Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vayechi 5770: Groundhogs and Brothers.

In this week’s portion, the last of Genesis, We enter the scene 17 years later. Jacob is dying, and performs some tasks he has not yet done. First he has Joseph promise to bury him in the cave of Machpelah back in Canaan. Jacob also blesses Joseph's sons as though they are his own. Finally, he gathers all of his sons together, says a little something about them and dies. The brothers, who are still agitated, try to make sure Joseph won’t get even with them, but Joseph re assures them. The Parshat ends with the death of Joseph after he sees three generations of his family.

One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. The story is of a cranky, spoiled weatherman sent to cover the festivities in Pauxtawney PA on Groundhog Day. However, he keeps waking up on the same Feb 2, remembering everything from the previous day. No matter what he does, he keeps reliving the day over until he gets it right, and wins the heart of the Andie McDowell character.

I can’t help thinking of Groundhog Day when I think of Genesis. The whole book has a theme which everyone keeps getting wrong, which strings together almost every story. It is not till the very last chapters that Jacob and sons finally get it right. With that, the book concludes.

In every major story in Genesis there is always a story of the preferred son, which always leads to a disaster from other sons. To review:

  • [Genesis 4:1-8] Abel's sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s wasn't. Cain killed his younger brother.
  • [Gen. 21] Isaac is accepted to continue the covenant and Ishmael isn’t. Ishmael makes sport of his little bother, and gets himself and his mom banished.
  • [Gen. 25:27-34, Gen. 27] Jacob cons the blessing and birthright out of his brother and father. Esau vows to murder him, but Jacob flees to his uncle Laban in Padan-Aram.
  • [Gen. 37]Joseph is the spoiled favorite of his father to the detriment of his other sons. Joseph gets sold into slavery. But after almost losing several sons in this last exchange, Jacob changes. He no longer follows the pattern.

As we have seen in both the Abraham and Isaac stories, Abraham and Isaac prefer their older child, Ishmael and Esau, to their younger. But by the end of each story it is the younger child that receives the blessing. But in our potion Jacob intentionally blesses the younger before the older [Gen. 48:13-19]. He places his hand on the wrong grandkids for the blessing, and Joseph, disturbed by this interjects that he is doing it wrong. But Jacob says, I imagine with an understanding smile, "I know, my son I know"[Gen. 48:19]

When all of his sons are finally together, he does not pick out one specific son to say is better than the rest. Instead, he gives a comment about each one, not accord to their status or birthright, but to their temperament and merit. Some like Judah, who redeemed himself after initial errors of judgment in how he dealt with Tamar and Joseph, are praised as a lions' cub [Gen 49:8-12]. Some like Rueben who made serious lapses in judgment and temper, are blessed for past performance, but are cursed for the future.

All of this leads to one particular concept- Jacob treated his sons as people who made choices, instead of treating them according to things not in their control, like their birth order or mother.

The Talmud says of Jacob [Taanit 5a] that "Jacob didn’t die," that he lived on in his seed, which are his children. But the Ishbitzer Rebbe says that seed is a little different. That in his last seventeen years, when all of his children more or less got along, he had a taste of heaven in this world, and thus was spared the transition between this world and the next, that transition being death. That taste of heaven is reflected in this address to his sons. They are no longer honored by birthright but by merit, and thus sense of equality which brings harmony occurs.

Why does the text not end then with the death of Jacob, but with the death of Joseph? There is still one unresolved issue. Did Joseph reveal himself to his brothers did not yet forgive them? The brothers did not admit their wrongs to Joseph, they simply said that their brother was killed by an animal, [Gen. 44:20,44:28,42:13] which both Joseph and his brothers knew to be false. This lie continues until Jacob’s death when the brothers fretted about their fate. Then they apologized, but by that time Joseph had indeed forgiven. They live together as peacefully as brothers can until Joseph’s death, when the story ends. This is different than the relationship of Jacob and Esau or Isaac and Ishmael. They do get together only bury their respective father after death, and one meeting between Jacob and Esau. Once again we have closure of a pattern- brothers live together peacefully.

In the last chapter, after the death of their father, the brothers, though indirectly, finally apologize to Joseph, and this time Joseph speaks "to their heart” and accepts fully the apology. Rashi believes that Joseph said them additionally "how can one candle extinguish ten candles?" All were different and unique sources of spiritual illumination, and all were needed to increase the light. There is not one special candle: every candle counts.

Joseph was 39 when his brothers first approached him in Egypt and 56 when his father died. Joseph dies at age 110, enough to see three generations of his sons. In that last 54 years he lived peacefully, enjoying family life, and playing with the grandkids. The strain of the families of the past resolved. With that ending, our first book of the Torah ends.

To summarize all of the above, I can only think of one song:

Hine ma tov u'ma-naim shevet achim gam yachad.

How good it is for brothers to live together!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Vayishlach 5770: Dinah's Rape and the Missing Halakah

I lied a few weeks ago. I had mentioned that I was not going to write about myself nor write over 1000 words, yet this week requires me to break both of those. We read many stories this week, starting with Jacob wrestling with an angel, and then the meeting with Esau, and a genealogy of Esau. Yet, in the middle is a story which had both fascinated and plagued me for all eight years I've been writing
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]

My story isn't Dinah's but it is close. I was sexually assaulted by five of my fellow seventh graders when I was 13 as some kind of prank. Thirty years later, I'm still trying to make sense of what happened. As I've written before, it was only a kiss, but being pinned down against your will and being kissed on the cheek is not your normal kiss. As I've learned since then, trauma is trauma, violation is violation. It is not just the physical act as much as the emotional and mental component. Some thing, anything done against one's will is wrong, is rape.

In talking to many who either have had my experience and even a few in law enforcement who have had to deal with the victims, I've learned something. the reaction of Jacob to the rape of her daughter is rather common.

5. And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter; and his sons were with his cattle in the field; and Jacob held his peace until they came.[Genesis 34]

He does nothing, he is described as holding his peace. He did not even show he was upset by this. After Simeon and Levi do take things into their own hands and slaughter all the males of the rapist's town, including the rapist Jacob still cant talk about Dinah:

30. And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, You have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and thePerizzites ; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.[Genesis 34]

Recently, I've had a chance to think about this again. I began to think about Jacob's silence, remembering a rather disturbing discussion a few years ago where I heard many people appalled at a former policeman's comment that getting a testimony from a parent or relative of a rape victim is near impossible. All too often they do as Jacob did and say it was noting, or don't even acknowledge that the victim actually did anything. If they do it is often in the same way as the rapist himself will rationalize the act: Dinah asked for it. Even theMidrash says she asked for it.
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, ANDSHECHEM THE SON OF HAMOR SAW HER.[Genesis Rabbah LXXX:6]
In some cases, family believe she asked for it so much she is likened to a prostitute. Indeed one Midrash even says "Like mother like daughter". Leah sold the mandrakes in order to have sex with Jacob, and thus her daughter acted like a harlot. [Gen Rabbah LXXX:1] But Her brothers Simeon and Levi's response, while violent and arguably barbaric, was in refutation of this. They respond to their father "Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot?" rejecting that she was. She was family and needed protection ans much as any other family member. Their slaughter ofShechem brought their father's ire against them at the end if Jacob's life, referring to them as "instruments of cruelty" [Gen 49:5] when they did not buythier father's position in protecting a sibling.
There is too many silent voices in the narrative. There is the voice of Dinah, who never speaks. There is a rabbinic interpretation that she married Job, and thus in her own bitterness she told Job to curse God and get it over with. [Job 2:9] There is also the relatively silent voice of Jacob, who only complains about international relations and not his daughter. For many years I've wondered something else. There is an abundance of words by the rabbis, yet besides the financial support issues of a rape victim, the victim is ignored. Talmud attributes a rape as the same thing as minor civil damages in the courts, needing only a court of three. [Sanhedrin 2a] Where is there a guide to heal? The text is strangely silent.
Why it was silent has bothered me. From my own experience I think I know part of the answer. I've been healing for thirty years now, along the way making some very bad steps and mistakes in the healing. In college I dated someone who was raped by a family member. Apparently she kept taking out her pain out on her lovers and abusing them to get even. Yet when I finally realized what she was doing, and broke off the relationship, I found out something else. I was suddenly and totally alone. No one believed me that she abused people, or more specifically me. I was the one in the wrong in my friends opinion, and I was squeezed out of their lives. The last semester of college is one of the most distasteful time in my life. Without my friends of four years, I felt totally alone, and blaming myself for this disaster.
There a silence I've only noted in the past few hours, though it has been there for weeks -- my own. With Sweetie in my life, I'm having a healthier, happier life than I have ever known. Writing today, I realized something about myself. I want to protect her from this part of me, from the damaged part of me. I've never told Sweetie this, because somewhere deep inside I didn't want her to think it's something she did wrong. Instead I instinctively hide inside of me my terror, and panic. I'm sure I'm not the only one who hides their pain from a trusted loved one in silence.
Over and over again there is this nagging silence. There is of course another silence. Most of the current research estimates one six boys will be sexually assaulted in some way before their 18th birthday. Yet until very recently, this was the biggest silence of all, so much so this may be an underestimate. Women can be thought of victims, but men are not allowed in any form to be a victim, particularly around sexuality. To do so is a sense of weakness that family friends and one's individual identity cannot handle, The weak excuses thrown at Dinah, do not work with men the same way they work with women. In men to be sexually assaulted by a woman is almost a fantasy initiation. To be sexually assaulted by a man is to question the survivor's sexual orientation. To bring any of this to the surface is so counter to what society expects of a man, gay or straight there is a horrible silence.
Even the rabbis are caught by this silence, and my 8-year search for Dinah's Halakah, the Halakah of the survivor is a fruitless search. They too did not want to admit such things, and bought the old lines, as shown by Midrash that rapists, and families of rape and abuse victims have used for thousands of years to silence the issue. They go further and intellectualize it, and make it more about commodities than healing the soul. The silence is understandable from them, though not forgivable.
I have found a large component of the Halakah of the survivor by the way. Knowing that the Rabbis were incapable of doing something about it, I moved from the classical sources to my own experience. I've felt the bitterness of the wife of Job, whether she was Dinah or not. She, became so bitter because she could not express what she needed to. There is only one way out of this, and it is mind bogglingly hard to do: find some people you can trust, people who can empathize, and tell them. This is not easy as trust is one of the most shattered things of all in such cases. Walking that path to healing is the only one that works: the silence must be broken, the grief must spill out. It is a difficult path. There will be many who will fail in such trust, many friendships destroyed, as I know too personally. Every time I write about this, I have that fear myself, How many people will now shun me for not being strong enough to subdue four boys who each outweighed me, and one girl's peck on my cheek. How many, in not knowing what to say to me about my experience, in their own discomfort will never talk to me again? How many will say something crass and demeaning? I cannot know, but I have learned it is not good to be silent, it is not good for man to be alone.