, and feeling quite dark
But if you want light, you must gather up sparks
And kindle new flames, for in this black night
There is also great beauty, and kindness and light

Look around you, he said, at school, work and home
The world’s full of color, it’s not monochrome
If life’s got you down with the Chanukah blues
Start looking around and you’ll find there’s good news:

All over the globe, hope’s flag—it unfurls
There’s more education for women and girls
Even in the most troubled and poorest of nations,
Poverty’s down, with far less starvation
Yes, the world’s getting better, despite what it seems
More people than ever nurse new hopes and dreams

More women in Congress—minorities too
With more diverse voices, so long overdue
Possessing the vision to heal and repair
And lift us, together, from dread and despair

After Parkland, our young people found a new voice
Reminding their elders that we have a choice
Their generation—our daughters and sons—
Will free schools and cities from violence by guns

 Clean energy sources that once didn’t pay
Like wind farms and solar are leading the way
Yes, carbon-free power, once thought unattainable
Lies within reach—it’s real and sustainable

Right here at home, at the people’s demanding
Medicaid healthcare will soon be expanding
And in nearby Meridian, I’m pleased to say:
The law now protects you if you’re trans or gay

And friends, if through all this, you’re still feeling low
Have faith: this year, new winds of justice will blow
When your spirit is dimmed and your vision is duller
Remember the two magic words: Robert Mueller

Though in some ways, our age—it is still fraught with fear
Just to be is a blessing, let’s be glad we’re here.
The darkness will pass, the light will return
The bright flames of freedom will once again burn

Then Mr. Menorah-head stood tall and proud
Concluding his words to the gathering crowd:

My flame comes from you—in the dark of this night
If we’re to prevail, we must all kindle light
No hero alone will deliver this nation
Together you must make your own celebration
You each have your own righteous light you must sow—
So let your light shine and the tyrants will go!

Then each Jewville Jew looked into their soul
And the flame of community glowed like a coal
With courage and faith, they banished all fear
And it’s said that a great miracle happened here—

For hope was rekindled, despair—it was gone
And Jewville burst into a Chanukah song.

And Mr. Menorahead, now shining bright
Said “Gut Yuntiff to all and to all a good night.”

Monday, December 3, 2018

Miketz (I'm Listening Now)

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, dreams get Joseph into deep trouble, as his eagerness to share his visions of lordship over his brothers provokes their wrath.  Fed up with Joseph’s pampered and arrogant dream-talk, the brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery.  It only gets worse from there: Joseph ends up in prison, languishing for years in the bowels of Pharaoh’s dungeon.  The youth with visions of glory now seems hopelessly sunk in the obscure darkness of the pit.

So what prompts Joseph’s ensuing rise to redemption in this week’s portion, Miketz?  Dreams!  The source of his earlier downfall becomes his salvation.  Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two of his cellmates and, eventually, those of Pharaoh himself.  Pharaoh rewards Joseph abundantly for his astute interpretation and advice, elevating him to second-in-command of all Egypt, where he is in charge of all food storage and distribution.  This extraordinary promotion sets the stage for Joseph’s eventual reunion with his brothers, in which his youthful dreams are, in fact, realized.

Looking at these events, one wonders: How can dreams be both the source of Joseph’s travails and the answer to them?  Rabbi Isaac Bernstein offers an important insight here.  He notes that as a brash youth, all that Joseph could hear—and tell—were his own dreams.  This inevitably invites trouble.  But as he matures, Joseph learns to listen to, and respect, other people’s dreams. When he gains that hard-won wisdom, he triumphs.

English singer Joe Cocker describes the journey from arrogant youthful dreams to maturity in his song, “I’m Listening Now” from his 2002 album Respect Yourself.  The opening stanza uncannily echoes Joseph’s teenage years as the singer reflects on his own days gone by:

There were times I was sure
Everything was gonna be alright
The sun would shine, the world would turn
No matter how I lived my life
Never needed anyone’s advice

Then, with the turn of a phrase, Cocker takes us, flash forward, to the present, where he is older and wiser—because he has recognized the importance of learning from others’ dreams:

Well, that was then
Today I’m thinking twice

The chorus repeats throughout the song:

I’m listening now
Trying to get it right
Trying to figure it out somehow

Joe Cocker reminds us that a good, joyful, fruitful life is rooted in relationship, which is only possible when we learn to look outside ourselves and truly listen.  The song ends with this affirmation:

Yes I’m listening now
Yes I’m listening now
Yes I’m listening now

We are all dreamers.  And surely there is no shame in dreaming large, in big youthful aspirations.  As Hillel teaches, if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?  But when our dreams—and egos—leave no space for the dreams of our brothers and sisters, they can only pull us down.  Maturity comes with the recognition that our dreams are bound with—and tempered by—those of our family, our friends, and even our adversaries.  As the poet W.B. Yeats wrote: “In dreams begin responsibilities.”  May we learn to listen to, and learn from, one another’s dreams.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Vayeshev (Broken)


So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the coat of many colors that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit.
            -Genesis 37:23-4

One cannot acquire Torah who has not failed in it
-Talmud, Gittin 43a

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va-yeshev, we meet our patriarch, Joseph.  As a young man, he seems to have it all: striking good looks, his father Jacob’s abiding favor, the sartorial splendor of his many-colored coat, and the ability to prophesy through dreams and their interpretation.   Yet Joseph’s life takes some very difficult turns because his privilege spawns an arrogant adolescent narcissism.  At seventeen, Joseph is a gifted but spoiled youth who lacks empathy or even awareness of others’ feelings.  He flaunts his favored status over his brothers, recounting his dreams of personal glory in a manner that can only inflames their jealousy.  They respond by selling Joseph into Egyptian slavery.

Things go from bad to worse.  After Joseph resists the advances of his master’s wife, he winds up in prison, where he languishes, lost and forgotten.  The youth who seemed so destined for greatness has hit rock bottom.  But it is in precisely this place of darkness and despair that Joseph becomes worthy of his birthright and his visions of leadership.  When he encounters two fellow prisoners, Joseph notices that they are distraught before either one utters a word.  With great compassion, he asks: “Why do you appear downcast today?”  The vicissitudes of life have helped Joseph mature from a gifted but callous lad into a genuine mentsch.

Such is the nature of our humanity: personal growth is most often built upon adversity and even failure.  As Ernest Hemingway famously notes: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt tells a similar story in her song, “Broken,” with striking parallels to Joseph’s life.  She opens:

Once you were a straight shot, a shiny quarter in a new slot,
Night would keep the dreams that you got for afternoon

We begin whole, shiny and new, with big dreams for the future.

Just close your eyes for this long, something's mixed up and something's gone,
Only fingers can you count on, and one leaves two
Now you're broken and you don't understand
What is broken falls into place once again

Invariably, things go wrong.  Dreams don’t work out as planned.  Struggle, suffering and loss inevitably break us.

I wish I were a freeway laid out clearer than a bright day
I'd run wide open down this causeway like brand new

We long for better, easier times, now long past.  We think we will never recover from life’s pains and indignities.

But—more often than not—we do, and when we do, we grow strong at the broken places.  The dark passages of our journeys open us to new possibilities.  The brokenness is never made fully whole, but we mend—and sometimes achieve a higher level than we could have reached without the trials we’ve endured.  As Talmud teaches:

The truly penitent stand in a place the totally righteous cannot reach.

One cannot attain Torah who has not failed in it.

We think we will break but we mend.

But I'm broken and I don't understand
What is broken falls into place once again
Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm,
Again and again and again,
I think I will break but I mend

Our challenge is to transform our difficult times and events into pathways of growth and compassion.  Out of the heat of crisis, new seeds of hope and possibility can germinate.  Like Joseph, we grow from our brokenness.

To hear Tift Merritt’s recording of “Broken”: 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Vayishlach (Quiet)

This week’s portion, Vayishlach, describes one of the most tragic and troubling stories in the Torah.  In Genesis 34, we read:

Dinah—the daughter of Leah, who she bore to Jacob—went out to see the women of the locality, and Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the local prince saw her; he took her and lay her down and raped her.

As the sad narrative unfolds, almost everyone acts badly.  Shechem’s father approaches Jacob and asks that he offer Dinah to her attacker as a wife.  Jacob says nothing; instead he lets his sons—who are far more outraged for the family’s honor than concerned about their sister—respond for him.  The sons devise a plot, telling Hamor and Shechem that Dinah can marry into their family on one condition: every male in their clan must be circumcised.  Hamor agrees—and on the third day after the mass circumcision, while all the Hivites are still healing from the procedure, Jacob’s sons slaughter every male in the city.  Then, and only then, does Jacob speak: “You have made trouble for me by making me odious to the land’s inhabitants.”  To which the sons respond: “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

If ever there was a Torah tale of toxic masculinity, this is it.  Male violence and spiteful speech run amuck, while the only woman in the story—Dinah—is not granted a single word.  Later rabbinic commentary compounds this sin, castigating the victim for her mistreatment, as the Rabbis infer that that in “going out” on her own, Dinah invites the trouble that befalls her.  Midrash Genesis Rabbah is typical: “God took care to create a woman from a rib, which is a concealed, modest place; notwithstanding this, women like to go out to public places.”  Alas, this misogynistic attitude remains common; all too often, we still blame female victims of male assault, for their own misfortune, and then silence them. 

Thankfully, contemporary women are making important inroads in breaking the silence.  At the Women’s March in Washington, DC in January 2016, Los Angeles singer-songwriter MILCK performed a song that would become a kind of unofficial anthem for the #MeToo movement.  That piece—Quiet—speaks of the critical important of speaking up and being heard.  She sings with passion, and ever-increasing urgency:

Put on your face
Know your place
Shut up and smile
Don’t spread your legs
I could do that

But no one knows me—no one ever will
If I don’t say something, if I just lie still
Would I be that monster, scare them all away
If I let them hear what I have to say

I can’t keep quiet, no oh oh oh
I can’t keep quiet, no oh oh oh
A one woman riot, oh oh oh

I can’t keep quiet
For anyone

We—Jewish women and men alike—can learn a great deal from the Dinah story—and empowering anthems like “Quiet.”  The time for silence in the face of misogyny is over—it is incumbent upon us, as both Jacob’s and Dinah’s heirs—to do better.  For all of the problems it presents with the Dinah narrative (and others), Torah also points the way to a better, more egalitarian world with its very first ethical teaching: “God created all of humanity in the divine image, male and female God created them.”

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Rabbi Laura Geller notes: “Dinah’s silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations.  What happens to her in the aftermath of her ordeal?  We do not know.  We never hear from her, just as we may never hear from the women and girls in our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard.  But the legacy of Jacob as Israel, the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world—and not passively ignore these facts.  The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to ‘hear each other into speech.’  Dinah’s story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.”