Keep Wrestling: For Reflections on Footprints in the Sand

After 20 years in  Charan, Yaakov returns home. VaYishlach , this week’s Torah portion, starts with Yaakov sending angel-emissaries to Esav in hope of a reconciliation, but his messengers report that his brother is on the warpath with 400 armed men. Yaakov prepares for war, prays, and sends Esav a large gift to appease him.That night, Yaakov ferries his family and possessions across the Yabbok River; he, however, remains behind and encounters the angel that embodies the spirit of Esav, with whom he wrestles in the dust until daybreak. Yaakov suffers a dislocated hip but vanquishes the supernal creature, who bestows on him the name Yisrael, which means “he who prevails over the divine.” This is a critical episode in that we his descendants get our national name from this moment as well.

A decade ago in thinking about this critical moment in Yaakov’s life and our national narrative I got to thinking about Mary Stevenson, 1936 classic Footprints in the Sand. Clearly written for a Christian audience I adapted it for what I thought it meant to be Jewish today.

blog footprintsOne night I dreamed I was walking along a path on a pristine beach. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes the path was well worn, other times it seemed that I took the path less traveled, and still yet other times I had blazed my own trail. What bothered me was that I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see that the otherwise clear path was muddled and unclear. So I cried aloud, “What about the promise that if I followed the path, it would always guide my way. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has no clear path in the sand. Why, when I needed guidance most, I was left alone with no direction?”And then I was quiet and I heard a still small voice reply, “The years when you could not see a path is when we wrestled, we are always together Yisrael.”

A decade later I feel that we are even more in this Yaakov moment of wrestling. It is clear that we are living in troubled and troubling times. I know that I for one am ” tired from all of this  winning“. We find ourselves amidst a frightful surge of antisemitism. We feel alone and abandoned. We are reliving the Dreyfus affair. Why must we repeat history?

I also know that we are struggling with ourselves as to what the future of Jewish life will look like.  It seems like we are perpetually stuck in the dual narratives of antisemitism and assimilation.  What will be our path be moving forward?

At the same time I  know that now more than ever the world needs us to live up to our name.  We are Yisrael. We need to be there for each other. We are not alone. We need to keep wrestling. Together we will find a path forward.

Big Bird z”l: A Little Torah in Memory of Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney, the legendary actor and puppeteer who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street over five decades, died Sunday at age 85. Originally designed by a drawing from Jim Henson and built by Kermit Love in 1969 Big Bird was the iconic central character from Sesame Street. This huge yellow bird was bigger than life and at the same time a surrogate through which the children watching the show could understand the world being introduced to them through the television. Here is a fitting tribute to Spinney.

 

His passing gives me pause to reflect on the impact of Big Bird and Sesame Street has had on the world.

I also pause to reflect on another legendary bird, this one comes from Jewish mythology. Bar-Yokhani was a colossal bird which was believed to have a wingspan large enough to block out the sun. In the Talmud we learn:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Satriel also testified before Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: Once an egg of the bird called bar yokhani fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees. The Gemara asks: And does the bar yokhani bird throw its eggs to the ground? But isn’t it written: “The kenaf renanim bird rejoices, but are her wings and feathers those of the stork? For she leaves her eggs on the earth, and warms them in dust” (Job 39:13–14)? The Sages understood that kenaf renanim is another name for the bar yokhani bird. If so, how could its egg fall if it lays its eggs on the ground? Rav Ashi said in explanation: That egg was unfertilized, and since it would never hatch the bird threw it to the ground. ( Bekhorot 57b)

Now that is another big bird. It is a powerful image of the impact that a simple but big idea could have on people.

Caroll Spinney’s passing is the end of an era. It is a sad day. It is a bad day. As Big Bird taught us:

Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.

Big Big made us feel good about ourselves without ignoring these bad days. May Caroll Spinney’s memory be for a blessing. 

Fragile Family: Yaakov’s Dream of National Unity

As we see in Vayetzei, this week’s Torah portion, the sun is setting and Yaakov rests his head after a harrowing day. He is fleeing from his brother Esav who is hell bent on killing him after Yaakov stole his blessing. In an open field Yaakov gathers stones and makes a pillow of sorts so he can sleep before continuing to his escape in the morning. There we read:

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:11)

There is a discrepancy between the “stones” here and what we see later. There we read:

Early in the morning, Yaakov took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. ( Genesis 28:18)

After the dream there is only one stone. What happened?

Amazingly, the Midrash describes a “fight” that breaks out between the stones Yaakov has gathered. Drawing from this Midrash to comment on this passage Rashi says:

AND PUT THEM FOR A RESTING PLACE FOR HIS HEAD — He arranged them in the form of a drain-pipe around his head for he was afraid of wild beasts (Genesis Rabbah 68:11). They (the stones) began quarrelling with one another. One said, “Upon me let this righteous man rest his head”, and another said “Upon me let him rest it”. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be God, straightway made them into one stone! This explains what is written (Genesis 28:18), “And he took the stone that he had put under his head” (Chullin 91b). ( Rashi on Genesis 18:11)

What do we make of this fanciful story at this moment in Yaakov’s life?

I was thinking about this image of Yaakov’s pillow recently when I learned a great midrash about the nature of the family unit. There we learn:

A society and a family are like a pile of stones. If you remove one stone, the pile will collapse. If you add a stone to it, it will stand. (Bereishit Rabbah 100:7)

This speaks to the fragility of Yitzhak and Rebecca’s family at this time. This rings true for Yaakov at this moment in his life. Just as Yaakov is removing himself from his family the pile of rocks might topple. But that is not what happens to him. Instead of his family falling apart be departs to start his new family.

In many way this is a fulfillment of the destiny of humanity as we learn in the Garden of Eden. There we read:

Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh. ( Genesis 2:24)

This moment of his leaving his father and mother the rocks are falling apart, instead he finds a wife ( or two) and they have 13 children. These children will become the nation of Israel. In this critical moment of his dream Yaakov transforms a fragile family into a unified nation. This image of us as a nation being one unified rock is at one challenging and challenged. Maybe it is just a dream.

Yaakov Giver: On Thanksgiving and Toldot

In observance of Thanksgiving I got thinking about the offensive American expression “Indian giver”. It used to describe a person who gives a “gift” and later wants it back, or who expects something of equivalent worth in return for the item. How did we end up with the expression  Indian giver?

It is based on cultural misunderstandings that took place between early European settlers and the Indigenous people with whom they traded. Often the Europeans would view an exchange of items as gifting, believing they owed nothing in return to the Natives who were generous with them, while the Indigenous people saw the exchange as a form of trade or equal exchange, so had differing expectations of their guests.

The phrase was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, who characterized an Indian gift as, “a present for which an equivalent return is expected,” which suggests that the phrase originally referred to a simple exchange of gifts. In 1860, however, in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, Bartlett said the phrase was being used by children in New York to mean, “one who gives a present and then takes it back.”

On reflecting on this phrase which is still in colloquial use to describe a negative act or shady business dealings I got to thinking about Toldot, this week’s Torah portion. In reading the portion in the context of Thanksgiving I cannot help but focusing on with Esav getting suckered out of his birthright by his brother Yaakov. There we read:

And Yaakov made pottage; and Esav came in from the field, and he was faint.  And Esav said to Yaakov: ‘Let me swallow, I pray of you, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.’ Therefore was his name called Edom. And Yaakov said: ‘Sell me first your birthright.’ And Esav said: ‘Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’ And Yaakov said: ‘Swear to me first’; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Yaakov. And Yaakov gave Esav bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esav despised his birthright.( Genesis 25:29-34)

Image result for thanksgiving spread with stew

What the gift of lentil stew? Thinking about it on Thanksgiving I can imagine the whole spread that Yaakov served his brother. On the simple level it seems that Esav was hungry and Yaakov used that as leverage to buy his birthright. Did Esav and Yaakov have the same expectations in this exchange?  Yaakov had an expectation that the exchange was a form of trade or equal exchange.

Sometimes these interactions are to the benefit of the host ( Yaakov) and other times the guest ( Europeans in America). On this holiday celebrating people who took in guests, we need to pause and reflect on our mutual expectations and the privileges we have in these interactions. Enjoy your Thanksgiving Holiday.

 

Gonzo’s Old Friends: Self-Actualization and Chaye Sarah

Years ago I heard a story of a girl named Becky. She grew up in a small town where she was the only Jewish child. She had many friends, but she was still a little lonely. There was part of her that yearned to be with others who shared her faith, practices, culture, and history. From her earliest days she remembered her family telling that there was a place for her to be with her people. So when she was old enough she decided to go there. She went with someone who had been there before  who took her to this special place. As her companion saw the sites signaling that they were getting close Becky echoed that person’s excitement.  By the time she got there her heart was palpitating. The minute her foot hit the ground she felt at home for the first time in a place she had never been before.

For any of us who grew up going to camp we can relate to little Becky.  Even today there is a special feeling going up to camp that reminds me of that first time I stepped off that bus so many years ago.  I was privileged to grow up in a large Jewish community attending a Jewish day school. Thinking about Becky I think about my camp friends who grew up in the coal-mining communities  in Pennsylvania. For them it was transformational to live in a vibrant Jewish community of their peers. Seeing their experiences enriched mine. I never took camp for granted and it made me love that community even more. Jewish camp is that home that we need desperately need for the next generation.

The only other place that I have had this kind of experience of homecoming to a place I had not been previously is Israel. So, it will not be surprising if you were to learn that the place she went in little Becky’s story was Israel. It might surprise you that this story is actually taken from Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. Truly years ago, it is the story of Rivka ImeynuRebecca our Matriarch. She left the place she grew up to come home to the land of Canaan. Echoing Abraham’s answering God’s call of Lech Lecha-  to Go, Rivka says”Ailech- I will go” (Genesis 24:58). Following in his footsteps she goes home to a place she has never been before.
I was thinking about this sentiment recently when rewatched this classic from the Muppet Movie:

In “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” Gonzo sings:

There’s not a word yet for old friends
Who’ve just met
Part heaven, part space
Or have I found my place?
You can just visit, but I plan to stay

Gonzo, like Rivka Imeynu and little Becky, is articulating the profound connection we all forge with the people and places where be become self-actualized. In these moments and spaces when we become our full selves we experience the nexus between the timely and the timeless. We should all be blessed with these holy experiences.

Changing the Narrative :Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Each year on November 20th people around the world gather to mark and honor the memory of the transgender people whose lives have been taken in acts of anti-transgender violence. We memorialize those murdered and draw attention to the violence endured by transgender people. This is not me. It is hard to relate to this or anything else beyond my own life experience. As a cisgender heterosexual Ashkenazic white Orthodox Jewish man I connect to this day through the lens of  Yom HaShoah. Where Yom HaShoah marks on the calendar the senseless violence toward Jews for being different, we take time on this date to bring attention to violence towards transgender folk for being different. But this got me thinking, what else can be learned from Yom HaShoah for Transgender Day of Remembrance?
It is notable that we commemorate Yom HaShoah on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising not on Tisha B’Av. This is a choice to change the narrative. Instead of it being a story of Jews being lambs lead to slaughter, we tell the story of a people who nobly fought back. This does not hide the horror or moral depravity of the perpetrators, but it changes how we see ourselves. We are not victims.
I was thinking about this recently when I watched this amazing video by Everlast. Please take a moment and watch this powerful short video”Be First” about Patricio Manuel the first professional male boxer who is transgender:

There Patricio Manuel says:

Unfortunately when you deviate from the norms that society has constructed,  you have to fight for that identity and you have to really make it yourself. I think a lot of people in boxing, who I talk to, they would come to me and say, “You could have been, you know, one of the greatest, you know, a world champions, and you would throw it all away to be yourself.” And I tell them that is how bad I felt living that lie. 
He clearly articulates the importance of living his true self. No one throws away the chance to be the best unless they need to do it. It is just that important. Patricio Manuel goes on to tell his uplifting story of his first victory as a professional male boxer. He is a total bad ass. 
Today we need to take the time and be honest about the horrors society has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate against transgender people. And at the same time we cannot limit our imaginations of transgender people to the role of history’s victims. Patricio Manuel, like Mordechaj Anielewicz before him, is heroically fighting to live his true authentic self.  On Transgender Day of Remembrance it is not enough to remember what we are fighting against. We need to remind ourselves what we are fighting for.  If we are willing to fight the good fight we can change the narrative. As Mr. Manuel said so well, “Living in your truth is going to hurt, but it’s worth it.”
Keshet has compiled some resources to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance: 
  • The TDOR Guide with readings, text studies, personal stories, calls to action and more.
  • This reading and list of resources about the history of Transgender Day of Remembrance.
  • A printable sign, reminding everyone that Trans Jews Belong in your community.
  • A list of the 22 trans people whose names we know who were murdered in 2019 due to anti-trans hatred can be found here.

Chosen Condiment

At the start of VaYera, this week’s Torah portion, we see the host with the most- Avraham watching vigilantly from his open tent. He is looking out for people lost in the desert. He sees three figures in the distance and jumps into action to welcome the strangers. There we read:

Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.” Avraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Avraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. ( Genesis 18:2-7)

On this Rashi comments:

There were three calves so that he might give them to eat three tongues together with mustard  (Bava Metzia 86b).

To express his desire to honor these strangers he slaughteres three whole cows to allow him to give the best part of the animal to each of them. Clearly this Gemara was an expression of the magnitude of Avraham’s hospitality. But I think that this is skipping over the chosen condiment. To honor his guests Avaham served mustard.

Image result for mustard

Jackie Mason observed that when gentiles first ate pastrami they used mayo, but after trying mustard “they become like Jews”: one look at someone wielding the white stuff and “they say, ‘Yech.’” This sense of disgust with mayo is not just a cultural thing, it is based on science. And we even have a facebook group. In an email, Mason hypothesized that the complicated relationship between Jews and mayonnaise was probably a consequence of Jews feeling “guilty over betraying mustard.” It is amazing to see our long history with mustard dating back to Babylonian Talmud let alone Avraham. Even from the begining the Chosen People has chosen mustard as our condiment of choice.


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