Sunday, December 17, 2017

Giving Up Hope for a Better Past (Portion Vayigash)

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.  (Genesis 45)

In this week’s portion, Vayigash, Joseph—now second only to Pharaoh in Egypt—reveals himself to his brothers—and excuses them for their mistreatment of him many years earlier.

What moves Joseph to forgive his older brothers?  Many of our commentators suggest that his generosity is a response to their teshuvah, to the fact that they have matured and changed for the better, as exemplified by the eloquent apology offered by Judah, who is prepared to sacrifice himself for the family.

Yet, as Rabbi Yael Shy notes, nowhere does Joseph express this view that his forgiveness is a result of his brothers’ changed behavior.  He is, by contrast, quite clear in noting that he does not forget the wrong done to him, declaring, “You intended evil against me, but God designed it for good.”  Instead, Joseph forgives because he understands that this is the only way to free himself of the resentment and bitterness that would only hollow out his own life.  To quote Lily Tomlin, Joseph seems to understand that “forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”

Giving up all hope for a better past.  

This can be excruciatingly difficult.  As Rabbi Shy tells the story: “Thinking that I needed to keep the pain in order to keep the truth alive has been the mistake I've made over and over again, blocking my way to forgiveness. Each time someone has really hurt me, and I have considered forgiving them, a voice seems to scream at me from within: They aren't sorry! They are living their lives, as happy as can be, while you suffer! If you forgive, you erase what happened! Nobody will affirm how much pain you are in!  But the validation I seek most likely won't come from the people who hurt me (and if it does, that usually doesn't feel like enough). It must come from myself. And in the meantime, the pain and the burden of holding onto my anger are damaging me - not those who hurt me. As the saying goes, holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

The only way to achieve freedom, to grow and blossom into our own lives, is to extricate ourselves from the sort of victimhood that inevitably flows from grudge-bearing.  This week, consider:  Where in your heart are you still nursing resentment against those who hurt you?  How can you liberate yourself from that resentment?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lighting the Dark (portion Vayeshev)

Sometimes hope emerges in unexpected times and places, if we remain open to the possibility of light emerging out of darkness.

Our Torah portion for this week, Vayeshev is filled with loss and despair.  Jacob mourns bitterly for his beloved son Joseph, whom he believes is dead.  Meanwhile, Joseph (who has, in fact, been sold into slavery by his brothers) is carried into exile in Egypt, where he will languish for many years in Pharaoh’s prison.  As the portion ends, despite Joseph’s gift for dreaming and dream interpretation, he is essentially forgotten.  In the darkest depths of the dungeon, all hope seems lost.

It is no coincidence that we often read this parashah around the beginning of Chanukah (this year, the Festival of Lights begins on Saturday night).  Chanukah arrives at the darkest season of the year, at the new moon closest to the winter solstice.  The situation of the Maccabees, pitted against the mighty Assyrian empire, also seems hopeless.   Like Joseph, they face a dark night of the soul.  The old, familiar, comfortable paths are all closed off to them.  They face overwhelming odds, with little sustenance and profoundly limited options.

And yet Joseph ultimately rises and the Maccabees prevail.  Each of these incredible underdogs defies the probabilities—and each begins by nurturing a tiny spark of light.  Joseph always holds the memory of his youthful dreams, and the possibility that they might yet come true.  The Maccabees muster the faith and courage to kindle light.  In both cases, there are no guarantees that the flames of hope will flourish.  But Joseph and the Maccabees share the wisdom that in dark times, we must ignite our own little lights and hope that others—including God—will sustain them.  We must take the first steps to banish darkness, and believe that when we do, our efforts will spread and inspire others to help illuminate the world.

The poet Rumi wrote:

Night comes so people can sleep like fish
in black water.  Then day.

Some people pick up their tools.
Others become the making itself.

In this season, let our lives be the lights the reawaken hope and compassion.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Dinah speaks! (Portion Vayishlach)

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the region. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her, he seized her and lay with her by force. And his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl to be my wife.”

After three thousand years of enduring in silence, perhaps Dinah’s day is dawning at last.

Her story—or, more accurately, her male relatives’ version of her story—sits squarely at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.  When Dinah goes out to visit the women of the land, Shechem, the son of a local chieftain, rapes her and then asks his father, Hamor, to acquire her for him as a wife.  Jacob’s sons consent to the request—but only on the condition that Hamor and Shechem and their entire tribe agree to circumcise themselves.  The men of Shechem keep up their end of the bargain, but while they are still weak from their wounds, Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi attack the town, slaughter all of the men and plunder the women and children.  When Jacob condemns his sons for their violence, they respond, “Shall he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

Over the years, most of our traditional (male) commentators have criticized Dinah, some even going so far as to suggest that she brings the tragic consequences on herself by “going out” in an inappropriate manner.  Tellingly, Dinah—whose name means “judgment”—does not say a word in the entire episode.  Torah tells us nothing of her feelings, her words, her reactions to everything that happens to her.  In The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, author Ellen Frankel conjures Dinah’s voice: “Because from the moment of my birth, I was fated to remain silent.  When I was born, my name, unlike my brothers’, was announced without interpretation.  When I was raped, my cries went unrecorded.  When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered.  And when my father, Jacob, bestowed his blessings upon his children, I received none.  That was why I visited the Canaanite women.  Utterly invisible at home, I craved attention and went out looking for it.  Only too late did I learn that neglect is not the only injury a woman can suffer.”

Since Dinah, of course, countless myriads of women have suffered sexual harassment and violence at the hands of men.  Indeed, as the #metoo movement has illustrated, virtually no women have escaped the experience to some degree or another.  And like Dinah, most have kept silent, understandably fearing the reprisal and shaming that have typically dogged those with the courage to come forward. 

But today, at least in America, for the moment, that fear finally seems to be diminishing.  As Seattle Times writer Mindy Cameron notes in a recent op-ed: “All this could be a watershed moment. . . a reckoning and a clear warning to all men who presume they have the privilege and power to harass and abuse.”

This is, of course, just a beginning.  We men must take responsibility for our actions and speak—and act—out against all kinds of denigration and exploitation of women.  The rules of the past no longer apply—nor should they.  This is the time for us to listen.  Dinah and her sisters have been waiting a long time to have their say.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Leading the Way (Portion Noach)

While this week’s Torah portion, Noach, describes its protagonist as a “righteous man,” most Jewish commentators, past and present, tend to slightly disagree.  They note the qualifier that immediately follows this claim, b’dorotav, “in his generation” and argue that by implication, Noah was only relatively meritorious, compared to the very low standards set by his contemporaries. Unlike Abraham or Moses, Noah does not argue on behalf of his condemned fellow men and women. Anyone who is content to do nothing while all of creation is destroyed cannot be all that righteous.  Or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, drawing on the Hasidic tradition, puts it, Noah was a tzaddik im pelz, a holy man in a fur coat.  In a world gone cold, you have two choices.  You put on a coat and warm yourself, or you build a fire, which warms both yourself and others.  Noah, alas, prefers the first, more selfish option.

Similarly, the text teaches: “Noah walked with God.”  This seems like a good thing—except a few chapters later, God says to Abraham, “Walk before me.”  As Rashi puts it, Noah leans on God for support, while Abraham brings God into the world through the strength of his own righteousness.

To be a Jew in these troubled times is to be called to lead. 

Walk before Me, says the Holy One.

This week, consider: How can you help to lead the way ?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Even the Losers (Tom Petty and Simchat Torah)

As a public-schooled, flannel-shirted Yankee at an uber-aristocratic southern university ruled by the prep-schooled scions of Jeb Stuart and Robert E. Lee, I played the grooves out of Tom Petty’s 1979 breakthrough album, Damn the Torpedoes.  From my first listen, I completely identified with Petty’s grainy voice and scrappy cast of characters, who were always a little down but determinedly not quite out.  Petty was the balladeer of folks who consistently come up a little short: the American girl, raised on promises, who “couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else”; the free-fallin’ good girls and bad boys lurking in the shadows behind the fancy shops on Ventura Boulevard; every dogged dreamer who “ain’t got wings” but is nonetheless learning to fly and inevitably discovering that “comin’ down is the hardest thing.”  I’ve loved Tom Petty for four decades, because more than any other rock star, he spoke up for those who the powers that be dismissed as losers.  As TP put it—against the gorgeous background of the Heartbreakers’ surging organ swells and twelve-string jangle—Even the losers get lucky sometimes.  Even the losers keep a little bit of pride.

Tom Petty’s embrace of losing as a badge of pride is profoundly counter-cultural in today’s America.  Our president throws out the word “loser” with utmost scorn; for Donald Trump, there is nothing worse.  But the Torah is with Tom Petty.  Our sacred text is full of noble losers; virtually no one in its pages gets all of what they want.  This week, as the Jewish community celebrates Simchat Torah, we will conclude the book of Deuteronomy and begin again with the story of Creation.  Both passages pay homage to sacred losers: Moses dies after failing to convince God to let him enter the Promised Land, then humanity is evicted from Eden after eating the forbidden fruit.  From the first to the last, Torah reads like a Tom Petty playlist, with account after account of men and women who fall short but muster the grit to get back up and, against all odds, keep on trying.

Donald Trump doesn’t like losers, amongst whom he numbers the free press, football players taking a knee, half of his own party, and, essentially, anyone who disagrees with him.  But God and Torah love the losers, because the losers are us. 

So did Tom Petty. 

Rest in peace, TP. 

And chag sameach, all.