Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Toldot: Visualize and Act

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, November 20, 2009]

Why me?

How often do we ask this question? In turbulent times, confusing times? It's a question that presupposes some sort of destiny, yes? That is, why ask, "why me" if there is no possible answer?

"Why me" is the simple but fascinating question asked by our mother, Rebecca, in this week's Torah portion, Toldot. Lamah zeh anochi -- "why me" -- she asks when, after 20 years of marriage, she becomes pregnant with twins who twist and turn in her belly like pro wrestlers. These are the first words we hear from her since her marriage to Isaac, and one can't help wondering if her question refers not only to the turmoil in her womb but also to the whole direction her life has taken since leaving her father's house.

Why me? During the 20 years during which she did not have a child, we do not hear her asking lamah zeh anochi? Why me? She does not plead for a child, nor does she offer her husband a surrogate like her mother-in-law before her or her daughters-in-law after her. It is Isaac, not Rebecca, who pleads to God for a child. A part of me wonders if she was just fine the way things were. After all, she had, even as a child, more charisma, more spunk, more direction than most characters in Torah. When Abraham's servant, Eliezer, went back to the Old Country to fetch Isaac a wife, Rebecca watered and fed his camels all by herself, an immense task for one person. When offered a chance to travel to a place she'd never seen to marry a man she'd never met, leaving her father and brother, she reviewed her options and essentially declared, "Fire up the camel; I'm outa here."

Rebecca is a character who seems determined to live her own life. She is, after all, the major mover and shaker in this parashah. "Why me?" she asks God, and God answers. She carries two nations in her womb, she is told, one of which shall be mightier than the other (although we're not told which), and the older shall serve the younger (which is not the same as saying that the younger is the mightier).

This is a big prophecy. It doesn't exactly answer the question "Why me?" But it is a big prophecy nonetheless, and Rebecca takes it as a communication of her destiny.

Esau and Jacob are then born and Torah fast-forwards right to their adulthood, where Jacob buys his brother's birthright for the price of a bowl of stew. We all know this story. This is a first step toward the destiny Rebecca foresees, and it happens privately, between the brothers. But the next step comes when Isaac is old and his sight and his health are failing. He intends to give his deathbed blessing to Esau, and Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to him instead. When Esau realizes what happened, he turns homicidal. Rebecca warns Jacob and sends him away to her brother, saying "Let me not lose you both in one day." But she does. She has lost Esau's love and Jacob's companionship; she will not see him again for fifteen years. But she has secured the destiny described by God as she understood it. She has seen the younger son receive both the birthright and the blessing.

History sometimes judges Rebecca's character harshly. She is seen as conniving, even though in Torah's view the outcome is God's will and even though we, the Children of Israel, are the beneficiaries of her actions. Much as the 20th Century Jewish mother was mocked by her sons for the very traits that allowed those sons to succeed.

But Rebecca is a remarkable character. Isaac, let's face it, does not add much to the story of our people. He is the creme filling in the Abraham-Jacob sandwich. It is really Rebecca, not Isaac, who is the key player of that generation. She takes up the matter of our People's destiny and acts on it, just as Abraham did by leaving home, and as Jacob did by returning home. It is Rebecca who links Abraham to Jacob. She is formidable. She speaks to God. And God speaks back. She receives prophecy. And she takes action to make the prophecy come true.

It is this bit that especially interests me. God tells her that she carries two nations and the older shall serve the younger. But God does not give her an assignment in this matter. There is nothing in God's words -- or at least in what we overhear of them -- to suggest that Rebecca is supposed to do anything. The story would still have worked if she'd just shrugged her shoulders in response, and let nature run its course.

But no, she acts. Why?

I think I might have gotten a hint from something I read this week from Pirkei Avot, our first post-Biblical book. I was preparing a discussion for the post-Bar Mitzvah class and culling some quotes from the early sages. A famous one of Rabbi Akiba's jumped out at me. He says this:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה
Hakol tzafuy v'har'shut n'tunah.
All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice ("permission") is given.

I was so interested in this paradox that I did what any modern Jew would do. I posted it as my Facebook status this week and watched while my friends (and my "friends") struggled to make sense of their own sense of direction. It turns out the question was as alive for them as it was for Akiba.

Rabbi Akiba, living during Roman antiquity without the benefit of Facebook, Twitter or anything, was struggling with the still-new idea of God's omnipotence. If God is truly all-powerful, then is free will really free? Mustn't our actions be somehow determined by God? If they're not, then don't we have more power than God, at least over the small, personal matters: which hat to wear, whom to marry, which ice cream flavors go best together on one cone? If we are truly freely making those choices, then God is bound not to make them for us.

Akiba seems to offer a middle ground suggesting that both truths co-exist. All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given. Perhaps Akiba is suggesting that צפוי (tsafuy) doesn't mean "foreseen" as in "predestined." But rather something more like "envisioned." The word comes from the Hebrew root that means "to look ahead" or "to scout out." A mitspeh, from the same root, is a high place from which one can scout ahead, a "lookout." So perhaps your relationship to the future is as if you're on a mountaintop looking to the horizon. You are afforded a certain clarity of vision, at least over the broad landscape, even if you can't make out the details. Everything is envisioned. We visualize a big picture. And then permission is given each of us to control where that vision leads us. What actions we take. The skills, gifts, smarts, connections that we bring to bear on the question of here-to-there.

Rebecca had a vision. Given to her by God or perhaps divined from the turbulence in her belly. But it suggested a destiny to her, and then when she had an opportunity to bring about what she had foreseen, she did not hesitate.

Can the same be said of us? When we are in times of distress, the kind that lead us to say, lamah zeh anochi - why me? Does it lead us to new, broader vision? And does that vision lead us to action? We might not all be formidable like Rebecca. But still, does that excuse us for not acting? We all have some ideas about how things might be. For the future of the planet. For the future of Judaism. For the future of gender. We can all imagine so much. But do we take action?

Rabbi Akiba suggests that we must. He goes on to say in the next breath:

ובטוב העולם נדון והכל לפי רוב המעשה
 Uv'tov ha'olam nadon v'hakol l'fi rov hama'aseh.
The world is judged kindly and according to the weight of its actions.

Another seeming paradox. Thank you, Rabbi Akiba. It contains a comforting note and a challenging note. He says to us that when we are judged, by God or by history or by us, it will be done with a kind heart. In other words, all of our efforts, our intentions, really do matter. Our vision, our hope. But, he warns, the world will also be judged by its actions. In other words, our good intentions are good but are not enough. They are not an excuse for inaction.

"Dream," says Rabbi Akiba. "And act." "Envision and do."

Rebecca envisions or foresees something about her son Jacob's legacy. And she acts, at great personal cost. Most of our visions are far less pricey to act on.

We live in hard times. Everyone lives in hard times. We all feel the struggles in our bellies. In our souls. We feel the struggles in our communities. We witness the wrestling of ideas. And sometimes the older, stronger idea is not the one we want to see succeed. We recognize that our future lies with the newer, gentler idea, and that will require our care and our action.

Lamah zeh anochi we might ask at any such time. Why me? 

If there is a "why" then the answer lies somewhere in your ability (our ability) to envision - to see the horizon, the great landscape - and your ability (our ability) to act in the here, the now. Think globally, act locally, says Rabbi Akiba somewhere on a bumper sticker.

May we all see far. May we plot our course in the direction that calls us. May our good intentions fuel but not replace our actions. And when we look back on the path we struck, and judge it, may we be proud.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Vayera: Open Your Eyes. Oy, Open Your Eyes.

[For Congregation Ner Shalom - November 6, 2009]

Tonight we will talk about desperation and hope; about seeing and not seeing. Our Torah portion this week is called Vayera. It is the fourth parashah in Torah, and we know some of its stories quite well. Abraham is visited by men we understand to be angels; Sarah gives birth to a child in her old age; Abraham bargains with God to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (unsuccessfully); Lot's wife becomes a pillar of salt. There are great destructions and intimate sufferings.

One of the subplots that most interests me in Vayera is the story of Hagar. You might recall that Hagar had been Sarah's Egyptian slave. When Sarah found she was unable to bear children, she offered Hagar to her husband as a surrogate, so that Abraham's line should not die out. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. But then in this parashah Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac and things change.

At some moment, Sarah sees Ishmael doing something that troubles her. She sees him metzachek - laughing, teasing Isaac, gloating. It's unclear. We don't know what the word metzachek means in this context and we never will. But whatever Sarah saw convinced her that Ishmael's presence in the household was a threat - to safety, to posterity, we don't quite know. She demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael into exile in the desert. Abraham questions this, but God backs Sarah, telling Abraham to follow Sarah's instructions and send away his firstborn.

Hagar journeys into the wilderness. There, wandering, lost, the food and water having run out, she at last gives in to despair. She sees no hope, no possibility of a happy ending, survival or any acceptable outcome. She sets Ishmael down under a bush and walks a bowshot's distance away, declaring that she will not watch her child die, a thoroughly harrowing statement. She sits down herself and bursts into tears.

But God hears the child's cry and sends an angel to Hagar. The angel calls from the heavens and assures her that God has heard the child and will save him, and that Ishmael will be blessed and become a great nation. Then God "opened her eyes" and Hagar saw a well. She filled her bottle and gave water to her child.

This story is packed with far too many troubling issues and surprising plot points to be able to discuss more than a fraction. But to begin with, I'm always fascinated and impressed that our tradition is willing to show our patriarch and matriarch in such an inescapably unfavorable light. We can come up with justifications for their actions, and that has been the project of many generations of rabbis and commentators. But they are nonetheless justifications of something that on paper, on parchment, just looks bad. The willingness to give holy status to a text full of our ancestors' shortcomings says a lot about our tradition's trust that we have the intelligence and patience to sit with difficulty and imperfection, and to understand the world in nuanced ways. This story contains brutal realism. Our ancestors were not gods or saints. Their lives, like ours, contained harshnesses of which they were not only victims but also dealers.

Similarly, I think it's also noteworthy that an angel speaks to Hagar. She is not our foremother. She is not a Hebrew. She is a slave. And she is a woman. You would not expect her moment of revelation, her interaction with the Divine, to be recorded. Even Sarah only overhears the words of angels through a tent flap. But Hagar is spoken to directly, in the depths of her despair. And surprisingly enough, we hear about it.

But besides surprise at the very existence of this story and in the way it is told, what can the story teach us? Because that's what makes Torah Torah. If it can't teach us, then it is not Torah, but merely ink on skin. So what is there here for us to learn?

There is a lesson here, I think, about seeing and not seeing. After the angel speaks words of comfort and promise about Ishmael's future, God, perhaps through the angel, opens Hagar's eyes and she sees the well. There is no indication that this is a miraculous well. It is not Miriam's well that legend tells us appeared in times of need. In fact, there is no indication that the well "appears" at all. It is already there, and Hagar simply "sees" it. Much as Abraham, one chapter later, holding a knife over the bound body of his second son, "sees" a ram caught in a thicket, that he hadn't seen a moment earlier, and offers it as a sacrifice instead. Two children, each saved by sudden sight. In each case, no new thing appeared, unless that new thing was openness to a new possibility.

In Hagar's case, despair had closed her eyes. And can't we all see ourselves in that? When we feel pained and unsupported in our pain, how many times have we let go of hope, or been tempted to? How many times has our suffering stopped us from recognizing help even when it is at our doorstep? How many times have we failed to perceive the deep wells of holy energy that can sustain us? There was no miracle in this story. Hagar is either told, or encouraged, or helped, by a Divine Being or maybe just by an instinct deeper and stronger than despair, to open her eyes. Help is there. But you have to open your eyes to see it. Use your sight. Use your insight. The well, deep and soothing and sweet, is waiting.

Good lesson, eh? And I think it's true, at least on a certain spiritual level. But, on the other hand, this reading isn't completely satisfying either. Too optimistic. It doesn't comport with our experience of the world. This is not the best of all possible worlds, and all we have to do is be awake to it. Sometimes no matter how awake we are, what we see is not good.

Tonight, as you know, we are remembering the lost Jewish community of Sobeslav, whose Torah scroll sits in our aron kodesh. The hundreds of Jews who lived in this Southern Bohemian town - butchers, carpenters, rabbis, healers, tradespeople, mothers, fathers, grandchildren - were forced, not in Biblical times but in our own lifetimes or our parents' lifetimes, into a situation of unspeakable desperation. The jaws of the Shoah closed in on them until there was no escape. They were dragged from their homes. They perished under circumstances that I'm both sad and happy to say none of us can even imagine. It would be false and insulting to say that help would have been there if they had simply opened their eyes and known where to look. Because I'm sure they looked. The kind of help that would have let them survive was not there or was not within reach. And it is foolish and wrong to think it was merely overlooked.

So, in light of the Holocaust and so many other calamities we can name, what lesson can we draw, if any, from Hagar's story? Maybe her story was a fluke, the rare happy ending. If so, then what about all the other Hagars whose stories we don't know but can so easily imagine? The displaced, the disowned, the despairing. How many of them didn't make it? Is the lesson then that there is always a divine source - or personal source - of strength and hope, but it might not always actually save you? Or there is a divine source of strength and hope, but it is conditional - conditioned upon certain factors which we don't understand or know how to predict? After all, what, if anything, made Hagar more deserving of hope and survival than the other Hagars, or than the Jews of Sobeslav and six million others like them?

Maybe we have to look at the story from another angle. We must ask, "Who are we in this story?" And then we must ask, "Are we certain of that?" We all naturally identify with Hagar. We identify with her suffering and her despair. But maybe that's not the only way to see it. Maybe the Jews of Sobeslav, for instance, are not Hagar in the story, even though they certainly rivaled her in displacement and desperation. Maybe they are not even the helpless crying child. What if those who suffer in the world, like the Jews of Sobeslav, are, in this story, represented by the angel?

After all, isn't it our belief, feeble though it may seem in the most brutal of times, that God suffers with us when we suffer? The Shechinah weeps with us. Or looking at it differently, if God is somehow a shared impulse, isn't God also our shared suffering? Perhaps the appearance of an angel in extreme times is a spiritual reflex of our own deep human suffering. It is our suffering's divine counterpart.

Haven't we all experienced moments when God feels more real and more intimate when we are in pain than when we are not? Don't our prayers feel especially real, especially grounded, and sometimes especially heard in those times? Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi teaches that If you want to make a prayer - any prayer - feel deeper, more real, more personal, insert one additional syllable: Oy.

Sim shalom. Grant us peace. Oy, grant us peace. Modeh ani l'faneycha. I'm grateful to be alive this morning. Oy, I'm grateful to be alive. Yitgadal v'yitkadash. Oy. May God name be exalted and sanctified. Oy.

So yes, maybe the people of Sobeslav were not the suffering Hagar, and not the crying child, but the angel, the messenger. They, like the millions of Jews and Roma and Queers stood, and their memory still stands, before the rest of the despairing, unseeing world, saying, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. Open your eyes."

Sadly, unlike Hagar, it seems the world didn't, and hasn't yet. But maybe the angel is still speaking. We are the heirs of the Jews of Sobeslav and others like them. We hold their Torah scroll, but are we also ready to assume their mantle? To be the angel? To continue saying to the world, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. There is a well of hope and healing. It is within reach. It can save you. It can save us all. But you must open your eyes to find it."

The angel is the messenger, but not the guarantor of the result. In Hagar's story the angel was successful. Maybe in the stories of others like Hagar, the angel was not. But in this world where God is a non-interventionist, we can't count on the outcome. But even so, we are not free to refuse the mission. As it says in Pirkei Avot: lo aleycha hamlachah ligmor v'lo atah ben-chorin l'hibatel mimenah. It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to abstain from beginning it.

Let us continue to speak to this despairing world. Let us be the messenger, the angel, with the memory of the people of Sobeslav and the millions like them as the wind under our wings, keeping us aloft, and on our path. Let us continue to speak to the world, to speak to history, and say, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. Open your eyes."


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Birthing the Unexpected

[Ner Shalom Malakh, November 2009]

The month of November opens this year with Parashat Vayera - a busy bit of Torah that includes Abraham hosting angels, Sodom being destroyed, Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt, Sarah giving birth, Hagar being exiled, and Isaac being offered on an altar. (This was my Bar Mitzvah portion 36 years ago.)

This year I'm struck by the complex portrayal of Sarah in the story. Abraham, not Sarah, names their son Yitzchak - my own Hebrew name, from the root tzachak, meaning "laughter." While Abraham might have been filled with joyous laughter, Sarah was not. Instead, she laughs in disbelief when told she would bear a child. And she explicitly fears being laughed at when it is learned that she bore a child. She even accuses God of making her a laughingstock.

Sarah is self-conscious, fearful, even peevish. We understand this. She was, after all, 92 years old, far beyond childbearing age. No one expected her ever to have a child. By one Talmudic account, Sarah was also a tumtum - i.e. she was intersex, meaning that she had an ambiguous sexual anatomy that in her case wouldn't have permitted procreation, even when she was young. Sarah overcame (or undermined) the constraints of both age and anatomy. She gave birth to the unexpected, the impossibly unexpected, in a world that she feared would hold her to her limitations.

I always identify with Sarah when I read her story. Don't we all have the unexpected in us? How often do we hold back from letting it out for fear of ridicule? "What will people think" trumping "what am I called to do?" And then how we bristle and steam at our self-made shackles!

Our own community is made up of people with many seeming limitations - those of age, physical ability, money, education. But creativity is not among our lacks. So perhaps we help heal Sarah also when we overcome our fears and unleash our unexpected creativity.

There is another Midrash that although Sarah felt alone in her story, she wasn't. At the moment that God thought of her, making her fertile, other barren women conceived, sick people were healed, deaf people heard, among other Biblical-style miracles. Perhaps this is our tradition's way of saying that blessing comes in waves. When you step beyond others' expectations of you and your own expectations of yourself, others will follow. And the blessing will touch us all.