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.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Gratitude in Tough Times (Portion Vayetze)

In many ways, these are not easy times for gratitude.   The world is rife with violence, injustice, and suffering.  We have, in all likelihood, passed the point of no return on catastrophic climate change, terror and hard-heartedness have gripped much of the Middle East, and here in our own community, hunger and homelessness are on the rise.

So, as Thanksgiving approaches, how do we give thanks? 

We might learn from our matriarch, Leah, who one Talmudic sage describes as the first person in the history of the world to express gratitude to God.  How can this be?  Generations before Leah, many others, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca offered thanks to the Holy One.  But Leah’s gratitude is unique—because it is so hard-won.

All of her life, she is unloved by her husband, Jacob, who devotes himself to her prettier younger sister, Rachel.  For years, Leah laments this reality, naming her first three sons in a manner that expresses her pain and disappointment.  But when her fourth child is born, she calls him Judah, meaning, “This time, I will give thanks to God.” 

What has happened here?  How does Leah, previously so lovelorn and despairing, turn her life around and learn to express gratitude rather than longing?  Rabbi Shai Held notes in his commentary: “Leah has somehow found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped.  Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does.  It is crucial to emphasize that Leah's gratitude does not magically set everything aright and banish every other feeling she has.  Her disappointment is real, and deep. But she is also grateful, for despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings.  With the birth of Judah, Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to feel grateful even amidst her sorrows.”
In other words, disappointment and gratitude are not exclusive.  In this life, we can’t always get what we want; indeed, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the contrary, we sometimes don’t even get what we need.  Disappointment is inevitable.  But that need not crowd out the possibility of gratitude, nonetheless.  As Rabbi Held concludes, “Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience.  Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness. 
In this spirit, I’ll end with WS Merwin’s poem, “Thanks”—and wish us all a good Thanksgiving holiday.

with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions  

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you 

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you 

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster  
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Trusting the Universe (Portion Toldot)

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

This quote, from E.M. Forster, speaks to a paradox at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot.  As it opens, God tells Rebecca, who is struggling with a painful pregnancy: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will descend from you; one kingdom will become mightier than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.”  Soon thereafter, she delivers twins, with Esau emerging first, followed by his brother, Jacob.

Perhaps because of God’s prophecy to her, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born.  This dynamic divides the family and comes to a head many years later, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing intended for Esau.  The plan involves a brilliant deception: she covers Jacob’s arms with sheepskins, so that when Isaac feels him, he thinks he is his hairy older brother.  Although Isaac initially responds with some suspicion, in the end, the plot succeeds.

But all of this raises a question: If God has already told Rebecca of Jacob’s eventual primacy even before the boys were born, why is she so desperate to force the matter with all of this deception?  Does Rebecca’s eagerness to seize the blessing for Isaac betray an underlying lack of faith?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues this line: “What if, by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother, Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God?  . . The outcome of Rebecca’s story may, perhaps, teach us to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God’s behalf.”

For us, as for Rebecca, it can be very difficult to “let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”  We strive mightily to determine our fate, to shape every detail in the course of our lives.  So often, our first impulse is to assert control (or the illusion thereof) over our circumstances.  But sometimes, it is better to trust God and the Universe. 

I’ll leave you with a poem by Jane Hirshfield, which may help in this endeavor:

When Your Life Looks Back

When your life looks back—
as it will, at itself, at you—what will it say?

Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.
Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.
Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.

Your life will carry you as it did always,
with ten fingers and both palms,
with horizontal ribs and upright spine,
with its filling and emptying heart,
that wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could you do?

Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.

“What will happen next?”—
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
no unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.

This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.

And did you have a choice in this? You did—

Sleeping and walking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
the buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you—

A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.

Mortal, your life will say,
as if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.