Pitting Against

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Yitzhak’s two children Esau and Jacob. While we know that Avraham’s line will continue in Yitzhak and not Yishmael, why didn’t Yakov and Esav both share the mantel of the future people instead of it just going to Yakov’s children? We read,

“And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Isaac loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Yakov.” (Genesis 25:27-28)

It is clear from the start that Yitzhak and Rebekah do not share an equal love for their children. From the start, they were in competition for their parents’ love. Yakov and Esav spend years and years in competition and struggle with each other, but it seems pretty clear that they are just living out the conflict between Yitzhak and Rivka.

I had the fortune to reread this part of the Torah with my friend and teacher Jon Adam Ross (JAR) as part of his  inHEIRitance Project.  At the time JAR was preparing to do a play inspired by Rivka in Charleston in 2015. This is a community struggling with a deep history of slavery and racism. In this context it was compelling to rethink the contrast between Yakov the tent dweller and Esav the hunter. In the context of Charleston Yakov and Esav were recast as the house slave and the field slave. It is clear that the tension between them was to keep our eyes off the oppression of the slave master.  There is a long history of pitting marginalized people against each other rather than dealing with the root cause of injustice. Why couldn’t Yitzhak and Rivka just deal with rift in their relationship? It would have saved their children a world of pain. Why do we accept this politics of  diversion of  pitting marginalized people against each other from the current administration?

 

 

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We All Stood Together: Rivka and Revelation

This weekend the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel is celebrating its 30th year. It is crazy to think that I did this program 27 years ago this summer. One of my memories from that summer was when Merle Feld a poet taught some of her poetry to the group. On of the poem’s “We All Stood Together” I still remember vividly. There in Jerusalem at the age of 15 we read:

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one of my friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
And then
As time passes
the particulars
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
the feeling
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying

I was thinking about this poem specifically this Shabbat as we read Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we find Rivka giving water to Eliezer’s camels. There we read:

And the man was astonished at her, standing silent, [waiting] to know whether the Lord had caused his way to prosper or not. Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]. ( Genesis 24:21-22)

Why did he give her braclets? And why two of them? And why specify ten units of gold? On these points Rashi said:

and two braceletsAn allusion to the two Tablets paired together. — [Gen. Rabbah (60:6), Targum Jonathan]

weighing ten goldAn allusion to the Ten Commandments [inscribed] on them. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:6]

This moment at the well was a moment when Rivka herself modeled for us the overlooked role of women at Sinai. This moment happened through acts of righteousness, but sadly the female contribution to revelation has been hidden in broad daylight. This images of Rivka and  Merle Feld  fill me with gratitude for the gifts of female voices to the world of Torah.

 

Bob’s Your Uncle

A few months ago I was watching a show with Yadid and one of the characters said, “…And Bob’s your uncle”.  We were dumbstruck. What does this expression mean? As it turns out this an expression of unknown origin, that means “and there it is” or “and there you have it.” It is commonly used in England. Typically, someone says it to conclude a set of simple instructions or when a result is reached. For example: “left over right; right over left, and Bob’s your uncle – a reef knot.” The meaning is similar to that of the French expression “et voilà!”

I was thinking about this expression yesterday as it was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.  The Balfour Declaration was a single paragraph in a letter dated November 2, 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It read:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The text of the letter was published in the press one week later, on November 9, 1917. The Balfour Declaration was later incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine. The issuance of the declaration had many long-lasting consequences.

Portrait of Arthur Balfour (1892)

But what does any of this have to do with our mystery expression? As it turns out A. J. Langguth and others have suggested that the expression “…And Bob’s your uncle” arose after Conservative Prime Minister Robert “Bob” Cecil appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, an act which was apparently both surprising and unpopular. In this sense, the expression also carried a hint of sarcastic envy or resentment, rather like “it’s who you know, not what you know” that gets results.

So Lord Balfour write his declaration, David Ben-Gurion declares Statehood, the Israeli army fights countless wars, and Bob’s your uncle we are blessed with the modern State of Israel.

 

 

Where the Sidewalk Ends

What is the nature of beginnings? Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”  The start of something new means that something else ends, but does it also mean that eventually the very thing you are starting will eventually end with something else’s beginning? I was thinking about this when reading the start of Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we  read:

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” ( Genesis 12:1-3)

This is the start of the Jewish project, but what is the end of that project? While many people throughout history have tried to answer that question for us, for now I rather keep in a lighter note. When talking with my friend Shalom Orzach recently he connected this charge to Avram to go out with Shel Silverstein’s poem Where the Sidewalk Ends. There we read:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Image result for where the sidewalk ends
It is true that cosmology points us to eschatology, but it can be playful and it does not have to be so darn gloomy. Regardless, we can all enjoy the adventure. It is always refreshing to read Lech Lecha and reconnect with our beginning and reassess if we are going in the right direction.

Memory Ark

What does it mean to lose your home?

Unfortunately millions of people face this reality after an earthquake rocked Mexico, and hurricanes ravaged Houston, Puerto Rico, Caribbean Islands, and southern Florida this past month. This week, the wild fires in North California have ravaged 5,700 houses and more than 213,000 acres. My heart goes out to the URJ Camp Newman family in Sonoma County, California, whose camp was destroyed in the fires. Millions have been left homeless in the wake of these natural disasters.

In this week’s Torah portion we learn of the devastation of the Flood and of the rainbow of rebuilding thereafter. God sends a flood to cover earth, taking with it families, homes, animals and habitats. After Noah does all that is asked of him, the animals are on the ark and the world is under water, we read:

And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained.  (Genesis 8:1-2)

“God remembered” implies that God forgot Noah and all of creation while destroying the world. I think this part of the story plays on the human fear of being forgotten, the human need to be remembered, to know that we matter. Flood and fires have taken houses and buildings, but what about the memories of those homes? Where do they live?

It was with pride that we saw this human spirit thrive during the hurricane in Texas, when URJ Greene Family Camp and Camp Young Judaea Texas stepped up, opening their space to homeless, displaced families in need, even opening a day camp in Houston. Like Noah, they found a way to use their camp as an ark to help people that they needed shelter.

With the most recent news of the horrific fire that took URJ Camp Newman, we immediately saw the outpouring of support from the camp community. Alumni reminisced on Facebook, and shared photos. California campers from different movements started crowd-funding campaigns for their URJ friends. URJ Camp Newman’s year-round programming has been rescheduled to be hosted at local synagogues. For so many, Jewish camp is a second home, a sanctuary that helps us find shelter, comfort and spirit. The spirit of camp, the feeling of family and home reach far beyond the physical buildings they gather in.  The difference is that a home is a house with memories. God remembered Noah, and Noah had to remember the world. What is the ark for their memories?

The primary urgency is to find a place for Newman to run their program until they can rebuild their camp.   Like Noah they will need to rebuild society post destruction. In all of this I do not want to forget memory. In addition to the existing social media I think there is a great opportunity to create a website for Newman to store their collective memories in a more organized way. What would it look like to click on a map of camp and reconnect to the layers and generations of memories there? As a community, we cannot undo the damage of natural disasters but we can help keep the memories of these homes alive. Our support goes out to Newman community. If you want to support this project building them a memory ark please be in touch.

 

The Garden of Gratitude

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this coming Shabbat, being the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we will be starting to reread the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. How do we go from Kohelet to Genesis?

Kohelet is written from the perspective of Solomon. Like Siddhartha, Solomon was the king and had everything, but he gave it up to find a life a meaning.There we read:

I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’ I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine, and, my heart conducting itself with wisdom, how yet to lay hold on folly, till I might see which it was best for the sons of men that they should do under the heaven the few days of their life.  I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. (Kohelet 2:1-5)

Solomon has everything, but he realizes that is it not enough. You can even see here in his trying to plant every kind of fruit that he is trying to recreate Eden itself with the trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There is a profound parallel here between Solomon ( Kohelet) and Adam.  As we read in Genesis

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ ( Genesis 2: 16-17)

Why was the fruit of every tree except for this one not enough? This speaks to a profound truth to the human condition. If only we could conquer our inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have.  In this time of year as we returned to nature in the Sukkah we tried in different ways to return to Eden. In the past I wrote about how the act of bringing together the four species on Sukkot itself is an act of putting the fruit of the tree of knowledge back on the  tree. But maybe that itself is missing the point.

Would returning to Eden and access to all of the trees itself be vanity of vanities? This year I want to focus on being grateful for all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed and I strive to be content. How will I tend my garden of gratitude?

Gog, Magog, & Ragnarök 

Tonight we start the holiday of Sukkot. This year the way the calendar falls out we go right from two days of Yom Tov into Shabbat. The Haftarah we read on Shabbat ( which is the same one we read on Chol Ha-Moed Pesach) is the story of Gog u-Magog from the book of Yechezkel. Here we read about a prophesied enemy nation of God’s people. This prophecy is meant to be fulfilled at the approach of what is called the “end of days“, but not necessarily the end of the world. Jewish eschatology viewed Gog u-Magog as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah, which will usher in the age of the Messiah. Magog was one of the nations according to Genesis descended from Yafet son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). What is the connection between this fanciful prophetic vision of the end of days and the Sukkot?

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  As I previously mentioned  I have been preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. In Norse mythologyRagnarök is a series of future events, including a great battle, foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods OdinThorTýrFreyrHeimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors. Ragnarök is an important event in Norse mythology, and has been the subject of scholarly discourse, theory throughout the history, and a movie that I hope lives up to the hype.

There are some very interesting connections between these two myths that talk about an end of days war that will reboot the system. It is noteworthy that at the end of Sukkot we move into Simchat Torah in which we we celebrate the end and the restarting of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Like  Ragnarök, after violence and complexity of the war of Gog u-Magog we will reboot our narrative and also start the story of the world with the simplicity of two human survivors. Maybe we read Gog u-Magog  to prepare for our return to Eden. What is it about the human condition that needs to experience such violence before we are ready for the messianic vision of rebirth.

-For more Norse Mythology and Torah see Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

 


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