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.