Change My View – Balak 5777

This week, I heard an interview of Kal Turnbull, a young man from Scotland.  In 2013, when he was 17 years old, he asked himself what leads a person to change his or her mind.  He wanted to create a forum in which people were able to openly grapple with views about which they were embarrassed.  He also wanted to keep conversations civil and substantive.

So Turnbull created a Subgroup on the website Reddit called “Change My View.”  For those who are not familiar with it, Reddit is a website that serves as a discussion platform.  Users can submit content, post ideas or questions, and comment on postings by others.  The site prohibits harassment.

Turnbull established several rules for both submitting and commenting on a post.  His goal was to create a space in which users could really get into the details.  If someone wants to submit a post, there are some rules, including:

• The submitter cannot just make a claim.  He or she must also include the reasons for the claim.

• The submitter must personally hold the view and be open to it changing.

• The purpose is to encourage lively debate, so a submitter should only post if he or she is willing to have a conversation with those who reply within 3 hours of posting.

There are also rules that apply to anyone who wants to make a comment, including:

• Direct responses to a post must challenge at least one aspect of the stated view or ask a clarifying question.  In other words, I can’t simply agree with the previous person’s post.

• No rude language or hostility.

• No low effort comments.  I can’t just write, “I agree.”

Submissions and comments that do not follow the rules are reported by users and promptly removed by editors.

If a person who submits a post ends up changing his or view, he or she gets to award a Delta to the person whose comment prompted the change.  The Greek letter Delta is the symbol for change.

I was intrigued.  It seems to me that one of the problems we face is that too many of us stubbornly hold on to our views without being open to other ways of thinking.  We do not like to change our minds.  To do so is seen as week, or wishy washy.

The internet encourages this kind of intellectual siloing.  We get our information from sources that already agree with us.  We ridicule and look down on those who do not share our opinions.  Much of the Talk Back and comment sections that follow articles seem to devolve into insults and hate speech.  The irony is, that these kinds of aggressive writing rarely change minds.  Quite the opposite, they tend to encourage further entrenchment.

But there are many of us that want to engage in polite, substantive, and open conversation with people who disagree with us.  We recognize that receptive exposure to different ways of thinking makes us better.  What is so great about “Change My View” is that it forces users to put forward their best arguments, and to respond thoughtfully to others’ best arguments.  It seems to have struck a chord.  There are over 300,000 subscribers.

Through these rules, “Change My View” has reversed the normal reward structure of the internet.  Now instead of winning by insulting or belittling one’s opponent, a person only wins by taking one’s opponent seriously and responding respectfully.

In the great Jewish tradition of arguing, it is supposed to be this way.  Since the days of the Talmud, Jews have been arguing back and forth through the issues, recognizing that Truth emerges through the dialectic.

In this morning’s Torah portion, which is named after him, the Moabite King Balak sees the approaching Israelites and determines to prevent them from passing through his territory.  He sends a delegation to Balaam, intent on commissioning him to place a curse upon the Israelites.  Balaam is known as a Prophet whose blessings and curses are fulfilled.

The delegation makes it pitch, and Balaam has them stay overnight to receive his answer.  That night, God appears to Balaam and instructs him in no uncertain terms that he is not to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed.

The next morning, Balaam informs the Moabite messengers that it is a no-go, and they return home.

Balak will not take no for an answer.  He sends an even more distinguished delegation to Balaam, promising to reward him richly.  Balaam responds, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.”  (Numbers 22:18)  Nevertheless, he invites the messengers to stay overnight.  Perhaps God will change God’s mind.  This time, God permits Balaam to return with the men, but reminds Balaam that he must do whatever God tells him.

Upon waking, Balaam rises and departs with the Moabite dignitaries.  God is furious, and sends an angel to interfere with his journey.

On the surface, Balaam seems to have done everything right.  He repeatedly insists that he can only do what God tells him to do.  Eventually, God tells Balaam that he is allowed to go.  So why is God so angry with Balaam when he actually does it?

Rashi, reading the text closely, says that there is more going on here than meets the eye.  Balaam is sending subtle messages to King Balak to indicate that, indeed, he is more than willing to curse the Israelites.

With the first delegation, when God tells Balaam “Do not go with them,” Balaam responds, “All right, then I will stay right here and curse them,” according to Rashi.  The next morning, Balaam tells the messengers “The Lord will not let me go with you.”  According to Rashi, Balaam is hinting that he wants King Balak to send higher ranking dignitaries because he is so full of himself.

With the second dignitaries, Balaam does not simply say no, he adds the bit about Balak giving him his entire house full of silver and gold.  Somewhat sneakily, Balaam has actually just named his price.

So why does God allow him to go?  According to the midrash, God is not going to prevent a wicked person from continuing on the wicked path to which his heart leads him.  Why does Balaam choose to go?  Rashi says that he thinks he will be able to change God’s mind.

Of course, Balaam cannot change God’s mind.  Three times he tries to curse the Israelites, but God places words of blessing in his mouth.

Balaam is duplicitous.  He presents himself as an easy-going guy.  He does not just send the messengers away.  He suggests that, perhaps, if they spend the night, he can convince God to change God’s mind about cursing the Israelites.  He asks God for permission.  But when God says no, Balaam does not really accept the answer.  He leads Balak’s emissaries on in a ploy to negotiate a higher fee, all the while saying, “Hey!  It’s not me.  I’m just the messenger.”  In reality, he is an arrogant profiteer.  Balak may be wicked, but at least he is honest and up front about his intentions.

Balaam is not interested in changing his mind.  If he was as open-minded as he claims, he would accept God’s declaration that the Israelites are blessed.  Instead, he has to learn the hard way, as God takes over his faculties of speech and forces words of blessing to come out.  Even afterwards, Balaam still plots against the Israelites, advising Balak to lead the Israelites astray by sending in women to seduce the Israelite men.

Balaam has not gone into this episode with a willingness to have his view changed.  Rather, he thinks that he can manipulate everyone around him so as to change their views.  Perhaps this duplicitousness explains how he has gained his reputation as a successful Prophet.

Sadly, this kind of closed-mindedness is all around us.  We ourselves fall victim to it.  We take an attack on our beliefs or views as an attack on our persons.  We belittle those who disagree with us, calling them uneducated, backward, naive, elitist, or out of touch.  And we often are not prepared to acknowledge that people who disagree with us might have really good reasons for doing so.

But maybe it does not have to be this way.  Intrigued by the “Change My View” project, I decided to join the group and post a comment.  I suggested an idea that I have an opinion about, but about which I do not feel confident enough to speak with certainty.  I stated that a National Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax in the United States is the best option available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Without going through my entire post, it does not unfairly penalize the poor.  It is simpler to implement than a Cap and Trade system.  And it is politically more likely to win approval from both liberals and conservatives.  Even ExxonMobile has recently come out in favor of it.

Within four hours, there were eleven comments -not a single insult among them.  No words in ALL CAPS.  Most of the comments were quite well-informed, and helped me think about the issue in more depth.

I awarded one delta to a commentor who explained how a Cap and Trade system could do a better job of letting the market determine an appropriate price for carbon, whereas a fixed tax would be somewhat arbitrary and would not be able to adjust to changing circumstances.  I conceded that there might be room for some sort of hybrid system, with taxes on commodities that consumers see directly, such as gasoline, and Cap and Trade for big industry applications.

It was a great experience to be able to have a conversation with educated people with thoughtful opinions

In the interview, Kal Turnbull agreed that the rules for the website are really rules that ought to guide our disagreements out in the real world:  Make your claim.  Back it up.  Respond to others with substance.  Don’t insult.  Be open to change your mind.  Acknowledge when another person has made a great argument.

I am not sure that I have time to become a regular contributor to “Change My View.”  But I do know that I crave more opportunities to have my ideas challenged, and to challenge those of others – but only in ways that bring us together.  I suspect that all of us want that.  For that to happen, we need to start with a willingness to let the other person “Change My View.”

Returning the Blessing – Vayishlach 5777

Most, but not all, of the midrashim and commentaries describing the interactions of Jacob and Esau apologize for the former and castigate the latter.  They find ways to excuse and justify Jacob’s theft of the blessing that was meant for Esau.

Jacob is portrayed as the pious, righteous, innocent Torah observer, while Esau is described as the personification of all that is evil.

There is some, limited, support in the text for this reading.  By creating a polarized, black and white account of these fractious twins’ relationship, however, the commentaries miss the rich psychological depth in the text.  This is a multi-layered story that offers a window into human emotions and relationships.  Like Jacob, we only become complete when we learn to face ourselves with honesty.  This may not result in a tranquil life, but it will result in a life of meaning and purpose.

As Parashat Vayishlach opens, Jacob is preparing to return to the land of Canaan after more than twenty years in Haran.  Vayishlach means, “then he sent,” referring to the messengers that Jacob sends ahead to his brother Esau, announcing his return as the head of a wealthy household.

To be clear, Esau does not live in the land of Canaan.  He has settled in Seir, located southeast of the Jordan River.  Jacob does not have to announce his return.  He could simply continue on to Canaan and avoid Esau completely.  But Jacob is aware that he will need to make contact before he can go back home.  Jacob knows that he will not be complete until he faces his brother again.

It is like how Luke Skywalker’s training is not complete until he faces Darth Vader one final time in Return of the Jedi.

Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau has gathered four hundred men with whom he is marching to meet his brother.

What does the text tell us about Jacob’s reaction?  “And Jacob was greatly afraid, and he was distressed…” (32:8)  Four hundred men is not a force to be trifled with.  It looks like Esau is coming for war, and Jacob understands this well.

He employs several strategies to deal with the coming crisis.  First, Jacob divides his household and his flocks into two separate camps, figuring “should Esau come to the one camp and strike it, the remaining camp will escape.”  (32:9)

Second, Jacob prays.  Some details of his prayer are notable.  He recalls the promise that God has made to his predecessors Abraham and Isaac, and then declares himself unworthy of all the kindness that God has bestowed upon him.  katonti mi-kol hachasadim u-mikol ha-emet asher asita et avdekha…  Literally, “too small am I for all the faithfulness and trust that you have shown your servant…”  (32:11, Fox)  His prayer concludes with a panicked plea.  Jacob begs God to save him from Esau.  He fears that his brother is going to murder him, his wives, and all of his children.

Third, he sends a gift – a rather significant one, to be precise.  200 she-goats and 20 he-goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, and so on.  He sends the gifts in waves, with each servant instructed to present them to Esau as a gift from “your servant Jacob.”  He is repeatedly humbling himself before his brother.  Jacob figures that if he can butter up his brother in advance, Esau might react to him more favorably.

These are the preparations of someone who is terrified of what could happen, but not immobilized by his fear.  He has done everything possible to ensure his survival through the impending encounter.

That night, something unexpected transpires.  Jacob is isolated on the banks of the Jabbok River.  There, he is confronted by a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night long.  We do not have time this morning to delve into the many possible meanings of this evocative episode except to say that Jacob’s encounter is that of someone whose mind is not at ease.

It is the night before the biggest day of Jacob’s life.  His soul is in turmoil.  He does not sleep.  His entire past, with all of its’ sins and mistakes, comes crashing into him.  Esau reminds Jacob of the worst parts of himself: Jacob knows that he has committed a serious sin against his brother.

He emerges from the experience with a new name, courtesy of his assailant, now revealed to be an angel: Yisrael – “for you have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.”  But has anything really changed?  After all, Jacob still has to meet his brother.

Let’s try to imagine what that meeting must have been like for Jacob.  Off in the distance, he sees Esau and his four hundred men approaching.  Jacob gathers his household together.

The picture in my mind is like what we see in those period war movies, where the two opposing armies are lined up across the battlefield from each other.  Before the fighting starts, each side sends an emissary to the middle for a parlay.

Jacob sends the maidservants and their sons first.  The second contingent is Leah and her sons.  Next, he sends Rachel and Joseph.  Finally, he himself sets off.  He is limping from his struggle with the angel.  He has not slept.  He pauses in his approach seven times, bowing down to the ground.

Suddenly, Esau starts running towards him.  He is big, hairy, and full of muscles.  Jacob is no match for him in a fight, and he knows it.  What is Jacob thinking and feeling in this moment?

Terror.  He is about to pay the debt on his past mistakes.  Perhaps he even welcomes the anticipated violence to balance his guilt.

Then Esau hugs Jacob, buries his head in his neck, and kisses him.  Not what Jacob is expecting.

There is a wonderful midrash that teaches that it is not a kiss – a neshikah – but rather a bite – a neshikhah.  The nineteenth century Chassidic Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, understands this midrash metaphorically.  In reality, it is a legitimate kiss.  But what Esau intends to be a kiss is experienced by Jacob as a bite; and it is the bite that is most threatening.

Jacob is expecting a beating.  He wants Esau to just get it over with.  It will make him feel better.  It will even the score between the brothers.

But when Esau responds with graciousness and love, Jacob is “bitten” to his core.  He cannot run away from his sin any longer.

The text says that “they cry,” in the plural.  They are crying for different reasons: Esau is crying out of genuine happiness to be reunited with his brother; Jacob is crying out of guilt.

Then Jacob offers Esau all of the gifts, and Esau declines them.  Jacob will not be able to pay off his guilt.  He begs Esau to accept his offering, “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  He confesses to the wrong that he has committed.

Kakh-na et birkhati, he then says – “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you.”  (33:11)

Jacob refers to the gift as his berakhah, his blessing.  This is not just any gift.  Jacob is giving back the blessing which he stole twenty two years earlier.   At last, Esau agrees.

Now, at last, Jacob can be free of his brother.

What was this blessing that Jacob gave back, the one that he had stolen?  It was a blessing of material wealth and physical power.  “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of grain and wine.  Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you…” (27:28-29)

This is precisely what Jacob has returned to Esau.  He has given him his wealth, and has humbled himself before his more powerful brother.  Jacob realizes that he should have never taken this blessing.  It was not meant for him, and it was not fitting for who he is.

There was a second blessing that Jacob received from his father before he left many years earlier.  That blessing was given out in the open.  Isaac called upon God to bless Jacob with progeny.  “May [God] grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”  (28:4)

That is the blessing that had been meant for Jacob all along.  It just took many years, and much travail, to recognize it.

But perhaps the journey is necessary.  As we grow older, we (hopefully) become more wise.  The rashness and impulsivity of youth is gradually replaced by thoughtfulness and patience.  How often have we thought to ourselves, “If I only knew then what I know now…”

The story ends vayavo Ya’akov shalem.  “Then Jacob arrived complete.”  (33:18)

It is not to say that Jacob’s life will be hunky dory from now on.  Far from it.  God never promises Jacob a life of tranquility.  In fact, his new name, Yisrael, is fitting.  You have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.  That is Jacob’s fate.  That is who he is.

That is also the fate of his children, b’nei Yisrael.  The children of Israel.  That is our fate.

Jacob’s Story – Toldot 5776

Jacob the Liar.  Jacob the Trickster.  Jacob our Patriarch.

Every year, when we come to this week’s Torah portion, at least one person, usually more, comes to me with something critical to say about Jacob.  How can such an immoral person, a thief and manipulator – be one of our Patriarchs?  But the Torah tells the story from a bird’s eye view, without passing judgment on Jacob or any of the other characters in the story.  What about Jacob the person – the son, the brother?  How did he become who he became?  With your permission, I will attempt to delve into Jacob’s character from a first-person vantage point.

My name is Ya-akov, which means “Heel.”  Why anyone would name their child after a heel is beyond me.  They say that I came out of my mother second, holding on to my twin brother’s foot as if I didn’t want to be left behind, or perhaps even as if I was struggling to come out first.  Anyways, being called a “Heel” all of the time has got to be somebody’s idea of a cruel joke.

Right now, I’m on the run.  My brother vowed to kill me – and I believe he just might do it.  So I had to skip town in a hurry, with nothing but the clothes on my back.

Let me tell you about my brother, Esau.  First of all, I cannot believe that we are even related, much less twins.  He is my opposite in every way.  He is big and strong.  He has red hair all over his body.  He spends as much time as he can away from home, hunting out in the fields with his bow and arrow.

And let’s just say that he is not much of a reader.  He is brash, quick-tempered, and prone to hyperbole – not that he knows the meaning of the word.

Not only that, I think Esau might be evil.  What does he do all day when he is out in the fields?  I know he is a good hunter, and he always brings home a fresh kill for my father, but he is gone so long that he has to be up to other things.

I have my suspicions.  And there are rumors.  They say (Genesis Rabbah 63:12) he spends a lot of time with the ladies.  And not just the single ones.  (Ibid. 65:1) I even heard that he once forced himself on a young woman who was engaged to be married.  But nobody is going to mess with Esau – so he gets away with it.

I also overheard our servants whispering that they heard Esau killed a man.  There weren’t any details, but knowing my brother, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find out that it is true.

And yet, my father, Isaac, clearly favors Esau.  He barely even acknowledges me.  Every day, Esau struts back into our homestead with his bloody carcass from that day’s hunt.  He roasts it up just how dad likes it.  Then he changes out of his soiled clothes  (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:15) and brings the meat to father with a glass of wine (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), which he keeps refilling.  He plays the part of the obedient, respectful son to a T.

He asks father questions to try to foster an aura of righteousness that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  One day, I overhead him asking about the proper way to tithe salt and straw, as if he has ever tithed anything or offered a single word of praise to God in his life.  But father thought Esau was so pious, he talked about it for days.  There isn’t even an obligation to tithe salt or straw.  (Rashi on Genesis 25:27)   He hunts our father’s emotions just like the prey that he tracks out in the wilds.

The worst part of it all is that this so-called brother of mine, simply because he came out a few seconds before me, is entitled to receive a double inheritance of our father’s estate.  This brute, who knows nothing about running a farm, managing a household, or maintaining good relations with neighbors, will get to take over the family business.  He is going to squander everything that our grandfather Abraham and our father Isaac built to satisfy his own gluttonous passions.

Does my father, Isaac, see any of this?  He is a wise man, and a good man.  How can he be so blind?

I sometimes think that he feels guilty about what happened to his own half-brother, Ishmael.  Even though Uncle Ishmael was the son of a slave, he was still Grandfather Abraham’s oldest child.  After my father was born, Ishmael was sent away so that we wouldn’t be a threat, and so that father could be the uncontested heir.  Ishmael grew up into a wild man, quite the opposite of dad.  But I wonder if father feels that he somehow owes something to Ishmael that he cannot repay, and so he overlooks Esau’s terrible qualities.

I could not let Esau inherit our father’s possessions.  Not because I thought they should be mine.  But because Father doesn’t see Esau as he truly is.  So when opportunity presented itself, I took advantage.

One afternoon, I was cooking a red lentil stew.  I have to stay, I am quite the chef.  Because I have spent so much of my time around the tents and with mother, I have picked up a thing or two in the kitchen.

Esau came in from the field in one of his moods.  He had been tracking an ibex or antelope or something that had gotten away, so he was pretty upset.

“Argggh!” was the announcement of his approach.  I heard the clattering sound of a bow and quiver of arrows as it was thrown to the ground.

Then Esau shoved his ugly, dirty, hairy face in front of mine.  “I’m starving!” he shouted.  “Give me that red red stuff!”

Startled, I looked in his face, and saw my chance.  “Sell me your birthright, and you can have as much as you want.”  I knew exactly how he would respond.

“I’m dying of hunger here.  I’ve got no use for a birthright!”

But I wanted to be sure.  “No.  You’ve got to swear to me.”

“Fine!  Whatever!  I swear you can have the birthright.  Now gimme that red stuff!”

So I let him have it.  He ate, drank, got up, and stormed off.  I don’t think he even tasted the soup.

Now let me tell you about my father.  One year, there was a famine, so he moved the household to Philistine territory, near Gerar.  Father did not feel very confident in himself, so he told everyone that his wife was actually his sister so they would not be tempted to kill him and steal her.  Well, the ruse did not last very long.  When King Avimelech saw them fooling around out in the fields one day, he summoned father to the palace for an explanation.

Overall, though, we did pretty well in Gerar.  Father made a lot of money.  But the locals were not pleased, so they started stopping up all of his wells.  Those wells, by the way, were wells that Grandfather Avraham had dug many years ago.  Then the King ordered us to leave.  Instead of standing up for himself, father just acquiesced, and we moved further out, to a dry riverbed.

Farther sent his workers out to re-dig the stopped-up wells.  Whenever they struck water, the locals came out to claim them as their own.  So what did father do?  He gave in and moved on to dig another well.  After three times, he just picked up and moved us all far away to Be’er Sheva.

I hate to say this, but my father is not a brave man.

He is blind to my brother’s wickedness, and he lets people push him around.

Mother?  She is another story entirely.  Rebecca is a force to be reckoned with.

Like I said, I spend most of my days by the tents.  But those days are not idly spent.  She makes sure of that.  Mother is constantly drilling me to learn.  She made sure I could read, and that I knew my numbers.  She taught me to watch people, to read their emotions and understand their motivations so that I would know how to deal with them.  She made sure that I understood how the household worked, and how to manage our people.

Let me tell you – she is a demanding teacher.  Do not talk back to that woman.  You do what she says, or else.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my mother.  But it’s a complicated relationship.  Sometimes I think that she is too much in my business.  She misses nothing.

At least she doesn’t have any illusions about her eldest son.  Mother knows exactly who, and what, Esau is.  Unfortunately, father cannot tolerate anything bad said about him – even when she confronts him with the truth.  It’s infuriating.

One day, mother came to me in a rush.  “Quick, Jacob.  Your father has just asked your brother to go out and hunt him some game.  He is about to give him his innermost blessing.  We cannot allow that to happen!”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve already gotten the birthright from him.  What do I need the blessing for?”

“The Lord made a sacred promise to your grandfather that his descendants would become a great nation and be a blessing to the world.  That blessing passed on to your father.  It cannot go on to your brother.”

“But he is the oldest.”  I said.

Then her face softened.  “I never told you this.  My pregnancy with you was terrible.  I thought I was going to die.  It was something unnatural.  So I asked the Lord ‘what’s the point of all this?’ and I received an answer: ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.'””

“So Jacob, it must be you.  Go select two animals from the flock.  I’ll prepare them the way that your father likes.  Bring them in to him, and he will give you his blessing.”

I sucked in my breath and spoke back to her again: “But mother, there is no way that father is going to think I am Esau.  Yes, he is blind, but Esau is covered in hair, and I’m smooth-skinned.  As soon as father touches me, he is going to know who it is, and then I’m going to be cursed.”

“Let the curse fall upon me.” she snapped.  “Just do it.  The future depends on it.”

You should have seen her in that moment.  Her eyes were blazing.  Her face was scarlet.  I had to do what she said.

So I got the animals and gave them to mother.  She prepared the meal while I snuck into my brother’s tent to steal his clothes.  Then I took some animal skins and put them on my arms so that they would feel like Esau’s.  Yes.  He is that hairy.

I brought the food in.  “Father,” I said.  “It’s me your son.”

“Which son are you?” he asked.

I gulped.  “I am Esau, your first-born.  I did what you told me.  Please sit up and eat of this game, so that you can give me your innermost blessing.”

“That was fast,” he said.  “How did you come back so quickly.”

Without thinking, I responded, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.”  That was a stupid thing to say.  Esau would never talk like that.

Father seemed suspicious, and he said, “come closer so I can feel you, and know whether you are Esau or not.”  He suspected!

So I approached and nervously held out my arms for him to feel.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.  Are you really Esau?”

“I am.”

“Then serve me so that I may eat of my son’s game and give him my innermost blessing.”

So I did.  My father ate, and then he called me over close and asked me to kiss him.  Holding my breath, I did as he asked.

“Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.”

Was this really going to work?

Apparently it was.  He blessed me.  “May God give you Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.  Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you.  Cursed be they who curse you, blessed they who bless you.”

Believe me, I got out of there as fast as I could.  I rushed past mother, who was waiting outside the tent, and went to get out of sight as quickly as possible.  I did not want to be around when my brother got back.

Good thing, too.  Because Esau showed up seconds later.  I was hiding in my tent, so I don’t know what happened when they figured out what I had done.  But a little while later, I heard the loudest scream I have ever heard.  It was filled with pain, anger, and rage.

That night, mother came to my tent.  She grabbed a travel bag and started rushing around, grabbing things to pack into it.  “Jacob, you have to leave immediately” she said.  “Esau is furious.  He is swearing that as soon as your father dies, he is going to come after you to kill you.  Here is what I want you to do.  Leave the country, and travel to Haran, where I was born.  Find my brother Laban.  You can stay with him for as long as you need.  After Esau calms down, I’ll send for you.”

That’s it!?  My mother forces me to trick my father and infuriate my brother – and now I’ve got to go into exile!?  What did she think was going to happen?  Not that I shouldn’t have been the one to get the blessing, mind you.  I agree with her there.  There is no way that Esau’s descendants will be blessings to the world.

But it’s not like she gave me any alternatives.  What was I supposed to do?

So I packed my things, and was about to leave when my father sent for me.  “Uh oh.  Now I’m in for it,” I thought.  “Here comes the curse.”

I went back into father’s tent, terrified of what was to come next.

“You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women,” he ordered.  “Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.”

It sounds like mother got to him first.  She must have complained to father about the local women so that he would think that it was his idea to send me abroad.  She is a devious one.

Then father gave me another blessing.  “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.  May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”

He didn’t say a word about my deceiving him.  Nothing.  I was flabbergasted, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out what he was going to say next.  I hit the road immediately, and that’s where I am now.  Be’er Sheva is behind me.  I think I am out of my brother’s range.

So now you know my story.  Before you judge me too harshly, please consider what I have had to deal with in my life up until now: a brother who could not be more different, who is crude, uneducated, wicked, and deceitful; a father who cannot stand up for himself, and who allows himself to be deceived; and an overbearing mother who knows how to get what she wants, but whose love is, at times, suffocating.

I think it’s good for me to get away for a while, to escape this atmosphere of dishonesty and duplicity.  It’s time for me to chart my own course.

 

Melakhah and Avodah: Work of the Hands and Work of the Heart – Vayakhel – P’kudei 5775

Finally, the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites build so that God’s Presence can be with them in the wilderness, is finished.  After all of the Torah’s detailed descriptions of the building project, the time has come for a final inspection.  The workers bring each of the various parts of the Mishkan forward for Moses’ approval.

Imagine the scene:  One by one, each of the parts of the Tabernacle appears: the planks, the posts, the coverings, the furnishing, the menorah, the clothing of the priests.  All of it must pass inspection.  Each work crew waits its turn.  When called, the foreman steps up in front of everyone to present the result of his team’s labor to the boss.

That must have been a tense moment.  After all, this is not just any building.  This is the mishkan, a dwelling place for God.  Did all of the work crews pull their weight?  Did anyone cut corners, or get lazy?  How is the Chief Building Inspector, Moses, going to react?

The Torah tells us:

“Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).  And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah) – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.”  (Exodus 43:38-39)

This is probably not the reaction they are expecting.

I get the impression that this blessing is kind of spontaneous.  Moses is so overjoyed with what he sees, that he cannot contain himself.  He bursts out in praise.

But what does he say?  What is the blessing?

According to a midrash, Moses pronounces these words:  Yehi ratzon she-tishreh shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.  “May it be his will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”  (Tanhuma P’kudei 11)

What a wonderful blessing!  The entire nation has been occupied in this project for many months.  Our commentators teach that every single person had a part to play – some as designers, others as builders, craftsmen, weavers, and yes, some as donors.  Each person is invested.

It is conceivable that after expending so much effort to build a building, one might be tempted to focus on its physical aspects – such as it’s beauty and sturdiness – and pay less attention to its spiritual function.

And so Moses’ blessing reminds the people of the Mishkan‘s purpose – to be a dwelling place for God’s Presence, the Shekhinah.  “May the Shekhinah rest on the work of your hands.”  Use this beautiful edifice for holy purposes.  Don’t let it feed your ego, or symbolize greed.

But what is it that triggers Moses to offer this blessing?  Why is he so inspired?

The Chatam Sofer, an Ashkenazi Rabbi from the early nineteenth century, suggests an answer.  He notices that the Torah seems to be repeating itself.  The Torah states:  “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).”

And then immediately afterwards says “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah)…”

They did all the work, they performed all the tasks.  Why does the Torah need to say it twice, but with different words?  Those two words, avodah and melakhah, says the Chatam Sofer, are two different things.

The second term, melakhah, refers to physical work.  The work of our hands.  It is the same word that is used at the end of the creation of the world to describe the work that God had done.  Melakhah is also the word that the Torah uses to describe the kinds of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat.  Melakhah is “creative and destructive labor.”  It is the activities we perform which demonstrate our conquering, or mastery, of the physical world.  It is what we do during the six days of the week.

Avodah is a different kind of work.  It is internal.  Nidvat halev, says the Chatam Sofer.  “Generosity of the heart” without any concrete action.

“What is the avodah that is performed in the heart?” asks the Talmud (BT Taanit 2a)  “Prayer.”  And so, the term avodah is used to describe the worship of God in the Temple through the sacrificial system, and later to prayer as we understand it today.

In fact, the Chatam Sofer explains, the Torah is not repeating itself at all.  The melakhah that the Israelites perform – the physical work that they do in building the Mishkan – is infused with avodah, with generosity of heart and spirit and with a desire to carry out God’s will.

But how could Moses have known this?  How can he see into the hearts of every single Israelite?

Moses knows what is in their hearts because he has seen the final product that their hands have produced.  He sees that it is pristine, without a single mistake or blemish.  Moses knows that such a perfect result can only be achieved from pure hearts.  The love and purity that the Israelites bring to their work infuses the very fabric of its creation.  It is both melakhah and avodah.

When Moses sees this, he is overcome with emotion.  Proud of these people whom he leads, he prays that the spirit which has motivated their efforts up to this point will remain with them so that the Mishkan can fulfill its function as a dwelling place for the Shekhinah.

It was eight years ago almost to the day that I first came to Congregation Sinai.  At the time, I was here to interview to become its Rabbi.  The synagogue still had that “new shul smell.”  The building was brand new, having been constructed within the previous year.

I remember a story that was told to me during that interview weekend.  Barry, our congregant who generously gave a year of his time to become the contractor for this wonderful building, stood before the synagogue and told the Sinai membership: “I have built it, now go and fill it.”

He knew that, as beautiful and well-designed a structure as this is, unless we infuse it with spirit, it is simply walls and a roof.  Our community collectively makes it worthy of being a beit k’nesset, a house of gathering, a synagogue.

I would say that we have filled out these walls nicely.  Congregation Sinai is a place in which we celebrate life’s joys and mourn its sorrows together, in which we express our connection to Israel and to Jews around the world.  It is a sanctuary in which we come together to worship God.  It is a center in which learning takes place by students of all ages.  It is a shul in which the ancient values and practices of our people are lived and made relevant to modern life on a daily basis.

Our community has grown larger, with more people attending Shabbat services, more children in our Nursery School and Religious School, more programming, and more classes.

The reason for all of this is because we have so many people in our community who are willing and eager to work on behalf of this congregation.  And I mean both kinds of work:  melakhah and avodah.  The physical work that has to be done, and the generosity of heart that is an expression of the love we have for each other and for God.

I feel so blessed to be the Rabbi of this community.  And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to begin a shabbaton, a sabbatical, tomorrow.  As this date has approached, people have been nervous – and that is understandable.  What are we going to do without our Rabbi?

I am confident, however that Sinai will thrive in my five-month absence.  We have worked hard to plan for all of the various contingencies that may arise, and to cover all of the responsibilities that generally call for a Rabbi.

Our religious services will continue.  Limmud La-ad classes will take place.  Celebrations will occur.  There will even be some new initiatives, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat musical ensemble that will be leading services this coming Friday night.  We are so blessed to have a community with so many knowledgeable and talented members who are willing and eager to give of themselves.  That is why I am not especially worried.  And it is why I am really looking forward to seeing all the ways in which we have grown when I come back at the end of the summer.

I really cannot fully express how grateful I am to everyone who has already stepped forward to plan for the next five months.  I am especially appreciative of Joelle and the rest of the Sinai staff, who will be taking on numerous additional tasks during the time that I am away.

I can think of no better words to say than Moses’ blessing to the Israelites after they presented the completed Mishkan to him after months and months of melakhah and avodah, work of the hands and labors of the heart.

Yehi ratzon she-tishreh Shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.

“May it be God’s will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”

Bechukotai 5774 – Climate Change, DNA, and God’s Challenge to Us

On Monday of this week, two scientific papers were released by two separate teams that studied melting patters on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  The groups conducted their studies independently, and used different methods to conduct their studies.  They did, however, come to the same conclusion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits on a bowl shaped depression of earth, with the base of the ice below sea level.  Ice on the edge of that bowl has been melting as it comes into contact with warming ocean water.  As that ice melts, it destabilizes the rest of the ice sheet, starting a chain reaction that will cause it to slide off the continent into the ocean.  The studies found that the melting has passed the point of no return.  Even if the water temperature goes back down, the progress of the glaciers cannot be stopped.  In fact, they will continue to accelerate into the ocean.

The cause is not clear.  Scientists think it has something to do with stronger winds stirring up the ocean and raising water temperatures.  Some think the stronger winds are caused by increased temperatures in other parts of the world due to global warming.  Others think that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has added energy to the winds.  Natural variability may also be a factor.

The result, according to the studies, will be an additional rise of global sea levels of up to twelve feet over the next few centuries.  That is on top of other predictions, which do not take the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into account.  The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already warned that sea levels could rise up to three feet by the end of the century without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  With the new discovery, that estimate will have to be raised.

We are not going to go into whether global warming is caused by humans or not.  People’s emotions tend to overwhelm their brains in such discussions.

Let me state one undeniable fact: climate change, whatever the cause, exists.

What will the impact of rising sea levels be?  In America, a rise of up to four feet would inundate the homes of 3.7 million Americans.  Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and New York would all be vulnerable.

It is already happening.  The question is: what are we doing to prepare for it?  The collective decisions that we make over the coming decades will determine what kind of toll climate change will take on human lives.

The first half of this morning’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, records a series of blessings and curses which will befall the Israelites depending on their adherence to the covenant with God.  Im bechukotai telechu… it begins.  “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…”

The blessings are everything that ancient people could want: abundant rain, successful crops, peace in the land, strength to defeat their enemies, and a constant awareness of God’s Presence and love in their midst.

The curses are the opposite.  The sky will turn to iron, the land will not produce food, disease will spread, famine will ensue, enemies will terrorize the land, and eventually the nation will be exiled.

Whether the blessings or the curses befall the Israelites is entirely up to them.  The national fate will be determined by whether the people follow the mitzvot, that is, the commandments outlined in the Torah that are the Jewish people’s covenental obligations to God.

As moderns, the idea of the weather or the conduct of enemy nations being determined by our actions is a troubling theology.

What these blessings and curses are describing is not so much theology, however, but human nature.  The extent to which a community embraces shared values determines to a large extent whether a crisis will result in blessing or curse.

When the oceans rise, the impact on human lives will be determined by how we have prepared for that event, and how our society cares for the people that are affected.  Developed countries will fare better than poor countries.  We know this, because that is what always happens in natural disasters.  But human societies, whether in local communities, in nations, or globally, have it in their hands to do something about it.  The question is: will we?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably: not very likely.

Every living creature has a biological imperative to perpetutate its own existence.  Human beings are no different.  It is built into our DNA.  But that imperative operates at the individual level rather than the collective.  Individuals tend to do things which enhance their own abilities to survive, thrive, and repopulate.  It seems that there is no collective biological imperative for the perpetuation of humanity’s existence.

We form groups for the benefits they bring to our own ability to survive.  We make choices about what we think will further our own well-being, but are far less inclined to make decisions that will benefit humanity, especially when it will involve some sort of self-sacrifice.

This is not a moral point.  It is a matter of biology and genetics.

So many human civilizations over the millenia have ignored the warning signs and gone down paths that led to their collapse.  The biological imperative is for individual survival, not for collective survival.  That perhaps explains why so many societies today engage in wasteful and self-destructive behaviors.  We are not naturally inclined to do what is best for humanity as a whole.

So we pollute our environment, we use up too much of our fresh water, and we drive other species into extinction.  Why?  Because there is nothing in our DNA to stop us.

The Torah challenges us to overcome our biology.  The mitzvot, the commandments, are a comprehensive system of laws that govern all aspects of our lives: how we treat ourselves, how we function within our families and our communities, and how we are to treat the strangers among us.

Our tradition also tells us how to function within the context of a larger society that is not Jewish.

And of course, Jewish life is full of rituals that bind us through the observance of sacred practices and the marking of sacred time to Jewish people of the past, present and future.  Ritual also enables us to express our yearnings to God.

In asking us to live by the mitzvot, God challenges us to rise above our genetics.

To follow halakhah, the Jewish system of commandments, is to impose an unnatural code of ethics on our human interactions, and to instill a deep sense of humility into our relationship with Creation.

Ki li kol ha-aretz  “For the entire Earth is Mine,” God declares at Mount Sinai before giving us the Ten Commandments.  As Jews in a covenantal relationship with God, we are asked to remember this at all times, and not treat the earth as something that exists only for our exploitation.  As God’s possession, the earth must be treated with reverence.

In the kedushah we recite the words kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai tzeva-ot, m’lo kol ha-aretz kevodo.  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of hosts, the fullness of the the entire earth is God’s glory.”  How might human treatment of our planet differ if we saw every element in the natural world as a manifestation of God’s glory?  Think about the impact on things like pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions.  Consider how our own behavior might change with regard to the kinds of plants we put in our gardens, the length of our showers, and the things we choose to purchase, if we were conscious of utilizing resources that belonged to God.

The Torah is speaking to a particular community: the Jewish people.  The Torah’s way is the Jewish recipe for overcoming our basic human instincts.  But the underlying principle is universal.  It applies to all peoples separately, and to humanity as a whole.  God asks all of us to be more than our DNA.  To work for the flourishing of all people, and to treat the earth with humility.

As evidenced by our behavior, it seems that humanity does not have an especially humble posture with regard to the earth.

A detail in the presentation of curses reveals an insightful point about human behavior.  The curses do not all happen at once.  They come in waves.  After each wave, we are offered a chance to return to God.  If we do not take advantage of that opportunity, then the next wave will strike.  One gets a sense that God really wants Israel to redeem itself, to prevent further curses.  But the Torah describes it as almost inevitable that the community will not be able to reverse course.  Curses will follow more curses, with people never recognizing that their fate is the result of having gone off course from the path of blessing.

The cycle ends with the land desolate and the people in exile.  Only then will a small remnant realize their mistakes and the mistakes of their ancestors and return to the covenant.  When that happens, God will be waiting, eager to take them back.

Weird weather, rising ocean temperatures and acidity, melting glaciers, more powerful hurricanes, shrinking fresh water reserves – as we see sign after sign pointing to increasingly severe consequences of climate change, what are we going to do?

When will we start to take real action?  The kind of action that calls on us to make lifestyle changes, to transform how and where we live, and what we eat.  Action that will shift how our economy is structured and how success is measured?

Humanity’s track record is not great.  We tend to not be good about making investments in preventative strategies for catastrophes that are not yet upon us.

Whether the challenge is man-made or not, our responses are always in our own hands.  The way that we come together as a community will determine whether this challenge will become a curse or not.