Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joseph and his brothers: take two / Vayigash

Nelson R. Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk received the Nobel Prize for Peace for their roles in the Peace and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. How many of us believed that peace and reconciliation were possible in South Africa when they began their work? Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have operated in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and 14 other counties -- including the United States. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are put into play in cases of egregious state terrorism and human rights abuses.

Most of us, in our lives, come to a point where we long for reconciliation. We don’t need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but sometimes it feels like our situation is as insurmountable as those that do.

For many weeks we have been reading the complex, convoluted, and compelling “Joseph Cycle” in the Torah. We’ve watch Joseph grow from a spoiled and bratty little brother into the prime minister of Egypt, wielding nearly limitless power. It’s packed with all the elements of a hit movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Daniel Craig: love, jealousy, intrigue, power, sex, bitter competition, betrayal, and revenge.

Yet all the while, and despite everything he has, Joseph discovers that he does not have what he most needs to be whole: to be reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his father. The arrival of Joseph’s brothers to buy grain in Egypt rips open the wound of long ago, a wound that never really healed.

This week, in parshat Vayigash, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and at last, reconciliation begins. But there’s something intriguing about how Torah recounts the story. Judah, the oldest of the 12 brothers, approaches Joseph and launches into a long discourse. Usually, people speak succinctly in the Torah. Not here! Judah goes on and on about his father’s pain and his fear that if Joseph keeps Benjamin, Jacob’s heart will break, and how he couldn’t bear for that to happen. Judah then offers himself as ransom for Benjamin. Here’s a little of it:
Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh… If I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us -- since his own life is so bound up with his -- when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief. Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44: 18, 30-34)
The scene that leads to reconciliation is striking: First, Judah speaks to Joseph at length and without rancor. He doesn’t express hate, resentment, anger, or bitterness. As a result, Joseph can hear commonalities with Judah. The father Judah wants to save from anguish is his own father, Jacob.

Second, Judah speaks not about his resentments and gripes, but about what he loves and is committed to. He speaks in terms Joseph can affirm. Again, Joseph can absorb what Judah says, feel empathy and concern for him (and remember, this is the brother who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery) and respond positively.

Third, Joseph listens without interrupting, commenting or contradicting. He just listens. Most of us need to learn to do that. We think we do, but… do we really?

Fourth, each side acknowledges the experience and reality of the other.

This is not to say that the reality of what happened is tossed aside. There are issues of justice, equity, and recompense that must be addressed. Corazon Aquino, who led the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos, and who became the 11th president of the Philippines said, “Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn't be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice.”

Joseph knows this. Sensing his brothers’ guilt and fear, he tells them:
Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:5, 7-8)
Whether or not we subscribe to Joseph’s theological belief, we can appreciate that he recognizes the need to address the wrongs that caused the rift.

What a great model for people everywhere! Wise, practical, and effective: Speak factually and without rancor, but say it all; say what you believe in and what you need; listen -- truly listen -- to what the other side says; acknowledge the experience and reality of the other; know that justice must be served. That’s the formula. It works for the sons of Jacob. It worked in South Africa. With a lot of courage and conviction, it can work for us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Come on baby, light my fire / Miketz

Taking great liberties with the Doors’ 1967 hit,
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
But vision lifts our spirits higher.
In a sense this is Joseph’s story, and it is the story of Chanukah, as well.

Miketz, and next week’s parashah, Vayigash, contain perhaps the most emotional narratives in Torah. Joseph does not cry when his brothers throw him into the pit, or when they sell him to a traveling caravan of Midianites, or when Potiphar throws him into the dungeon. Yet Joseph, overcome with emotion, weeps four times. (The first two instances are in this week’s parashah and the second two are recounted in parshat Vayigash.)

Joseph cries first when he hears his brothers speak among themselves about the plan to leave Shimon as a hostage in Egypt until they bring Benjamin from the land of Canaan. In their conversation, the brothers acknowledge and take full responsibility for the egregious way they treated their brother Joseph.
The brothers said to one another, “Oh we are being punished on account of our brother! We saw his soul’s distress when he pleaded with us -- on that account his distress has come upon us.” Reuben now responded to them, saying, “Didn’t I say to you, ‘Do not sin against the lad’! But you wouldn’t listen, and so his blood-payment, see -- it has come due.” (Genesis 42:21-22)
The brothers so not realize that Joseph understands their language. But Joseph understands more than their language; he must leave the room as his eyes brim with tears.

The second instance is when Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother, is brought to Joseph:
With that, Joseph hurried, out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. (Genesis 43:30)
Later, having planted a valuable goblet in Benjamin’s pack as a pretext to accuse Benjamin of theft and toss him in jail, Judah, the eldest brother, makes a long and impassioned speech about his father Jacob (who is Joseph’s father, too, of course) in which Judah says that if Benjamin does not return with his brothers, their father will die of grief. Judah offers himself as ransom for Benjamin and for a third time, Joseph is overcome with emotion. He sends his servants from of the room and reveals himself to his brothers. This time he not only weeps, but wails:
His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Genesis 45:2)
And finally, when Jacob comes down to Egypt and Joseph sets eyes on him for the first time in so long, we are hardly surprised that Joseph weeps a fourth time:
Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet his father Israel in Goshen; he presented himself to him and threw himself on his neck, weeping all the time. (Genesis 46:29)
If Joseph does not cry at the most frightening and potentially deadly moments in his life, why does he weep these four times? All four instances involve steps in the process of reunion and reconciliation with the people closest to him -- his brothers and father. These tears are mixed with pain, no doubt, but each time Joseph cries, it is because he has come closer to the vision of wholeness, reconciliation that has supported him through his years of ordeal.

What makes Joseph cry are glimpses of his vision fulfilled, milestones along the way to achieving it. Joseph is moved by his brothers' repentance. When they express remorse for how they treated Joseph, and take responsibility for it, Joseph is overcome. He is overcome again when Judah puts bones on that remorse and acceptance of responsibility by offering himself as ransom for Benjamin. Joseph sees that the brothers have truly changed; they are not the same jealous, vindictive, self-righteous siblings who cavalierly threw him into a pit without water and then proceeded to picnic (Genesis 37:24-25). Reconciliation is possible; healing is possible. Wholeness is within reach.

Joseph also cries when he first sees Benjamin and Jacob -- his two closest connections to his mother, Rachel, who died when he was but a lad.

When we examine what is most important and meaningful in our lives, it is probably what we cry about. I think of the people on Wall Street who threw themselves out of windows when the stock market crashed; it is clear how they defined their very being. For Joseph, his primary relationships with family define who he is and he desperately needs to rectify these relationships. Joseph remains broken until the breach is repaired.

Miketz is always read on the Shabbat during Chanukah, which is also known as Chag ha-Urim, the festival of lights. Chanukah is about light (or vision) fueled by dedication that led to a miracle.

Let’s take those three -- vision, dedication, and miracle -- in reverse order. The Chanukah miracle was not really the big, splashy kind, like the Parting of the Reed Sea, but rather a small miracle. The cruse of oil -- one tiny clay jar, a one-day supply -- was barely visible in the piles of rubble on the Temple Mount. Yet the Rabbis tell us it was sufficient to kindle the Temple lamp and keep it burning for eight days (b.Shabbat 21b). A legend, to be sure, but as with all rabbinic legends, this one is replete with a deeper meaning. Miracles are how we see things. They arise from within us and are set in motion through our dedication, our willingness to take risks and keep plugging for what we believe is right. That light, or vision, that helps us see what the end might look like, even when we’re tired, or scared, or unsure of ourselves, fueling and refueling our dedication. The Maccabees had a clear vision: sovereignty in their land, restoration of the Temple worship, freedom to live as Jews. That vision fueled, and many times refueled the dedication they needed to persevere through three long years of hiding in caves and conducting a guerilla war against their Hellenistic overlords. With a clear vision and dedication to that vision, they achieved victory in a war any historian would have said was impossible to win. The miracle of the lamp is the miracle they wrought.
Joseph, too, worked a miracle. Who would have believed that reunion and reconciliation with his family was possible when the brothers sold him into slavery, or when Potiphar cast him into the dungeon, or when Pharaoh made him grand vizier and married him off to the daughter of an Egyptian priest? Yet Joseph kept before him a vision of return and restoration to his family. He dedicated himself to that vision. He wasn’t unrealistic; he wanted assurances that his brothers had changed, had repented, felt remorse. These assurances brought him to tears because he recognized in them yet another miracle in a series of miracles that brought him closer and closer to his vision, closer and closer to the light.

Again, taking great liberties with the Doors’ 1967 hit song (start at 0:35) --
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
But visions lifts our spirits higher.
So here’s something to ponder: What makes you cry? What is your vision? What is most important to you? What keeps the cruse of oil inside you burning? With whom are you going to share your light and your miracle?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Divine Providence is not in Rhode Island / Vayeshev

I have a number of pet peeves, and high on my list are people who, having survived a calamity that took numerous lives, spout out, “God saved me for a reason.” If God saves one, then God causes the death of others. This hubristic and self-absorbed statement implies -- and not too subtly -- that God caused the deaths of those who perished also for a reason.

A discussion of hashgachah (divine providence) emerges in the traditional commentaries on parshat Vayeshev. Hasgachah is the belief that God supervises and determines what happens in our world. Taken to another level, hashgachah pratit (personal divine providence) presumes that God is deeply involved in the day-to-day events and intricacies of our lives. Is that your sense of things?

Rabbi Akiba is said to have taught: Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given… (Pirke Avot 3:19) What on earth does that mean? If all is foreseen, then events are pre-determined -- either by biology or God -- in which case we have no genuine free will.

In parshat Vayeshev, Joseph goes in search of his brothers in Shechem:
One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” [Joseph] answered hineinu/ Here I am. And [his father] said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” (Genesis 37:12-13)
Jacob (called Israel in this passage) sends Joseph to check on his brothers and the flocks. We are not told that Joseph brings food, money, or a message to his brothers. We might wonder then at the real purpose of the trip.

Joseph responds to Jacob, Hineinu/ Here I am. Abraham responds Hineinu when God tells he to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1). Jacob responds Hineini when God tells him to return to the Land of Israel (Genesis 31:11). Moses answers Hineini when God calls to him from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4). Isaiah responds Hineini to God who is searching for a prophet (Isaiah 6:8). Here, too, Hineini signals that Joseph’s journey has covenantal significant (Genesis 37:12-17)

When [Joseph] reached Shechem, a man (ish) came upon him wandering in the fields. The man (ish) asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man (ish) said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. (Genesis 37:14-17)

Who is this ish, this man wandering aimlessly around Shechem? Joseph does not describe his brothers to the man, yet the man knows who they are and where they have gone. We are reminded of the ish Joseph’s father Jacob encountered the night before his reunion with Esau. Torah tells us, Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25) -- this is the man who wrenches his hip, gives him the new name Israel, and blesses him. Is the ish Joseph meets also an angel or manifestation of God?

Ibn Ezra and Rashbam don’t make that claim. They lean on pshat to tell us that the ish is a wayfarer and the encounter proves Joseph’s fine character in diligently carrying out his father’s request.

Ramban and Rambam, however, ascribe supernatural significance to the encounter. Rambam identifies the ish as an angel. Ramban and others claim the encounter is evidence of God’s hashgachah, the divine plan for the people Israel to go down into Egypt. He writes: “God prepared for [Joseph] a guide who, without him being aware of it, brought him into [his brothers’] hands. And this is what Chazel (our Sages may their memory be for good) meant when they said that these people were angels, for the story… teaches us that God’s will is fulfilled.” Abravanel claims that because God is directing the shots, no one in the story bears responsibility for their behavior because all is God’s will. He adds that at the same time, they all have free will and the events could unfold in another sequence -- but he doesn’t explain how that is possible.

Joseph himself confirms his belief in divine providence when he tells his brothers -- quaking in their sandals, terrified that Joseph will exact revenge on them:
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:7-8)
In Joseph’s mind, his brothers sold him into slavery so that he could rise to the level of grand vizier and save his family from famine when the drought came. By this thinking, the ish Joseph encounters in Shechem is God’s directional guide.

The Rabbis are deeply invested in divine providence. Midrash tells us: "No blade of grass grows without an angel telling it to 'Grow!'" (Bereishit Rabbah 10:6)

We may reject hashgachah (divine providence) on the macro level -- certainly science and a conviction concerning human free will run strongly counter to hashgachah -- but what about the level of our personal lives? The Rabbis also spoke of hashgachah pratit (personal providence) and many people, including those who would consider themselves modern, scientific folk express the belief that events “happen for a purpose” and that God is directing their lives. How is this consistent with free will, moral responsibility, and science?

Perhaps the claim, “God saved me for a reason” is an emotional reaction to events of great danger and significance, events that take on special meaning to people, such as surviving a hurricane or car crash, being cured of a serious illness, succeeding when failure seemed assured. I would hope that people who utter such words would respond “no” to the question, “And did God specifically designate for death those who perished?”
Our Rabbis said: Even things which you may regard as completely superfluous to the creation of the world, such as fleas, gnats and flies, even they are included in the creation of the world and the Holy One carries out the Divine purpose through everything – even a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog. (Bereishit Rabbah 10:7)
Read another way, we can understand the text to say that everything in the universe can be seen to have purpose in our eyes. That doesn’t mean God is a cosmic puppeteer pulling our strings. Rather, it can be our way of making sense of emotionally overwhelming events. Seeing our lives as purposeful is an excellent way to respond emotionally to trauma, because when we see our lives as purposeful, we can do things that really matter.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 28, 2011

The value of pain / Vayishlach

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. (Genesis 33:1)
A happy family reunion of brothers after two decades’ separation? Hard to tell. Jacob certainly isn’t taking any chances:
…He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. (Genesis 33:1-3)
Jacob is an endlessly fascinating character. As a youth, he lacks empathy, and because he lacks empathy (he cannot understanding the feelings of others) he also lacks compassion (the capacity to act on that knowledge). He has no difficulty tricking and cheating his brother, and deceiving his father. He is focused on his gain; he does not feel their pain.

Where does empathy come from? The Dalai Lama, in conversation with Daniel Goleman said, “One way you can develop empathy is to start with small sentient beings like ants and insects. Really attend to them and recognize that they wish to find happiness, experience pleasure, and be free of pain… Other human beings and yourself will all follow.” The Dalai Lama goes on to explain that those who dismiss the pain of an animal go on to dismiss the pain of human beings. “With the attitude, ‘I don’t feel it,’ you dismiss that pain. You would never feel the empathy until it actually hits your own skin.”

Those who don't have the benefit of childhood experiences that nurture empathy have to learn it the hard way. If they arrive at adulthood, as Jacob did, not comprehending or caring what other people feel, the only way understand the pain they have caused is when they themselves experience it. Jacob is this sort of person. When Laban deceives Jacob, substituting Leah for Rachel on his wedding night, Jacob finally comprehends. And it is only when he understands the pain he has caused -- because he’s feeling it himself -- that he can return to Eretz Yisrael for a healing reunion with Esau.

Jacob has truly changed. His wrestling match with the angel is evidence of his new and emerging conscience. From name change to name change: First, Jacob name is change to Israel, signifying his transformation from a selfish, scheming, unfeeling person into one capable of empathy and responsibility -- a transformation that takes two decades to accomplish. Jacob uses his pain and newfound empathy to brave a meeting with Esau. later, when his sons Shimon and Levi take revenge on the men of Shechem for violating their sister, Dinah, Jacob's first reaction is pragmatic: You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land... I and my house will be destroyed (Genesis 24:30). But immediately after, God instructs him to return to Bethel and Jacob recognizes the moral dimension of what has transpired. In Bethel he builds an altar; God is now a part of his life and conscience. Soon after, his beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth on the road to Bethlehem. With her last dying breath, Rachel names her son Ben-oni (son of my suffering) but Jacob changes his name to Benjamin (son of the right hand). It appears that Jacob, now capable of empathy, even amidst what must have been devastating pain at losing Rachel, is considering Benjamin's feelings. Jacob does not want Benjamin to carry through life a name that makes him emblematic of his mother's death.

Life dishes out a lot of pain: unfulfilled dreams, humiliation, loss of loved ones and friends, excruciatingly painful and life-threatening medical concerns, lost relationships, abuse, and much more. No one gets through unscathed and unscarred. There’s no hermetically sealed emotional bubble we can hang out in to avoid it.

Among the Rabbis’ appellations for God is HaRachaman -- the Compassionate One -- because God experiences everything we experience. Our pain is God’s pain. God’s empathy is complete and total but that doesn’t mean we should strive to be 100% empathetic. No person could, or should; the consequences would be devastating. In Sue Monk Kidd’s marvelous book, The Secret Life of Bees, May Boatwright is totally empathetic; she absorbs everyone’s pain as her own. When she cannot hold it all, she commits suicide. Moving from fiction to the real world, were a surgeon, rabbi, psychologist, teacher, or social worker to experience everyone’s pain, they would not be able to do their jobs. We are not God, nor should we follow the example of May Boatwright. We need to find the right balance.

I want to add that Jewish tradition is filled with practices that guide us in this direction of cultivating appropriate empathy and compassion. If we see our rituals and traditions as God’s gift to us to learn and grow, rather than merely a means to exhibit piety and “serve God,” they will be conduits of holiness. The story is told of a learned rabbi who came to visit a small community. His host, a man of modest means, was thrilled and honored that the great rabbi would stay in his home. He instructed his wife to clean the house, prepare an elaborate Shabbat dinner, and set the table with the finest tablecloth and dishes they had. [Okay, so this is an old story.] When the rabbi and the man returned home after Kabbalat Shabbat, the house was spotless, the scent of food cooking was intoxicating, and the table gleamed. They man noticed, however, that his wife had neglected to cover the challah. Embarrassed, he berated his wife. The rabbi stopped him and said, “My friend, do you know why we cover the challah when making Kiddush over the wine? The challah receives only a short blessing, but the wine gets much more. We use the wine to sanctify Shabbat itself and recite a much longer blessing. We cover the challah so it won’t hear the greater blessing we recite over the wine, lest its feelings be hurt, and only uncover it after we complete Kiddush. If we are so careful about the feelings of inanimate objects -- two loaves of bread -- how much the more so should we be scrupulously careful about the feelings of a human being?” Our rituals can become our guides and teachers to greater empathy and compassion. When we succeed, we will truly serve God and become, ourselves, conduits of holiness.

That brings me back to considering the pain we all carry around inside. Would that we could drop it off somewhere -- in a dumpster would be good -- and never retrieve it! For the most part, after processing pain, it’s good to set it aside. Don't stew in it, and don't be a prisoner to it. But on occasion we can redeem our pain by calling it up and putting it to good use -- to help others. Try putting your pain to good use - it may well be healing for you.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 21, 2011

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match / Vayeitzei

Mae West famously said, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.”

I met a young woman -- a physician -- on a flight to Huntsville earlier this year. She comes from India. Her parents arranged her marriage, as they did the marriages of her two brothers, also physicians living in America. I asked her about arranged marriages. She shrugged and said they are as good as any other kind. She correctly pointed out that all marriages are hard work, and many love matches don’t survive the vicissitudes of life. The relationship need only be good enough to weather the storms. I suppose she would applaud Charlotte’s words to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.''

I can barely imagine being in an arranged marriage. Torah records many arranged marriages; marriages were arranged for social, economic, religious, and cultural reasons. Yet Torah speaks of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, and Jacob’s passion for Rachel. Song of Songs certainly knows of romantic love. Conversely, marriages today have business elements to them; think of prenuptial agreements. And there are still many arranged marriages today: in India, Pakistan, some Middle Eastern countries, rural Japan, and even in some parts of America. Yet I think: how could someone else choose a partner for me that involves a lifetime emotional, social, and financial partnership; intimacy; and raising children together; not to mention coping with and supporting one another through illness, trauma, tragedy, and anything else thrown in to spice things up? Whether I choose my spouse, or someone else does, marriage is still hard work and love conquers all only in Hollywood -- that is, on the screen, not in the street. (Rita Rudner said, “In Hollywood, a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk.”)
Arranged or not, finding a partner is a challenge. Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68) tells the humorous and sage story of a Roman matron who challenges Rabbi Yose b. Chalafta by asking what his God has been doing since creating the world. R. Yose responds, “Making matches.” “Why anyone can do that!” the Roman matron replies haughtily.” Rabbi Yose replies, “It may seem easy to you, but for God, making a good match is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea.” That night, to prove her point, the Roman matron lines up her household servants - 1000 men and 1000 women - pairs them up, and marries them off. You won’t be surprised to learn that they return to her the following morning, one with a black eye, one with a bruised face, one limping, and each saying, “This one you designated for me I do not want.” Her arbitrary choices, which did not take into account the people involved, are a disaster. Talmud concurs, attributing to Rabbah b. Bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan these words: “It is as difficult for God to make a match as it was to part the Reed Sea (Sotah 2a).”

Many people in love matches say that their beloved is their “beshert,” a charming Yiddish word that means “destiny,” suggesting ironically, as the story from Bereishit Rabbah claims, God chooses our “soul mate” for us. And indeed, in the Talmud, Rav Yehudah explains how it works: at the time a child is conceived, a bat kol (heavenly voice) announces who is going to marry whom. God, the cosmic shadchan (matchmaker), is at work making matches ‘round the clock.

It’s charming. It’s romantic. It’s idyllic. And it’s nonsense. My husband and I met when we were 19 years old. We married at 22. It seemed so easy - we were young and in love, with shared plans and dreams. Who’s to say that 20, 30, 40 years down the line, when we are very different people than we were at 19, that we are still compatible and satisfying to one another? It doesn’t always happen that way, and that’s why divorce is a necessary escape valve. There is nothing dishonorable about divorce, and in many cases it is the most honorable thing to do.

But maybe that’s not what the Rabbis meant when they told the story of Rabbi Yose’s encounter with the Roman matron, and quoted Rabbah b. Bar Chanah as saying, “It is as difficult for God to make a match as it was to part the Reed Sea.” Perhaps they mean to tell us that a good marriage is a miracle, however long it lasts. What are the chances that two people can navigate the rocks and shoals for decades without running aground?

As surely as there are moment of celebration, joy, and ecstasy, there are challenges and stumbling blocks in every relationship. Marriage is hard work, very hard work. There’s no one formula for success, and success is never guaranteed, but the prophet Hosea, speaking of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, provides guidance:
And I will espouse you forever.
I will espouse you in righteousness and justice,
and with kindness and compassion.
And I will espouse you with faithfulness. (Hosea 2:21-22)
Hosea speaks of four components of long-lasting love: Equitable justice, Loving kindness, Compassion, and Faithfulness.

Equitable justice (tzedek u’mishpat) suggests to me that a committed couple puts the needs of the other on equal par with his or her own, and often makes the needs of the other the priority. Rather than making sure “I get what I need from the relationship,” each one makes sure he or she gives what is needed. Equitable righteousness requires us to proactively dispense love and attention, rather than sit around waiting to receive it.

Loving kindness (chesed) is most often the little things: small considerations, kind words, small favors, patience. It’s so easy for us to take for granted the one with whom we’ve been living for a long time. The glow of early romance fades; the chores and pressures of life weigh us down. Yet it’s remarkable how much power a small kindness has, and every day abounds with opportunities for chesed.

Compassion (rachamim) requires us to see the world through the eyes of the other. Genuine compassion requires not mere sympathy, but active empathy. When we understand another’s pain, fears, joys, ambition, and desires, we enter into their hearts, and they into ours.

Faithfulness (emunah) means committing to the relationship by placing it above all others, so that it gets the lion’s share of our energy and effort. In other words, marriage is a 24/7 project, especially in the bad times, and despite the ups and downs that are normal for all relationships.

Hosea’s advice - even when taken and applied - does not guarantee that a marriage will last forever. (Nothing guarantees that except force and coercion, and sometimes even that doesn’t work.) Love is something we work hard to create and maintain, through equitable justice, kindness, compassion, and faithfulness. Love is the most precious and meaningful thing in the world.

Jacob has a love match and an arranged match. I wonder if he thinks Rachel is his beshert. It sure seems that in the mind of Laban, Leah is Jacob’s beshert! I suspect that the reality is that neither is his beshert, but both became his beshert because he works hard to make them so. And maybe the message is that a marriage that works - for however long it works - is a miracle.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Does the end justify the means? / Toldot

In the days before the telephone, the only way to communicate long distance was by telegram. Telegrams were very expensive, so people conveyed their messages in the fewest words possible. Once a stockbroker in New York got a good tip on a company. He sent a cable to his favorite client, away doing business in London. The client in London knew the company was a dog, so he sent a cable to New York saying, “Don’t. Sell.” The stockbroker received the cable and read it aloud: “Hmmm… don’t sell. Okay, I’ll buy him 10,000 shares.”

God speaks directly to Rebekah. I can’t think of another woman in the Torah to whom God speaks directly. Rebekah is in agony because the twins in her womb are already in active competition with one another -- and in very tight quarters.
And Adonai said to her:
Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23)
There is an ambiguity in the last phrase that I will try to render in English the best I can. There are two ways to read the phrase v’rav ya’a’vod tza’ir: “The elder shall serve the younger” or “the elder, the younger shall serve.” It is not crystal clear whom God intends to inherit the Covenant.

Rebekah, who is headstrong and decisive, confidently decides that Jacob is the right brother for the patriarchal position that will open up when Isaac dies. Accordingly she favors Jacob, supports him, and ultimately schemes with him to insure he gets what she believes God wants for him.
Rebekah is willing to flout social convention and act immorally to see her vision through. She purposefully deceives her nearly blind and possibly enfeebled husband, Isaac. She instructs Jacob to lie to his father in order to secure for Jacob, Esau’s rightful blessing and inheritance.

This inspires the question: Does the end justify the means?

The phrase “the end justifies the means” originated with Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli promulgated this principle as a pragmatic philosophy, the purpose being to stabilize and improve governments. He did not mean to suggest that the principle applies to the interactions and relationships of people who are motivated by personal gain, greed, or even self-improvement. Immanuel Kant held nearly the opposite opinion as Machiavelli: moral absolutism. The ends never justify the means. An act is evil or good on its own merits, regardless of outcome.

What does Jewish tradition say about this perpetual conundrum?

In the case of pikuach nefesh (the obligation to save a life) the door is open to cheating, stealing, and lying if that is what is required to save a person’s life. If your life is threatened, all the doors and windows are flung open. You are obligated to kill the one who threatens you in order to save your own life: ya-avor v'al yei-ha-reg (“transgress and do not be killed”). The end justifies the means.

But the house is hermetically sealed shut if the means to the end is murder, idolatry, or sexual immorality. The principle in such cases is yei-ha-reg v’al ya’avor (“be killed and do not transgress”). Or maybe not? In the days of Deborah the Judge, Yael seduces the enemy general Sisera and kills him. In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) masechet Horayot 10b, we find an interesting comment amidst a discussion of the role of intentionality in performing mitzvot (commandments) and in Torah study. R. Nachman b. Yitzhak expounds: gadol avirah lishma mi'mitzvah shelo lishma -- “Greater is a transgression committed for a good intention than a commandment performed without intent.” Certainly a hyperbolic statement, but he backs up his claim by citing Judges 5:24 -- Most blessed of women be Yael, wife of Hever the Kenite, most blessed of women of tents. The expression “women of tents” is peculiar and the Rabbis explain it to mean the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. This means they are praising Yael’s actions -- seducing Sisera and then decapitating him as he slept it off -- above any of the matriarchs. That’s a resounding affirmation. Yael killed Sisera to stop a war and save many lives. Machiavelli would have approved. Kant would not.

On an even larger scale is the ethical debate concerning the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 in order to bring World War II to a rapid conclusion. The calculation that led President Truman to give the signal to drop “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, and then “Fat Man” over Nagasaki, was that if the war in the Pacific Theater were to drag on, and Operation Downfall to invade Japan launched, between 250,000 and one million American soldiers would die. The Joint Chiefs of Staff the previous April had set the estimates at 380,000 dead and 1.6 million injured. The Japanese deaths that would result are in addition to these numbers. And added to these, it was estimated that each month that the war stretched on, 250,000 Asians (largely Chinese, and most of them non-combatants) would die. Winston Churchill said, “I am surprised that very worthy people—but people who in most cases had no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves—should adopt a position that rather than throw this bomb we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter of a million British lives…” Do these estimated casualties justify dropping “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” over Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Rebekah’s decision is nowhere on the scale of the Atomic Bomb, but it does involve a future nation, perhaps meeting Machiavelli’s criterion. Yet terrible things continue to result from her decision: Jacob flees to Haran and Rebekah never saw him again. It appears Ishmael leaves, as well. The family is rent asunder: a very high price to pay.

Torah does not weigh in on the morality of Rebekah’s actions. None of the matriarchs or patriarchs is completely righteous and beyond reproach. They, like all of us, face some painfully difficult choices. But choose we must, because ethically, doing nothing is a choice.

How do you make such decisions in your own life? When do you believe the end justify the means? Something to ponder this shabbat.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Separation and Return / Chayei Sarah

Heidi and Rick Solomon’s son, Daniel, spent his first 7-1/2 years of life warehoused in a Romanian orphanage. It was a horror. Daniel spent his days in a crib, except when he ate or used the bathroom. He didn’t know any of the caregivers well enough to learn their names. Six months after bringing Daniel home, Daniel became a horror: throwing hurricane tantrums for hours, punching holes in the walls, physically attacking his mother. Heidi and Rick called the police frequently. Their marriage was at risk. Daniel was homicidal. Two psychiatrists told them the situation was hopeless: Daniel had severe attachment disorder.

Psychologists tell us that attachment and separation are hugely important issues in the life of every child, with ramifications well into adulthood. Social and emotional attachment to a parent or primary caregiver from the earliest age is critically necessary to healthy development. Being separated from the caregiver is a trauma and can be terribly damaging, adversely affecting the social, emotional and cognitive development of a child.

The experts further tell us that when families experience trauma, and separation ensues, they must grieve. Studies abound on children who have experienced violence (either at home, or as refugees), children who were adopted when they were old enough to feel the separation, and children who have lost their parents or were taken from their homes. But it is not only children who suffer from separation when trauma strikes; adult do, as well.

This week’s parashah describes such a family: Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.

In the opening two verses, Torah recounts Sarah’s death:
Sarah’s lifetime -- the span of Sarah’s life -- came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba -- now Hebron -- in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Genesis 23:1-2)
Since these verses (Genesis 23:1-2) follow directly on the tail of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac), our Sages reasoned that Sarah died of grief when she learned what had happened at Mount Moriah (Tanhuma, Vayera #23 and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:7 #1). Imagine her shock and horror; imagine the trauma.

Abraham approaches the Hittites and after a protracted negotiation, purchases Ma’arat ha-Machpelah (the Cave of Machpelah) near Mamre.
And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre -- how Hebron -- in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 23:19)
(The structure over the Cave of Machpelah today)
Between the mourning, the negotiation, and the burial, some time must have elapsed. Where was Isaac all this time? Didn’t he mourn his mother? Didn’t he attend the burial? No mention is made of him.

And here’s another question: Where was Abraham when Sarah died? She was in Kiryat Arba, but he was in Beer Sheba, where he had gone upon return from Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19). Commentators attempt to explain their separation in various ways. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (58:5) concocts this explanation:
And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah (Genesis 23:2). Whence did he come? R. Levi said: He came from the funeral of Terah [his father] to that of Sarah. R. Yose said to him: But Terah’s funeral preceded Sarah’s by two years. In fact, he came from Mount Moriah [implying that Sarah died of grief when she heard what had transpired there].
Still on the subject of Abraham’s mysterious whereabouts at the time of Sarah’s death, Rashi tells us that his stay in Beersheba was only temporary; but Genesis 22:19 is clear: Abraham settled in Beersheba. Rabbi Judah haChassid (1150-1217, author of Sefer haChasidim, the Book of the Pious) tells us that Abraham did not return to Kiryat Arba because he thought Sarah would consider him insane for what he had done, and not believe that God could possibly have commanded it. Other commentaries tell us that Abraham did live in Kiryat Arba, and yet others that Sarah came to Beersheba.

Everyone is dancing around what the text makes clear: After the Akedah, Abraham and Sarah live apart. The trauma of the Akedah -- for all three -- leads them to separate, and they suffer for it, because the separation adds trauma to the trauma. Abraham no longer lives with Sarah, Isaac does not attend his mother’s burial. And they all grieve. Attachment, Separation, Grief.

Families are torn apart for many reasons and often the damage is irreparable. Pain, fear, resentment, and bitterness can run very deep in the souls of those severely traumatized. The parashah affirms at its end, however, that healing is possible, even in very difficult situations.

Parshat Chayei Sarah famously begins by recounting the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. How different they are! Here is the account of Abraham’s death:
This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Genesis 25:7-9)
The contrast is striking: Isaac was absent from his beloved mother’s funeral. Not only was he present to bury his father Abraham, but he did so together with Ishmael. It’s remarkable that the two half-brothers could come together over anything, and were not permanently alienated after Ishmael and Hagar were banished to insure that Isaac alone would inherit the patrimony (Genesis 21:9-21). The brothers have come together, if only for the brief time necessary to bury their patriarch.

There’s no sugarcoated, sappy happily-ever-after here. No promises. But Torah does hold out hope. So far as we know, Isaac and Ishmael go their separate ways and do not speak to one another again, but they came together at that crucial moment.

We might well wonder: what happened during that short interlude they were together. What did they say to one another? Did they reconcile, at least enough to shed bitterness and resentment? Did they find closure so that they could eventually find peace? I would like to think so, because the message I hear is that healing and reconciliation are sometimes possible when we think them utterly impossible.

Perhaps you’re wondering what happened to Daniel Solomon. His mother Heidi took out eight weeks to provide Daniel a taste of the infanthood he never had. She maintained constant contact with him -- both physical and eye contact -- as if he were a baby. She made Daniel entirely dependent on her, and taught him that his needs would be met without him asking. At the age of 13, for a year his parents cradled Daniel for 20 minutes each night like a baby, talked with him, and fed him ice cream. Eventually Daniel opened up and began to talk about his experiences at the orphanage. All in all, it was a long, arduous, indescribably painful road, but Daniel eventually learned love and empathy. Daniel, who had been escorted out of his family’s synagogue by police officers any number of times, was confirmed there as a teenager, and what is more, he was awarded the prestigious Brickner Award.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

You can hear Heidi, Rick, and Daniel Solomon’s story, as well as Daniel’s speech at Confirmation, on This American Life.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Opening our hearts / Vayera

Shakespeare wrote, “Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone.” Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Visitors and fish stink after three days.” Torah, however, lauds hospitality.

In this week’s parashah, Vayera, we read:
The Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up [Abraham] saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.” (Genesis 18:1-4)
Our Sages learn from this passage two mitzvot: bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) and hachnasat orchim (hospitality). The angels, manifestations of God, visit Abraham as he heals from his circumcision (chapter 17); hence God models bikkur cholim (visiting the sick). Abraham, the Rabbis tell us, had a tent with four flaps open in each direction so he could always welcome visitors, as we see him doing in this passage; Abraham exhibits hachnasat orchim (hospitality).

Nedivut ha-lev means generosity of the heart. It encompasses visiting the sick, welcoming guests, charity, and many other mitzvot that require us to open our hearts, hands, and homes to others. Abraham has come to be a seminal exemplar.

Nedivut ha-lev (generosity of the heart) requires that we share with others what we have (money, time, energy, possessions, and even our homes). It is an inborn trait in some, but most of us need to develop and nurture it in ourselves. Nedivut ha-lev takes concerted practice. For some this is a huge challenge.

A story is told about a time the community of Mezritch was in dire straits: a young Jew was arrested and held hostage by the Russian police on the eve of his wedding. The police chief demanded 10,000 rubles as bail to release the young man -- essentially ransom. The young man was an orphan, as was his fiancée, so the community set about raising as much money as possible. People sold their cows and chickens, furniture and samovars, but they only raised 1,000 rubles.

It was clear that they needed the help of Zev the Miser. Zev was rich, but he had never given so much as a kopeck to anyone.

Four great rabbis, the Alter Rebbe (then still a young man), the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk, went to visit Zev.

Zev welcomed them into his home and listened to the heart-breaking story they told. “This is indeed am emergency,” he said. “I will give you one kopeck.” Now, a kopeck is 1/100 of a ruble -- essentially a penny. The Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and Rabbi Mendel wanted to throttle the miser, but the Alter Rebbe stopped them. He shook Zev’s hand and said, “Thank you so much. What you’ve done is wonderful and we are deeply grateful.”

Then the four rabbis left. They had not gone half a block when Zev called them back. “Here’s another kopeck,” he said. The Alter Rebbe again expressed his gratitude and praised Zev for his generosity. Again the rabbis left. Within a minute, Zev called them back again. This time he gave them a ruble. Again the Alter Rebbe treated it as a truly significant gift. This pattern continued, with Zev giving 5 rubles, then 10 rubles, then 100 rubles. In several hours, Zev the Miser had contributed the entire sum needed to ransom the young man in time for his wedding.

After the wedding, the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and Rabbi Mendel asked the Alter Rebbe, “How did you know what to do? What changed Zev the Miser into a generous man?”

He responded, “Last night Zev learned that he had far more spiritual strength than he ever knew. At first he had only the strength to give a kopek, but then he gave another and another. Each time he gave, he realized the good he was doing and grew in generosity and spiritual strength. It goes step by step for all of us.”

The story teaches us that generosity is learned and practiced. It is not an innate trait in everyone, but it can be developed and nurtured.

Why is it so difficult? What causes timtum ha-lev (stopping up of the heart)? I’d like to suggest three possibilities: First, those who have experienced abuse, neglect, or deprivation in their lives may close themselves off to others as a way of self-protection. Second, ego can block up our hearts. We live in a society that places a premium on wealth and possessions; giving something up is then seen as a loss. Third, timtum ha-lev may arise due to a fear of elevated expectations: if I give this much now, or host these people now, how much more will be expected of me next time? Our life experiences shape us; our attitudes guide our decisions; our fears paralyze us. It takes concerted effort to overcome any of these three causes of timtum ha-lev.

Torah describes in some detail Abraham’s hospitality. Note how he involves others:
Abraham hastened into the tent of Sarah, and said, “Quick! Three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate. (Genesis 18:6-8)
Abraham makes his tent a training ground for nedivut ha-lev (generosity of the heart). He involves his whole household in the mitzvah. He doesn’t just preach it, nor does he merely teach by example. He gets everyone involved.

May our homes be schools and laboratories for learning and practicing nedivut ha-lev (generosity of the heart) in all its expressions and manifestations, so that we and our children start it flowing out our front doors, into the streets, and out into the world beyond.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the first rebbe of Chabad.
Maggid of Mezrich: Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch (c. 1705-1772), a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1809), a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788), a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch.

Get up and go forth! / Lech Lecha

Meet Abraham. He’s 75 years old and embarking on a new career long after many of us would think to retire. His new career promises travel and adventure, challenge and reward. Of course, Abraham hasn’t a clue where he’s going or what he will face. He’s a trusting soul -- that’s why God chose him.
The Lord said to Abram: “Go forth (lech lecha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
Please also meet a team of eight young graduate students from The Johns Hopkins University who are just starting their careers. They have developed an Antenatal Screening Kit to test thousands of pregnant women and newborns in developing countries for eclampsia, malnutrition, gestational diabetes, and urinary tract infections -- for just pennies per test. They have left their comfortable American homes, university classrooms and laboratories, and traveled to India, Tanzania, and Nepal to observe firsthand the challenge of delivering scarce health care resources in rural, impoverished locations.

When we leave our familiar surroundings and comfort zone, we gain an entirely new perspective on the world and on ourselves. This was true for Abraham and I’m sure it has been true for the eight young biomedical engineers from Johns Hopkins.

God tells Abraham: Lech lecha. Lech lecha is a peculiar construction. This is not the common doubling of a verb form for emphasis. Lech lecha could mean “Go for yourself” or “Go to yourself.” Did God want Abraham to leave Haran for his own good, to gain a new perspective, and escape the stifling influence of his native culture? Or did God have in mind for Abraham to engage in a journey of self-exploration, to discover his true beliefs, and forge a relationship with God? I think both. God has designated Abraham to be the progenitor of a nation that will pass a covenantal tradition through the generations, shaping the lives of many who, as Torah says, are meant to be a blessing to the world. Abraham’s journey is for his own good, allowing him to realize his full potential because it is a journey of self-exploration. The two are inextricably bound.

The journey of the biomedical engineering graduate students has been both “for them” and “to them.” They have gained a new perspective and insight concerning the health challenges faced halfway around the world, and they have learned just how much they can contribute.

A bit more about their remarkable work: Urine tests are used to diagnose a variety of conditions that threaten the life of a pregnant woman and the fetus she carries. In impoverished nations, cost severely prohibits access to care. The standard way of conducting these tests involves a strip of paper impregnated with a variety of chemicals that is dipped it into the woman’s urine. These strips do not seem costly by our standards, but they are prohibitively costly in developing nations. The students developed chemical-filled pens that can be used on paper to produce test-strips on the spot -- for mere pennies. One marker for each chemical test. If a mark turns the color on the cap of the pen, the test result is positive. Their accomplishment won grand prize recently in an international competition sponsored by ABC News and the Duke Global Health Institute. Kol hakavod!
The Lord said to Abram: “Go forth (lech lecha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
Abram journeyed out to gave rise to a nation; lives came into being because of him. These students journeyed out to save lives; their Antenatal Screening Kit will save countless lives.

God blessed Abram. His life was full and rich, and he left a legacy. His named is great -- he is remembered in love to this day, and his name is evoked in prayer by his descendants several times each day. Abram has certainly been a blessing.

The students have been blessed in many ways, not the least being the love, support, and encouragement they receive from family and friends, and the superb opportunities and education they receive at Hopkins. They are making names for themselves in the world thought work that will save lives. And in that way, they are certainly a blessing to us all.

And for both Abraham and the eight students, the opportunity to be a blessing is probably the biggest blessing of all. Lech lecha -- They went forth, leaving their familiar environment, and ventured into the world both for themselves and to themselves. They became blessings, and thereby blessed us, as well.

Have you gone forth? Is it time for you to go forth “for yourself” and “to yourself”? Traveling hundreds or thousands of miles is not the only way to “go forth.” The world is a big place to explore, but you are a world to be explored, as well. Where is your journey taking you? Whose life will you bless?

The students from The Johns Hopkins University who invented the Antenatal Screening Kit are:
Front row: Matthew Means, Sherri Hall, Mary O’Grady and Shishira Nagesh. Back row: Peter Truskey, Maxim Budyansky, Sean Monagle and James Waring.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Seussian Edifice Complex / Noach

The Tower of Babel narrative -- a mere 22 verses! -- is a thinly veiled, stinging commentary on the culture of ancient Babylonia. Babylonia (Bavel in Hebrew) is renowned for its technical advancements, not the least of which include wheeled vehicles, metalworking, surveying, and mathematics. The Babylonians built impressive ziggurats and hanging gardens, but they also invented siege engines, war chariots, and a rigid division of social classes.

Torah tells us that the people of Bavel (Babylonia) embark on an exceptionally ambitious building project:
Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words… They said to one another, “Come let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11: 1, 3-4)
Torah emphasizes that the people all speak the same language, and then adds that they have the same words, a seeming redundancy. We are accustomed to thinking that good communication begets efficiency and productivity. And that is certainly the case here. So why is God displeased?

There are hints in the words: First, Torah emphasizes that the people of Bavel made bricks, baked them and combined them with mortar. We find the very same language used in the account of slavery in Egypt -- l’veinim (bricks) and chomer (mortar) -- no doubt an allusion to servitude in Egypt (Exodus 1:13-14). Imagine how human labor must have been exploited to build that tower.

That could well point to one reason that God views the mammoth Lego tower askance. What seems, on the surface, a lovely building project, the product of excellent communication, is actually an exercise in exploitation to satisfy the vanity of (most likely) the king.

Even more: They spoke the same language, but Torah then says [they had] the same words (that redundancy in Genesis 11:1). If we already know they speak the same language, would we not presume they have the same words? Having the same words, saying the same thing, suggests that the people were either all of one mind, or coerced into expressing the same ideas. Totalitarianism and fascism leap to mind, and certainly accord with Torah’s hint that the Tower is built by exploited, or possibly slave, labor. No wonder God’s solution is to befuddle their speech so that they all sound like they’re speaking jibberish to one another. In fact, that is what Bavel means, and English derives the word “babble” from it.

My first lesson in totalitarianism and exploitation was courtesy of that great social critic and moral "philosophiser," Dr. Seuss. Yertle the Turtle is more-or-less a version of the Tower tale. The location’s name -- Sala-ma-Sond itself sounds like babbling. In Dr. Seuss’ fine style:
On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.

They were... until Yertle, the king of them all,
Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.
"I'm ruler," said Yertle, "of all that I see.
But I don't see enough. That's the trouble with me.
With this stone for a throne, I look down on my pond
But I cannot look down on the places beyond.
This throne that I sit on is too, too low down.
It ought to be higher!" he said with a frown.
"If I could sit high, how much greater I'd be!
What a king! I'd be ruler of all that I see!"
Those of you who are cultured intellectuals and aficionados of fine literature know the outcome: King Yertle presses all the turtles into service to build his high throne using their bodies as bricks. When the turtles complained of their pain and hunger…
"You hush up your mouth!" howled the mighty King Yertle.
"You've no right to talk to the world's highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There's nothing, no, NOTHING, that's higher than me!"
Yertle the Turtle King’s throne comes crashing down when one little turtle named Mack -- stuck at the bottom of the stack -- burped.

Could Yertle have built his self-aggrandizing throne without oppressing his subjects? Could the Tower of Babel have been built without exploiting human beings?

This alone would be sufficient reason for God to scuttle the Tower project. In addition to conscripted labor, imagine how much time, energy, and materials are wasted. Yet perhaps there is another reason, also hinted at in the language of the passage.

The people of Babel build the Tower to make a name for themselves. The building of the Tower, which likely features exploitation and oppression, also serves to separate the people of Babel, to distinguish them, from all other peoples. Let’s explore that avenue for a moment.

Biblical narratives are often stylistically chiastic: this means that we find the climax or most important part in the middle. Here is the very center of the 22-verse Tower narrative.
The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that humans had built, and the Lord said, “If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” (Genesis 11:5)
The verb “to look at” or “to see” seems extraneous, just as [they had] the same words. God needs to come down to see? God doesn’t already know? Why is God’s seeing so important? The verb lir’ot (“to see”) is pivotal.

The people see the Tower as a reflection of their greatness. Others will see the Tower and acknowledge the people of Babel as superior. Everyone sees, but doesn’t really see. The sight of the Tower blinds them to what is true and important. The Tower -- and the fine communication that facilitates its construction -- have separated people from one another, from God, from the very world. And so God sees that the Tower is a big problem.

The Hasidim tell a parable about a king and his palace, and what people see. The story -- which is found in many versions -- is attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760, the founder of Hasidism).
A king had a glorious palace with many chambers, one inside another, in concentric circles. The king hid himself in the center, behind wall after wall. Guards were stationed at the doors to each chamber to prevent anyone from entering. Wild beasts ran free throughout the outer chambers of the palace. The king issued a proclamation that anyone who came to see him would be richly rewarded. The guards turned back most who approached the palace. A few scaled the walls but were driven back by the terrifying wild beasts. Those who made it past the wild beasts were given gold coins and precious jewels by the guards. They were so pleased with these that they forgot their goal had been to visit the king. No one reached the king’s chamber except the king’s son. He ignored the guards, scaled the walls, evaded the wild animals, and threw the money and jewels down. He recognized that all these were distractions, barriers, obstacles. He longed to see his father. He sat down and cried. “Father, father, don’t keep me away from you. Let me into your presence!” At once the guards, the beasts, the walls -- indeed every outer part of the palace -- disappeared. The son found himself in the presence of his father, who was seated on a majestic throne. It was then that the son realized that the king had never been concealed or hidden from view. The guards, the walls, the wild beasts, the money, and the jewels were all illusions. He had been in the king’s presence all along, but had been unable to see him until he set everything else aside.
The story reminds us that we are always in God’s presence, but often cannot experience (“see”) God’s presence because of so many illusory walls and obstacles in our lives, including ideas, emotions, but perhaps most of all material reality. All those ideas, emotions, and objects are real, to be sure, and they are also important and valuable in our lives, but they are not ultimate. We need to see beyond them.

We see our individual selves as distinct and separate, unique and unparalleled. And indeed, that too is true and necessary. But on a higher spiritual level, we come to see that all distinctions fade away; they are illusory. The unity of the universe includes us; we are not separate from it. We are all part of God and God is within us all. Our very bodies are constructed of atoms that have been part of who knows how many people, plants, objects, and stars before. They came into being in the early moments of the universe after the Big Bang. And they will be recycled after we die. Our lives are not separate from the flow of the universe; we are part of the great rushing river of the evolving universe. When we can “see” our connection, the guards, beasts, walls, and material distractions fall away, we can see what is real and be in God’s presence. We can visit God.

When we have that vision of God and the universe, we see that totalitarianism and exploitation run counter to God’s will. God loves diversity -- the many languages people speak at the end of the story dramatize this -- but it is diversity within a great unity.

In a world corrupted by human trafficking, child labor, children used as soldiers, exploitation of cheap labor, sexual abuse, and even the struggle for a living wage, we see that we build our own Towers. It’s time to vacate these towers and enter God’s palace.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Shemini Atzeret and the Grand Canyon

What is Shemini Atzeret? Everyone asks that question, even rabbis. Sukkot lasts seven days. What’s the “Eighth Day Gathering” tacked onto the end? One lovely midrashic response is that God wants all the pilgrims who gathered in Jerusalem for Sukkot to remain one more day. Don’t you always want to extend your vacation with loved ones one more day?

Liturgically and with great ceremony, we add the prayer for rain back into the second blessing of the Amidah: Mashiv ha-ruach u’morid ha’gashem / You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall. Several observations: (1) In Eretz Yisrael, the winter rains begin at this time of year. Certainly no one wanted them to begin while they were still traveling to and from Jerusalem, so the prayer was added after Sukkot. (2) We have just finished the autumn harvest festival. Although most of us are not farmers, those of us who need to eat can still appreciate the importance of the growing cycle. Having given thanks for what we harvested this year, we immediately turn our attention to the most essential element in next year’s harvest: the winter rains. (3) Mashiv ha-ruach is added to the Gevurot, the blessing about resurrection, because rain renews the life of the world.

We have gone through the High Holy Days: introspection, repentance, atonement, and intention to change and improve. Hopefully we have experience renewal and set a new course for our lives -- not wholesale change, but improvement. No one walks out of synagogue after Ne’ilah and the final shofar utterly transformed. We’ve done the head and heart work, but how do we translate that into behavior?

Change doesn’t come easily or immediately. I think the image of water -- so central to Shemini Atzeret -- can help us. I’d like to share with you a wonderful story about Rabbi Akiba found in chapter 6 of the midrashic compilation Avot de-Rabbi Natan (which itself is a commentary on Pirke Avot). I’ll interpolate some comments.
What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiba? At age 40 he had not learned anything. One time he was standing at the mouth of a well, and asked, "Who hollowed out this rock?" They answered him, "Was it not the water that constantly falls on it?" They further said, "Akiba, are you not familiar with the verse, Water wears away stone... (Job 14:19). Rabbi Akiba immediately made the following logical inference to himself: "Just as the soft [water] shaped the hard [stone], words of Torah -- which are as hard as iron -- all the more so they will shape my heart which is but flesh and blood."
Rabbi Akiba recognizes that the process of erosion is slow and painstaking, but exceptionally powerful and successful. The Colorado River cut the Grand Canyon. The most successful changes come gradually. (One example is weight loss: if you do it gradually, it’s because you’re changing your lifestyle, and that is change that is far more likely to stick.) He learns from this -- as can we -- that change can come slowly, in small increments, little by little. During the High Holy Days, we planted the seeds of change. We don’t expect Jack’s beanstalk the next day. The seeds will germinate and grow in time, slowly and gently.
[Akiba] immediately went to learn Torah. He went with his son, and they both sat in front of a teacher of young students. Rabbi Akiba said, "My master, teacher me Torah." Rabbi Akiba held one end of a tablet, and his son held the other end. The teacher wrote the letters aleph, bet, and Rabbi Akiba learned them. Aleph, taf and Rabbi Akiba learned them. The Book of Leviticus, and he learned it. He went on studying until he had learned the entire Torah. Then he went and sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. He said to them, "My Masters open for me [reveal to me] the taste of the Mishnah. Once they told him one halakhah (law), he went and sat by himself, pondering: "Why was this [letter] aleph written; why was this [letter] bet written; why was this thing said?" He went back and asked them, and reduced them to silence.
Rabbi Akiba is 40 years old and does not know even the alphabet. He needs to start at the very beginning, learning two letters at a time. He does not expect himself to learn everything overnight. Each tidbit he learns facilitates the next; each incremental change facilitates and reinforces the next. He is gradually transforming himself from an ignorant farmhand to a learned sage.

The midrash is about learning Torah, and perhaps that’s one of your goals for the coming year. But it applies equally well to other changes you want to make: Jewish practice, personality traits, work habits, exercise, a healthier diet, more time with your loved ones… The seeds planted so recently will grow with time. Keep at it, but give it time.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, “I will give a parable. To what is this matter similar? It is like a stonecutter who was chiseling away in the mountains. One time he took his pickaxe, sat upon a mountain, and began cutting away small pieces of stone. People came up to him and asked, "What are you doing?" He replied, "I am uprooting the mountain so I can throw it into the Jordan River." They said, "You will never be able to uproot the entire mountain." The stonecutter continued until he came upon a large rock. He got underneath it, uprooted it and placed it in the Jordan. He said to the rock, "Your place is not here [on the mountain], but here [in the river]." This is what Rabbi Akiba did to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Tarfon said to him: "Akiba, about you the verse says, He dams up he sources of the stream so that hidden things may be brought to light (Job 28:11) -- Rabbi Akiba brought to light things that are hidden from [other] people."
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar’s parable is beautiful. If you keep chipping away, eventually you can move a mountain. That’s our task in the coming year: to let the water in, drop by drop, to shape us into the people we wish to be. We need to be patient with ourselves, but keep moving forward and noting our successes. Renewal doesn’t always happen in a flash; sometimes it comes drop by drop.

Here’s a picture of the Grand Canyon. Perhaps you might print it out and keep it as a reminder.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Another mechitza we don't need / Parshat Bereishit

One day in the Garden of Eden, Eve said to God, “This is a great place. The plants are beautiful, the animals are wonderful, and food is no more than an arm’s length away, but…”

“What’s the problem, Eve?” God asked.

“Well, to tell the truth, I’m lonely. There’s no one like me here.”

“I’ll create a man for you, Eve. Then you won’t be lonesome any longer,” God replied.

“What’s a man?” Eve asked.

“A man is a creature who will grow up but remain forever childish. He’ll be bigger, stronger, and faster than you, and he’ll hunt food and bring it home. When he’s not being deceitful and arrogant, he’ll be clueless and witless. And he will never ask for directions. He will, however, satisfy your physical needs magnificently.”

Eve raised an eyebrow. “What’s the catch?”

“Well, given his vanity and pride, you’ll have to let him believe I made him first. And just remember, it’s our little secret, woman to woman.”
We all fill out a lot of forms: applications, registrations, licensing. In some we are asked our sex, and in others our gender. Sex and gender are not the same. Sex is a matter of biology. Gender is a social construct: the attributes assigned to a particular sex. In the joke, Eve’s sex is female (and apparently God’s, as well) and Adam’s sex is male, but “deceitful, arrogant, witless, clueless,” and so on, are matters of gender. We can easily dismiss this as an old, obnoxious, and bigoted joke because the presumption of gender behind it no longer rings true.

We begin the cycle of Torah reading anew this shabbat with Parshat Bereishit. Here we find not one, but two creation stories. While they differ in many significant details, I want to focus on one aspect in which both concur: sex. Torah presumes two sexes: male and female. In chapter one, multiple people are created on the sixth day -- some males and some females.
And God created humanity in his image, in the image of God he created humanity; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
In chapter two, a single man is created, and only after God realizes he is lonely, a woman is created.
So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and while he slept, he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that he had taken from the man into a women; and he brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:21-22)
I recently found myself in a conference hotel that had two identically equipped single restrooms on the fifth floor. Yet one was marked “women” and one was marked “men.” What’s the point? You won’t be surprised to hear that there was a line outside the first, and no one using the second. The view of the human race as divided among males and females, who even use separate although identical single rest rooms, runs deep in our society. It is accompanied by varying notions of gender: what is expected from, and what is appropriate for, boys and girls, men and women.

Torah is our Master Narrative. It informs all our thinking about, and discussion of, sex, gender, and sexuality. Torah presumes a binary oppositional world: males and females; holy and mundane; shabbat and the other days; Israel and the other nations; obedience and disobedience to the covenant; reward and punishment.

Perhaps we have misread Torah for a long time. Perhaps the point is that there is variety that makes reproduction possible, not that there are only two options. There are people for whom the rest room designations “men” and “women” are not sufficient. People have long recognized hermaphrodites as well as pseudohermaphrodites; Talmud discusses this (Yebamot 81, 83; Shabbat 134b; mishnah Bikkurim, ch. 4). Today there are people who openly identify as transgender, bigender, transsexual, or intersex. They often call themselves “genderqueer.” Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University, has suggested that there are at least five sexes. While not widely accepted, her ideas are certainly eye opening. Even the most basic “truths” sometimes turn out not be true at all.

Where once we pretended homosexuality did not exist, today we are challenged to fully recognize and accept genderqueer people as children of God, created in the divine image like all other people. After all, God is only male as a matter of semantics, and female as a matter of humor. God is beyond sex and gender, or perhaps better put, God incorporates all.

The Rabbis tell us that the first primordial human was androgynous -- neither male nor female as Torah seems to suggest, and certainly as it has been interpreted for a very long time. Rather, one side of the primordial human was male and the other side was female. Another opinion holds that the primordial human was altogether sexless.
Rabbi Yermia the son of Elazar said: When the Holy One Blessed be God created the first human, He created him androgynous, for it says, Male and female created He them (Genesis 1:27). Rabbi Shmuel b. Nachman said: When the Holy One Blessed be God created the first human, He made it two-faced, then he sawed it and made a back for this one and a back for that one. They objected to him: but it says, He took one of his ribs [tsela’] (Genesis 2:21). He answered: [tsela’ means] "one of his sides," similarly to that which is written, And the side [tsela'] of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:20). Rabbi Tanchuma in the name of Rabbi Banayah and Rabbi Berekiah in the name of Rabbi Elazar: He created him as a golem, and he was stretched from one end of the world to the other, as it says, My golem which Your eyes have seen. (Psalm 139:16) (Bereishit Rabbah 1:54-55)
In the Rabbis’ imagination, the primordial human -- the ideal human -- is unsexed and undifferentiated: beyond gender assignment. The primordial human is neither “male” nor “female,” but rather a person. This person contains everything within or is a golem, without identifiable sex or gender. When one considers this primordial human, all discussion of sex and gender fall away as irrelevant. What one sees -- and all one can see -- is a human being, created by God, in the Divine Image. There’s a lesson here for us about viewing people not from a narrow, limited slant, but rather through God’s broad and loving lens.

Can you do that? What will it take for you to do that? If you already do that, can you help others to do so also?

And for goodness sake, let’s make rest rooms user-friendly.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gevalt! A new generation / Sukkot and V'zot ha-berakhah

Sukkot arrives in a few hours, with shabbat on its tail. Rain is threatening. Irony: We don’t add the prayer for rain until Shemini Atzeret because rain doesn’t fall in Israel until then. Here we might be inclined to pray for a cessation of rain for a week so we can enjoy our sukkot. Another irony: Living in a sukkah for a week reminds us of the fragility of our lives, but when it rains tonight (according the weather report) we’ll be inside effectively denying that. One is not required to sit and suffer in a sukkah, the Jewish light bulb joke aside. In the 21st century it helps us appreciate the warm, snug homes we live in the other 51 weeks of the year. We have just finished the High Holy Days, which impressed upon us our mortality -- life is the ultimate deadline -- and now we make our homes in temporary huts, which remind us that even while we are alive, we are so very vulnerable. All this helps us readjust our entitlement meters. Life is a gift, a blessing, and we have a limited amount of time to use it well.

If the High Holy Days and Sukkot are not sufficient reminders of our mortality and fragility, on shabbat we read Zot ha-berakhah - “and this is the blessing” - the last parashah of Torah. The first cousins to mortality and fragility are change and transition. This parashah is largely about transition. Moses reaches his “deadline.” He dies on Mt. Nebo, is buried by God, and Joshua ben Nun takes the reins as leader of a new generation. The generation that came out of Egypt is leaving this world. A new generation, born in the Wilderness, with an entirely different perspective on themselves and the world, has come of age.

Every generation expresses trepidation about turning the reins of leadership, and indeed the world, over to the next generation. Each generation seems to find the next generation lacking. Quite frankly, it’s tiresome, especially this round of kvetching about Generation-X and the Millennial Generation. What is true for Star Trek is true today: the next generation is terrific.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 BCE - 475 BCE) recognized long ago that change is the only constant in the universe: everything flows; nothing stands still.

In the very last chapter of the Torah, Moses climbs to the top of Mt. Nebo, the last hike he will ever take.
Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negev; and the Plain -- the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees -- as far as Zoar. (Deuteronomy 34:1-4)
Moses will never reach the Promised Land. What was he thinking as he scanned the horizon and gazed at the Land he would never enter? Did he consider Joshua ben Nun competent to take over the mantle of leadership? Did he believe the generation born in the Wilderness would succeed in the Land? With his last words, Moses blesses the people, each and every tribe, his people, his children, his successors:
This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died... Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morashah k’hilat Yaakov. When Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob, then [God] became king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people assembled, the tribes of Israel together. (Deuteronomy 33:1, 4-5)
We know that Moses was distraught that he would never enter the Promised Land, but nowhere does Torah tell us that Moses doubts the competence or integrity of the next generation. He delivers stern warnings and exhortations precisely because he knows they will carry on. He has confidence in them to carry the Covenant forward. He believes in the next generation.

We should do no less. I have heard many of my contemporaries bemoan the “next generation” and describe them as narcissistic, selfish, materialistic, and uncaring. Utter nonsense. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have every reason to bless the next generation and have confidence in them.

No doubt there are Gen-Xers and Millennials who will not succeed in making a life for themselves. Some will be toxic for society. This happens in every generation. But those who will lead and innovate are far more knowledgeable and informed, and know how to navigate the world far better than my generation. They are socially aware, their moral commitments run deep, and they get involved. They keep themselves informed about the events and issues of the day. They do a lot of volunteer work, here and around the world. I have met many whose career plans are to go into medicine not to enable a certain lifestyle, but to work with underprivileged populations, or pursue research on a particular medical condition and thereby alleviate, or at least mitigate, suffering. I have met many who want to go to law school not to strike it rich, but to insure that justice is dispensed to the have-nots. Many are concerned about the environment and plan scientific and entrepreneurial careers with this in mind. They have a global perspective and strong sense of social responsibility.

I’m sick and tired of the characterization of this generation as plugged into their devices and tuned out to everything else. More nonsense. This generation has taken to modern technology as fish to water and birds to air. When you grow up with a mouse in your hand that comes as no surprise. They use technology well. They stay in touch with one another and support one another because they know what’s happening in one another’s lives in real time. They value their relationships. They use their 24/7 internet connection to keep informed and to research issues they care about. (For what it’s worth, I plug in and listen to podcasts and music at the gym, in the supermarket, and while folding laundry. I think if it weren’t for podcasts, I might never fold the laundry because it’s so mind-numbingly boring. Why shouldn’t they during the downtimes in their day?)

I spent the High Holy Days in Ann Arbor where I had the joy and privilege of helping to lead the High Holy Day services at the University of Michigan Hillel. I split my time between Conservative and Reform services, affording me the opportunity to meet and work with a great many students. I’m not easy to impress (ask my kids). I was blown away by these students: they are intelligent and interesting to be sure, but even more, they are kind to one another, respectful of adults, and brimming with ambition wedded to idealism. Most importantly, they are menschen with loving, caring hearts. Yet another confirmation of what I have been seeing in this generation of years. Yet the moment I stepped on the plane to head home, I overheard the pilot and a passenger discussing how going to work is great because you get away from your kids (based on their ages, they both had grown kids) because this generation... bla, bla, bla.

Pirke Avot begins:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. (1:1)
We are accustomed to seeing in this mishnah the Rabbis’ claim that Oral Torah (the Talmud) has the same authoritative status as Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses). But let’s look again. For the Rabbis, Moses is Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moses our rabbi”). In this mishnah Joshua is Moses’ successor in Torah. Masechet Sanhedrin envisions Joshua studying in the bet midrash as the Rabbis did. The Rabbis were not projecting themselves back to the generation that stood at Sinai; they were advancing Moses and Joshua forward to the rabbinic period. Perhaps being closer to Sinai was deemed more spiritually powerful, but novelty and innovative thinking were what the Rabbis truly prized.

The first mishnah in Pirke Avot exhorts each generation to “be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” No doubt this advice was meant for the rabbis -- much of Pirke Avot is rabbis talking to rabbis -- but we can also understand this teaching in a broader sense as being directed at us. We have been deliberative in how we raised this generation -- and we are often criticized for our “excessive” involvement in their lives (sometimes rightly so). The result is that this generation is also deliberative in their judgment and, I hasten to say, far less judgmental than their parents. We have raised up many disciples.

Intermarriage and assimilation are neither new nor the only news. If you’re concerned that Judaism will dissolve with this generation, set your worries aside. (Simon Rawidowicz pointed out in "Israel: The Ever-Dying People," an essay written in 1957, that every generation thinks it is the last.) Gen-X has been at the forefront of an explosion of Jewish learning and Jewish spirituality, not to mention progressive and innovative practice. There has been an explosion of independent minyanim among this generation in the past decade. Check out what they’re doing on the internet. They share it with everyone. Take a look at the blogs they keep on Torah, Zionism, social justice, and more. (A few links below.) Their fresh and insightful interpretations of Torah are bubbling, sparking, flowing. They are taking on Torah seriously, doing just what God intended R. Akiba to do when putting the decorations on the letters of the Written Torah: generate new torah. (Menachot 29b)

It’s not that “change is coming.” The universe evolves continually. Change is the way of the world.

The generation entering the Promised Land was born into freedom and enjoyed a broader perspective than their parents who knew only servitude in the tar pits of Egypt. Gen-X and the Millennials were born into a high-tech global world; they too enjoy a broader perspective than their parents. Different generations. Different experiences. Different perspective on the world and their place in it. For what generation is that not true?

Each generation will surely inherit the world. Should it be entrusted to them? The fact that we are here more than 3500 years after Moses turned his staff over to Joshua speaks to the qualifications of the Wilderness generation. In time, Gen-X and the Millennials will have the opportunity to prove themselves. I have every confidence in them. They have my blessing.

May our time in our sukkot help us appreciate the many blessings in our lives, including the next generation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman