Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Vayigash 5767: We versus They

Genesis 45:28-46:27

This week Judah pleads for the freedom of Benjamin, and is so moving Joseph reveals that he is their brother in a fearful and tearful reunion. Eventually Jacob and the whole Mishpocha comes down to Egypt. They all live happily off the fat of the land of Egypt at the request of Pharaoh.

Sort of….its just not happily ever after.

Twice in Jacob’s life he had a rather tearful family reunion. The first one was back in Genesis 33:4 when he met with brother Esau. And there is once again a tearful reunion:

29. And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen, and presented himself to him; and he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. 30. And Israel said to Joseph, Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive. [Genesis 46:29-30]

Joseph, on the other hand has other plans, one which some might say backfires.

34. That you shall say, Your servants’ trade has been keeping cattle from our youth until now, both we, and also our fathers; that you may live in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.

Recently I got a new perspective on this passage from a social psychology book I’m reading. In a study of sports fans, Robert Cialdini found an interesting phenomenon in linguistics of pronouns. When a team won, its fans would describe the win as “we won” yet when the team lost, fans would describe the loss as “they lost” (Cialdini 1993, 200) As Cialdini explains, in order to bolster our own self esteem, we try to associate and identify with the success of someone else. Yet it there is an associated psychological phenomenon in cases where people are like us we tend like them and them trust more and ultimately comply with thier wishes. This is where the danger lies as we read in Exodus the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph:

9. And he said to his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; 10. Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it may come to pass, that, when there would be any war, they should join our enemies, and fight against us; and so get them out of the land. [Exodus 1:9-10]

And there is also another prime minister in the book of Esther who uses a similar argument:

8. And Haman said to king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every other people; and they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. 9. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they may be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those who have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.[Esther 3:8-9]

Those two pronouns, us and them were used to enslave the Israelites by Pharaoh and request genocide by Haman. While this psych research is for a paper about the early Hasidic movement and the secret to their success, I also needed a lot about the history of Poland, and through the materials I have read too many times the words “much of this material was lost during WWII” The Shoah too was the ultimate version of this rhetoric of mind control “us versus them.” To see how easy it is for such things to happen, Muzafar Sherif in 1961 demonstrated this by merely separating two groups of boys at summer camp into isolated teams and letting them compete on a variety of exercises. By mid-summer, picnics always turned to riots.

I bring this all up because of Goshen, and Joseph’s plan to take Goshen for his family. In segregating the Israelites from the Egyptians, Joseph was setting up we versus they. To be fair, he may have had more immediate considerations. The Israelites were already problematic as shepherds. Midrash tells us that many herd animals, notably sheep, were also Egyptian gods, and anyone who was controlling the sheep was essentially controlling the gods. That is the abomination mentioned in the text. Joseph was hiding their unpleasant job from most of Egypt, at the same hiding everything else about his family. But a higly populous segregated people who did such abominations was just the leverage Pharaoh needed to set up the slavery system. It’s us versus them.

Segregation was part of the problem, yet, just removing the segregation is not enough.Indeed one problem in school districts even after desegregation is the increase of bigotry and racism. Even within the school, just being in the same building, us versus them continues to be a problem as demographics clump together to form tribal groups within schools.

Yet this portion at its beginning shows us another way, one found at its beginning. Such tribal differences were very much the case throughout the book of Genesis and such us verses them was almost fatal in the case of Joseph’s early years as the sons of Jacob defined their allegiance by their allegiance to their mothers. Ruben’s sleeping with Bilhah is described as part of this battle, as is Joseph’s tale bearing, supposedly about the Simon and Levi’s destruction of Shechem. Yet this battle between the sons of Leah and the sons of the other mothers come to an abrupt halt in front of Joseph’s eyes, when Judah pleads for Benjamin, the son of rival mother Rachel to be allowed to return to Jacob.

What changes the situation is the same thing that Sharif found in his 1961 study. After creating a nightmare the researchers did not think they could control, and dealing with in-camp riots breaking out when integration was tried at picnics, they found that a crisis which needed cooperation was the thing to bring people back together. Thorugh a series of cooperative activities, By the end of camp, kids from both “sides” were actually friends. The they had become we.

In one sense Joseph was the ideal success story of such diversity. In another sense is what happened to Joseph himself. He assimilated into the culture in that cooperation, and for many that is the fear of cooperating. If we help them then we are no longer we. Much of Jewish continuity for the past two millennia of Diaspora is based on such a premise. Joseph might have wanted to protect that as well and so isolated his family from the rest of the population so they did not assimilate into Egyptian society as he did as viceroy of Egypt.

Yet it is the pharaoh of Joseph’s time who might have an alternate response.

6. The land of Egypt is before you; let your father and brothers live in the best of the land; in the land of Goshen let them live; and if you know any men of activity among them, then make them rulers over my cattle.

Pharaoh knows the secret that everybody is good at something different. Diversity should be maintained in cooperation because there are some who do a better job than others at some things. Egyptians refused to be shepherds, but Jacob’s son were the experts for the job. If we do things right, we do not lose, indeed, we all gain.

Yet, as I’ve described here such integration is not easy, but I believe it is one of the biggest challenges the Jewish people face in the years to come, with questions which faced Joseph as his family journeyed to their new home in Egypt.

May we find the right answers.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Drash Mikketz 5767: Changing Identity

Genesis 41:1-44:17

This week Joseph gets his “get out of jail free” card, whenPharaoh has two nightmares that no one understands. When interpreting them to mean there will be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, Joseph goes on to suggest collecting the surplus in the seven good years as rations for the famine to come. Pharaoh thinks this plan so good he makes Joseph the second n command of Egypt. He also gives him a wife Asnat, and the couple has two children Manasseh and Ephraim. The years of plenty come and Joseph collects grain for the royal storehouses. When the years of famine begin it appears that Joseph has done such a good job, that not only the people of Egypt come to Joseph for grain but also the people of foreign lands come for grain, and Egypt actually makes a hefty profit on the whole disaster. Among the foreigners are Joseph’s brothers. Joseph decides to jerk their chain by imprisoning one brother, Simeon, and finally threatening to imprison Benjamin after framing him for stealing Joseph’s goblet.

For the last few weeks we’ve talked about victimhood. We’ve seen a woman with more guts and action than the men in her life as one way of handling victim hood. Yet there is Joseph that exemplifies another way. We read in this week’s portion:

6. And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was who sold to all the people of the land; and Joseph’s brothers came, and bowed down before him with their faces to the earth. 7. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them; and he said to them, From where do you come? They said, From the land of Canaan to buy food. 8. And Joseph knew his brothers, but they knew not him.

This was not Joseph, but Zafnat-Pa’aneiach, royal Viceroy of Egypt standing before the sons of Israel. Zafnat-Pa’aneiach needs an interpreter to talk to these Hebrew beggars, he does not talk them himself. When eating, he eats at a separate table from his guests, so as not to mix with these people, whose eating customs were abominations to the Egyptians. This leader is very different than a young tattletale in fancy clothes.

Joseph knew his brothers because they had not changed much, but in the decades in Egypt, Joseph did change. The Midrash notes Joseph had grown a beard, which he did not have back in the days before his capture and sale. Torah tells us that Pharaoh changed Joseph’s name to Zafnat-Pa’aneiach. Joseph had a new identity, and really was a new man.

As we have been talking about for a few weeks, this might be the other way of recovering from trauma, While Dina was silent, and Tamar went and did what was necessary to achieve her desired outcome, thorugh the workings of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, Joseph changed his identity.

As I approach my 41st birthday, at the end of 2006, I was thinking back to the last time I wrote Shlomo's Drash Mikketz, before my 40th birthday. A year has gone by, and I’m in a bit of a reflective mood. Over the past few years there was change, and this year, there was a lot of it virtually all of it positive. I am a very different person than I was at 13, or at 22, when much of the trauma in my life happened, or at 30 when I began my return to Judaism. How much I have changed struck me in very much the same way it struck Joseph. At several parties this year, in places that people had not seen me in years, many did not recognize me. It was not that I was forgotten, but that I had changed so much both outwardly and internally. Sometimes, even I don’t recognize the Me of today, since I’m so used to the Me of years ago. The shy person and chronic wallflower I mentioned in last year’s Drash Mikketz was able to schmooze so much at a wedding this past year several people though I was family, and not just a friend of the bride and groom.

Yet I wonder about this change. The change in becoming a different person means one is no longer the victim, but someone else who did not feel that trauma. One cannot ever escape the trauma, even by changing identity because it will follow as I talked about two weeks ago. Yet, in changing identity it seems a lot less powerful than it did by claiming identity solely as victim. However there a question that has to be asked, both of me and of Joseph. Is changing the identity really a good thing?

I wonder that from a variety of perspectives. A problem with changing your identity is you are no longer the person everyone thinks you are. To save time and thinking we as humans have the ability to make assumptions, and one assumption we make is that people don’t change, and what a person does and wants in the past is what that person will do and want in the future – we are in a word predictable, our identity stays static. From there, however, it is only a short step to people expecting, if not demanding, us to stay the same and do the same things over and over again. Midrash tells us that Joseph’s brothers were going to look for Joseph while getting the food. They expected that Joseph was still too much of a wimp to be anything more than or a slave, or they assumed he had already died as a slave. To even conceive that they were bowing before their brother, arguably the most powerful man in Egypt, was unthinkable for them.

Joseph’s actions towards his brothers might be seen differently in this light. If he had revealed that he was Joseph to his brothers immediately, then that would have given the brothers a very different attitude to Joseph. Very likely this powerful man would have been pushed around in the same way as the old days. Joseph was not just testing them but establishing his new identity before he revealed his own. And even when he does, there is stunned silence from his brothers who can’t register it in their brains, so much so he has to repeat himself:

3. And Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph; does my father still live? And his brothers could not answer him; for they were troubled by his presence. 4. And Joseph said to his brothers, Come near me, I beg you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. [Gen 45:3]

Joseph had the advantage of distance and isolation in his case. Most of us are trying to change in environments where that is not true. Relatives and friends, who might mean well, ignore the accomplishments of the new identity, and often demand and depend on us being our old self. This pulls us back into that old self, the victim we are trying to escape from, and makes getting to the powerful place that Joseph represents more difficult, back into the place that is the victim. We want to be this new and improved identity, yet everyone keeps pulling us back, creating deep tension.

There is another question with changing identity as well: Is it genuine? Is the favorite son in the coat of many colors the genuine Joseph or is Zafnat-Pa’aneiach? As I made my own changes this year, I thought about that a lot, Am I now living a lie?

During the summer, I took an on-line self-improvement course. Many on the forums to this course wondered “Is what I am doing deception or is it genuine?” In our discussion I thought a lot, and gave a parable:

What can this be compared to? To a diamond encrusted in manure. We may only see the manure, but under the manure is a sparkling diamond. What we are doing here is not being the manure but uncovering the diamond so we can be our true selves -- the diamond that always been there.

I would also agree that some people hide behind a new personality, and do construct a living lie, but if we work towards a better, stronger identity, then this new identity is uncovering the best we are. Like the Hasidic Rebbe Zuzya, when we get to the world to come we need to be concerned not about whether we will be asked why we were not like Moses or Abraham, but why we were not like the diamond, were we like our own selves. Finding our own strong Neshama is part of the quest, to remove the shells around the shimmering core that is truly us.

I’m not sure if this is the most coherent Drash I’ve written, but I think it may be one of the most personal in a while. It’s been very hard month thinking about this idea of Identity. Like Joseph, I’ve had some bumps in the road. In the darkness that is the winter solstice while staring at six Hanukkah candles in the very long dark moonless night around us, we have nothing to look at but ourselves. I have been feeling the stress of this change in identity, and the subsequent tension in the transition from whoever I was to the man I want to be and will eventually become. I’ve tried to use Joseph’s story to sort my own views of change. I’m not sure I totally succeeded.

Nonetheless, Hag sameach.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Parshat Vayeshev 5767: The Tribe of Tamar

Genesis 37:1 - 40:23

This week we start the story of Joseph. Joseph, a spoiled brat and tattletale at seventeen, gets the ire of his brothers, who sell him down the Nile into slavery after one too many dreams of superiority over them. But in Egypt, Joseph goes from being a mere slave to running the household of Potiphar the chief executioner. Unfortunately, a case of sexual harassment gets Joseph in trouble. The chief executioner’s wife wants to sleep with Joseph, who refuses. In a turnabout move, Potiphar’s wife frames him for rape, and Joseph is jailed. But even here he ends up running the prison.

Yet in the center of this weeks portion is another story, parallel to the first. Back at home, Judah's son marries a woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, his son Er dies shortly after the marriage for annoying God in some unnamed way. Judah’s 2nd son Onan is obligated to give her children. Onan spills his seed and because of this, god is angered and he dies. Judah promises his last and final son to Tamar when he grows up, but he reneges. So Tamar dresses up as a prostitute, intercepts Judah, who thinking her a prostitute, sleeps with her, and gets her pregnant. When she is found out to be pregnant, Judah, not realizing he is the father, wants her killed for harlotry. But she produces the "collateral" Judah left with her to sleep with her, his seal and staff, and realizes his mistake, stating “she is more righteous than me” [Gen. 38:26].

After last week’s piece I think the question I asked with Dinah is answered by Joseph and Tamar. Bit h are victims in some sense, though one could argue Joseph did make his own situation worse. Both are. Joseph in this portion does indeed find, even as slave in this protion, prosperity. Yet the shorter story of Tamar and Judah provides us with some answers as well.

Tamar’s situation came about thorough her husbands angering God, and dying for the offense. The rabbis maintain that the reason was the same for Er and Onan. Just like Onan spilled his seed, so too did Er, but for different motives. The rabbinic argument occurs in the Tractate of Talmud which deals with Tamar’s issue, that of levirate marriage. We read of levirate marriage

5. If brothers live together, and one of them dies, and has no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry outside to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, and take her to him for a wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. [Deuteronomy 25:5]

While there is a procedure to refuse a levirate marriage, in the first recorded case in Torah, that is not used, and instead we read:

8. And Judah said to Onan, Go in to your brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to your brother. 9. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. 10. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; therefore he slew him also. [Genesis 38]

The tractate on levirate marriage, Yebamot, in discussing in whether a virgin can get pregnant on her fir experience with sex, uses Tamar as an example of one who does, from her Father in law Judah. Yet, it is argued she had two husbands:

But were there not Er and Onan? — Er and Onan indulged in unnatural intercourse…. [The reason for] Onan's [action] may well be understood, because he knew that the seed would not be his; but why did Er act in such a manner? — In order that she might not conceive and thus lose some of her beauty. [Yebamot 34b]

Er, we are told in midrash uses the euphemistic “plowing the roof” [Genesis R. XXXV: 4] to stand for some kind of non-vaginal intercourse. Unlike Dinah, Tamar wanted sex, but she wanted sex for procreation, as is the mitzvah given to all humanity of “be fruitful and multiply”. Neither her first or second husband gave her that, and thus by making her perform non-natural acts, Tamar can be thought of as being a victim of men as much as Dinah.

The difference here is that her victimhood did not stop her from getting what she wanted. She deceives Judah into giving her the children she wants. Note that the text notes that they never have sex again (38:26). This was about getting pregnant, not about sex. Once she got what she wanted that was enough for both of them. Tamar has twin sons, Perez and Zerah. The book of Ruth picks up the story:

18. Now these are the generations of Perez; Perez fathered Hezron, 19. And Hezron fathered Ram, and Ram fathered Amminadab, 20. And Amminadab fathered Nahshon, and Nahshon fathered Salmon, 21. And Salmon fathered Boaz, and Boaz fathered Obed, 22. And Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. [Ruth 4:18-22]

Ten generations later, including Ruth’s levirate marriage to Boaz, King David was born. The text insinuates that Judah’s last son was not going to be given to Tamar, since he did not want her to kill him too. It was up to Tamar to get what she was legally entitled to, and through her prostitute act was King David eventually born.

While I was busy looking for the answer to the halakah of the victim, I never thought to look at the aggadah, the story. The story of Tamar teaches us one answer to the question: while one should do things as legally as possible, don’t give up, and always find a way. Tamar could have gone back to her father as a widow and done many things, from feeling sorry for herself till she died to getting herself another husband far away from Judah and the rest. But she wanted to have the next generation of Judah, and eventually she did. Every step along the way, those around her tried to stop her from this goal. That God removed the stumbling-blocks of Er and Onan from the picture says volumes about How God felt about Tamar’s quest. But so does the stories of her descendants.

David, instead of crying like everyone else got up and killed the undefeatable opponent Goliath, starting his public career. It is not only King David which is directly related to Tamar however. According to Midrash [Numbers Rabbah XIII:4], The leader of the tribe of Judah during the Exodus, Nahshon, a descendant of Perez, also acted in the impossible situation, just like his great-great-great grandmother. We are told he was the first into the Sea, and it really didn’t split until he was almost over his head. He did not cry like the rest, “For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:12) He just went into the drink, and a miracle happened. It was a descendant of the Perez’s twin brother Zerah, Caleb, who as one of the twelve spies who scouted the Land of Israel said very clearly “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30) when almost everyone else was crying “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt”(Numbers 14:2) For that faith, he was only one of two men who started their lives as slaves and crossed the Jordan into Israel. When there was plague that even Aaron and Moses couldn’t stop, it is Pinchas, whose grand-mother was Nahshon’s sister (Exodus 6:23) springing into action when everyone else is weeping (Numbers 25:7). Over and over again, when there are tears but a need for action it is a descendant of Tamar who rises to the call.

In loss there is always sadness. There are many time there is disappointment in our lives, even from those times when we become a victim of someone else. Yet, I believe these stories point to a thread found in Torah, one often associated with the family of Tamar. With a deep belief in Torah and Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, one does not sit and cry, but marches on towards the goals everyone else said is impossible. There might be scary parts, like when Tamar could have been burnt alive for harlotry, but in the end she was the mother not just of twins, but the ancestor of the Messiah. A woman, in a man’s world, ended up on top, indeed her actions were more courageous than those of the father of her children, who was too busy selling his own brother into slavery to care. In many ways what set apart the tribe of Judah from the other tribes is more an attribute of Tamar, than that of Judah.

Like Tamar, Nahshon, Caleb, and David we too can do the impossible, what others do not want us to do, or what they believe should not be ours to do. So the first lesson of Dinah’s question is not to continually cry, but to move forward towards your goal your dream, no matter what, because you might just get it.

And speaking of dreams, next week we will discuss part two of the answer, the dreamer and convicted rapist who becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Vayishlach 5767: The Halakah of the Survivor

Genesis 33:4-36:43

This week Jacob gets ready for this inevitable meeting with Esau, and then has an interesting divine wrestling experience. When Jacob finally meets his brother, he finds out that he and Esau actually can be civil to each other. Dinah is raped and then her rapist asks for her hand in marriage. To avenge the rape, Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi slaughter all the males of the rapist's town as they recover from circumcision. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, and Ruben sleeps with his step mother, Bilhah. Isaac. dies, and is buried by both his sons.

This week, once again it's personal, very personal. Every two years since Shlomo' s Drash started, I explore a particular passage of Torah as my own prayer for healing. This is the year I do again. May it be the will of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu that these words heal those who are silent about this in reading these words, and may I heal in writing them.

We read in this week's portion:

1. And Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. 2. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her. [Genesis 34:1-2]

I think there is no part of Torah more problematic than Chapter 34 of Genesis. I take those lines very personally since they happened to me. I am a survivor both of rape and of partner abuse. Since I started writing this column five years ago, I have tried to understand this portion most of all, and have a very hard time accepting the answers that the ancient sages gave. I looked here for healing and guidance to heal, I found misogyny instead. In the Midrash, we read:

AND DINAH THE DAUGHTER OF LEAH WENT OUT. R. Berekiah said in R. Levi's name: This may be compared to one who was holding a pound of meat in his hand, and as soon as he exposed it a bird swooped down and snatched it away. Similarly, AND DINAH THE DAUGHTER OF LEAH WENT OUT, and forthwith, AND SHECHEM THE SON OF HAMOR SAW HER. R. Samuel b. Nahman said: Her arm became exposed.[Genesis R. LXXX:5]

In short she was asking for it for leaving her home in the first place, for not being obedient to the men in her life. The rabbis go further, using the standard defense clams of rapists for millennia, stating that Dinah actually acted like a whore. What's worse this was a "like mother like daughter" situation; Leah acted like a harlot, and thus so was Dinah. [Genesis R. LXXX: I]

The actions of Dinah's brothers are also not very helpful,essentially committing genocide then pillaging the defeated city to avenge the rape of their sister, to the claim "should we let our sister be treated like a whore?" (Genesis 31 :34) If I was writing a Targum I'd add to the end of that, "and not get to be her pimps?"

Even after Sinai, the issue of rape is problematic: the Mitzvot related to it are found in Deuteronomy and Exodus:

28. If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and lays hold of her, and lies with her, and they are found; 29. Then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he has humbled her, he may not put her away all his days. [Deut. 22]
15. And if a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall pay the bride's dowry, and make her his wife. 16. If her father refuses absolutely to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins. [Ex. 22]

There is fine for rape of an unmarried virgin, and a penalty of marriage with no possibility of divorce. As one female friend of mine put it "who's more punished by that?" Yes, what kind of life is living with your rapist for the rest of your life? The Talmud, however, does deal with situation, and gives the victim the ability to refuse to marry him or to divorce him later. Indeed Tractate Ketubot spends a whole chapter discussing the legal ramifications of seduction, rape and incest. And while the Talmud adds the concept of compensatory damages for pain and distress, in this section that is all it does: it give the penalties, in monetary and legal terms, for such behavior.

Beyond this, there is nothing -- and that is my problem. In the entire Tanach, Dinah is an active character for Genesis 34:1, and no other verse. Torah and virtually all rabbinic texts treat Dinah, and by extension all victims of rape, as an object after this. Often these texts, as I've said, blame the victim for the problem in the first place. While in the case of a betrothed maiden is clear this is rape, when a married woman is raped it is not clear if it is considered rape or considered adultery and her fault. Monetary compensation might help in some ways particularly in child support for an unwanted child; no amount of money can remove the wound to the soul. It is this that I most want to heal. While we have ritual for just about everything else, it is completely absent in our tradition to have a ritual for healing for the victim of sexual assault.

I was reminded of the difficulty of healing this soul-wound last week. Two weeks ago, I was set to write about how much I have healed in the five years since I first wrote about my time with that ex girlfriend. I had come out of my shell, had been able to talk to many people, including women I found attractive, and even try to date halfway decently. As I am so afraid of touch, I was unable to dance without paralyzing fear for years. I've spent most of the last two decades avoiding dance like the plague, indeed I'd rather have the plague than get on a dance floor. Yet this year I danced at a wedding, and had a wonderful time being so free from the demons dwelling in that soul wound.

Then came last week, and I was triggered, and nineteen years of healing disappeared in an instant. It was someone who had an abusive attitude to everyone, very much like my ex-girlfriend's attitude's to me. Not knowing what I was doing I was incredibly defensive and angry; I almost blew up on rage. I spent last Shabbat contemplating what happened, and realized that I had not healed, indeed I have backslid immensely. I fell for the exact abuse I fell for nineteen years ago hook, line and sinker, I was running on an automatic, unable to control actions I should know better than to do.

A total unforeseen event coming from a totally invisible mistake has triggered me once again. For most crises I turn to Torah for guidance and for the last week the hollow echo of monetary compensation and "she asked for it" is all I hear. The Torah is empty, and I am totally alone, with the world too busy enabling and placating the abuser to care about my pain. I feel all I can do is curl up and cry.

We have no halakah or ritual for the victim to heal the scars and wounds that won't heal. No matter how hard we try, there is always something that will open them again, and once again we are descended into a Hell we did not ask for or deserve. There is a rabbinic tradition that such was true of Dinah: she married Job, and she never healed, willing to curse God for the bad things in life (Job 2:9). While the book of Job goes into the question of why bad things happen to good people, there is not even in Job an answer of how to overcome the trauma, except to suffer. King Solomon says it best That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. [Ecc1. 1:15] Therefore, since there is no healing, only suffering, many of us who cannot heal turn to destructive behaviors. For some that is addictive behaviors, for others it is shutting down and isolating themselves from everything, as I had for nearly three decades, and as I might once again following this incident. For others it is transmitting the disease to others, becoming the abusers and thus perpetuating the cycle, often violently. In seeing the anger I released last week, it is this last that I fear and guard against the most.

The chill running through me today has nothing to do with the weather. It is pain that still exists after decades of pain. It is a pain I thought that had healed, but I'm coming to the realization it never will, I will struggle with these events for the rest of my life, and have these soul wounds. In our portion Jacob struggled with the angel once, and was left with one wound, I will struggle with the demon till the day of my death, and be wounded every day. While many ask concerning many tragic events from Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or The Shoah "Why did God let this happen?" for me, and probably many with post-traumatic stress syndrome from such diasters, from war or from rape and abuse, the question remains "God, How do I heal from this?"

The answering silence is deafening.

I wrote this, as I have for two times before to express what many who cannot speak want to say. I do this as my answer to healing, to tell the story, to know it is there and not let it bottle up inside. My anger was there because there was no other way to express my remembered pain in the situation. It overwhelmed me, and I was not able to handle the situation as I should have rationally. Telling the story releases the anger, the pain, and hopefully for all who tell their stories lessens or removes the destructive behaviors to our selves and to those around us. However such stories are not without risk. There are many who will denigrate people who are brave enough to tell such stories, and I did take that risk here. Far better would to find an answer within our tradition, a ritual and prayer to help lessen the pain and promote the healing of the soul without such risk, and only the healing and comfort of one’s community

That answer is mostly silent, but after writing the first draft of this, I found a quote which did talk of healing from such things, from Reb Nachman of Breslov.

If you believe that you can damage,
Then believe you can fix.
If you believe that you can harm,
Then believe that you can heal. [LM 11:112]

For those of us who understand the pain, our healing is to heal others. From such advice may God bless us and let the healing begin.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Vayetze 5767: Beauty and the Sheep

Parshat Vayetze 5767 Genesis 28:10-32:3

This week we begin Jacob’s journey to Padan Aram and his adventures there. After a divine encounter with a ladder, he meets his beautiful cousin Rachel, and instantly falls for her. In exchange for Rachel's hand in marriage, Jacob promises seven years of work for her father Laban. But he is deceived; he ends up marrying her older sister Leah instead. He does marry Rachel, but in exchange for another seven years of work. And then he's tricked into more work. With a real good grasp of genetics, Jacob grows rich in spite of Laban’s treachery and eventually sneaks away from him. His now rather large family of two concubines, two wives, soon-to-be thirteen children and lots of livestock goes with him. But as he starts home he realizes something: he will have to eventually confront Esau once again.

In one of the stranger stories in the Tanach, we have a record of ancient breeding practices. When Joseph is born, Jacob decides its time to go home. But Laban protests, knowing that his own wealth is because of Jacob. Jacob agrees to stay on for a while longer, but asks for his wages in a unique manner. The text reads:

32. I will pass through all your flock today, removing from there all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and of such shall be my hire.33. So shall my righteousness answer for me in time to come, when you come to look into my wages with you; every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the sheep, that shall be counted stolen with me. [Genesis 30:32-33]

Laban then gets all the purely white sheep, and all the solidly colored goats. Jacob gets all the others. Laban, in short gets the “perfect animals” Jacob gets the less than perfect, the flawed animals - or so it must seem to Laban. Yet as we learn Jacobs’s manipulations: Jacob using some strange white striped rods, induces conception in the animals at the drinking trough, and they produce speckled striped and spotted ones.

41. And it came to pass, whenever the stronger cattle conceived, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods.42. But when the cattle were weak, he did not put them in; so the weaker were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s.[Genesis 30:41-42]

He separates this lot and continues to have the animals conceive. When the animals are solid, he continues to breed only the weak animals of the solid animals since these are Laban's, creating a small weak flock. The hearty among his speckled flock, however, he continues to breed, making them even heartier. Eventually he has a large number of sheep and goats and the wealth to have other conveniences such as servants and camels.

Jacob thought of value not by appearance but by strength, and bred the imperfect looking animals for strength and vitality, while Laban’s perfect looking animals were bred for weakness. Rods which are easily visible by sheep and goats will entice them to scratch their heads on it as I found out once while using a monopod to photograph in a petting zoo. Anywhere I set up my subjects would duck under the camera to scratch their heads on the post holding up my camera. Rods might just keep the female sheep and goats docile enough that the males would come along and copulate with them. What let Jacob to pull the Darwinian wool, so to speak, over Laban’s eyes was Laban’s belief that a good sheep was a perfect skin. Their vitality, and thus their ability to reproduce, was not an issue for him -only their looks.

Of course, the Irony of this plan is who is doing such a plot. We read earlier in this portion:

16. And Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17. Leah had weak eyes; but Rachel was beautiful and well favored. 18. And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.

This is the same man who went gaga for the pretty yet rather barren woman Rachel instead of the incredibly fertile Leah. Jacob was guilty of the same thing he’s pulling on Laban, but apparently he’s learned his lesson. But then again how guilty are we of the same thing as Laban? According to any source I know of, more people choose who to talk to people with pictures posted on online dating than only their description. If you don’t have a picture, you might not have a chance of getting any responses, a bad picture gets less responses than a good picture.

We are told that Leah had weak eyes, whatever that means. In the Targum pseudo-Jonathan they were Ziran eyes from pleading with God that she would not have to marry Isaac’s first born, Esau. As far as the priesthood is concerned, such eyes would disqualify one from making sacrifices. Indeed the things that are listed along with this are rather interesting:

ZIRAN. It has been taught: One whose eyes are bleared and granulated; weeping, dripping and running. A Tanna taught: Zewir, lufyon, and tamir are blemishes. Zewir is one whose eyes are unsteady [mezawar]. Lufyon is one having thick and connected eyebrows, and tamir is one whose eyebrows are gone. [Behorot 44a]

Rashi comments that Ziran means they pivot back and forth, they were shifty eyes. Rashi implies that she never made eye contact for long. The rabbis on using a whole series of defects around the eyes are emphasizing something here: our appearance matters, especially the eyes.

And thus we get the paradox of this week’s portion. On one hand Jacob learns that it is not outward appearances that indicate strength and quality, which he first learns with the proclivity of his wives. In the same chapter describing such proclivity, He then demonstrates the same thing by conning Laban out of all of his sheep, basing everything on appearance. Yet at the same time, appearance is all too often used, even by the Torah, and Talmud for determining who is capable of giving sacrifices and blessings. We can see this paradox in the statement of Etcs of rivals it Hillel and Shammai in the Perkei Avot:

He [Hillel also] used to say: if I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am for my own self [only], what am I, and if not now, when? Shammai used to say: make your [study of the] Torah [a matter of] established [regularity]; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance. [Avot 1]

The more lienent Hillel advocates inner work, and Shammai the outside appearances. Both are right, but how?

In a world with thousands of interactions every day, we do not have the time to get to know someone well before we make a judgment. Indeed it would be waste of time, and in some ways painful, to know someone well and then judge them. Instead we make up our mind whether we want to pursue such an exchange within 30 seconds of meeting someone and decide how legitimate they are. And with the first few seconds, based in their dress grooming and posture, we decide whether we will pursue that conversation or not.

It of course has quirks and problems. The biggest is to believe that the appearance is the only thing, like Laban, who could not see that quality extended beneath the skin. All too often we look at the “Beautiful people” because of their dress or appearance. Magazines are full of the stuff, but never really getting under the skin to the quality of the person underneath -- even “in depth interviews” are superficial and scripted. Rachel may have been such a person, her stealing of the household gods seem to point that although she is good looking she does not accept the God of her husband. And if number of children is any measure, she want strong either, having only two and dying in childbirth on the second, unlike Leah who has seven children.

The other problem is the issue that was true of Leah and her weak eyes. In the case of any of the eye conditions mentioned above, as eyes are a window to the soul, they would portray a negative image as the window is distorted or closed, and that makes people uncomfortable. To look into Leah’s eyes’ or for her to look into Jacob’s was difficult, and thus they never connected. But many things such as a unibrow can be shaved, a habit of not looking someone in the eye can be corrected through practice, and we can connect even when we thought we might not be able to

Even though we should never be superficial, our appearance dictates our interactions with others. Dress, grooming, our posture, eyes and mouth all tell volumes about us instantly. For a person in a leadership position, such as a priest, there is a need to build confidence fast, and this is the reason for the restrictive rules about priests and the people with defects.

I believe there are many people with or without physical defects who sabotage themselves in their quest for connection by looking like they want to look and not like they want to connect- including me for quite a while. Like the sheep, they insist the inside does count, but they are unaware that like Leah and Rachel, it’s that first impression which makes people trust you enough to connect. Yet I also believe the things that had the most impact, eye contact, grooming dress, and smiles are all controllable by us. No matter what other defects we have, fat, thin, ugly or gorgeous, it is those things we can change, and often easily which makes us attractive or unattractive. And there is always one inexpensive and powerful one which we can all add to make ourselves attractive. Remember you are never dressed without an honest smile. It was Shammai who said to greet everyone with a pleasant countenance, literally with a beautiful shining face. I think he meant a smile.

Sage advice from a sage.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Toldot 5767: Found in Translation

Genesis 25:19-28:9

This week Isaac and Rebecca are still childless. After some praying, Rebekah gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb, and so God tells Rebekah about her two sons. After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of stew. The family then has to move into Philistine territory for a while, though they are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebekah. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries someone who his parents don’t particularly like. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, and that he should prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebekah helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebekah then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.

After the destruction of the first temple the Jews were forced to move to Babylon. Upon their return about a quarter century later, many of the people had only the language skills of their adopted home, and could not speak or read Hebrew, but instead Aramaic. In Nehemiah 8, we read of the first Rosh Hashanah service after their return to Israel. In this story is the framework for the ritual for the Torah service to this day. Interestingly verse 8:8 reads

8. So they read in the book in the Torah of God clearly, and gave the interpretation, so that they understood the reading.

Here however, gave the interpretation does not mean to interpret however. As the Talmud explains:

R. Ika said in the name of R. Hananel who had it from Rab: What is meant by the text, And they read in the book, in the law of God, with an interpretation. and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading? ‘And they read in the book, in the law of God’: this indicates the [Hebrew] text; ‘with an interpretation’: this indicates the translation, ‘and they gave the sense’: this indicates the verse stops; ‘and caused them to understand the reading’: this indicates the accentuation, or, according to another version, the massoretic notes. [Megilah 3a]

The word that these later rabbis, who also spoke Aramaic, use for the word translation is the Aramaic word Targum. From the time of the early Rabbis on, we call any Aramaic translation of the biblical text a targum (plural targumim). From the time of the return from Babylon until the rise of Islam when there was a revival of Hebrew, Aramaic would be the second language of the Jews, and often the first and only of the common person. Indeed, the Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, though with Hebrew quotes from the Tanach, Mishnah and other earlier rabbinic writings woven though the text. Today we still have remnants of this language in our liturgy, most notably the Kaddish and much of the Passover Haggadah.

But there were scholars who compiled written targumim, some of which have come down to us today. The de facto Targum of Torah is the Targum of Onkelos the Proselyte, who according to the Talmud was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus. [Gittin 57a] There is a story about Onkelos that after his conversion, the Emperor wanted to arrest him, but every time soldiers came to arrest him, in his enthusiasm and wisdom of his adopted religion he converted the soldiers instead until the Emperor gave up. [Meg. 3a] Onkelos, under the editorial guidance of the sages, wrote a rather literal Aramaic translation of the text.

Another Targum is attributed to Jonathan b. Uzziel. The Talmud mentions him as one of the eighty students of Hillel the Elder, and the best of these students who are known collectively as Beit Hillel. Supposedly when he studied Torah his intensity and understanding into its mystical meaning was so intense birds flying over him burned. [Baba Batra 134a, Sukkah 28a] He is attributed with the Targumim of the prophets, which apparently got God angry at him for spilling a lot of secrets hidden in the prophetic literature. Jonathan was going to write more targumim for the Writings, but was ordered not to by a divine voice so as not to give away the date of the Messiah’s arrival [Megilah 3a]. Others much later did eventually wrote such targumim, yet they are often attributed to Jonathan. Others, also attributing to Jonathan, wrote targumim to the Torah, but since we know through language clues that it was written centuries later, it is known as Pseudo Jonathan (Ps-J).

There were other targumim coming out of Israel, know as Jerusalem Targumim, but most are nothing more than small fragments of a complete text. In 1949 however Alejandro Diez-Macho discovered a copy of a Targum in the Vatican library which was marked Onkelos, but through examination, concluded by 1956 this was a new and complete Jerusalem Targum of the Torah. Named for the shelf it was found on, Neofiti I (N1), Targum Neofiti has been the subject of scholarly inquiry for half a century.

What all this means to the modern interpreter of Torah is we have two tools to help us try to understand the text. First for those who know Hebrew, we have a witness to the biblical text that can help in translation. Since we have a larger and more robust vocabulary for Aramaic than Biblical Hebrew, we can use the translation in Aramaic to help us translate the Hebrew. Given the near-completion of The Aramaic Bible Project, a complete English translation of all the major targumim, the other feature is now accessible to English speakers. At times targumim not only give translation, but instead add to the text to make the meaning clearer. Such additions can help us get more perspectives on the text.

Let’s use this week’s portion as an example of this perspective. Genesis 27 is for example the story of Jacob, under instruction of Rebecca, tricking his father into getting the blessing instead of Esau. In the Torah, Isaac first instructs Esau:

3. Now therefore take, I beg you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow and go out to the field, and catch me some venison; 4. And make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die. [Gen. 27:3]

While Ps-J and N1 do not change the phrase your weapons, your quiver and your bow Onkelos does.

3. So now take, then, your weapons, your sword, and your bow; and go out to the field and hunt me some game. 4. The prepare for me stewed dishes such as I like and bring it in to me so that I may eat, in order that my soul may bless you before I die

Onkelos changes the text from quiver to sword. When such things happen we can now ask ourselves why was this change was necessary, and in doing so gain the perspective of Onkelos. For those who read last year’s Shlomo’s Drash Toldot, Onkelos had the exact problem I had. The sages believed that the Patriarchs followed all of the mitzvot and halakah even before Sinai. But this leads to some odd inconsistencies. While venison is kosher, killing it with bows and arrows makes it treif. However, if Esau had a sword or knife, he could live catch the deer, and then perform proper ritual slaughter with the sword.

On the same principle, Onkelos may have changed savory dishes to stewed dishes. Savory items might have been eaten raw, stewed ones definitely could not. Thus to assure that Isaac was eating a properly cooked meal according to Kashrut, Onkelos changes the text.

We then read in Torah:

5. And Rebekah heard when Isaac spoke to Esau his son.

Yet, Pseudo Jonathan makes an interesting addition:

5. And Rebekah heard through the Holy Spirit while Isaac spoke with Esau his son.

While Neofiti 1 specifically states Rebekah heard the voice of Isaac, and Onkelos had the same as the literal Hebrew text, Pseudo Jonathan adds that she learned through prophecy. Again we need to ask why the need for the addition, or alternatively, what was the gap that needed filling. One possibility was to assure the reader Rebecca was not spying, but getting this information through divine channels because God wanted Jacob and not Esau to get the blessing. Rebekah using prophecy is also attested in verse 8:13 of Onkelos, where she assured her son that prophecy has told her no curses will come upon him, instead of the literal Upon me be your curse, my son;

Many of these additions found in the corpus of targumim are attested elsewhere in various midrash. Some however are not and are only found in the Targumim. Yet the targumim, unlike midrash, give us all these additions and commentaries in context of the story, and thus have a lot more meaning while trying to figure out what is going on. As I write this column, I often start with the targumim, and begin by asking the question of why did the Targum said that, and what was the gap they were filling. I go further and determine what the agenda was of this translator, and how their answers to those questions affect me as a contemporary Jew. How would I, in their situation answer the same question that compelled them to write that addition? From there I might find sources which reflect that view or even in some cases contradict it.

Targumim make a great springboard for engaging the text. By asking the right questions, we can begin to ask questions of the text we might not have though of, or gain perspectives that we otherwise would not have seen. It may be a mere word, or a whole story inserted into the text. It is not a separate commentary but woven into the text, as though part of the story. The three targumim might agree, or give entirely different answers. But with these three, new perspectives into the Torah can be found.

So after you talk turkey this week, you can also talk Targum.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Haye Sara 5767 Camels and pickup lines

Genesis 23:1-25:18

I had a really hard week this week, And didn’t have time(or energy) to write anything this week. So I’m re-posting last years drash instead.-Shlomo

This week’s portion named the Life of Sarah, ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife, and then tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, not having a clue what to do decides the best thing to do is pray and to ask for a sign from God. Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, he meets Rebecca, and eventually brings her back to Isaac where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebecca get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, which both of his sons bury jointly, everybody's one happy family until the twins show up next week.

This week also marks the first shidduch, the first time a matchmaker makes a match. Eliezer however doesn't seem to take his job seriously as he uses a rather odd prayer to determine who will be Isaac’s wife:

12. And he said, O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; 14. And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master.

The rabbis are rather shocked by all this:

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: Three [men] made haphazard requests, two of them were fortunate in the reply they received and one was not, namely, Eliezer, the servant of Abraham; Saul, the son of Kish; and Jephthah the Gileadite. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, as it is written, So let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, ‘Let down thy pitcher etc.’ She might have been lame or blind, but he was fortunate in the answer given to him in that Rebecca chanced to meet him. Saul, the son of Kish, as it is written, And it shall be, that the man who kills him (i.e. Goliath), the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter. [He] might have been a slave or a bastard. He too was fortunate in that it chanced to be David. Jephthah, the Gileadite, as it is written, Then it shall be, that whatsoever comes forth out of the doors of my house etc. It might have been an unclean thing. He, however, was unfortunate in that it so happened that his own daughter came to meet him. (B Taanit 7b, cf. Gen R. 51:3)

Was Eliezer careless? There is midrash that Eliezer, a Canaanite servant, wanted to get out of his oath so Isaac would marry his daughter. (Gen R. 49:9) this could be a scheme to do just that - find an impossible or absurd thing that would get him out from his oath. Others think the carelessness is like the case of Jephthah. In Jephthah’s case, he said he would sacrifice whatever come out of his door if he won the war (judges 11:30-31)– and so the first one out of the door was his daughter(11:34), who was subsequently sacrificed (11:39), Ironically, Jephthah’s daughter gets the fate Isaac got a reprieve from. Unlike Jephthah however, God was being nice in the case of Isaac’s bride-to-be.

There is another text about Eliezer that I find an interesting as well:

Rab himself has said: An omen which is not after the form pronounced by Eliezer, Abraham's servant, or by Jonathan the son of Saul, is not considered a divination! (Hullin 95b)

Here he is the ultimate example of the incorrect omen. Divination is of course forbidden by Torah. (Lev 19:26) However, the rabbis did restrict the meaning to allow for some forms of divination. Eliezer, however, prayed for a specific sign. In the rabbinic mind Eliezer was telling God what to do, which is the mark of pagan divination and magic. Once again Eliezer is disparaged by the rabbis for the way he handled this. But Eliezer might have been much more intelligent than that. We have to remember his boss' attitude to things. When recovering from his circumcision Abraham goes running out into the wilderness to some folks he sees on the horizon, asks them to stop for a little bit to eat and proceed to wine and dine them with a full scale banquet.

It is here that we must remember that in the world today we forget how close to the narrative the people who heard it were. They understand the world of the desert and its inhabitants. They would understand the meaning of things differently than we do. Most people know the dromedary camel is quite remarkable beast, but maybe not how remarkable. It can survive without drinking for months. When given the chance however, it can drink almost a third of is bodyweight, about 30 gallons of water, in less than 10 minutes. Eliezer had ten camels with him, thus to water the camels would require 300 gallons of the precious liquid, about five gallons at a time. This would be quite a task for Rebecca, but one not only did she did accomplish but excced by pouring all of that water for the camels (Gen 24:19-22)

19. And when she had finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking 20. And she hurried, and emptied her water jar into the trough, and ran back to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels. 21. And the man wondering at her held his peace, to see whether the Lord had made his journey successful or not. 22. And it came to pass, as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a golden ear ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold;

Had Eliezer as a Palestinian working for an Israeli citizen driven up in a caravan of ten Humvees to somewhere in northern Iraq how likely is it that there would be some Iraqi girl who would come up to him and offer to fill up all ten Hummers by hand? But this is close to what Eliezer is asking for. But then again, he’s got, from his point of view, a crazy boss who believes in a god no one else does, not even Eliezer. He does not pray “Oh Lord my God” but instead “O Lord God of my master Abraham.” His prayer then uses a Pagan formula to determine a sign if he had found the correct woman. But the biggest craziness of his boss Abraham is his obsessive hospitality. As crazy as Abraham is to Eliezer, He also probably found it hard to believe that Sarah actually went along with all that without a complaint. Not only that, when she knew they were coming she baked not one cake, but many. Her holiness in hospitality was there when she eavesdropped in conversation, hoping to know what next to bring to the guests.

What Eliezer might have realized is he needs to find a replacement for the Matriarch Sarah. Yes, Isaac would marry this woman, in accordance with Genesis 2:24 “thus a son leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife” But for Isaac that would require the same virtues of his mother in his wife. While God is totally silent in this portion, God’s favorite Shabbos pastime isn’t. One of my favorite stories from Midrash is this one from Genesis Rabbah (58:4):

A [Roman] matron asked R. Jose: ' In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?’ ' In six days,’ he answered. ' Then what has He been doing since then?’ ‘He sits and makes matches,’ he answered, ‘assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.’ ‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ' I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ (Straightway she summoned R. Jose b. Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’) Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’

God loves to make matches, even if they are a major miracle. Nonetheless we read in Genesis 24:15 of Eliezer’s prayer:

15. And it came to pass, before he had finished speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out, who was born to Bethuel, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her water jar upon her shoulder.

And so Eliezer finds Rebecca, whether he wants to or not. He is so astounded that the prayer actually worked, he tells Rebecca’s brother Laban the whole story all over again. Rebecca does return with Eliezer to his masters, Isaac and Rebecca fall in love at first sight, and everyone is happy. It is here that the Midrash throws some light that Rebecca primarily is Sarah’s replacement as Matriarch.

AND ISAAC BROUGHT HER INTO HIS MOTHER SARAH’S TENT (XXIV, 67). You find that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud hung over her tent; when she died, that cloud disappeared; but when Rebecca came, it returned. As long as Sarah lived, her doors were wide open; at her death that liberality ceased; but when Rebecca came, that openhandedness returned. As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough, and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Sabbath until the evening of the following Sabbath; when she died, these ceased, but when Rebecca came, they returned.

Important to this midrash is the idea of the cloud. As we read in Exodus 40:34-35

34. Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35. And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

It is the Matriarch Sarah and not Abraham which brought down the Glory of the Lord to the tent. Without a Matriarch, the Shechinah was not present in the tent. It was the Matriarch’s hospitality to strangers, holiness in food preparation and Shabbat observance that were critical. Rebecca repeatedly proved she did have the merit of hospitality, the primary merit of the Matriarch, in front of Eliezer.

Eliezer may have been far shrewder than the rabbis thought. Then again, he may have been shrewder than he himself thought. Either way, if “let me water your camels” was a way for him to try to activate the escape clause in his oath, or a way of identifying the merit of a Matriarch to be, it did find Rebecca. But we cannot forget it was with the help of the very conspicuously missing voice from our Chapter: the divine matchmaker. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu may be missing because the Matriarch is missing. The key to the game was not to find a wife for Isaac, but to bring a Matriarch back to the camp of his master, one who would bring the Shechinah back on her merit. Unlike such lines as “What’s your sign?” “Let me water your camels” may be the greatest pickup line ever, for instead of trying to try to care for the craving of the Self as most pickup lines, it shows the extreme selflessness and caring for others, the ultimate attribute of the next mother of the Jewish people.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Shlomo’s Drash - Vayera 5767 Sodom and Disney

Genesis 18:1-22:4

This week we continue the story of Abraham. Abraham is sitting in the heat of the day in his tent. While being visited by God, he sees some strangers, and runs out to them to show hospitality. After a big meal, they tell him that he and Sarah will have a son within a year, which makes Sarah laugh. When these strangers start back on their way to Sodom, they tell Abraham that they are to destroy Sodom and the other cities of the plain. Abraham has a debate with God if this is a good idea and even bargains down what it will take to save the city. We then cut to Sodom and two angels and their experiences in the town of Sodom, who decide the only one worth saving is Abraham's nephew Lot and his family, who escape, but not without casualties. Abraham then moves into the land of the Philistines, and once again uses the "sister" excuse describing his relationship with Sarah. After this adventure, Sarah conceives and has a son, Isaac, which causes more sibling and maternal rivalry with Hagar and Ishmael. The last major story in this section is, of course, God telling Abraham to go to a mountain and to sacrifice Isaac.

In the middle of the story we have the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But the story has an interesting twist, in giving us a glimpse at the attitudes of the people of Sodom.

4. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, from boys to old men, all the people from every quarter; 5. And they called to Lot, and said to him, Where are the men who came in to you this night? Bring them out to us, that we may know them. 6. And Lot went out the door to them, and closed the door after him,7. And said, I beg you, my brothers, do not do so wickedly. 8. Behold now, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me, I beg you, bring them out to you, and do to them as is good in your eyes; only to these men do nothing; seeing that they have come under the shadow of my roof. 9. And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he wants to be a judge; now will we deal worse with you than with them. And they pressed hard upon the man, Lot, and came near to break the door. 10. But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and closed the door. 11. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great; so that they wearied themselves to find the door.

It is from this passage that some have interpreted any form of homosexuality as Sodomy. Yet in a good reading of it the issue is the lack of hospitality. It is clear given Lot’s pleas that sexual contact is involved, and he knows they are up to bad things. We also have plenty of evidence that “to Know” is a word for sexuality in Hebrew. Targum Pseudo Jonathan changes the word to the Aramaic N’shameish, a far more explicit name for sex, one which implies subservience of the one receiving sex. In Sodom everyone is involved in sex, and tellingly even young boys want to have sex with the strangers. This is a culture of rape and child abuse so ingrained that all from the youngest age find sex something to subject others to. In reality, Sodomy is not homosexuality, but something truly abhorrent -- rape and abuse as a form of power. The people of Sodom want to use the guests for their own purposes with out any consideration of their needs, with guests subservient to the pleasures of their hosts.

We can compare the Response of the People of Sodom to the presence of strangers to the response of two others. The first of course is Lot himself who urges that the two strangers don’t spend the night in the village square, and then offers them food and lodging. The second is Abraham, who, recovering from his circumcision, runs out of his tent to actually intercept strangers to be his guest, and turns a “small morsel” into a full nine-course meal. The difference is pretty clear -- the host met the needs of the guests first, and in both cases, the Guests end up doing something for the hosts.

Last week, I was in what was billed as “The Happiest Place on Earth” on vacation. I got a lot of well deserved rest, and feel very refreshed coming back to a mountain of things I have to do in the real world. It was the week for my annual pilgrimage to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida. Waiting 30 minutes in line for Thunder Mountain I reflected on this place and wondered about many things. Checking the numbers later, they tend to be big: there are over 25,000 guest rooms and over 57,000 cast members at the Orlando property alone, making it the biggest single site employer in the United States. A bus driver told me they had a fleet of 400 buses with 1000 bus drivers. Disney resorts worldwide had revenues of 9 billion dollars for 2005. Looking at such numbers, one has to wonder why the world would spend so much money on such a place.

Of course, the talking candelabra from Beauty and the Beast, Lumiere, has the answer; “Be our guest!” Indeed Disney customer service is the reason I and a lot of other people, keep going back to do the same vacation time and time again. They know they are going to be treated well. As a single traveler, Disney is the only destination I have ever gone where I never felt like a pariah, ignored by servers and staff. Even in my home town, I have had that experience. But never, ever Disney. So every year, when I want to get away by myself and relax, I go to Orlando, knowing I will get treated as royally as Prince Charming.

Anybody can give you food, anybody can give you shelter. It’s how they give the service that makes a difference, that produces a wow! The rabbis note that Lot is not as credited with hospitality as much as Abraham is. Abraham and Sarah took time to make a whole feast, including bread and cake from the best flour, butter, meat etc. Lot served Matzah. But Abraham did not just make it, but made it all in front of his guests as a show, as a story. Lot never mentions cooking, and thus probably took a stale box of Matzah out of the cupboard. I think Abraham’s actions point to one more thing that makes hospitality work, and makes it holy and special. It is to tell a story.

In Disney, story is everywhere. I once took a course on Disney Imagineering, taught on property with plenty of backstage access. Before anything in a guest area is built, a story is written first. For example, for a new attraction at Animal Kingdom, a story was written about an express route train to the Base of Mount Everest where you can begin a trek up the mountain. However, this goes through the range of the protector of the mountain the Yeti, who may not be happy to see trespassers. When you get on the ride you find out how unhappy - the Yeti has torn up the tracks and throws you back and forth in your train car across the mountain range, through dark tunnels and down the steep ridge of a mountain, all the while roaring at you and taking swipes at you.

Had I said that they put in a rollercoaster in Animal Kingdom, that statement would not have gotten the same reaction as the Story of Expedition Everest. In my attempt to get over my fear of roller coasters, I did actually ride this one. It was not until I got on line did I find out that it was one of the most intense rides in the park, something I figured out while partially panicking in my first corkscrew (in the dark no less) on a roller coaster. But the ride started far before I got on line. The story of the ride started when I took a fork in the path from the Thai temples of Kali river rapids and the buildings around me were now disguised as climbers supply stores. The story followed in the dress of the cast members, the train station we lined up in to get into our railroad cars and the sacred shrines to the Yeti, complete with offerings. It continues as our cars climbed up the mountain, through a temple dedicated to the Yeti. The story was not just one robotic abominable snowman - it was everywhere. This is what separates Disney from a mere amusement park.

One other part of hospitality, I believe, is story. Abraham created story with his food preparation while his guests rested. This is the story found today in many a display kitchen, where you can watch the cooks make your food, a Mongolian barbecue or ultimately a teppanaki grill, where the grill itself is your table. The fun and story is watching the cook make your food. I stayed at the Budget-rate Pop Century resort on property. As I could tell from the abandoned second half of the project, this really was nothing more than a motel room at any generic rest stop in America. Yet Disney’s story at Pop Century resort was the popular culture of 1950-1990. Staying in my seventies-themed hotel room with a three story Big Wheel and Mickey Mouse phone in front of the elevators, the wallpaper with disco themes, to the 1990’s pool shaped like a laptop the ordinary became extraordinary because there is a story behind it. So too with people, the generic become extraordinary when we exchange story. Abraham turned a small morsel into a show reminiscent of Lumiere and Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, a story of what he was willing to give. The people of Sodom however, merely demanded something from their guests without offering anything first.

When we initiate any relationship, I believe, we must offer story. If we take on a host/guest relationship, it is not enough to offer food alone, but we must offer part of ourselves as a host, by initiating the stories. It may be the actual telling of a story, or it may be, Like Abraham and Sarah, a culinary feat. It may be a story directly about us, or a story reflecting us. Chapter 3 in Perkei Avot repeatedly notes that when people sit at a table, they should talk words of Torah, to tell the story. To not do so makes them scorners or as if they vomit on a table. To tell the story of Torah makes it as if the Shechinah sits with them at God’s table. To discuss Torah not only discusses the biblical text, but tells our story of how we see the layers of text. That makes for a much more enjoyable, and holy, meal as we sit face to face with another face of God.

We all tell our stories in many ways, but as we get into a season of parties, family get-togethers and conversations, it’s important to once again remember the idea of telling our stories, however we tell them. I have this drash of course. As I once remarked to someone who was telling me that I was giving away too much personal information, I do that in part to encourage others to tell their stories more, and to find their stories in the biblical text. I also use other stories, visual ones like my painting and drawing, one that even the most hard core cast members got excited about when given one of my drawings of Mickey Mouse or Goofy. Everything goes better with story.

We have a choice in how we treat guests. We can, like Sodom, rape and pillage them, being self centered and only taking, or we can give of our shelter, our food and of our heart in story. The first lasts for a moment, like Sodom, which stopped existing the next morning. The second may build relationships that last forever, with children as numerous as the stars, like Isaac and the Jewish people, who live on till today.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Putting my money where my mouth is....

As Shammai once said "speak little and do much". I know with a lot of busy schedules, and a bit of reluctance to go to a Hebrew class its hard to take a Hebrew Course. With that in mind I started a Hebrew course a few years ago, and have decided to get it going live again. This time however there will be downloadable audio files of my instruction to help you learn Hebrew by learning the prayers themselves.

I posted lesson 1 today. Lessons 2-6 have the print version done, but not audio, which will be coming soon. You an access the lessons at click the lesson name for the adobe acrobat print copy of the lesson and click the "audio" link for the audio. See directions on the page for how to download the audio.

I hope you all take up the challenge and learn some Hebrew this year.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lech Lecha 5766 Avram Ha Ivri

Gen 12:1-17:27

This week we begin the story of Abraham. While Abram's early life begins at the end of Parshat Noah, it is here that he is told to Lech Lecha, to leave everything behind and go to a new place with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot in tow. When he gets there he finds a famine, and so he ends up in Egypt, tells his wife Sarai to tell everyone that he is her sister, and ends up very rich from the fallout of that fib. From there, he returns to Canaan, gets into water rights battles with his nephew, who moves towards Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot is captured and taken hostage in a battle between local principalities, and in order to rescue him allies himself with Sodom and Gomorrah, and in a guerilla raid, beats the crap out of Lot's captors, saves Lot and the women of Sodom. Abram makes a strange sacrifice of animals and is told of the future of his progeny. Sarai who has not borne children then tells Abram to have a child by Hagar her Egyptian maidservant. This child Ishmael causes some contention between Hagar and Sarai. Finally God tells Abram that he will have a physical sign of their covenant through circumcision, and he will have a son from his wife Sara. Abram's name is changed to Abraham, and Sarai's to Sarah. We end with Abraham, at age 99 and Ishmael at 13 and the rest of the males of his household getting circumcised.

In the middle of all this Abram performs a Ramboesque hostage rescue of his nephew Lot.

12. And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed. 13. And there came one who had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he lived in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; and these were confederate with Abram. 14. And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them to Dan. 15. And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and defeated them, and pursued them to Hobah, which is on the left side of Damascus. 16. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.[Genesis 14:12-16]

Here Abram is called "the Hebrew" as a form of identity. This is the only time he is called such in the text. Yet others are called by this identity as well. Shiphrah and Puah are called the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1. Joseph too is identified by language as the “Hebrew servant” by Potiphar’s wife: In Jonah we read that Jonah identifies himself as a Hebrew. And most interestingly, it is the identity of language which is the determining factor in the text about slave’s rights. (Exodus 21:2, Deuteronomy 15:12)

I’m writing about this because of a discussion I had the other day, which I listened but did not participate concerning the increasing use of Hebrew in the Reform movement. Yet in this discussion, I found one thing disturbing. We weren’t talking Torah. One important Bit of Torah involved was of course the origin of language at the Tower of Babel.

4. And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men built. 6. And the Lord said, Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do. 7. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth; and they left off the building of the city.[Genesis 11:4-8]

I’ve looked up a few things and wanted to chime my two scents in on this topic, but this time based on Torah and tradition -- and Abraham’s example. The debate about Hebrew is not a new one. It goes back quite a way, to the book of Genesis itself. It definitely is a story of the Diaspora, one the rabbis did have to contend with. In Genesis we know that Abram spoke differently than his own relatives. Laban we know speaks Aramaic, from the time that Jacob and Laban make a pact over a set of stones:

And Laban called it Jegar sahadutha; but Jacob called it Galeed. [Genesis 31:47]

Both words mean the same, but Laban names it in Aramaic, Jacob in Hebrew. In following Lech-Lecha Abram also stopped using the language of his family and home, and transmitted to his descendants Hebrew. Yet, Jacob could communicate with Laban, and his son Joseph will be literate enough in Egyptian to run Potiphar’s household, and later so literate in Egyptian he can use the screen of an interpreter (who might have been Manasseh) to jerk the chain of this own brothers. Both knew more than one language.

We find this true in later times too. Maimonides wrote his codification of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah in Hebrew. Yet, he was literate in the language of his time and place and knew Arabic fluently. His major philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed was not originally written in Hebrew, but Arabic. Rashi, living in the Champagne region of France, often would translate confusing words in both Talmud and Torah into medieval French, leaving one of the best records of medieval French vocabulary we have to day.

Primary parts of the Talmud Balvi, the Gemara is not in English but in Aramaic, the primary academic language of the Diaspora for hundreds of years. And even among the Rabbinic Hebrew which makes up the Mishnah, one is struck by the number of borrowed Persian, Greek and Latin words. Yet the biblical quotes are always the original word of Torah and thus always in Hebrew. Hebrew, because it is the language of the Torah is the language we always come back to.

All those loan words amid all that consistency for thousands of years points for me to one conclusion, one that the rabbis themselves hint at in the story of the tower of Babel. Found in Genesis Rabbah, 38:10, we read:

R. Abba interpreted it: Through their own lips will I destroy them. Thus one said to his fellow- worker, ' Bring me water,’ whereupon he would give him earth, at which he struck him and split his skull; ' Bring me an axe,’ but he brought him a spade, at which he struck him and split his skull. Thus it is written, Through their own lips I will destroy them.

The failure to communicate was the cause, and yet when there was a misunderstanding, in their arrogance, one who asked for something and didn’t get it would merely kill his fellow man, instead of trying to learn the other language. Nowhere in the story of Babel does it say that God wants to destroy the tower, but instead that he wanted to confuse their language, because they could do anything with one language. It was not the tower that was the issue, but the potential for human beings to plan and do anything they wanted. Thus God confuses their languages to slow them down and see if their determination remains.

This was not a destruction of the people, but a stumbling block, a test. It was a test they failed miserably. God would have let them complete the tower under one circumstance -- if one had learned his neighbor’s language. If they had achieved rapport with each other and understood each other, the tower could have continued and completed. The Midrash, written by men in a world where at least Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic were around these scholars every day, continues that the people hated each other because of their different languages they then dispersed on their own to form nations. The Torah continues that one of those nations would be Abram. Speaking his singular language, he still can communicate with others around him, including the Pharaoh and king of the Philistines, Sodom and Gomorrah. He knew languages. Hebrew might have been his national tongue, his identity, but that did not stop him from communicating with his neighbors and his servants who did not speak Hebrew, and being a hero to most of them.

And that is the heart to of the matter. Hebrew is a language of national identity since the time of Abram. When asked by the nations “who are you?” the answerer often is “I am Hebrew” Hebrew is one of those portable things that does not need a land to identify a people as a nation -- for those in the Diaspora it is a link to home. To those in Israel, it is a way they say “we are home.” No matter what the intellectual language of the time Aramaic, Arabic, German, etc. the text itself was still in Hebrew. Hebrew tells us that we are a people. Granted, there is some Aramaic that crept in, but for close to a thousand years that was the language of commentary for the text. Even today we still say something every service in Aramaic, no matter what stream of Judaism you are in: the Kaddish. But most would agree, even those who do not know Hebrew, the saying the mourners Kaddish in anything but Aramaic sounds wrong. To recite “Magnified and sanctified is his great name” just doesn’t have the impact of the Aramaic Yitgadal v’yitkadash Shmei Raba. It’s never prayed in English, and even some Native Israeli speakers can’t understand it completely. But it remains because it is a connection to our past, and to those who came before us. How much more so the rest of Hebrew.

Yet I understand the frustration of many who don’t know Hebrew. Mine is still slow and I do certainly not know every word I’m reading in a text. I know no Modern Hebrew, as I emphasize the language of our ancient Holy books more than the language of the State of Israel in my studies. I was once in a rather hostile environment about not knowing Hebrew too. I had to learn my bar mitzvah portion in an Orthodox Hebrew school, yet knew less Hebrew than the first graders there. I was outright scorned and insulted, not just by the students but by the teachers. I saw around me in my traditional Synagogue the competition of Hebrew versus English. This was not about holiness but about egos, and being the exclusive club. That if anything was my reason for straying East into Taoism and Zen for a decade. Like many objectors, I want to know what I am saying as well, is what I’m praying actually what I believe. I am critical enough to want to know that, and to explore what that means. But I am also aware that translations never do justice to the actual text, and often translations, from Targum to English siddurim, often edit the objectionable parts of the text. Artscroll’s translation of the Song of Songs isn’t even a direct translation but Rashi’s notes, so that no one “misunderstands” the meaning. Translation by nature changes the meaning; no translation tells you what it means.

Hebrew is about identity, and commonality of a people -- the Jewish people. We all can say the Shema in any synagogue on the world, not matter the stream, for we all say it exactly the same. When we say it in Hebrew we are as unified voice just as God is One. As our identity, it is important, and in my mind we should all learn at least the letters and be able to pronounce the words.

The sin of the tower of Babel was that people did not make the effort to learn another language -- they took the easy route and thought theirs was superior to everyone else’s and thus those who did not understand deserved to die. Yet, we are also told in Talmud Tractate Megillah that Mordecai, a member of the Sanhedrin’s precursor, Knew seventy languages and that it was a requirement for a high judge to have such knowledge so that they could understand any witness or case. The righteous make the effort to learn, though it may not be easy.

Hebrew to the modern English mind is not easy, but Hebrew makes us Jews into Jews. As many left Judaism because they did not understand Hebrew, even more left because they saw no need to do anything else Jewish when a major part of identity is completely eliminated. One of the biggest proponents of English, the early Reform movement, known as classical refom, believed in such of such hard core English arrogance. The modern Reform movement, however, has embraced Hebrew, so much so that there is more Hebrew in the new Mishkan Tefila siddur than any other Reform Siddur to date. And to show their commitment to praying in Hebrew, even for those who do not know the Aleph-Bet, the entire siddur is transliterated.

I’m writing the Drash this week, in Disneyworld, and as I walk around the parks I realize how many languages surround me that I do not know. People chatter away in dozens of languages, as they do at home, both as a matter of identity to their nationality and because their ability at the North American majority languages, English and Spanish are poor or nonexistent. Watching Japanese tourists taking flash photos when we are told not to, I remember, unlike the Mexicans next to me in a ride or show, they didn’t understand what was said as we entered the ride.

Maybe, for those of us who know only one language, the Example of Abraham is a good one: know as many languages as you can and be understood by as many people as you can. It’s reward is being in a peaceful place with all your neighbors. Its failure is Babel. Yet, as at Babel and with Abraham Hebrew is our unique attribute that makes us a unique people. Both of these positions we should preserve.