Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Time to Resist (Portion Shemot)


The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah,  “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.                         (Exodus 1:15-17)

The king used all sorts of devices to render the midwives amenable to his wishes.  He approached them with amorous proposals, which they both repelled, and then he threatened them with death by fire.  But they resisted.  Indeed, instead of murdering the babies, they supplied all their needs.  If a mother that had given birth to a child lacked food and drink, the midwives went to well-to-do women and took up a collection, so the poor infant might not suffer want.
                                    (Midrash cited in Legends of the Jews)

Our Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—feels incredibly timely this Inauguration week, as it describes the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience.  When an immoral tyrant—in this case, Pharaoh—issues an unjust decree, the midwives Shifra and Puah actively resist, bravely refusing to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys.  The midrash goes even farther, suggesting that they continued to actively aid the babies and their families after the births.

This is a bold—and essential—text.  Under ordinary circumstances, our tradition calls us to show utmost respect for the civil authorities.  As the Talmud notes: Dina d’malchuta dina—the law of the land is binding on the Jewish community.  To which Rabbi Chanina added: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”  Yet the Rabbis recognized that this principle of dina d’malchuta dina does not apply in the case of unjust laws and authorities.  When rulers and policies undermine the Torah’s core ethical teachings, we are morally bound to resist them—as Shifra and Puah taught us.


I suspect that in the coming weeks and months, we will need to draw on their courage and resolve.  May the Holy One of Justice and Compassion guide us on the forthcoming journey.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Light in Dark Times (Portion Vayechi)



Upon his deathbed, Joseph revealed visions he’d had, in which the future of Israel was made known to him.  He closed with these words: “I know that the Egyptians will oppress you after my death, but God will lead you to the land of promise.  You must remember to carry my bones with you, for if my remains are taken to Canaan, the Eternal will be with you. . .”   (Midrash Rabbah)

This week’s Torah portion, Va-y’chi, closes the book of Genesis.  It concludes with the death of Joseph, and the midrash above elaborates on that scene.  Joseph has always been a visionary, with the God-given ability to foresee future events.  Now, as he prepares to die, he shares his last prophecy.  He recognizes that difficult times lie ahead—and notes that they will end with the promise of redemption.  He also insists that when that moment of liberation arrives, the Israelites should take his bones with them as they journey toward the promised land.

This message seems especially timely.  This is a challenging season for our nation.  Many of us see dark days on the horizon.  It is worth remembering, though, that the light will, ultimately, return—if we keep faith and work for justice and compassion.  Now, more than ever, we are called upon to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Our calling is to preserve the best of our country’s historical legacy, and to carry it forward through the struggles, just as our ancestors kept faith with Joseph, taking his bones out of Egypt and into Canaan.


The poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  So may it be for us.  May we partake of our forefather Joseph’s vision, looking toward redemption even—especially—in the most trying of times.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Story of Isaac (Portion Vayera--in memory of Leonard Cohen, z"l)

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a God
You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody
You were not there before
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word

And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
"Just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war
The peacock spreads his fan
                        Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac

In this fall’s e-Torah, I’m focusing on midrash on the weekly portion.  For the most part, this means classic rabbinic commentary, but midrash really means “interpretation”—and that process of encountering and wrestling with the biblical text is a living one that very much continues in our time.  In that spirit, this week I’m sharing a text from a song, The Story of Issaac, by Leonard Cohen, z”l, who died on Thursday. 

The Torah portion ends with the Akedah, the account of the binding of Isaac that many know from the reading on Rosh Hashanah morning.  In Cohen’s telling, this terse tale becomes an anti-war hymn and cautionary warning against all the callous ways that we still sacrifice our children.  While God spared Isaac, too many are not granted such a reprieve.  Cohen introduced the song this way in a 1968 session with the BBC: “There's a story in the Bible about Isaac, how his father summoned him to go and climb a mountain, how his father built an altar there after he had been commanded to offer up his son.  And just at the last moment before he was about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel held the hand of the father.  But today the children are being sacrificed and no one raises a hand to end the sacrifice.  And this is what this song is about.”

This week, consider: How are we still leading our children to the altar?  What societal changes do we need to make to better tend to them and their future?


And for a fine performance of the entire song:

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Smashing Idols (Portion Lech L'chah)


Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop.  A woman came in with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, "Take this and offer it to the gods.”  Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. "Who did this?" he cried. "How can I hide anything from you?" replied Abraham calmly. "A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, "I'm going to eat first." Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces."
"What are you trying to pull on me?" asked Terach, "Do they have minds?"
Said Abraham: "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?"
                                    Midrash Genesis Rabbah

The midrash about Abraham smashing his father’s idols is perhaps the best known of all rabbinic tales.   It is so oft-told that many Jews mistakenly believe it’s found in the Torah itself.  In fact, Torah says nothing about Terach being an idolator.  So why is this story so popular?

I believe it points to the centrality of iconoclasm in Jewish life.  According to the midrash, Abraham’s call commences only after he destroys his father’s gods.  One might think that his life journey starts with the command “Lech L’chah!—Go forth!” that opens this week’s portion and bestows its name—but it doesn’t.  Instead, all that Abraham will accomplish begins with an act of destruction.  In order to create something new, Abraham must first question everything that came before him.  He is not content to maintain the status quo for its own sake—he’s determined to blaze his own path.  Abraham’s unwavering pursuit of truth leads him to monotheism, to a belief in the one God who will enter into a covenantal relationship with him and the Jewish people to follow.  We are his heirs.

It is no accident that Jewish iconoclasts have changed the world time and again.  Our prophets had the chutzpah to challenge societal norms—and even argue with God.  In our time, Jewish artists, scientists, and social activists have maintained this proud tradition of questioning established traditions and putting forth visions of a better world. 


This week, consider taking some time to reflect on your own past.  What “idols” did you have to shatter to launch yourself on your own journey into adulthood?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Make Yourself an Ark (Portion Noach)


Whenever people saw Noah occupying himself with the building of the ark—which took 120 years—they would ask: “Why are you building this boat?”  Noah would respond: “Because God is going to bring a flood upon the earth [unless you change your harmful ways].”

The people would respond: “What sort of flood?  If God sends a flood of fire, we know how to protect ourselves.  If it is a flood of waters, then if the waters bubble up from the earth, we will cover them with iron rods, and if they descend from above, we know a remedy against that, too.”
                                                  -Midrash Genesis Rabbah

Sometimes, to our detriment—or even our doom—we ignore what should be obvious warning signs.  In the midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Noach, Noah trys to warn his contemporaries about the coming deluge.  He builds the ark publicly, over a very long period of time, so that others might observe him and inquire about his efforts.  This works—they ask—but their response to his explanation is not what he expects.  When he tells them that God is preparing to wipe them out unless they repent, they insist they can thwart the floodwaters.  Instead of changing their behavior, they double down on it.  This deadly combination of arrogance and denial becomes the downfall of dor ha-mabul, the generation of the deluge.  Only Noah and his family will survive.

Alas, it seems we have not yet taken to heart the lesson of this Torah tale.  In the face of insurmountable scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change, our response so far looks stunningly similar to that of Noah’s contemporaries.  We deny the problem or arrogantly insist that we can use technology to overcome it.  Instead of examining and altering our misguided behavior at the root of the crisis, we either deny its existence or brazenly proclaim our faith in fanciful technological solutions. 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught: Torah is not true because it actually happened, historically, as recorded; it is true in a deeper and more important sense—because it happens, in real time, to us.  The stories of Genesis—including Noah—have much to teach us, if we are willing to hear and contemplate the lessons they offer.  We need not repeat the errors of the flood generation—but time is running short, for us, as it did for them.  The hour is late, but disaster can still be averted if we summon the will. 


God tells Noah, “Aseh l’chah tevah.”  This is usually translated, in Torah, as “Make an ark for yourself.”  But the midrash reads it as simultaneously more literal and more metaphoric: “Make yourself an ark.”  By this interpretation, the Holy One is reminding us that each one of us can be a source of sanctuary and liberation.  May we speak—and act—on behalf of our little corner of the earth in this new year.