Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding God: different strokes for different folks / Vayeitzei

Yaakov and Rachel have a great deal in common. Their lives have a remarkable number of touchpoints. First, both are shepherds, spending long days outside with sheep, goats, and their own thoughts. Second, both Yaakov and Rachel contend with their siblings whom they regard as rivals. Third, each, in a difference phase of life, flees home, leaving behind hearth and kin, and taking a father’s legacy in tow. Yaakov steals the blessing intended for Esav and Rachel takes her father’s terafim (Genesis 31:19), often translated “household gods.” Fourth, both Yaakov and Rachel employ deception to achieve their ends: Yaakov deceives Yitzhak into bestowing upon him the blessing and inheritance intended for Esav; Rachel deceives her father, Lavan, concerning the terafim. Fifth, each seeks spiritual encounter with God, but Yaakov and Rachel find that intimacy in very different ways that are instructive to us.

Yaakov discovers God when he is alone, scared, and vulnerable. Yaakov leaves Beersheba because Esav has threatened his life. The first night he is alone, he has the famous dream of the sulam (ramp or ladder) extending from heaven to earth, angels ascending and descending, and God standing beside it. God speaks to him and confirms that he, Yaakov, does indeed carry the Covenant. Yaakov responds with awe: Achein yesh Adonai ba’makom ha-zeh v’anochi lo yadati / Truly Adonai is in this place and I, I did not know it (Genesis 28:16). Yaakov finds his way to Haran, and in the next two decades he ingratiates himself with Laban, becomes his shepherd, marries his two daughters, breeds the animals so that he can take away most of the flock. There is no mention of his relationship with God during these 20 years. When he leaves, Haran, however, and returns to Eretz Yisrael, he knows he will see Esav again. Yaakov makes preparations for his camp and that night again finds himself alone, scared, and vulnerable. Again he encounters God, or this time, an angel who wrestles with him throughout the night.

Rachel, on the other hand, encounters God in the context of her relationships and her desire to bring new life into the world: Va’yizkor Elohim et Rachel va’yishma eileha Elohim va’yiftach et rachma. Va’tahar va’teileid ben, va’tomeir asaf Elohim et cher’pa-ti / God now remembered Rachel; God listened to her and opened her womb, so she became pregnant and bore a son. She said, “God has removed my disgrace. (Genesis 30:22-23). To be sure, her relationships with Yaakov and Leah are complicated and far from pristine, and her desire for children is nested in the context of a fierce competition with her sister for the love of their shared husband.

Yaakov turns to God at turning points in his life; he encounters God when is alone, scared, and vulnerable.

Rachel, in contrast, turns to God when she is overwhelmed by the pain of the most precious relationships in her life, and her unfulfilled desires.

This inspires two thoughts. First, our parashah affirms different types of spirituality. People encounter God in response to their individuality, needs, temperaments, personality, and the exigencies of life – not according to a pre-determined formula for the right way to find God. There is no formula, though there are avenues for entry that have worked for many (including prayer, study, and meditation). Parshat Vayeitzei affirms that each person finds his/her own way, and there are is a multitude of ways that work. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that it provides so many options and entry points: we have a rich liturgy, a wealth of texts for study, mystical paths and practices, meditative techniques, social avenues for connection.

Second, Yaakov and Rachel seem not to seek God until things turn sour in their lives. God is not just for the bad times and in fact if we do not invite God and holiness in our lives during the good times, I wonder if we’ll be able to call on God’s strength and support in the bad times.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do the ends justify the means? / Toldot

We are accustomed to examining and ruminating over the events of our lives by considering: What does this mean to me? What does this mean for me? Parshat Toldot offers another view that can broaden our perspective.

Rebekkah, the wife of Yitzhak, conceives. Twins struggle with one another while still in utero, causing Rebekkah to ask: Im kein, lama zeh anochi / If this is so, why do I exist?

Many commentators understand Rebekkah’s question as an inward plaint of pain. For example: “Why then did I yearn and pray to become pregnant?” or “Why do I go on living?” (see Etz Hayyim, Jewish Publication Society, p. 146). I would suggest that a miserable pregnancy is not at all the thrust of Rebekkah’s question. Rather, she is asking the significance of her experience, beyond herself, and also her part in the unfolding event that is her pregnancy. Hence, she is asking: If this is happening, what does it mean and what is my role as the mother of these two? God supplies an answer confirming that for Rebekkah this is more than a rotten pregnancy:
Two peoples are in your belly;
Two nations shall branch off from each other [emerging] from our womb.
One people shall prevail over the other;
The elder shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23)
Rebekkah is not the only mother to whom God discloses information about her son’s future: Hagar (Genesis 16:10-12) and Samson’s mother (Judges 13:3-5) also learn their son’s fates early on. But Rebekkah’s situation is different: her sons will contend with one another and ultimately one will dominate while the other will serve.

Rebekkah takes God’s words to heart. We might wonder if Yaakov is her “favorite” son because he’s a “mama’s boy,” as so many have made him out to be, or because Rebekkah has understood God’s words to her (Genesis 25:23) to mean that Yaakov is the designated son to carry the Covenant forward to the next generation. If she simply prefers Yaakov because he sticks close to the tent, then Rebekkah’s role in the deception of Yitzhak whereby he confers the blessings intended for Esav on Yaakov is immoral – indeed, despicable. If, however, she understands God’s intent correctly, then she is facilitating the transfer of the Covenant from Yitzkak to Yaakov in accord with God’s intent.

Yet serious problems remain, both in Torah’s account and – morally – for us. Claiming to know God’s will absolutely more often leads to absolute evil than to good – history is replete with examples ranging from the Inquisition to individuals who claimed to be doing what God bid them. Also to consider is whether the ends justify the means.

Machiavelli, in his treatise on power, The Prince, wrote that the ends justify the means and comments, “Anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything must be ruined among so many who are not good.” Yet there are times when it is precisely the moral outcome that justifies otherwise unacceptable means: for pikuach nefesh (to save a life) we may lie, cheat, and even steal. Yet there are limits: we may not commit murder, idolatry, or incest, even to save a life, including our own.

Consequentialists are moral philosophers who hold that a good outcome or consequence is the sole arbiter of the morality of the action that brought it about. This suggests that we cannot say whether an act is morally good or bad until we see what happens. But in this very real world in which we live, there are multiple consequences to our words and deeds – indeed, there is often a cascade of events.
Here are several questions to ponder:
  • Should Israel trade release terrorists from jail in order to secure the release of kidnapped soldiers?
  • Is it acceptable for missionaries to employ deceptive tactics to gain converts? What if we’re talking about a baal teshuvah yeshivah?
  • Is it morally acceptable to use torture to extract information if there is reason to believe that innocent lives could be saved?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Belief and Behavior: The Chicken and the Egg / Chayei Sarah

Nearing the end his life, Avraham entreats his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Yitzhak. Who is a fitting mate for the second generation patriarch who carries the covenant of God? Certainly not an idolatrous Canaanite lest Yitzhak be absorbed into her family and sucked into the idolatrous practices of the people surrounding him. So Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer on a journey of many hundreds of miles to the land of his ancestors: Haran in Ur of the Chaldees, later called Babylonia, today called Iraq. Here’s what Torah says:
I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac (Genesis 24:3).
Torah commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (R. Yitzhak b. Yehudah Abravanel, (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508) makes an astute observation. If Avraham’s objection to the Canaanites concerns their idolatrous practices, Abraham’s relatives in the Old Country – Nahor and Betuel – are no better, and perhaps not even preferable to Aner and Eshkol of Canaan, whom Avraham esteems.

The RaN (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girondi, Barcelona, ~1340-1380) explains that Avraham’s concern is not the beliefs of Aner and Eshkol, as opposed to Nahor and Betuel, but rather the evil deeds of the Canaanites compared with those of Terah’s people. He points out:
As Leviticus 18:3 tells us: You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.
The Canaanites did horrendous things, the RaN tells us – it’s not just that they were idolaters since of course everyone at this time was an idolater except Abraham and Sarah.

The point here is that the RaN held that beliefs, however misguided, are not hereditary, but growing up witnessing evil deeds leaves a lasting impression that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds: the influence of the Canaanites will be more potent since Isaac lives among them. Yet beliefs are often provide the rationale and justification for evil deeds, as we have seen time and time again.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vayera / Avraham's Traife Banquet

Avraham is the epitome of hospitality, a model for all time. In parashat Vayera we are told that he is sitting at the entrance to his tent during the heat of the day when three stranger appear as if from out of nowhere. Avraham rushes to greet them and welcomes the strangers by washing their feet and providing a banquet. Avraham not only provides the best of what he has for them, he also serves them himself, rather than relegating this task to a servant.

One question we might ask is whether Avraham’s guests – whom we know to be angels – eat the food. Our Rabbis explain in Baba Metzia 86b that they only appeared to eat the repast, though a midrash claims four centuries later when the angels objected to God giving the Torah to Israel and implored God to keep it in heaven with them, God pointed out that they had indeed eaten traife in Avraham’s tent.

Another question that arises concerns the decidedly unkosher menu: [Avraham] 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 18:3). Is this a cheeseburger? Avraham lived long before the laws of kashrut were given to Israel at Mt. Sinai, so this should not present a problem. Nonetheless, mishnah Kiddushin 4:14 (citing Genesis 26:5) assures us that Avraham kept all the mitzvot – including the laws of kashrut – although he was not commanded to do so. Moreover, other commentaries point out, Avraham did not actually dine with his guests; he only prepared and served the food. Yet another claims that Avraham didn’t serve the milk and meat together and left a proper waiting period between them. These are klugy answers.

Even Kabbalah weighs in on these questions and teaches that each physical substance represents a different spiritual energy. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught that dairy foods are associated with chesed (loving kindness) and meat is associated with gevurah (might). The creamy, white flow of dairy products reflects the emotional energy of loving-kindness and nurturing, while the red color and tough consistency of meat reflect the human capacity for discipline, limitation, and rejection. We need both attributes, and often need them at different times, but in most cases we want our chesed to prevail over our gevurah.

There’s a powerful message here about our innate proclivities. We have the capacity – and therefore responsibility – to both rein them in when they go too far, and to use them productively. How often do we excuse excess in one spiritual energy or another (either leniency or harshness) by claiming it’s our “nature” and we cannot “fight who we are”? If we think of both proclivities as powerful, valuable, creative spiritual energies, imagine how much we can accomplish in life by harnessing them for our purposes. One of the foundational ideas of Kabbalah is that God is an ever-flowing fountain of spiritual energy and if we know this, and make the effort (through prayer, study, meditation, and other means) we can tap into the flow. The message here is that you have resources you don’t yet realize, and continuous access to more.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman