Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dreaming Dreams, Seeing Visions (Portion Miketz)

What does it mean to dream?

As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes, we use the word “dream” to connote two very different things (this is also true of the Hebrew term, chalom). 

Merriam-Webster’s first definition is: “a series of thoughts, images, or emotions occurring during sleep”.  This is the sort of dream that Pharaoh recounts to Joseph in this week’s portion, Miketz.  In the Joseph story—and often in literature—this sort of dream may prove prophetic.  At other times, however, our sleep-time dreams seem to be of little or no significance in the waking world.

But there is another definition of dream: “an aspiration, goal, or aim.”  This is the meaning expressed in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Theodor Herzl’s proclamation, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”

The first sort of dream is mostly something that happens to us, conjured up unconsciously by our sleeping brains.  They may confer insight, but they do not require any action.  The second sort of dream, by contrast, provides a kind of roadmap through life—a vision of where we seek to move ourselves and our society.

Pharaoh has dreams.  But Joseph, as he grows up, from a spoiled youth to a compassionate sage, becomes more than one who has, or even interprets, dreams.  The mature Joseph is, in the more active and far-reaching sense, a dreamer.   It is his vision, in which we are all vessels through which the Divine works, that ultimately enables him to forgive his brothers and finally break the dysfunctional favoritism that has plagued every family in Genesis since Cain and Abel.

Proverbs teaches that when there is no vision, the people perish.  As we celebrate Chanukah this week, enjoy the light and consider: what is the state of your dreams and visions?  Are they calling you to do your part in repairing the world?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Growth by Fire (Portion Vayeshev)

Sometimes, we are like lodgepole pines.

During most of that tree’s life, their cones are tightly sealed with layers of resin and woody tissue.  They do not open unless they are exposed to very high temperatures of the sort that only forest fires provide.  In other words, lodgepole pines only spawn new growth in the heat of crisis conditions.

Sometimes we, too, require adversity to grow.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va-yeshev, we meet our forefather Joseph.  As a youth, he seems to have it all: striking good looks, his father Jacob’s favor, sartorial splendor in his many-colored coat, and the ability to prophesy through dreams and their interpretation.  Yet young Joseph’s life takes some very difficult turns as a result of his one nearly fatal flaw of narcissism.  At seventeen, Joseph lacks empathy or even awareness of others’ feelings.  He flaunts his status as favorite over his brothers, recounting his dreams of personal glory in a manner that can only serve to inflame their jealousy.  As a result, they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, then lie to their father Jacob, telling him that Joseph is dead.

Things go from bad to worse.  After he resists the advances of his master’s wife, Joseph winds up in prison, where he languishes, lost and forgotten.  The youth who seemed 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 (Pharaoh’s former baker and cupbearer), Joseph notices that they are distraught before either one utters a word.  With great compassion, he asks them: “Why do you appear downcast today?”  The vicissitudes of life have helped Joseph mature from a profoundly gifted but rather callous lad into a genuine mentsch.

So, too, in our own lives.  While we certainly do not seek out struggle, suffering, and loss, these things inevitably find us.  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.  Or, as the psalmist puts it, in beautifully poetic imagery: “The stone that the builder rejected can become the chief cornerstone.”

For a great song on the subject, give a listen to Joe Henry’s Sparrow, which opens with the line: It wasn’t peace I wanted/So it wasn’t peace I found. . . 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Our Names, Our Selves (portion Vayishlach)

What’s in a name? 

Perhaps, as Shakespeare noted, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—but in the case of our forefather and namesake, Jacob/Israel, names reveal a great deal.

After wrestling through a long, dark night with a mysterious divine being, Jacob, the deceiver, is renamed Israel, the Godwrestler.  This is no superficial shift in nomenclature; the change in name points to a profound change in character.  It is an outward manifestation of significant internal growth.

And yet. . . .

When Jacob’s grandparents, born Abram and Sarai, receive new names, they “stick”—Torah will never again refer to them as anything except Abraham and Sarah.  By contrast, almost immediately after their grandson is promised, “you shall no longer be Jacob”—just a few lines later, and on and off through the rest of his life, the Torah calls him. . . JACOB.

Why is this?  How can it be that the hard-won blessing, reflected in the name change, is only partially fulfilled?  It’s puzzling—and it’s also deeply human.  For in truth, this is the way we create change in our own lives—two  steps forward, one step back. We make resolutions, succeed and fail, succeed and fail—and with luck and hope and a great deal of effort, in the end, we succeed a little more than we fail.  Jewish tradition affirms the possibility of teshuvah but recognizes that this sort of shift is incremental. Sometimes we are Israel, our new and improved selves.  And sometimes, even many years after beginning the process of transformation, we go back to being Jacob, the old self that we had hoped to leave behind. If we expect to turn on a dime, we will inevitably be disappointed.  But when we learn to be patient with ourselves and with others—we can slowly transform our lives and our communities.

And so we bear our two names—bayt ya’akov, the house of Jacob, AND b’nai yisrael, the children of Israel.  We are earthly connivers and wrestlers with the divine, a complex mix of fallen and angelic, striving for holiness and sometimes settling for a great deal less.  As Walt Whitman noted, and as our many names reveal, we contain multitudes. 

We are now two months past Yom Kippur.  This week, reflect on some of the resolutions you made for this new year, 5775.  Where have you succeeded?  Where have you failed?  Don’t let the failures cause you to give up—remember, progress is slow, but it is also real!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Idaho Statesman column, Nov 29, 2014

In this season of Thanksgiving, I am grateful to Governor Butch Otter for his public support for moving forward on a bill to amend Idaho’s Human Rights Act to ban discrimination on the basis of either gender identity or sexual preference.  In a gubernatorial debate shortly before his reelection, the governor noted: “I met twice with the group last year that was advocating for adding the words.  And the two times I met with them, I agreed that the Legislature should hold a hearing.”

In my own time working as an advocate for Add the Words, I have not had the privilege of speaking with Governor Otter, but I take him as a man of his word, and I look forward to seeing him use his influence with Republican leadership during the forthcoming legislative session to promote liberty and justice for all Idahoans, regardless of sexual preference or gender identity.  I am confident that when our Legislature finally holds a hearing, and the victims of prejudice are, at long last, given the opportunity to share their stories with our lawmakers and the public, a large majority of Idahoans will support adding those four words as a bipartisan matter of simple fairness.  For despite the recent legalization of same-sex marriage, basic fairness is very much still at play in our state: although they can now marry, gay and transgender Idahoans can still be denied such basic necessities as housing and employment with no legal protections whatsoever.

As a rabbi and a leader in the faith community, I think it imperative to insist, from the start, that when we do finally extend the protections of the Idaho Human Rights Act to cover sexual preference and gender identity, we must utterly reject manipulative attempts to undermine the law with so-called “religious” exemptions.
This is not to insist that churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious institutions must recognize same-sex marriage or fully accept homosexuality as part of their teachings and traditions.  Within the confines of each faith community, there is plenty of room for disagreement, which should be fully protected as a matter of religious freedom.  But this protection does not give individuals of any religion the right to discriminate in the marketplace.  By way of analogy: my congregation certainly should be able to prohibit pork products in our synagogue kitchen—but we have no right to ban restaurants (even those owned by Jews) from selling bacon cheeseburgers to whoever wants to buy one.  In short, faith does not provide a license for prejudice in the wider society.

I believe it is evil to use God’s name—and the sacred language of faith—to rationalize or even promote bigotry.  Alas, for centuries, religious leaders 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 faith communities that once used their sacred texts to justify slavery.  

That time is past.  Let’s apply Idaho’s human rights act to everyone, gay and straight and transgender, with no exceptions or exemptions.  Our faith demands no less.