Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seeking Peace, Preparing for War (portion Vayishlach)

How do we know when a peace offering is sincere?

Our Torah portion, Va-yishlach, raises just this question—which is more timely than ever.  Jacob and Esau are born into enmity, struggling mightily for supremacy while still in their mother’s womb.  Eventually, Jacob and Rebecca connive to steal the blessing that Isaac intends to give Esau, and Esau responds by threatening to murder his deceitful younger brother.

As this week’s portion begins, twenty years have passed since their ugly parting, and the two adversaries are reunited.  As Torah describes the encounter, Esau runs toward Jacob, falls on his neck, and, weeping, kisses him.  This seems to play like a Hollywood ending.  The brothers reconcile and move forward in peace.

Yet our commentators are quick to note that in the Torah text, the Hebrew word for “kiss”—va-yishakayhu—contains dots written over each letter.  This is highly unusual.  Rashi suggests that these dots may point to the “kiss” being less than sincere.  A medieval midrash even goes so far as to propose that instead of kissing Jacob, Esau actually bites him.  There is no  peaceful resolution; the two remain bitter enemies.
Others interpreters insist that this line is too cynical, and the reconciliation is genuine.  As Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin describes the scene: “Jacob approaches tentatively and bows low.  Esau, however, runs to meet him and embrace him, falling on Jacob’s neck and kissing him.  What genuine and caring actions!  After all these years and his own agony and sense of betrayal, Esau has come prepared to embrace his brother Jacob and Jacob’s family.”
Finally, Aviva Zornberg offers a middle ground, which portrays the brothers’ encounter as neither wholly positive nor entirely negative.  She notes: “The brothers’ embrace resembles Jacob’s encounter with the angel.  It is a combination of hugging in love and grappling in struggle, as each one wants to merge with the other but also to defeat him.”
How do we read this text?  Are we optimists or pessimists?  Naïve or cynical?  Or somewhere in between?  This is no theoretical question, for it is also at the root of our understanding of the recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.  Should we rejoice and see this as an opening for real peace?  Should we view it as a cynical ploy by Hamas, with no hope whatsoever to endure?  Or should we follow Aviva Zornberg’s view, which would have us recognize the possibility of real reconciliation—but also advise that we keep our guard against an enemy who still wishes to defeat us, given the opportunity?
Count me in that centrist position.  I believe that Israel should pursue every possibility of peace, no matter how slim—while also preparing for the kind of war that would crush Hamas militarily before they crush us.
We shall see what the coming weeks and months bring.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Start with the Resistance (portion Vayetze)

“The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”

With this famous and oft-quoted line, Shakespeare reminds us that vehement arguments and fervent emotions are often signs of intense inner conflicts.  In such cases, our true feelings are the opposite of what we so adamantly and publicly express.  Or, as Freud suggested in analysis, to get to the heart of the matter, start with the resistance.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, tells us that Jacob hated his Leah.   Such strong words!  One can understand Jacob feeling less passion for Leah than for her younger sister, his much-beloved Rachel.  But why would his adoration of Rachel create such loathing for Leah?  Perhaps Jacob’s hatred is rooted in the circumstances of his marriages.  Jacob is tricked by his father-in-law, Laban, into wedding Leah before Rachel.  Reflecting on Jacob’s personal history, Rabbi Harold Kushner comments:
“Knowing what we know of human psychology, we can also suspect that Jacob did, indeed, hate Leah because, by reminding him of the fraudulent circumstances of their wedding, she reminded him of his most shameful memory, the time he deceived his father.  We often hate people for confronting us with what we like least about ourselves.”

We often hate people for confronting us with what we like least about ourselves.  Those closest to us can act as mirrors into our own souls—and we may react badly when we do not like what they reflect back at us.  One of the most powerful lines in our Yom Kippur liturgy comes from a contemporary interpretation of the “Al Chayt” confession of sins: “For condemning in our loved ones the faults we tolerate in ourselves.”  Indeed.

This week, when you find yourself feeling or acting with a disproportionate level of emotional agitation, consider the possibility that what you see in someone else is shining an uncomfortable light into your own psyche.  Start with the resistance.  Our reactions to those nearest and dearest to us can, with insight and effort, become a calling to introspection and self-improvement.  Jacob’s impatience with his wife’s duplicitousness might have led him to recognize and root out his own.  So, too, can our awareness of hate and anger and fear move us to love and compassion and faith.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Long Awaited Day

Last night, Boise's mayor and city counsel held a hearing on a new law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Since it has been impossible to even get a reading for such an ordinance in the state legislature, the city of Boise is now leading the way.

Over 60 people testified--probably 50 of whom were in support of the law.  I heard extraordinarily moving stories from LGBT people, their parents and children and friends.  All together, it was a lesson in what it is like to live in fear of losing one's job, benefits, housing--simply on account of who one loves.

And make no mistake, the people in power got this lesson.  They voted unanimously to pass this ordinance.  After five hours, there was applause--and tears.  A community that has suffered terrible bigotry and callousness in this state felt heard by their elected officials, for the first time.

I'm posting my own testimony below.  It was a proud day for this city.

City Council Testimony  Nov 13, 2012

Mr. Mayor and Members of the Council, Members of the LGBT community, and family and friends:

I am Rabbi Dan Fink, representing Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, established in 1895, its board of directors and its member families, gay and straight. 

I come before you as a representative of a faith community, in deep humility.  For centuries, we religious people have wielded faith as a club against gay and lesbian people.  We have used God and Scripture, which should be all about love and liberty, to promote bigotry and hatred.   We have acted just like those religious people who used their sacred texts to justify slavery one hundred and fifty years ago.   These attitudes are not gone; you have heard such hurtful words, veiled in the language of faith, spoken here tonight.  But I believe that in light of this sad past, those of us who speak for churches and mosques and synagogues owe the LGBT community a deep apology and, more importantly, a concerted effort to repent and make amends. 

We can change the way understand our sacred texts, whether they be the Bible or the US constitution.  In fact, I believe that the greatness of this nation lies in its evolving history of interpreting ever more generously and inclusively, of expanding rather than curtailing basic liberties.  In the beginning, we granted human rights only to property-owning white men.  Over the last two centuries, we have thankfully extended those rights to African-Americans, immigrants, women, and now the LGBT community.

I pray that the City of Boise will, in that grand tradition, lead the way.  There can be no doubt in which direction the future lies.  Just walk into, say, Boise High School, and look at attitudes on sexual orientation among our young people.  Look at the results of last Tuesday night.  Those opposing full protection and equal rights for the LGBT community, on the basis of either the Bible or the Constitution are doomed to be dinosaurs, like those defending slavery back in 1860.  Tonight, we face a choice.  We can resist progress and become a reactionary backwater.  Or we can shine forth as a beacon of progress, a city that lives up to the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”

I believe that the compassionate, equitable and even sacred choice is very clear

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Wells We Dig (portion Toldot)

Issac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

In many ways, this line—from our weekly Torah portion, Toldot—captures the essence of Isaac’s character.  Sandwiched between Abraham, the first Jew, and Jacob, the father of Israel’s tribes, Isaac is primarily a transitional figure.  He is, at heart, a conservator: he guards his revolutionary father’s legacy, which will later be fleshed out and re-defined by his son.  Isaac reminds us that it is often enough to re-dig old wells of knowledge and truth, and preserve their traditions.

But although Isaac is the most passive of the patriarchs, our parashah notes that he does, in fact, go on to dig and name three of his own wells.  He calls the first Eshek—Contention.  The second he names Sitnah—Deep Fear.  Last, but not least, he unearths the well that he calls Rehovot—Expansive.  And then, upon finishing this sacred work, he hears the voice of the Holy One issuing forth words of comfort: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

Isaac’s journey echoes our own.  Our challenge is to move away from strife and fear, towards openness.  We do this largely by digging deeply within ourselves, by mustering the faith and courage to confront that which divides and frightens us.  Only when we acknowledge the dark, narrow, hostile impulses that well up inside of us can we pass through them to a place of freedom and expansiveness.

As Rabbi Yael Levy writes:

Yitzhak stands at places of transition,
            Guarding the passage, showing the way.
He says to himself and to us:
Dig deeply. 
Don't be misled by struggle and contention.
Don't be stopped by fear.
This is never all there is.
Keep searching. Keep looking. Keep returning.
There is a way into the expanse
And the journey is continuous.
We rise.  We fall.  We rise again.
We gain perspective and lose it.
We are besieged by doubt and fear.
And we are released into the expanse of possibility
And the journey is continuous.

Reach deeply, Yitzhak calls,
And open to the presence of the Mystery.
For in every moment, the Holy One calls,
Do not be afraid. Wherever you are, with you, I am.

May our journeys this week and beyond move us from fear to faith, from narrowness to expansive freedom and possibility.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pursuing Peace (Chayei Sarah)

Sometimes, peace emerges out of difficult circumstances.

At the end of this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, Abraham dies.  In the wake of that misfortune, there is one bright note: after decades of enmity, the patriarch’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury and mourn for their father.  Their reunion is a source of hope.  Isaac and Ishmael remind us that it is possible to heal long-festering wounds and restore badly sundered relationships.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner considers: “Can this not be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?”

I have been thinking about this passage, and its promise, as we approach what will, by most accounts, be a critical and contentious Election Day.  Isaac and Ishmael seem more relevant than ever, as the two presidential candidates have battled fiercely over policy toward the Middle East in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular.  Both Governor Romney and President Obama claim to be Israel’s friend, and I believe that they are both sincere in their assertions.  Yet they may differ on what, exactly, it means to be a friend.

Some American Jews—and Israelis—believe that friendship essentially means fealty—that to be a friend is to support whatever policy the Israeli government feels is best.  By this view, any American leader who takes issue with Bibi Netanyahu on anything of substance is guilty of “throwing Israel under the bus.”

I disagree.  I believe that Israel needs friends who clearly and unequivocally have her back—but who are not sycophants.  A friend is someone we can trust—and who, therefore, can gently advise us when we are going astray.  Friends are those who want us to be the very best that we can be, who understand that there are times that call for tough love.  In short, a true friend exemplifies the relationship that Torah describes between loving partners: ezer k’negdo, a helper who stands opposite us, who will push us to do difficult things—like making peace—when it is in our benefit to do so.

I believe that Israel needs America to elect a president who is also a friend in just this manner.  It behooves all parties for our president to be a peace-maker who commands the respect of both Israelis and Palestinians, who has the trust and respect to bring both sides to the table.  We need a president who believes in the critical need to achieve a two-state solution before it is too late, so that Israel can remain both a democracy and a Jewish state.  

If Isaac and Ishmael can make peace, so can their descendants.  But it will take a US president with the vision, determination—and yes, the tough love—to make this happen.  I will leave it to each of you to decide who best meets that description when you go to the voting both this week.