Sunday, November 27, 2011

Finding God

Last week, at a family education session for our Jewish Journeys program, I taught a lesson on tefillin. As I walked around the group with the pair of batim—the boxes that are wrapped upon the arm and the head—I noted that the bayit (box) worn upon the head is made up of four separate compartments, each containing a passage from the Torah. The bayit for the arm-tefillin, by contrast, is comprised of just one large compartment, which contains the same four biblical passages all written on a single strip of parchment.

After making this observation, I then asked the parents and students why they thought the tefillin were configured this way. This is one of those classic Jewish questions—the open-ended kind, with an almost infinite array of “right” answers—and the participants offered some terrific responses. My favorite came from one of our students, Gage Pendleton, who was attending with his grandparents, Freddie Fisherman and Terry McKay. Gage proposed that the four compartments on the tefillin for the head correspond to the four senses associated with the head (sight, smell, hearing, taste) while the one compartment worn on the arm corresponds to its associated sense of touch. I love this midrashic explanation, which points to our senses as pathways to perceiving the presence of God and/or holiness in the world and in our lives.

That sacred Presence is also at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Va-yetze. On the run from his aggrieved brother Esau, Jacob falls asleep in the desert and dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. When he awakens, he utters one of the Torah’s most memorable lines: “God was in this place, and I did not know it.”

There is a paradox here. Jewish tradition teaches that God is everywhere, all the time. And yet, we are so often oblivious to the Divine Presence. If, as Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl teaches, the presence of the Creator is within each created thing, then why don’t we know it? We have this nagging suspicion that God is ubiquitous; we just can't seem to find God.

Perhaps God hides in plain sight. The problem is that we, like Jacob, are so often asleep—even during our waking hours. Our eyes and ears and nose and mouth and hands become so pre-occupied with trivial matters that we forget to notice the holiness that is all around us. God is in our various and sundry places, all of them, yet we, so often, do not know it.

Our challenge, then, is to awaken our senses. Thus the four compartments of the tefillin on our heads and the one on our arms, which remind us that our first and foremost religious obligation is to pay close attention. When our senses become portals to holiness, we can experience the Divine in all things. Thus do we become the heirs of our forefather, Jacob, finding that God was there all along, even when we did not know it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Heroes and Villains (portion Toldot)

My son, Jonah, recently asked me: “Do you know any bad guys?” Like many boys his age, he is intrigued by the super hero stars of comic books, movies, and TV: Spiderman, Batman, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and the rest of the pantheon. And as anyone who has ever shared an interest in this genre knows, for every Super Hero there is also a villain—a really evil Bad Guy.

Since I have yet to encounter the Joker, Lex Luther, Doctor Octopus, Rita Repulsa, or any of their ilk, I can honestly respond that my experience with Bad Guys is, thankfully, quite limited. As a boy, I liked the Justice League just as much as Jonah now does, and I still enjoy the guilty pleasures of a clear cut, black and white, good vs. evil story like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. But as Jonah gets older, I want to offer him a more nuanced approach to morality. These days, I tell him that while I have met a very few truly Bad Guys (and Gals) in my fifty years, I believe that far more often, the problem is that basically decent people sometimes do bad things. As adults, our lives are not populated by either Super Heroes or Arch Villains; they are, instead, filled with ordinary men and women who are a mix of good and bad—just like ourselves.

This week’s parashah, Toldot, tells the story of Jacob and Esau. As twins, they begin as bitter rivals even before they are born, struggling for pre-eminence in Rebecca’s womb. Over the course of Jewish history, our sages come to equate Esau with pure evil; he becomes the archetypical anti-Semite, a symbol of the oppressive Roman empire and later medieval persecutors of Jews. But this is an anachronism. I find the biblical character of Esau to be rather sympathetic. He may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is not a typical villain, nor is his brother Jacob—our conniving and devious forefather—a typical hero. As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes: “The twins are complementary, each representing one-half of a complete personality, each having qualities the other lacks and lacking qualities the other possesses. . . When the Torah describes them as struggling within Rebecca’s womb and continues to portray them as rivals growing up, it may be telling us that these two sides of many people are struggling within each individual for dominance.”

In other words, life—and morality—is complicated. We all contain both Jacob and Esau, even as each of them contains the other. We are capable of both heroic acts and callous cruelty. Our challenge is to rein in our evil instincts and inclinations, to act on the basis of what Abraham Lincoln aptly called “our better angels.”

Or, as I might say to Jonah: “I’ve met both Bad Guys and potential Super Heroes—in my own mirror.” The challenge is to incline toward the Super Heroes.

Growing into Love

One of the most poignant moments in “Fiddler on the Roof” comes when Tevye turns to Golde, his wife of twenty-five years, and asks: “Do you love me?” To which she responds, “Do I what?” and suggests he must be suffering from indigestion. But Tevye is persistent. Reflecting on his own arranged marriage and the more modern ways of his daughters, he asks again—and in the end, Golde concedes: “For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. . . if that’s not love, what is?”

These matters—arranged marriage and love—are at the center of this week’s parashah, Chaye Sarah. After Abraham’s servant Eliezer chooses Rebecca to be Isaac’s bride, the two settle down together. Genesis 24:67 teaches: “Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her.” This is the first time Torah mentions love, and as Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, the order of the verse is significant. He writes: “Isaac comes to love Rebecca after he marries her. Their love is the result, not the prerequisite, of their relationship.”

This is an important lesson for us. We live in a time of high-profile but short-lived celebrity nuptials. Our culture romanticizes love at first sight, the notion of instant soul mates living happily ever after. We place so much emphasis on the lavish pomp of weddings—and so little on what really counts, which is the hard daily work of building a marriage (or life partnership). If, to quote Sinatra (or, actually, his Jewish songwriter, Sammy Cahn), love and marriage really do go together like a horse and carriage, our problem is that we tend to put the cart (love) before the horse (the partnership)—while at the same time, denying loving same-sex partners the opportunity to share the ride. In any lifelong union—gay or straight—deep and enduring love is what is earned after the hormonal flush of infatuation ends. As with Isaac and Rebecca—and Tevye and Golde—it is achieved through the countless mundane shared acts and moments accrued over time when two people make a commitment to grow with and support one another.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “For What Binds Us”:

And see how the flesh grows back

across a wound, with a great vehemence,

more strong

than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses,

when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh

is proud of its wounds, wears them

as honors given out after battle,

small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other

see how it is like a scar between their bodies,

stronger, darker, and proud;

how the black cord makes of them a single fabric

that nothing can tear or mend.