The Difficulty of Legacy (In Honor of the Silicon Valley Jewish Legacy Shabbat) – Toldot 5777

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, generates stronger emotional reactions than most parashiyot in the Torah.  It opens with the story of Esau and Jacob’s birth, and continues to describe their difficult childhood and the events that lead to the schism that drives them apart for over two decades.

The protagonist of the story, Jacob, our Patriarch, does not come off well.  He manipulates Esau to acquire the birthright -which is the privilege of earning a double portion of their father’s inheritance.

Later, with his mother Rebecca’s guidance, he dresses up as Esau to deceive his father Isaac, and lies to his face in order to receive the blessing.  The blessing in question is the continuity of the covenant that began with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, would inherit the Land of Canaan, and would be a blessing to the world.  This covenant passed from Abraham to Isaac, and now from Isaac to – because of his deception – Jacob.

It is not a pretty story.  Is not Jacob, our Patriarch, the one after whom the Jewish people will eventually be named, supposed to be a role model for us?  For that matter, what kind of mother is Rebecca, who would encourage her son to deceive his father and steal from his brother?  She is our Matriarch!  Do we not expect better?  It is troubling to read that one of the foundational stories of the Jewish people is rooted in dishonesty.

But let us take a step back from the story and look at it through a wide angle lens.

What we are reading is the all-too-real description of a family’s struggles over legacy, and it is not pretty.

We saw a similar struggle in the previous generation.  Ishmael, the older son of Abraham, is viewed by Sarah as a threat to his half-brother Isaac.  To remove the threat, she demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household.  This move ensures that the legacy of Abraham’s blessing, and the full, undivided inheritance of his entire estate, will pass to Isaac as the sole heir.

The struggles between siblings will continue in Jacob’s future household.  It first manifests in the relationship between Leah and Rachel, sisters, and co-wives to Jacob.  They struggle for position within the household.  Rachel is the more beloved, but Leah is the more fertile – and they each use their respective strengths to posture for dominance.  It is a similar tension to what we saw in the previous generation with Isaac and Ishmael.

The messy struggle for legacy passes to the next generation.  Once again, the father plays favorites, as Jacob bestows the infamous coat-of-many colors on Joseph.  The jockeying for control of the family legacy nearly leads to fratricide, as the brothers capture Joseph, plot to kill him, and finally settle on selling him into slavery and lying to their father about it.

So that is the birds’ eye view.  In context, Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac and theft from Esau are fairly typical of this family.

Let us not be overly judgmental.  How many families today struggle over issues relating to inheritance and legacy?  The actions of these families in the Book of Genesis are, sadly, all too familiar.

But there is a happy conclusion to this story.

The family eventually reunites in Egypt, where Joseph has risen to become Viceroy.  As Jacob is on his deathbed, all of his sons gather around him to receive a final message and blessing.  In the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:35), Jacob is distressed that as soon as he dies, his sons will abandon God and begin to worship another deity.  The disfunction of previous generations will be repeated.  After all, Ishmael and Esau were both idolaters.

But the brothers respond, as one: Shema Yisrael, adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Listen Israel – Israel is Jacob, after all, so named after his nighttime struggle with an angel of God.  Listen Israel, Adonai – the God whom you worshipped, who blessed you, our Grandfather Isaac, and our Great-grandfather Abraham – that same Adonai is our God.  Adonai alone.

Relieved, Jacob settles back in his bed and whispers: Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va-ed.  Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever.

This is the first generation in the book of Genesis in which all of the children maintain the faith of their father.  God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be ancestor to a great nation that would be in a special covenantal relationship with God, is finally beginning to be fulfilled.

When Jacob dies, the brothers are terrified that Joseph is now going to go after them.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he promises to take care of them.  The family is reunited, and can now, finally, begin its transformation into a nation.

So when we read the stories about Jacob and Rebecca behaving dishonestly, we must not do so without keeping an eye on the bigger picture, and without remembering that the family will eventually learn, will eventually forgive itself, and make a commitment to be a united people with a common faith shared by their ancestors.

We are reminded of this every time we recite the Shema.  The Rabbis were wise to include the Shema in our prayers.  In addition to a proclamation of belief in God, it is also a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people, both among our fellow Jews today, and with the generations that have come before and those that will follow us.

That is why it is so important for us to consider the legacy that has been left to us by those who came before, and to think seriously and act on what we need to do to ensure that there will be a legacy for the generations that follow.

Our world is changing rapidly.  The old models of how Jewish institutions are supported are less and less effective.  To ensure that there will continue to be synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish schools and educational initiatives and Jewish philanthropic organizations, those of us who value these institutions will to have to take concrete steps to ensure that they will be around for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

We cannot be complacent if we want to preserve the legacy that began, somewhat messily, with our Patriarchs and Matriarchs – but that has continued unbroken for thousands of years, ever since that first, unifying Shema recited together by Jacob’s sons.

Our community Legacy Project is an extremely important opportunity for us.  It offers us a concrete way to support Jewish peoplehood long after we are gone, to ensure that the Jewish institutions that have been so important to our own lives will be able to play such a role for future generations.  Now is the time to put our legacies in place.

I hope you will join Dana and myself in ensuring that our children and grandchildren will be able to proudly recite the Shema, knowing that their parents and grandparents cared deeply about continuing the legacy of the Jewish people.

Jacob and Pharaoh – Vayigash 5776

Something that I have tried to emphasize about the Book of Genesis is the moral ambivalence of its narrator.  The text rarely passes judgment on its characters.  Instead, it allows them to speak for themselves, without judgment.  It is one of things I love about the book.

In the various troubled relationships between siblings, parents, neighbors, enemies, and even God, the text never tells us that one of them is right and the other wrong.  Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – the Torah lets their actions, their words, sometimes even their inner thoughts, speak for themselves.

We bring our own predilections to the text.  It is important for us, as readers, to recognize our biases.  We might have a tendency to favor the underdog, to always suspect the motives of the winner, or to favor the “heroes” and whitewash their mistakes.

Traditional religious biases lead many, but not all, of our commentaries to see Jacob, for example, as pious, morally justified, and honorable.  On the other hand, biases of moral indignancy lead many contemporary readers to view Jacob as a lying, cheating manipulator.  But the Book of Genesis does not present him either way.  It is non-judgmental.  He is a flawed protagonist certainly, but a hero nonetheless.  That is what makes him so human, and makes our emotional reactions to him so strong.  After all, he is the father of the Jewish people.

When we have strong emotional responses to biblical characters, it should prompt us to ask ourselves why we are reacting with such intensity.  The stories can be seen as a kind of literary Rorschach Test, with our reactions telling us who we are and what concerns us.

In Parashat Vayigash, Jacob our Patriarch nears the end of his life.  It offers a natural opportunity to conduct a grand analysis of his life.  But rather than projecting ourselves into the text, this morning let us instead allow Jacob to speak in his own words.  First, let’s set the scene.

Upon revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph invites them to bring the entire family down to Egypt.  After many years apart, Jacob is finally reunited with his beloved son.  Joseph helps the family get settled in the land of Goshen, where they will be able to pasture their flocks in peace and prosperity.  Finally, Joseph arranges to have his father meet his boss.

Imagine, for a moment, what that meeting must have been like for each of them.

Pharaoh is about to meet the father of his Viceroy Joseph.  I bet Pharaoh felt a certain degree of awe towards Joseph – a foreigner, brought out from prison.  He has strange and powerful abilities to interpret dreams which are supplied by his equally strange God.  Not only that, but he has single-handedly predicted and solved a famine that would have otherwise been catastrophic and could possibly have led to Pharaoh’s ouster.  And now, Pharaoh is about to meet this guy’s father.  When Jacob walks into the room, Pharaoh is immediately struck by the extreme age of the old man.  He has never seen someone so old.  What unnatural powers must he have?!

How about from Jacob’s perspective?  He is about to meet the most powerful man in the world.  This man has taken in his favorite son, long-presumed dead, and made him his second in command.  Jacob could be feeling grateful, or perhaps he is jealous and resentful.  Has Pharaoh replaced Jacob as Joseph’s father?

Now listen to the Torah’s description of their meeting.

And Joseph brought Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”  And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from Pharaoh’s presence.  (Genesis 47:7-10, translation by Robert Alter)

Jacob’s blessings of Pharaoh bookend a single question and answer exchange between these two figures.  And it is a strange exchange which prompts many subsequent questions.

First of all, what are these “blessings” which Jacob bestows upon Pharaoh?

Rashi, along with several other commentators, suggests that in this context, the word va-y’varekh does not mean “then he blessed”, but rather “then he greeted” – she-ilat shalom, “inquiring into well-being,” as he calls it.

Ramban disagrees, claiming that it is improper to greet a king.  Rather, he argues, it is customary for elderly and pious people to bless kings with wealth, property, glory, and the advancement of their reign.  Upon departing from Pharaoh’s presence, Jacob blesses him as well.  According to the Midrash, Jacob prays that “the Nile should rise up to his feet.”  (Tanhuma, Naso 26)

The central part of their interaction is comprised of Pharaoh’s question and Jacob’s answer.  “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  Pharaoh asks.

According to Ramban, Pharaoh is immediately struck by Jacob’s appearance.  He has never seen someone so old in all the years of his rule.  Nahum Sarna explains that the ideal lifespan in Egypt at that time was 110 years, which turns out to be the length of Joseph’s life.  Jacob appears much older, prompting Pharaoh’s question.  It sounds almost like he is blurting it out.  He can’t help himself.  Consider, is this the question that we would expect Pharaoh to ask of the man who raised his Viceroy, the person responsible for saving Egypt?  How old are you?!

Jacob’s response is equally surprising.  “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”

Jacob’s response sounds so bitter and angry.  He is filled with regret and disappointment.

The commentator Ramban throws his hands up in bewilderment:  “I do not understand the meaning of our forefather’s words,” he admits.   “For what reason would he complain to the king?”

Jacob compares himself to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham.  He is currently 130 years old, and already is convinced that he will not live as long as his predecessors.  Radak explains that he has experienced so much suffering that it has weakened him and he can feel death creeping up.  How he knows this is a mystery.  He is not exactly on death’s door.  After all, he does live another seventeen years.

Our commentators read Jacob’s response closely and unpack it.  “Few and evil – me-at v’ra-im – have been the days of the years of my life.”  Rashbam explains that Jacob appears even older than he is because of all of the suffering he has been through.  It has caused him to age prematurely.  (Although how someone who is 130 old could be prematurely aged is something of a mystery.)  In describing himself as a sojourner, Jacob is claiming to be a stranger.  Everywhere he has lived, he has been unsettled, dwelling as an alien amidst local populations.  Sforno adds that Jacob claims that his father and grandfather did not have to deal with the same tzuris, troubles, that he had, which is why they lived longer.

The 13th century French commentator, Hizkuni, has a more critical take on Jacob.  Essentially, he calls him ungrateful.  He notes that Jacob’s final lifespan of 147 is 33 years short of Isaac’s 180.  Why 33?

God notes that: “I saved you from Lavan, and Esau, and Shechem, and I restored Dinah and Joseph to you, and you [have the gall to] say ‘few and evil’ your life has been.  By your life, I will take from you the number of words that you have spoken.”  By this, Hizkuni means the number of words in verses 8 and 9, which constitute the verbal exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob – the former’s question and the latter’s answer.

I love Hizkuni’s insight.  Jacob is a bitter man, and God does not let him off the hook.  Looking back on his life, Jacob sees only disappointment and regret.  He is blind to the fact that he has survived all this time, that his children are all alive, and with him.  He has managed to acquire everything he ever set his mind to: the birthright, the blessing, his beloved Rachel, he’s gotten Joseph back.  He has become wealthy, and now finds himself in Egypt with a household numbering 70 souls, not including the wives!  This is a man who has been supremely blessed in life.

But when he looks in the mirror, what does he see?  Struggle, going all the way back to his uterine striving with his brother Esau.  His success at acquiring the birthright and blessing has been accompanied by fear of retribution and probably guilt.  He gets his beloved Rachel, but at the “expense” of being first tricked into marrying Leah.  He builds a large household, but one that has been mired in scheming, distrust, and discord.  He receives a new name, Israel, but walks away with a limp to serve as a reminder for the rest of his life.  He has twelve sons and one daughter, but has to grieve for 22 years over the presumed death of his favorite, knowing that his playing favorites makes him at least partially responsible.

While everything, in the end, has worked out to Jacob’s advantage, the road, from Jacob’s perspective, has been torturous, and that is all that he is able to see.

What do we see when we look at Jacob?  Each of us has to answer that on our own.  But I would urge us to remember that we are our own worst – and potentially best – critics.  And what we see in Jacob probably ought to tell us something about ourselves.

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.

 

Distance Yourself From Lying Words – Mishpatim 5775

In one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld, Jerry claims to have never watched a single episode of Melrose Place.  He is called on it, and is being forced to take a lie detector test to prove it.  So he turns to the expert for advice.

Jerry: So George, how do I beat this lie detector?

George: I’m sorry, Jerry I can’t help you.

Jerry: Come on, you’ve got the gift. You’re the only one that can help me.

George: Jerry, I can’t. It’s like saying to Pavorotti, “Teach me to sing like you.”

Jerry: All right, well I’ve got to go take this test. I can’t believe I’m doing this.

George: Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie… if you believe it.

How true.  How true.

A study published about fifteen years ago found that people say things that they do not know to be factually true up to about two hundred times per day.  Men tend to lie about 20% more often than women.  Women, it turns out, are much better at it than men.

The study’s author, a social psychologist from the University of Budapest named Peter Steignitz, found that 41% of lies are to cover up some sort of misbehavior, 14% are “white lies” that “make social life possible,” and 6% of lies are sheer laziness.  In most cases, Steignitz concluded, lies are harmless.  In fact, he claimed, if nobody on earth lied anymore, “then this planet would end up completely deserted.  There would be 100 wars.”  His advice:  “Let us be honest about our lies.”

So, how about some honesty?  Someone comes up to you and says, excitedly: “how do you like my new haircut.”  It’s hideous.  But what do you say?

Your friend skips out on a dinner that you are both invited to.  You know that he is at a hockey game, but he asks you to tell the host that he is home sick.  What do you tell the host?

There are many everyday situations in which the simple telling of a white lie could save embarrassment, smooth over social interactions, or even get us out of trouble.  Innocuous, right?

The social science notwithstanding, perhaps we should not be so flippant about the harmlessness of most lies.  The truth is, being truthful is considered by most religious and ethical traditions to be the morally correct path.

Indeed, the Torah insists on our honesty on numerous occasions, in numerous contexts.  On the other hand, the Bible’s stories are filled with people, including our greatest biblical heroes, lying themselves silly.

Both Abraham and Isaac lie about their wives, passing them off as their sisters, in order to not be killed.  Jacob lies to his father Isaac, claiming to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing.  In return, everybody lies to Jacob.  After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers lie to him about their father’s desire for them to make peace.  And all this is just in the book of Genesis!

There seems to be a discrepancy between the ideals of truthfulness contained in the Torah’s law codes, and the real-life experiences of human beings.  Of course, this is entirely consistent with our experiences as well.  We may, in theory, express our commitment to the principle of honesty, and yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us will probably have to admit that we lie on a daily basis.

The Torah includes many mitzvot that regulate our interactions with each other.  A significant portion of those mitzvot have to do with behaviors that are forbidden.  You shall not murder.  You shall not steal.  You shall not subvert the rights of the needy, and so on.  This morning’s Torah portion presents a particular behavior in a unique way.  מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק.  “From a lying word stay far away.”  (Exodus 23:7)

It does not say, “you shall not lie,” or “he who lies shall be punished in the following manner.”  It tells us, instead, to distance ourself from lies.  Lying is the only behavior in the entire Torah from which we are commanded to stay away.

Many commentators understand this requirement to be directed specifically at judges.  The commentator Rashbam explains that in a case in which a judgment seems contrived and the witnesses false, but in which we are unable to provide an effective refutation, it is best to stay as far away as possible.  A judge should stay clear of anything which could create the impression that he or she has dealings with something that is corrupt.  (Sforno)

But our sources also understand this injunction to distance ourselves from lying words more broadly.  The Maggid from Kelm claims that a liar is worse than a thief or a robber.  The thief steals when no one is watching, and at night.  The robber will steal at any time, but only from an individual person.  A liar, on the other hand, will lie day or night, to individuals and groups.  Our tradition has many other pithy statements like this extolling the importance of truth.

The truth is, honesty does not come naturally to us.  It is something that must be taught.  Any parent knows this.  The most indiscriminate liars in the world are toddlers.  “I didn’t do it.  It fell by itself.”  Our natural instinct for self-preservation pushes us to lie.

It falls on parents, teachers, and the community to educate children about the importance of truthfulness.  In our family, we try to emphasize that the absolute most important rule is being honest with each other.  Of course, to convey this with any success whatsoever, we have to be honest ourselves, because kids can sniff out dishonesty a mile away.

Perhaps that is what Rabbi Zeira, one of our Sages from the Talmud, is getting at when he teaches that “a person should not tell a child, I will give you something – and then not give it, because this teaches the child falsehood.”  (BT Succah 46b)

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 63a) tells a story about a Sage named Rav, whose wife would constantly mess with him, and it drove him crazy.  If he asked her to make lentils for dinner, she would make peas.  If he asked for peas, she would cook lentils.

When their son Chiyya got older, Rav would send him into the kitchen to pass along his requests for dinner.  Chiyya, a bright child, would switch the requests around.  If his father asked for lentils, he would tell his mother that he wanted peas, and she would then cook lentils, and vice versa.  That way, Rav got exactly what he wanted for dinner every night, and his parents’ fighting improved.

This went on for some time, until one day, Rav commented to his son, “Your mother has gotten better.”

Chiyya then confessed that he had been switching the messages around.

Rav was impressed with his son’s wisdom, acknowledging the popular saying “From your own children you learn reason.”  Nevertheless, he recalled the Bible’s warnings about dishonesty, and told Chiyya not to lie anymore.  Rav recognized that his parental obligation to teach truthfulness to his son overrode any short-term benefit this little white lie may have had.  He and his wife would have to deal with their issues on their own.

Jewish law emphatically emphasizes the importance of truth-telling in certain areas.  When it comes to business, for example, both business owners and customers must be honest at all times.

However, our tradition does not hold truth-telling to be an absolute.  There are circumstances in which it might be appropriate, or possibly even necessary, to say something that is not true.

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 65b) teaches that one may tell a lie in the interests of peace.  Various examples are given.  The question is asked regarding what one should say to an ugly bride on her wedding day.  Beit Shammai insists that one must always tell the truth, while Beit Hillel says that we must praise her as beautiful and full of grace.  Our tradition fallows Beit Hillel.

Other examples are given about when it is permissible to lie, including when life is in danger and when it would bring about peace.  Husbands and wives are not supposed to tell the truth to others about what goes on in the bedroom.  A person who is particularly knowledgeable on a subject should not claim to be an expert.  To do so would be immodest, or could lead to embarrassment if he is then asked a question that he cannot answer.  Finally, a person who has been graciously hosted is not supposed to go around telling people about it, because it could lead to disreputable individuals calling upon the wealthy host.

It would appear that our tradition does not define truth and lies as a straightforward reporting of factually accurate or inaccurate information.

Truth, considered to be one of the pillars of the world, is more complicated.  In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol. I, p. 94) Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains:  We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of the yetzer harah, the power of evil in the world.

When the Torah urges us to distance ourselves from lying words, it is really setting an ideal for us to build families and communities that are rooted in honesty.  While little white lies may sometimes be called for, they do take their toll on us.

As the Talmud states (BT Sanhedrin 89b), “this is the punishment of the liar, that even if he speaks the truth – nobody listens to him.”

Our tradition recognizes that reality is complicated,  and that absolutes are often unrealistic.  Nevertheless, we can imagine what a community built on truth looks like, and we can strive to create it.

Why Doesn’t Christmas Violate the Separation of Church and State? – Vayiggash 5775

I hope everyone had a wonderful time on the national holiday of the Twenty-Fifth of December.  I sure did.  It’s one of my favorite days of the year.  The shul is closed.  The streets are empty.  No responsibilities.  I get to sleep in.  We usually go on a family hike.  This year, it was a beautiful crisp, sunny day.

Growing up, I was always pretty sensitive this time of year.  When I was in first grade attending public school in Atlanta, our music teacher had us singing gospel songs that were certainly of a religious nature.  I told my parents, and my dad was on the phone with the principal that night.  The next day in music class, the gospel songs were gone, and a token Chanukah song had been added to our repertoire.  So yes, I was the Jewish kid who destroyed Christmas.

I think this was a pretty common experience for Jewish kids growing up in a largely Christian society.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there is a great deal more sensitivity to these kinds of issues, and in a part of the country that is especially diverse.

But the dominance of Christmas is still inescapable.  How is it possible that in a country like the United States, which prides itself on having a separation between church and state, one of our national holidays can be Christmas?

Let’s take a look at the First Amendment.  It begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The separation of church and state is understood to have two clauses.  The first is the anti-establishment clause, which is summarized quite well by Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education.

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another … in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’ … That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

Simply put, the government cannot establish or favor any particular religion, or even religion in general.

The other aspect of the First Amendment is known as the free exercise clause.  The government is not allowed to curtail the beliefs of any individual or group, nor can it restrict a person’s religious actions unless those actions are “subversive of good order.”

How is it possible that Christmas could be a federal holiday?  Is not this a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Probably not.  But maybe.

When did Christmas become a national holiday?

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill passed by Congress creating the first federal holidays in the United States.  Most of the states had already established state holidays, but this was a first for the national government.  Initially, it only applied to employees of the federal government in Washington, D. C.  Several years later, it was expanded to include all federal employees.  There were five days.  The bill’s title was:

An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays, within the District of Columbia.

It went like this:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia…

Notice a couple of things.  First, the title of the bill does not mention the word “Christmas.”  It says “the twenty-fifth day of December.”  The bill itself also uses that expression, adding, almost as a sidebar, that the day is “commonly called Christmas Day.”

In 1870, just five years after the end of the Civil War, there were still deep divisions between the North and the South.  Northerners tended to get really excited about Thanksgiving, while Southerners made a big deal about Christmas.  One impetus behind the federal holidays bill was to create national unity.

As you can imagine, there have been cases brought to the courts, usually regarding Christmas displays on public property.  The courts have basically drawn a line between what they see as secular symbols and what they define as religious symbols.  For example, a nativity scene in which an angel is holding a banner with “Glory to God in the Highest” written in Latin was seen as religious.  Images like Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, or a menorah, for that matter, are typically seen as secular.  In a court case involving Jersey City’s public holiday display, the presence of symbols from different traditions like a Christmas tree, Kwanza symbols, a Menorah, Frosty the Snowman, and a sign expressing the city’s intention to “celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its people” was accepted by the 3rd Circuit in 1999.  As long as minority traditions are also included with the majority, the courts tend to permit it.

As a people, we have had to deal with being a minority in the midst of a dominant culture for most of our existence.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Joseph is finally reunited with his family.  He invites them to join him in Egypt, where they will thrive under his protection and favored status, but it is clear from the beginning that they do not in.  Joseph instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are breeders of livestock, because that is a profession which is abhorrent to Egyptians.  By telling this to Pharaoh, Joseph’s family receives rights to settle in the fertile land of Goshen, and to receive a special commission to care for the royal flocks.

On their way down, God appears to Jacob with a message of assurance:  “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back…”  The commentator Ha-emek Davar explains that God is reassuring Jacob that his descendants will not forget who they are.  They will maintain their distinctiveness first as a family, and eventually as a nation.

Initially at least, we see tolerance on the part of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  They permit this tribe, with its strange customs, to live in Egyptian society, and to maintain their cultural and religious practices.  In next week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dies, the Egyptian dignitaries participate with Joseph and his brothers in the mourning rituals as they bring their father’s body back to the ancestral burial site in the Land of Canaan.

Unfortunately, this tolerance does not last, and a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph, and who does not share his predecessor’s generosity and open-mindedness.  So we understand well how important it is to protect the religious freedoms of others.

I have always felt that, as a Jew, I had a greater awareness of the experiences of minorities than those who were in the dominant culture.  Being a minority prepares us to better respect religious diversity.

But what if Jews were in the majority?  How would we deal with issues of religious freedom then?

In 1948, Israel was established as the nation state of the Jewish people.  The Declaration of Independence, issued shortly after the United Nations Partition Plan passed, “declare[d] the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

It went on to declare certain freedoms which should sound familiar to us:  “…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

So how can Israel, on the one hand, be “the Jewish State” while also ensuring equality and freedom for all, irrespective of religion?

To be fair, many, if not most of the world’s democracies have official state religions, or offer certain favorable status to one particular religion while still protecting religious freedom.  It is the United States which is unusual in not favoring any particular religion.

In building a new nation in 1948, Israel’s founders had some important decisions to make.  Most of them were fiercely secular Jews, yet they looked to Jewish history, traditions, and customs to determine some of the core aspects of the State.

One basic question they had to address was: when is the weekend?

In the U.S., the weekend was originally just Sunday.  The two day weekend developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Would Israel follow the example of the rest of the Western world and go with Sunday, or would it copy its Muslim neighbors and choose Friday?

Of course, you know the answer.  Shabbat has been the weekend of the Jewish people for thousands of years, not just in religious terms, but in national terms.

What about holidays?

Again, Israel’s founders looked to Jewish tradition and established the Yamim Tovim, the holidays on which work is religiously forbidden, as national holidays.

In the Ordinances of Law and Government, Section 18a, subsection 1, paragraph a, it states:

Shabbat and the Jewish holidays—the two days of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, the first day of Succot and Shmini Atzeret, the first and seventh days of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—are the fixed days of rest for the State of Israel.

What about non-Jews?  Israel’s founders were emphatic about ensuring equality and the right to freely practice religion.  This brings us to paragraph b.

For those who are not Jewish there is reserved the right to observe their days of rest in accordance with their Sabbath and holidays. These holidays will be set in accordance with each community by the government and published in the public records.

To summarize, the law states the following in subsection 2:

The laws of work hours and rest of 1951, which apply to weekly periods of rest, will apply:

a. To Jews—on their holidays

b. To non-Jews—on the Jewish holidays or on the holidays of their community, whatever is acceptable to them.

In other words, if you are Christian, you can take your weekend on Sunday, and celebrate all the Christian holidays when they occur.  If you are Muslim, you can take your weekend on Friday, and celebrate all the Muslim holidays when they occur.  And those are not considered to be vacation days, but rather national holidays.

While it can get kind of complicated in the workplace, and I imagine that it is a nightmare for Human Resources departments, this is practiced and taken very seriously in Israel to this day.  Every religion gets its own weekends and national holidays.

We had a taste of something like this when we lived in New York.  Ostensibly to keep the streets clean in the five boroughs, but really to discourage car ownership, the city imposes alternate side of the street parking rules.  Pretty much every day of the work week, car owners have to get in their cars and move them to the opposite side of the street to make room for the street cleaners.  Failure to do so results in a fairly hefty ticket.

But what if you are an observant Jew (and there are a few of those in New York) and it is Rosh Hashanah, when it is forbidden to drive a car?  To deal with that situation, there are holiday suspensions of the alternate side parking restrictions.

“Wait,” you say.  Isn’t that a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Not if you make the holiday suspensions available to everyone.  Here are just a few examples of holidays on which alternate side parking restrictions are suspended:  Yom Kippur, both days of Shavuot, Purim (driving is technically allowed, but you can probably guess why the city doesn’t want Jews getting in their cars on Purim), Good Friday, Holy Thursday, Ash Wednesday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, and the newest entry in the list, the Asian Lunar New Year.

So I guess having a national holiday on the 25th of December does not bother me as much as it once did.  I can accept that for many Americans, as well as the U.S. courts, it is seen as a secular holiday.

So to all of us, Happy National Holiday of the 1st of January, coming up in just a few days.

 

Dinah, The Yatzanit – Vayishlach 5775

There is a current trend in Hollywood of making epic movies based on stories from the Torah.  Earlier this year, we saw the release of Noah, by Darren Aronofsky.  Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings opens next weekend.  This Sunday night is the premier on Lifetime of a mini-series adaptation of Anita Diamant’s biblical-historical novel, The Red Tent.  I can only assume that it has been timed for release with this morning’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, in which we read the story of the book and mini-series’ central character, Dinah.

I saw the trailer for the miniseries.  It is what I would have expected: stunning desert scenes, dramatic music, beautiful actors, violence, and quite a bit of skin.  According to the journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “the miniseries provides Lifetime’s heavily female audience with gauzy love scenes that verge on soft porn.”

When the novel, The Red Tent, was first published in 1997, it had no advertising budget and did not attract much attention.  Anita Diamant, however, wisely hit the synagogue lecture circuit, and by 2001, it had become a New York Times bestseller.  It has since sold over 3 million copies.

It also pioneered a literary trend of Jewish female-centered novels set in times in which women’s voices have rarely been recorded.  Maggie Anton wrote her Rashi’s daughters trilogy, and is now two thirds of the way through her Rav Hisda’s daughters trilogy, for example.

Anita Diamant was prompted to write The Red Tent by Dinah’s total silence in the biblical text.  Dinah does not get a single word in the thirty one verses that describe her ordeal.

Many readers have described The Red Tent as a modern midrash, an effort to fill in the gaps and thereby describe what happened then in a way that also connects with our view of the world today.

Interestingly, the author disagrees.  She writes the following:

The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus—by and about the female characters—distinguishes it from the biblical account, in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text.

Simply put, The Red Tent is a novel based on a biblical story.  But for the millions of people who have read it, especially Jewish women, it has been a powerful and religiously meaningful suggestion of what life might have been like for the women who lived in our Patriarchs’ households.

The Red Tent makes significant, and intentional, departures from the text.  It describes what the Torah depicts as Shechem’s rape of Dinah instead as a consensual, loving marriage that Dinah freely enters.  It presents the women of Jacob’s household as idol-worshipping pagans.  And of course, it gives Dinah voice and volition, both of which are absent in the text itself.

The language in chapter 34 is extremely deliberate.  Let’s focus on some of the verbs.  Dinah is the subject of exactly one verb in the entire story.  Ironically, her verb is the opening word of the chapter.  Vatetze Dinah.  “And Dinah, Leah’s daughter,whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land.”  (Genesis 34:1, Translation by Robert Alter)

For all other verbs in this story, Dinah is an object to be seen, taken, slept with, abused, defiled, and given away.

The medieval commentator Rashi records a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 80:1) that asks why Dinah is described as Leah’s daughter rather than Jacob’s daughter.  It is because her “going out” is similar to something her mother, Leah, had done a few chapters earlier.  After making a deal with her sister and co-wife Rachel, Leah goes out into the field to inform their husband Jacob that he must sleep with her that night.  Thus “going out” is associated with wantonness and promiscuity.  “Like mother like daughter,” as the Prophet Ezekiel states (Ezekiel 16:44).  Dinah, says Rashi, is a Yatzanit.

While there are other commentators that do not find fault with either Dinah or Leah, and indeed praise them both, we see in the midrash that Rashi chooses to cite the sexist and dangerous attitude that seeks to blame the victim.  “She was asking for it.”  “She should have known better than to go out looking like that.”  And so on.

How sad that the one verb attributed to Dinah in the entire Torah is interpreted so horribly!

Indeed, the verbs in the rest of the story also reflect the classic misogyny in which women are not seen as agents who can determine their own fate, but rather as property to be owned and traded.

Two verbs that occur numerous times are lakach and natan – take and give.  There is nothing unusual about these two words.  Both are ubiquitous and among the most common words in Hebrew.  In this story, these words are used almost exclusively to describe the transferring of possession of females by males.

Here are a few of the many examples:  Shechem takes Dinah and rapes her after he sees her.  Later, in love with Dinah, Shechem begs his father Chamor to “take for me this girl as a wife.”  When Chamor speaks to Jacob about it, he asks him to “Please give her to him as a wife.”  Chamor then suggests that the two tribes should intermarry with each other.  “You give your daughters to us, and our daughters you shall take for yourselves.”

When they hear about it, Dinah’s brothers are unhappy.  “We cannot do such a thing,” they say, “to give our sister to a man who has a foreskin…”  Negotiations go back and forth.  Eventually, the men of the town agree to be circumcised so that their respective daughters can be given and taken accordingly.  As per the agreement, Dinah is sent to Shechem’s house.  But it is all a ruse.  Shimon and Levi sneak into town and slaughter all of the men.  “Then they take Dinah from the house of Shechem and they leave.”

While incredibly upsetting, it should not surprise us that this ancient text presents women as passive chattel.  That was the social structure in the Ancient Near East.

These texts are part of our holy Torah, however.  Our tradition considers these words to be sacred, and insists that they contain ultimate Truth.  As Jews, we have to find how these words speak to us today.  In some cases, as in this story, there are elements both of the story itself and of how it has been traditionally understood, which many of us find deeply problematic.

That does not mean there is not a Truth that can speak to us from this text.

At this moment, a national conversation is taking place, primarily on college campuses, about what constitutes consent.  The old adage was “no means no.”  Now there are those who advocate a higher standard of “yes means yes.”  In other words, if both parties do not verbally consent, a sexual act may be considered rape.

In the course of this national conversation, attitudes are emerging that suggest that the clothing a person chooses to wear, or the decision to attend a fraternity party, for example, makes a victim at least partly responsible for the sexual assault she suffers.

While we as a society have come far in terms of promoting gender equality, and creating equal space for women’s voices, it is clear that we still have a way to go.  The way that we speak about gender and equality in religion is a central part of that progress.  Religion both reflects and, in some cases, leads the progress that society makes.

Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent has been a very important step that is both symbolic of and has inspired the embrace of women’s experiences and voices in Jewish tradition.

I am not suggesting that we should all go out and watch the Lifetime miniseries.  It will probably be entertaining, as well as “gauzy,” but I am not expecting any fabulous new insights.  Personally, I will not be watching it because I do not subscribe to cable.  I will just have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

But I see the trend of creatively considering how we might understand the voices of previously-silenced Jewish women to be an important one, whether in a miniseries, in a novel, or even more importantly, whenever we read our ancient holy texts.

How to Behave as Jew in the Wider World: Toldot 5775

One of the wonderful things about Torah is that there are so many different lenses through which to read it.  Tradition uses the word Pardes, meaning orchard, as an acronym of four styles of Torah interpretation.  The peh is for p’shat – the plain sense meaning of the text.  What did these words mean to the ancient reader who spoke the language and lived in the society that the Torah describes?

The resh is for remez – hints that are alluded to in the Biblical text.

The dalet is for d’rash, or midrash, (fancy word: exegesis).  This is the attempt to explain silences, contradictions, and problems in the text in ways that are not possible from within the text itself.

And finally, the samech is for sod, secret, which refers to the hidden kabbalistic, or mystical truths which are hidden beneath the surface of the text.

All four methods of biblical interpretation are valid, and all four are Jewish.  All have the capability of revealing religious truths.  Whenever we study Torah, it is crucial that we understand which method of interpretation we are using.

This morning, I am going to request that we suspend our skepticism for the next few minutes and immerse ourselves fully in midrash.  In the midrash, Jacob is a good, pious person.  Easau is wicked.  And Lavan is a liar and a cheat.  For now, we need to accept that particular understanding of these characters.

Parashat Toldot introduces us to the third generation of the Patriarchs.  Rebecca is pregnant with twins, and they are already struggling in her womb.  It is such a difficult pregnancy that she wonders if it is even worth it to be alive.  The Torah tells us that she goes to inquire of the Lord, seeking a prophecy which will explain what is going on inside her body.  The nature of her sons is then revealed, with a prophecy that the older will serve the younger.

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:6), as we might expect, expands the story.  Whenever Rebecca would walk in front of study houses and synagogues, Jacob would struggle to get out, and whenever she would walk next to houses of idolatry, Esau would squirm to make his escape.

Another midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Toldot 110) identifies the location from which Rebecca seeks out God’s answer to her travails.  She travels to the Beit Midrash, the academy, of Shem and Ever, where the answer is revealed.

Who are Shem and Ever, and why do they have an academy?

Shem is one of the three sons of Noach, who survives the flood and begins humanity’s repopulation of the earth.  We do not know much about him from the Torah, only this:  When Noach gets drunk and passes out naked, the middle brother Cham does something inappropriate and unforgivable.  Shem, with the youngest brother Yefet, do not look at their father and respectfully bring him a cloak to cover himself.  As a result, Noach curses Cham and blesses the other two children.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem… May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem…”  (Genesis 9:26-27)

Notice that this blessing associates Shem with God.  It also refers to tents, in which the younger brother seems to be finding shelter.  Thus, Shem seems to have been a monotheist, and a man of some standing.

Ever, the other Head of School, is Shem‘s grandson, and we have no distinctive information about him from the Torah.

From these scant details, the Rabbis develop a sophisticated narrative about the state of monotheism before Abraham.  Shem, later joined by his grandson Ever, establish a tent, understood metaphorically as a Beit Midrash.  There, they teach about God and God’s commandments.

But, you say, the Torah has not been given yet, so how is it possible that there can be mitzvot?  According the Rabbis, the seven mitzvot of the children of Noach have been given, and it is these which serve as the curriculum of this proto-yeshiva.  Among these commandments, which our tradition understands as applying to all of humanity, is the requirement to have societies governed by laws that are administered justly and fairly.  To create such laws certainly necessitates extensive learning, and that is the kind of learning taught by Shem and Ever.

So who makes up the student body?

One of the valedictorians is Abraham.  It is in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever that he receives his introductory instructions in theology.  He first learns about God from them.  But was not Abraham an iconoclast, the first person to bring monotheism into the world?  Not in this midrash.  The difference, however, is that Abraham brings his message of monotheism out into the world.  He proselytizes, so to speak, and quite effectively, whereas Shem and Ever are cloistered in their ivory tower (or tent).

In the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Avodah Zarah (BT Avodah Zarah 14b), which deals with Judaism’s laws against idolatry, a tradition is recorded that Abraham himself studied that same tractate.  When he studied, however, it was comprised of four hundred chapters.  He really had to know his stuff if he was going to go out into an idolatrous world and convince people of the existence of the One True God.  In our Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah is only five chapters long.

A generation later, Abraham sends Isaac to the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever after his near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

You can probably guess by now that Jacob will end up enrolling in his father and grandfather’s alma mater as well.

According to the midrash, Esau and Jacob spend their first years with their lives somewhat intertwined.  They have yet to fully differentiate.  By the time they reach their thirteenth birthday, their personalities have been revealed and they start to go their own ways.  The Torah describes the respective characters of Esau and Jacob.  Va-yi-h’yu Esav ish yodea tzayid ish sadeh, v’Ya-akov ish tam yoshev ohalim.  “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, while Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.”  (Genesis 25:27)

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), noting that Jacob seems to be spending a lot of time in tents, identifies them as the same tents of Shem and Ever.  In other words, he enrolls in the prestigious Beit Midrash that his ancestors had established generations earlier.

He goes back later for graduate school.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath after he steals the older twin’s blessing.  Rebecca urges her favored son to travel East to her brother Lavan’s home in Haran to wait for Esau’s temper to cool.  Isaac then offers Jacob a parting blessing and sends him on his way.

Rashi, based on a midrash in the Talmud (Rashi on Genesis 28:9), then performs some detailed calculations.  He looks at the various ages of the characters that are described at different points in the story, and comes to the conclusion that there are fourteen missing years between the time that Jacob leaves home and when he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s household.

Where did he go in the meantime?

You can probably guess by now.  What do people typically do when the economy takes a downturn?  They go to graduate school.

Jacob reenrolls in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever.  Why is it so important that he spend this time learning?  Because of where he is about to go.  Jacob leaves penniless, but his destiny is to become wildly successful in his time abroad.  Jacob will prosper in Lavan’s house.  But there is an inherent danger, as Lavan is not a good influence.  He is greedy and duplicitous.  There is a real risk that when Jacob is away from home, outside of his parents’ influences, he will assimilate Lavan’s value system.  How can Jacob spend so much time with Lavan without becoming him?

He needs an inoculation from the influence of his no-good uncle.  That is where school comes in.  Education is what will enable Jacob to retain his values despite his environment.  Intensive Torah study inside the academy will prepare him to live a life of Torah out in the world.

Jacob might also need some time to mature on his own.  After all, the fact that he is running for his life is kind of his own fault.  He has outnegotiated Esau for the birthright, stolen the blessing from him, and lied and tricked his father.  Perhaps Jacob needs to go back to school for some moral reeducation as well.

As it turns out, Jacob does well in Lavan’s household.  He spends twenty two years there, builds a family, and acquires great wealth.  Jacob eventually must leave, however, as it is not his home.  He knows that to fulfill his destiny, he must separate and go back home.  One of the first things he does after returning to the Land of Israel is to force all of the members of his household to throw out any personal idols that they have brought with them.  Those idolatrous values from Lavan’s home will have no place in Jacob’s household.

On one level, these midrashim about the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever are anachronistic.  They retroject the Rabbis’ values of Torah study into an ancient time which clearly had different priorities and institutions.  On the other hand, by using recognizable contemporary symbols, these midrashim are able to tell us something about what was important to the Rabbis in their own time, which may help us better understand the situations we face in the present.

In sending Jacob to yeshivah, the midrash does the same thing as I did a few minutes ago when I described Jacob’s return to yeshiva as graduate school.  This is one of the ways that Torah comes alive for us.

So what are the Rabbis trying to tell us in these midrashim?  They are making a point about how we can best prepare ourselves and our children to deal with the world successfully without taking on the bad qualities of that world.

One lesson they may be imparting is how to best prepare oneself to maintain one’s values within a wider society that does not share them.  That sounds pretty relevant to me.  Judaism has always struggled with finding a healthy balance between engaging with the world, incorporating positive elements from other cultures, and resisting the negative ones.

Let me share an example.  This coming Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is known as Black Friday.  Over the last several years, we have seen Black Friday pushed back earlier and earlier onto Thanksgiving, giving consumers more opportunities to buy stuff and giving retail workers less opportunities to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It creates a sense of competition between stores to move up their openings times so that their competitors do not gain an advantage.  And it creates competition between consumers who feel that they need to be first in line in order to get the best deals.  The result is a cheapening and weakening of Thanksgiving, which in my opinion is the one national holiday that most Americans seem to take seriously.

The Canadian organization Adbusters created a campaign a few years ago called International Buy Nothing Day, on which people are urged to not spend any money on Black Friday.

As Jews, we do not really need to set aside a day for anti-consumerism.  We already have Shabbat, which instead of once every 365 days, occurs once in seven.  Nevertheless, every year when Black Friday roles around, I am so happy to be Jewish, and to not have that pressure to go out and get the best deals on Christmas presents.  I would put Black Friday in the category of things from the dominant culture for us to avoid.

But we have assimilated much that is good into our tradition as well.

In recent decades, we have incorporated into Judaism values like feminism and social action while struggling to resist messages that promote violence and encourage immodesty.  How do we inculcate the moral strength to stick by the values of our ancestors?  Through learning.

The lesson here is that a deep education in Torah lays the essential moral groundwork for going out into the world and behaving as a Jew ought to behave.  It was that education, at least according to the midrash, that was available to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It was that education that made it possible for Jacob to go abroad, away from the protective influence of his parents, retain his values in a foreign culture, and eventually return home with those values intact.

25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall – Toldot 5774

There are not many heroines in the Torah, so we must pay special attention to those we do have.

In Parshat Toldot, Isaac is the passive figure.  Rebecca is the one who takes charge – from the very beginning.  When her pregnancy is more than she can bear, God reveals to her that she is carrying twins, and that the older will serve the younger.

God entrusts her with the prophetic knowledge of who would recieve the blessing, placing her in a position of having to act in a bold and urgent manner

She sees what her husband does not – that Esau’s personality is not compatible with the blessing from God that Abraham has passed down to Isaac.  Esau, the hunter, is impulsive, and not much of a thinker.

It is Jacob, the thoughtful, intellectual, crafty son who will make a better person through whom to transfer the promise of blessing.

Later, after she has orchestrated Jacob’s theft of the blessing that Isaac meant from Esau, it is Rebecca who identifies the danger that her younger son now faces.  She counsels him to flee from Esau’s wrath by leaving home.  To achieve that end, she concocts a ruse to convince Isaac to send Jacob away.  She complains that there are no good women in the land of Canaan for Jacob to marry, and so Isaac sends him away to Rebecca’s family in Haran.

Once again, Rebecca’s clear perception of reality, her confident recognition of what needs to happen, and her quick response save the day, and quite possibly her son’s life.

It should not come as a surprise to us that the midrash identifies Rebecca as a Prophetess.

I have spoken about Women of the Wall before.  Last Spring, we held a Living Room Torah dedicated to learning about the history and struggles of this movement.  Rosh Chodesh Kislev, which will occur tomorrow, marks the twenty fifth anniversary of the founding of Women of the Wall, or N’shot Ha’Kotel in Hebrew.  Not only is it a significant anniversary, but it is also a time of great change and tremendous promise, not only for Women of the Wall, but for any Jew who believes that women should be able to play a public role in religiuos life.

Women of the Wall got started in 1988 during an international conference on women’s issues held in Jerusalem.  Rivka Haut, an Orthodox Jew from New York, presented an idea to borrow a Torah from a progressive synagogue and have a prayer service in the women’s section at the Western Wall.  She persuaded some of the conference participants to join her.  It was a diverse group made up of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and even secular Jews – mostly from America.

People at the Kotel were shocked.  Some event reacted by throwing chairs.  The police allowed the women’s service to take place for a while, then they arrested a few of the women for disturbing the peace.  In fact, what they had disturbed was the status quo.

And thus, Women of the Wall was born.

They have spent most of the past twenty five years arguing in the Israeli judicial system for access to pray at Judaism’s holiest site.  More than two decades ago, the courts issued a regulation prohibiting any prayer that is not in keeping with minhag hamakom (the custom of the place).

What is minhag hamakom?

It is difficult to say.  The Western Wall never functioned as a synagogue until after 1967.  In a de facto arrangement, Israeli secular law supported the Orthodox establishment’s total control over the site.  The ultra-Orthodox Rabbi of the Wall gets to define the minhag hamakom.

In 2003, courts designated the Robinson’s Arch area, which is in an archaeological park next to and below the Western Wall plaza, as a place where men and women could pray together with a Torah.  While egalitarian prayers could take place there, there were a lot of problems with the location.  People had to pay admission fees to get into the park.  They had to make reservations.  They didn’t get government funding.  It was not really a solution.

Plus, Women of the Wall did not want to have egalitarian services.  They wanted to have women’s only services.

Things have escalated over the past five years.  Until recently, the Israeli police followed the directives of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi of the Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, an Israeli government employee.

There have been arrests nearly every month during Rosh Chodesh services.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to public women’s prayer would come out specifically to disturb them – shouting, spitting, and throwing chairs.

Women were forbidden from wearing tallitot, tefillin, reading from the Torah, and participating in public prayer in the women’s section at the kotel.  Women who violated this would often get arrested.

Over the last year, things have changed at an even more accelerated pace.  With increasing tension in Israel between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of Israeli society over a host of issues, the government has begun to take on some of the sacred cows that it has left alone in the past.

For the first time, none of the ultra-Orthodox parties are in the ruling coalition in the Israeli government.  A few months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, to come up with a compromise solution.  He developed a plan with three sections: men’s, women’s, and mixed.

Shortly afterwards, on April 14 this past Spring, five women were arrested for “disturbing the peace” during services for Rosh Chodesh Iyar.

The Jerusalem Magistrate Court wanted to release them immediately, but the police petitioned against it.  So it went to Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who happens to be Orthodox.

He ruled that women wearing tallit and tefillin, and reading from Torah in the women’s section did not constitute “disturbing the peace” –  and were not breaking the law.  Women praying out loud as a minyan did not contradict what the law defines as “local custom.”  In fact, it was those who tried to stop them who were disturbing the peace.

Since then, Women of the Wall has continued to hold its monthly services, now with police protection.

There are still many ultra-Orthodox Jews who come to disturb them, including, in a recent development this summer, bussing in yeshiva girls to fill up the women’s section at the Kotel and hiss when members of Women of the Wall try to pray.

Despite Judge Sobel’s ruling, Women of the Wall is still not allowed to bring a Torah into the Women’s Section

Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit has been appointed to find a resolution – it is expected that they will adopt Natan Sharansky’s recommendations from last Spring to create a third, egalitarian section that is of equal status to the men’s and women’s sections

This solution has been very controversial for Women of the Wall.  Many members feel that they should stick to their goals of having full, equal access for women in the women’s section.

The leadership voted several weeks ago to compromise on some of their positions.  They realized that they were uniquely positioned to play a leadership role on behalf of Jewish groups and denominations that represent a majority of Jews around the world, including the Conservative and Reform movements.

Their compromise comes with conditions.  On Monday, they issued their demands.  Here are some of them:

• The new egalitarian space will need to accommodate at least 500 women and provide for direct physical contact with the Western Wall. It should be at the same level as the existing women’s prayer section and a natural extension of it.

• The new space should be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance should be free of charge without the need to book the area in advance.

• The new space will be renamed to include the word “Kotel” in it. Instead of being called “Ezrat Yisrael,” it will be called “the Kotel – Ezrat Yisrael.”

• Half of the members of the authority administering the new space will be women, including members of Women of the Wall.

• The authority administering the new space will receive at least the same level of government funding as the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which today administers the entire area of the Kotel.

• The government will take active measures to refer visitors from abroad, school children, soldiers and visiting dignitaries to the new space. It will also hold official ceremonies there.

• Women of the Wall will participate in designing the new space to ensure that those women who wish to pray together, and not as part of a mixed service, have the means to do so, and that individuals with disabilities are provided with convenient access to the area.

• A sign will be displayed at the Western Wall commemorating its conquest by Israeli army paratroopers in 1967 (something that does not currently appear, anywhere, by the way).

• The authorities administering the different prayer spaces at the Western Wall will hold joint meetings six times a year.

• Control over the upper plaza of the Kotel (the area just above the segregated prayer spaces) be wrested from the hands of the Western Wall rabbi and be transferred to a new authority that will also administer the egalitarian space.  This would restrict the authority of the Kotel rabbi to the men’s and women’s sections only.

Until the demands are met, Women of the Wall will continue to hold their services in the women’s section, once a month on Rosh Hodesh.

They also demanded that the Mandelblit Committee address and prevent the actions of the Rabbi of the Kotel and ultra-Orthodox leaders who are organizing the monthly demonstrations against the Women of the Wall.

Women of the Wall’s plan would transform the overall Kotel area into a space that truly belongs to all of the Jewish people, giving control over the particular areas directly to the people who most need to use them.  It would give equal status and access to all expressions of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and more.

As of a week ago, over 450 women had already registered to participate in Rosh Hodesh services on Monday morning at 8 am, Jerusalem time.  They will be streaming it live if anyone wants to watch from San Jose

As a Conservative Jew, I am grateful that Women of the Wall has taken the lead in the struggle for equal access to Judaism’s holiest and most symbolically significant site, even if I, as a man, cannot participate in their services.

I am reminded of Rebecca, who did not keep silent when she saw the urgent need and opportunity that was before her.

She knew, through prophetic encounter with God, and perhaps through the wisdom that only a mother can have, that blessing needed to flow to someone who would not otherwise be in a position to receive it.  And that person was Jacob.

Where would we be if Rebecca’s voice had been silenced?  Without her courage, and her unwillingness to be placed into the subservient position that she would otherwise have occupied, Jacob would never have fulfilled his destiny, and the Jewish people would never have come into being.

We are witnessing a remarkable event unfolding.  If the trajectory of the last year continues, if Women of the Wall continue to lead this struggle, and if the Netanyahu government continues to try to broker a fair compromise, we will see public recognition of feminist and egalitarian expressions of Judaism in the near future.

And that would truly be a continuation of God’s blessing.