Monthly Archives: December 2016

Dancing in the Hard Rain – Vayishlah 5777

I think I know where Bob Dylan is.

I’m sure that you have all heard that Mr. Dylan, aka Robert Zimmerman, joined the most elite club in the world this year: he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And it seemed for some time that he was avoiding the honor. The Nobel committee had a hard time finding him. He did not return phone calls. It seemed that he was not interested in claiming the prize. (Perhaps, unlike many Nobel laureates, Dylan doesn’t really need the money or the kavod / honor.)

Although he eventually agreed to accept the prize, Mr. Dylan seemingly snubbed the Nobel institution by skipping the award ceremony, citing “pre-existing commitments.” A New York Times reporter tried to discover what, exactly, Mr. Dylan’s commitments were; he was not performing that night anywhere in the world, and he did not seem to be at any of his various residences (at least the ones that the reporter was able to check).

I suppose this is not too surprising for a performer who has always seemed to alternately loathe and love his audience. He may be best known for angering fans at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 by pulling out an electric guitar, a deliberate affront to the folk scene of the time. His performances have been unfortunately erratic; you never know when you see Dylan which Dylan you’re going to get.

Regardless, looking back over his 50+ years of music, there is no question that (a) he deserved this award, and (b) his lyrics are essentially timeless. They are as incisive today as they were a half-century ago.

Bob Dylan, in the beginning - CNN.com

So it seems that the Jews have yet another Nobel laureate among our ranks (some count our tribe’s prizes at an impressive 20%, although that requires casting a wide net of the ever-contentious definition of “Who is a Jew?” I’m sure Mrs. Zimmerman is very proud, wherever she is.

But I think I know where Bob Dylan is. He’s in mourning. He’s deeply, deeply embarrassed. He’s nursing his wounds. Actually, our wounds.

When I heard Patti Smith singing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” for the Nobel award ceremony, it hit me. I think I know why Bob didn’t show up.  Bob was not there not because he had another engagement but because his heart is broken. I think that Bob simply cannot handle today’s reality.

Never mind that the CIA believes that Russia hacked our election. Forget that a climate-change skeptic has been nominated to head the EPA, an oil executive with ties to Russia to head the State Department, and to head the Department of Energy a man who once said that if he were president, he would eliminate the Department of Energy. Never mind the chief strategist who used to run the premier website dedicated to peddling racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories.

Leave all that aside for a moment, if you can. The biggest casualty of the current moment is the truth. What has come to the fore in 2016 is that many of us (with, by the way, diverse political views) have been deceived by fake news stories and distracted by social-media’s unquenchable desire for ever more clicks on ever-more-sensational items. When we become committed to false narratives and outright lies that are retweeted by authority figures, when folks in dire straights are so desperate that they are willing to swallow campaign promises that are so obviously far-fetched, I am very concerned for the future of our society. Truth has been compromised, and trust is being eroded.

As a non-political example, try to change the mind of somebody who has accepted the idea that vaccination against measles is dangerous. Although the concerns regarding autism have been debunked, and it is abundantly clear that the benefits of vaccination outweigh any perceived risks, it’s a lie – a fake news story that simply will not go away.

In rabbinic literature, the truth is understandably very important – so important, in fact, that there are multiple passages in our textual tradition about witnesses, people called on to testify to the truth. Witnesses in Jewish law have a whole host of restrictions and expectations. Rabbi Hanina (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55a) tells us that the Hebrew word for truth, emet, is the personal seal of God. We come to kedushah / holiness through truth.

The founding fathers forged this nation on the basis of a handful of simple truths. How will we know the truth, when there is so much falsehood? How will our rights remain unalienable, if those truths are no longer self-evident?

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Bob’s blue-eyed son has traveled the world, observing the depth and breadth of Creation and humanity. His innocence is long gone. His youthful idealism has long since been trampled by the truth. And in the song, the son is a witness to truths that must be told.

I learned from Rabbi Wikipedia that Bob’s Hebrew name is Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham (Wikipedia neglected to mention his mother’s Hebrew name; if he ever shows up here and Milt gives him an aliyah, I guess we’ll find out.)

Bob wrestled with his Judaism for many years. He even toyed with Christianity, but he came back to us.

And meanwhile, this is the week of Yisrael. We who wrestle with God. And the character that assigns this new name to Ya’aqov is the angel with whom he wrestles in Parashat Vayishlah.

The commentators go different ways on who, exactly, the angel is. Rashi cites a midrash (BT Menahot 42a) suggesting that this is his brother Esav’s ministering angel. I have always preferred the beautiful notion, echoed by the Gerrer Rebbe (aka the Sefat Emet, the “lip of truth”), that Ya’aqov is actually struggling with himself.

But rather than focusing on the angel, I’d rather consider the struggle. This is not wrestling, I think. Rather, they are dancing — locked against each other all night long, neither willing to forfeit the lead.

We are all engaged in some kind of holy dance — with ourselves, with our community, with our work, with our leaders, with our family, and so forth.

This delicate dance — the waltz of ages, you might call it — is an attempt to move forward with our lives even as we acknowledge and try to manage some of the brokenness around us. We cling to our mystical partner for dear life, hoping that the ground does not give way, that we don’t trip or stumble. Just like Ya’aqov and the mysterious heavenly visitor. We dance with the truth.

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Dylan ends with a hopeful note: those of us who are committed to the truth can help repair the world.

The hard rain has begun. It will be up to us to continue to dance through the rain, to take on the struggles that come, to stand up for the many people whose hands are all empty, to illuminate the face of the hidden executioner, to safeguard our waters, to make sure that souls are not forgotten.

Wherever we are headed as a society, I hope that our people will always be able to stand for the truth, even when it hurts. Truth matters more than partisanship. It matters more than victory. Truth outweighs budgets and process and matters of diplomacy. It is the essential check in the system of checks and balances.

As we approach Hanukkah, the holiday wherein we recall our duty to spread light in an otherwise dark world, the optimistic take-away may be that our tradition continues to mandate the pursuit of light and truth: that we as a people will always be compelled to lift up the downtrodden, clothe the naked, take in the homeless, and feed the hungry.

Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham, if you’re listening, please know that hiding from the truth is not what we Jews have ever done. In fact, we stand up for the truth, for the facts on the ground, for what is right for humanity. And we need you now as much as we did in 1962 when you first told us about that hard rain.

Return to us, all of us here on the dance floor as we continue this waltz of ages.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/17/2016.)

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Jewish Sensibilites and Ya’aqov’s Deception – Toledot 5777

One of the essential questions that we as Jews must ask ourselves is, what are the values that guide us? Aside from rituals and Jewish law, how does our textual framework teach us how to live? What are the values we want our children to carry? How can we use the values expressed in our tradition to live better in this world?

Why are these questions so important? Because we see from demographic data that while there is a hardening on the theological right with respect to living a halakhic lifestyle, with ever-more-stringent approaches to Jewish law, the non-Orthodox world is drifting away from that traditional mode of Jewish living. One does not need to see survey data to know that fewer of us observe Shabbat traditionally, fewer of us are showing up for daily prayer, fewer of us are keeping some form of kashrut, fewer of us are marrying fellow Jews, etc.

And yet, most of us are proudly Jewish, acknowledging on some level our Jewish heritage and at least some of our Jewish traditions. (There is no simhah today, so most of us in the room are regulars – people who are committed to some form of traditional Jewish observance, including tefillah / prayer. But you’d probably all be surprised by how many Jews I hear telling me about how they are proud to be Jewish, love our tradition, are committed to raising Jewish families and to being part of a community, but just have no interest in or understand being in synagogue for services.)

Given that many of us want to maintain some kind of connection to Judaism even as we disconnect from Jewish observance, one answer is that we have to focus on the Jewish values that move us.

What are some of these values?

    • Honesty
    • Integrity
    • Charity
    • Doing for others in need
    • Hakhnasat orehim  / welcoming guests
    • Ahavat hinnam /

      boundless love

    • Community, and all it suggests
    • Study
  • Etc.

With help from the Judaism Unbound podcast, I recently came across an interesting article by Dr. Vanessa Ochs, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, entitled “Ten Jewish Sensibilities.” It appeared in the journal Sh’ma in 2003. In it, Dr. Ochs identifies ten Jewish values which, she proposes, many Jews draw on in their daily lives, even if they do not practice any of the ritual aspects of Judaism. I do not need to list them all here, but they include such basic principles as teshuvah / return (she translates as “turning), tiqqun olam / repairing the world, shelom bayit / maintaining peaceful relationships, and so forth.

I would like to draw your attention to two of these sensibilities: top of the list, havdalah – literally separation, but understood here as making distinctions in time and situations. That is, acknowledging that Jews create holy spaces in time, not places or people.

Number 10 on the list is zekhut avot, recalling the good deeds and attributes and acting upon the merits of those who came before us. We’ll come back to these in a few minutes.

Now, of course these values come, as does all of Jewish life, from the Jewish bookshelf. Just as we know that we must drink four cups of wine at a Pesah seder or light the Hanukkah candles from left to right from our ancient literature, so too do we understand that eliminating oppression or questioning authority are Jewish values gleaned from sources in the Torah, Talmud, midrash, codes, and so forth.

But what happens when values that are apparent in those sources seem to contradict values that we hold dear? Let’s take a look at a passage from Toledot.

Open the humash. Gen. 27:19-27 (98, 156). This is where Rivqah has prepared some meat for Yitzhaq and put an animal hide on Ya’aqov’s arms in order to deceive his father and receive the blessing that he intends for Esav.

יט  וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ–עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי–בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ.

19 And Jacob said unto his father: ‘I am Esau thy first-born; I have done what you have told me. Arise, sit and eat of my venison, that your soul may bless me.’

כ  וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-בְּנוֹ, מַה-זֶּה מִהַרְתָּ לִמְצֹא בְּנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי הִקְרָה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְפָנָי.

20 And Isaac said unto his son: ‘How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?’ And he said: ‘Because the LORD thy God sent me good speed.’

כא  וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, גְּשָׁה-נָּא וַאֲמֻשְׁךָ בְּנִי:  הַאַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו, אִם-לֹא.

21 And Isaac said unto Jacob: ‘Come near, please, that I may feel you, my son, whether you be my very son Esau or not.’

כב  וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב אֶל-יִצְחָק אָבִיו, וַיְמֻשֵּׁהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב, וְהַיָּדַיִם, יְדֵי עֵשָׂו.

22 And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’

כג  וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ–כִּי-הָיוּ יָדָיו כִּידֵי עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, שְׂעִרֹת; וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ.

23 And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.

כד  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו; וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנִי.

24 And he said: ‘Are you my very son Esau?’ And he said: ‘I am.’

כה  וַיֹּאמֶר, הַגִּשָׁה לִּי וְאֹכְלָה מִצֵּיד בְּנִי–לְמַעַן תְּבָרֶכְךָ, נַפְשִׁי; וַיַּגֶּשׁ-לוֹ, וַיֹּאכַל, וַיָּבֵא לוֹ יַיִן, וַיֵּשְׁתְּ.

25 And he said: ‘Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s venison, that my soul may bless thee.’ And he brought it near to him, and he did eat; and he brought him wine, and he drank.

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, יִצְחָק אָבִיו:  גְּשָׁה-נָּא וּשְׁקָה-לִּי, בְּנִי.

26 And his father Isaac said unto him: ‘Come near now, and kiss me, my son.’

כז  וַיִּגַּשׁ, וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ, וַיָּרַח אֶת-רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו, וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי, כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ ה’.

27 And he came near, and kissed him. And he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which God has blessed.

Superficially, this passage does not read so well to me. It highlights Ya’aqov’s deception, and this is in fact a theme that runs through Ya’aqov’s life (e.g. the lentil stew, Gen. 29:34; his marriage to Leah and Rahel, Gen. 29:21-30; his sons’ selling Joseph and lying to their father about his death, Gen. 37:29-35). Although the blessings seem good, at least to an ancient audience, the means by which Ya’aqov achieves them are certainly not.

https://i1.wp.com/www.medart.pitt.edu/image/france/france-t-to-z/vezelay/capitals-nave/veznave30as.JPG

Most of the commentaries seek to excuse Ya’aqov – they argue that he was fulfilling God’s destiny; that Esav was truly evil; that Yitzhaq was not only actually blind, but also blind to the fact that his younger son was really the good son, and so forth. But one midrash, from Bereshit Rabba, actually suggests that when Ya’aqov goes to fetch a few goats from the flock so his mother can prepare them (27:14), he does so “under duress, bent, and weeping.”

יב  אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי, וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ; וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה, וְלֹא בְרָכָה.

12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.’

יג  וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ, עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי; אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי.

13 And his mother said unto him: ‘Upon me be your curse, my son; only heed my voice, and go fetch me them.’

יד  וַיֵּלֶךְ, וַיִּקַּח, וַיָּבֵא, לְאִמּוֹ; וַתַּעַשׂ אִמּוֹ מַטְעַמִּים, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהֵב אָבִיו.

14 And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother; and his mother made savory food such as his father loved.

So while the hermeneutic conversation, the discourse of rabbinic interpretation surrounding this passage in general supports Ya’aqov and Rivqah and the whole operation, there is in fact at least one voice, echoing across the ages that suggests that deception is not, in fact, a value we should support. And I think that most of us agree with that opinion, despite the conspiracy to defraud Yitzhaq.

So that brings us back to Vanessa Ochs’ Jewish sensibilities. On the one hand, we aim to emulate our ancestors and follow their lead based on their merits: zekhut avot. On the other, we also know that nobody in the Jewish canon is without fault, that they are all exceedingly human characters. Thus we must draw distinction (havdalah, if you will) between having the means justify the ends, as in this case, vs. always behaving in an upright, honest way. Ya’aqov, according to the midrash, knows that what he is doing is wrong, and we do too. So we can acknowledge and learn from this story, even as we concede that Ya’aqov’s outright deception of his father is reprehensible.

While the Torah itself may suggest that the end may justify the means, the rabbinic lens, the midrash, disagrees. And yet both of these ideas sit on the Jewish bookshelf in the same corner of the whole panoply of human behavior described by our tradition.

The lesson that we may draw from this is that havdalah is not just what is recited on Saturday night (the separation of Shabbat from weekday), it is not only about the division of time between holy and ordinary. It is an essential tool in how we relate Torah to who we are and the choices we make. Real wisdom comes from making distinctions. And we do that very well as Jews.

And to come back to where we started, the greater Jewish value that we must teach and live is discernment, perhaps a more refined version of havdalah: digging into our collected body of wisdom to extract the best way to handle a situation, given all the factors in play. I think that if we can relate that to the next generation, we will have a rosy Jewish future.

Shabbat shalom.

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