Sunday, November 25, 2018

Vayeshev (Broken)


So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the coat of many colors that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit.
            -Genesis 37:23-4

One cannot acquire Torah who has not failed in it
-Talmud, Gittin 43a

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va-yeshev, we meet our patriarch, Joseph.  As a young man, he seems to have it all: striking good looks, his father Jacob’s abiding favor, the sartorial splendor of his many-colored coat, and the ability to prophesy through dreams and their interpretation.   Yet Joseph’s life takes some very difficult turns because his privilege spawns an arrogant adolescent narcissism.  At seventeen, Joseph is a gifted but spoiled youth who lacks empathy or even awareness of others’ feelings.  He flaunts his favored status over his brothers, recounting his dreams of personal glory in a manner that can only inflames their jealousy.  They respond by selling Joseph into Egyptian slavery.

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

Such is the nature of our humanity: personal growth is most often built upon adversity and even failure.  As Ernest Hemingway famously notes: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt tells a similar story in her song, “Broken,” with striking parallels to Joseph’s life.  She opens:

Once you were a straight shot, a shiny quarter in a new slot,
Night would keep the dreams that you got for afternoon

We begin whole, shiny and new, with big dreams for the future.

Just close your eyes for this long, something's mixed up and something's gone,
Only fingers can you count on, and one leaves two
Now you're broken and you don't understand
What is broken falls into place once again

Invariably, things go wrong.  Dreams don’t work out as planned.  Struggle, suffering and loss inevitably break us.

I wish I were a freeway laid out clearer than a bright day
I'd run wide open down this causeway like brand new

We long for better, easier times, now long past.  We think we will never recover from life’s pains and indignities.

But—more often than not—we do, and when we do, we grow strong at the broken places.  The dark passages of our journeys open us to new possibilities.  The brokenness is never made fully whole, but we mend—and sometimes achieve a higher level than we could have reached without the trials we’ve endured.  As Talmud teaches:

The truly penitent stand in a place the totally righteous cannot reach.

One cannot attain Torah who has not failed in it.

We think we will break but we mend.

But I'm broken and I don't understand
What is broken falls into place once again
Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm,
Again and again and again,
I think I will break but I mend

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.  Like Joseph, we grow from our brokenness.

To hear Tift Merritt’s recording of “Broken”: 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Vayishlach (Quiet)

This week’s portion, Vayishlach, describes one of the most tragic and troubling stories in the Torah.  In Genesis 34, we read:

Dinah—the daughter of Leah, who she bore to Jacob—went out to see the women of the locality, and Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the local prince saw her; he took her and lay her down and raped her.

As the sad narrative unfolds, almost everyone acts badly.  Shechem’s father approaches Jacob and asks that he offer Dinah to her attacker as a wife.  Jacob says nothing; instead he lets his sons—who are far more outraged for the family’s honor than concerned about their sister—respond for him.  The sons devise a plot, telling Hamor and Shechem that Dinah can marry into their family on one condition: every male in their clan must be circumcised.  Hamor agrees—and on the third day after the mass circumcision, while all the Hivites are still healing from the procedure, Jacob’s sons slaughter every male in the city.  Then, and only then, does Jacob speak: “You have made trouble for me by making me odious to the land’s inhabitants.”  To which the sons respond: “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

If ever there was a Torah tale of toxic masculinity, this is it.  Male violence and spiteful speech run amuck, while the only woman in the story—Dinah—is not granted a single word.  Later rabbinic commentary compounds this sin, castigating the victim for her mistreatment, as the Rabbis infer that that in “going out” on her own, Dinah invites the trouble that befalls her.  Midrash Genesis Rabbah is typical: “God took care to create a woman from a rib, which is a concealed, modest place; notwithstanding this, women like to go out to public places.”  Alas, this misogynistic attitude remains common; all too often, we still blame female victims of male assault, for their own misfortune, and then silence them. 

Thankfully, contemporary women are making important inroads in breaking the silence.  At the Women’s March in Washington, DC in January 2016, Los Angeles singer-songwriter MILCK performed a song that would become a kind of unofficial anthem for the #MeToo movement.  That piece—Quiet—speaks of the critical important of speaking up and being heard.  She sings with passion, and ever-increasing urgency:

Put on your face
Know your place
Shut up and smile
Don’t spread your legs
I could do that

But no one knows me—no one ever will
If I don’t say something, if I just lie still
Would I be that monster, scare them all away
If I let them hear what I have to say

I can’t keep quiet, no oh oh oh
I can’t keep quiet, no oh oh oh
A one woman riot, oh oh oh

I can’t keep quiet
For anyone

We—Jewish women and men alike—can learn a great deal from the Dinah story—and empowering anthems like “Quiet.”  The time for silence in the face of misogyny is over—it is incumbent upon us, as both Jacob’s and Dinah’s heirs—to do better.  For all of the problems it presents with the Dinah narrative (and others), Torah also points the way to a better, more egalitarian world with its very first ethical teaching: “God created all of humanity in the divine image, male and female God created them.”

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Rabbi Laura Geller notes: “Dinah’s silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations.  What happens to her in the aftermath of her ordeal?  We do not know.  We never hear from her, just as we may never hear from the women and girls in our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard.  But the legacy of Jacob as Israel, the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world—and not passively ignore these facts.  The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to ‘hear each other into speech.’  Dinah’s story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.”

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Vayetze (Learning to Fly)

The true test of any transformative spiritual experience comes in its aftermath.  Revelatory moments are beautiful, but all too often evanescent; the real work of changing one’s life is long, slow, and unromantic.  As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield notes, “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance.  In spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.” 

Twenty years ago, climbers found the body of English mountaineer George Mallory buried beneath the ice on the north face of Mt. Everest.  A broken altimeter in his shirt pocket suggested that Mallory may have reached the summit before dying on the descent.  If so, he would have been the first man to stand atop the world’s highest peak, beating Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to this feat by twenty-nine years.  So how did Hillary respond when he learned of this discovery?  Utterly unperturbed, he told a reporter:  “Coming down is also important.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob has a lot to learn about coming down. 
The first night after leaving home, fleeing his (understandably) angry brother Esau, Jacob has a dream vision of the Divine: a ladder reaching to the heavens, complete with ascending and descending angels and a message directly from God: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  Jacob wakes full of awe and reverence, declaring: “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”

Yet just a few moments later, Jacob is back to his usual self, bargaining, rather crassly, on his own behalf: “If You will be with me and give me bread and clothing and constant protection, then You will be my God.”  What follows is twenty years of hardship, working for his deceitful uncle, Laban, and living in a rather messy love triangle with his wives and handmaidens.    After the ecstasy, the laundry.

Tom Petty captures the essence of this experience—the jarring and frustrating return to ordinary life after the extraordinary moment has passed—in his song, “Learning to Fly.”  He begins, like Jacob, with a journey, leaving home as night falls:

Well it started out
Down a dirty road
Started out all alone

And the sun went down
As I crossed the hill
And the town lit up
And the world got still.

Then, the spiritual awakening:

I’m learning to fly

And immediately, without missing a beat, comes the realization that it’s hard, or even impossible, to sustain that exulted state:

But I ain’t got wings
Coming down
Is the hardest thing.

Like Jacob, Tom Petty tells us, we keep on keeping on.  Life wears us down.  The mountaintop moments fade.   Still, we endure and, with diligent effort, over months and  years, we find ways to transform ourselves by building upon those few and fleeting holy experiences.  What comes up must come down yet we, nonetheless, keep learning to fly. 

Well some say life
Will beat you down
And break your heart
Steal your crown.

So I started out
For God knows where
I guess I’ll know
When I get there.

I’m learning to fly
Around the clouds
What goes up
Must come down

I’m learning to fly

For a magical live performance of  Learning to Fly:

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Toldot (You Know How I Feel)

Our forefather Jacob is a deeply flawed hero.  Yes, he grapples with the Divine and thereby wins the name that will define the Jewish people—Israel, the God-wrestler. 
But he also plays favorites among his children, cons his uncle Laban out of half his flock, and responds with indifference to his daughter Dinah’s rape and the carnage that follows in its wake at the hands of his eldest sons, Reuben and Shimon.  And in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, he steals his older brother Esau’s birthright and blessing, following his mother Rebecca’s lead by dressing up in animal skins to trick his half-blind father.  When a confused and suspicious Isaac inquires, “Which son of mine are you?” Jacob baldly lies, “I am Esau your firstborn.”

Or does he lie? 

Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that in disguising himself as his powerful brother, in some significant manner, Jacob actually becomes Esau:  “Jacob assumes the costume of Esau, takes on what had been Esau’s role.  This involves Jacob in a new, complex, and dangerous sense of himself. . . . He now carries all the explosive energies, symbolized by hair, by strong limbs.  Jacob, then, is really Esau, as he lays claim to the energies of his twin brother.”  We see evidence of this in the very next verse, as Jacob—previously described as a lifelong homebody—leaves everything behind to start a new life in a new place.

I suspect that all of us have, at some point, felt this sense of possibility and new beginnings.  It’s daunting—but also exhilarating—to receive the gift of a fresh start.
Nina Simone expresses the feeling perfectly in her thrilling version of “Feeling Good” by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, featured on Ms. Simone’s classic album, “I Put a Spell on You.”

The music starts slow, then builds to a fever pitch of joy:

Birds flying high
You know how I feel
Sun in the sky
You know how I feel
Reeds driftin' on by
You know how I feel

It's a new dawn
It's a new day
It's a new life
For me
And I'm feeling good. . .

And this old world
Is a new world
And a bold world
For me
That is exactly how I imagine Jacob feels as our portion ends: Leaving home, he is stepping into his adult life, with all of the challenges—and, more significantly, all of the exciting adventures—that this opportunity offers.  He is, perhaps for the first time in his life, truly joyful.

That joy comes to a climax toward the end of the song as Nina Simone, a descendant of slaves and an icon of the civil rights movement, speaks of what it means to feel free:

Stars when you shine
You know how I feel
Scent of the pine
You know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel
And I’m feeling good

Sometimes blessings are hard won—and since, as Talmud teaches, according to the labor, so is the reward—that only makes them more precious.  This is why Jacob is a hero, despite all of his flaws.  He is a person who is constantly in the state of becoming, and thereby one in whom we can readily see ourselves. 

May this week bring freedom and change, new days and new dawns.

To hear Nina Simone singing Feeling Good: