Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's in a name? / Parshat Shemot

We Jews don’t have a storied history of naming books creatively, which is surprising given how important we think names are. Most of our holy books are named by the first significant word in them. Hence the Hebrew name for Genesis is its first Hebrew word, “Beraishit.” This week we open to parshat Shemot, the first Torah portion in the Book of Exodus, which is also called Shemot (same creative system for naming).

“Shemot” means names. Exodus begins by recounting the names of the sons of Jacob who came down to Egypt to live there under the protection of their brother, Joseph, who saved Egypt from famine. Names are inordinately important in Jewish tradition. Torah pays particular care to names. Avram’s name is changed to Avraham when he enters a covenant with God; Sarai becomes Sarah at that time. Each of Jacob’s sons is a given a name that has significance for the circumstances of his birth. The angel Jacob wrestles with bestows a new name on him that we all bear: Israel, “one who strives with God.”

Parents name their children with great care. Names carry so much of the individual’s identity: history and hopes. Those of us who named our children for deceased relatives embed in their identities family history. Names also convey hopes for the child: that he or she will embody the finest attributes of the person he or she is named for, whether a relative, a Biblical personage, or someone else. Or perhaps that the child will grow to embody the meaning of a specially chosen name.

One’s name is also one’s reputation – who we are and how we are seen in the world. Each of us has many names, the many names by which others know us. We have a different name (image, resonance, meaning) to all the different people with whom we interact. How do they see us? Who do they know us to be? Who does God know us to be? Do our names convey the names Integrity, Honesty, and Compassion? Do others look at us and think: here comes Humor, Sensitivity, Caring? Could we have a more precious possession than our names?

The Hebrew poet Zelda wrote about the many names we come to own as we go through life:
Each of Us Has a Name

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.
May your name shine among the stars in heaven, among humans on earth, and in the hearts of those who love you. Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

(Note: You can find the original Hebrew poem at http://israel.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=3275. This translation is by Marcia Lee Falk. Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky was born June 20, 1914 in the Ukraine. Her father was the great-great grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the third Lubavitch Rebbe. She made aliyah in the early 1930s, living in Tel Aviv and Haifa before moving to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem she taught school; Amos Oz was one of her pupils. Her poems draw on images from Jewish mysticism, Hasidism, and Tanakh. She won the prestigious Bialik prize in 1977. Zelda died April 30, 1984.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is Joseph's Forgivesness Genuine? Is Ours? / Vayechi

Today – December 16 – is Reconciliation Day, a public holiday in South Africa. Reconciliation has been on the South African calendar since 1994, as the system of apartheid was dismantled, in the hope of stimulating reconciliation between Black South Africans and Afrikaners, and fostering national unity.

Reconciliation is needed on the national level, but even more often on the individual level.

Of the many factors that contribute to quality of life, our relationships with other people rank high on the list. Our relatives, friends, business associates, neighbors, and even casual acquaintances can make for a great day or a disastrous day, and influence us to have a positive outlook on the future or a dismal perspective toward life. Perhaps we would not wish others to have such power and influence in our lives, but reality is reality.

Relationships of substance are not always steady state. They wax and wane. And sometimes there is a serious rupture. In the rarified air of movies and literature, long-time rivals and enemies can reconcile so completely that their bond of love and loyalty is stronger after the reconciliation than before the rupture. Does that happen in the real world of our lives? Or do we drag around resentments, distrust, and a lingering desire for revenge?

Joseph’s brothers know they are safe so long as their father Jacob is alive. Once he dies, however, they panic. What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him? (Genesis 50:15) So the brothers send a message to Joseph reminding him that their father Jacob’s most fervent wish had been that Joseph not extract revenge, but rather forgive his brothers. They also offer to become Joseph’s slaves.
But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And fear not. I will sustain you and your children” (Genesis 50: 19-21).
Joseph’s pious response about God’s divine providence in their lives seems to undercut by his presumably generous commitment to support them. Is this the ultimate fulfillment of those early dreams, in which he had complete authority over them? Or is this indeed Joseph’s revenge?

In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Beitzah 32, we find this teaching:
R. Natan ben Abba also said in the name of Rav: If someone is dependent upon another’s table, the world looks dark to him, for it says, He wanders about for food -- where is it? – he realizes that the day of darkness is ready, at hand (Job 15:23). The Rabbis taught: one of three whose life is no life is a person who is dependent upon another for his meals.
Is Joseph supporting his brothers lovingly, or is he keeping his brothers dependent upon him in order to exact the ultimate revenge? Joseph’s forgiveness seems incomplete. As difficult as this is for the brothers – and we cannot doubt that dependence upon Joseph must have been frightening – what does this do to Joseph’s soul? If Joseph continues to punish his brothers, is he not also punishing himself by harboring negative sentiments – resentment, distrust, rivalry – that will consume his energies and ultimately his soul, all in the guise of kindness and generosity?

Are we the same way? How do we break the negative bond and leave room for a genuine positive connection to replace it? We must come to the realization that controlling others and feeding our resentments limits us and makes us smaller. Our spiritual goal as Jews – indeed as humans – is to grow beyond negativity so that our “generosity” is genuine, our “love” is pure, and our “protection” of others is not controlling. The answer lies with us.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa practiced restorative, or reparative, justice to save South African from disintegration and violence in the wake of the abolition of apartheid. Horrific abuses of human rights were acknowledged, but amnesty was granted those who admitted their crimes. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of victims and offenders to have their stories heard, to forgive and be forgiven, with the goal in mind to put violence, injustice, hatred, and revenge behind, and foster reconciliation.

This stands in stark contrast to the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, whose purpose was to exact justice and punish those who had perpetrated genocide. There is a place for both in our world and in our lives.

In our Criminal Justice system, we commonly ask: What laws were broken? Who broke these laws? What punishment is appropriate? In the system of Restorative (or reparative) justice, one asks: Who has been injured? What do they need? Who is obligated to provide what is needed to repair the injuries? Our Torah employs both systems: sometimes punishment is prescribed, and often restoration is prescribed, and sometimes a combination of the two.

It is for us to ponder long and hard which is most appropriate in our personal lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Using Both Brains God Gave Us / Vayigash

You know that gut-wrenching feeling you have when confronted by someone who has all the power and plans to use it? This is what Judah experiences in Egypt. He and his brothers are the victims of entrapment – cleverly planned and executed by Joseph – and Judah is reduced to begging for the life of his brother Benjamin.

Parshat Vayigash opens with a long and impassioned speech by Judah to the vizier of Egypt, whom he still does not recognize as his brother Joseph. Throughout, Judah remains polite and appropriate, but we sense beneath the surface expression of his compassion for his father, Jacob, a seething fury due to the injustice of his and his brothers’ predicament:
Then Judah approached [Joseph] and said, “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. My lord asked his servants, ‘Have you a father or another brother?’ We told my lord, ‘We have an old father, and there is a child of his old age, the youngest; his full brother is dead, so that he alone is left of his mother, and his father dotes on him.’ Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set eyes on him.’ We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father; if he were to leave him, his father would die.’ But you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, do not let me see your faces.’… Now 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… 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: 18-23, 30-31, 34)
The midrash senses Judah’s seething but controlled anger beneath the surface, as well as the desire of reconciliation and the spirit of hopeful prayer:
Then Judah approached [Joseph]. R. Judah, R. Nechemiah, and the Rabbis commented. R. Yehudah said: He came near for battle, as in the verse, So Joab and the people that were with him drew nigh unto battle (2 Samuel 10:13). R. Nechemiah said: He came near for reconciliation, as in the verse: Then the children of Judah drew near unto Joshua (Joshua 14:6) – to conciliate him. The Rabbis said: Coming near applies to prayer, as in the verse, And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering that Elijah the prophet came near, etc. (I Kings18:36). R. Lazar combined all these views: I come whether it be for battle, for conciliation, or for prayer. (Midrash Beraishit Rabbah 93:6 and Tanhuma Vayigash 8)
Judah’s limbic system has been stimulated. His “primitive, emotional brain,” responsible for the fight-or-flight response, has been ignited. No doubt his amygdala is generating feelings of fear, anger, and resentment in full force. But so, too, according to the midrash, is his cerebrum working full force. It is engaged in thoughtful analysis, reasoning, and problem solving.

It’s not that the midrash is offering us three choices. It’s that Judah responds all three ways simultaneously: Perhaps his initial response is preparation to do battle and protect Benjamin if need be. But he does not permit that initial “primitive brain” response to rule. His actual, behavior response to Joseph is to seek reconciliation by appealing to Joseph’s conscience, and to pray to God for help and strength. The result is a family reunion rather than brawl.

In our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, we have all seen how stressful situations can cause strong emotional reactions. We may – in the instant – feel threatened or demeaned or insulted. While our limbic systems engage full force because of our biological programming, there is much more to our brains than the amygdala. For this reason, some common-sense good advice we’ve all heard is worth repeating:
  • When you receive an email that makes you angry, don’t respond for at least 48 hours. Give yourself time to think it over. Consider whether there is another way to read it; perhaps the writer didn’t mean what you initially thought. In either case, give yourself time to calm down and compose an appropriate response that will not cause rupture.
  • When someone says something that inflames you, remind yourself that your anger is only your initial reaction. Responding in kind is rarely wise. Ask the person some calm questions, including: “Please tell me what is bothering you most here and why?” or “When can we talk calmly about this?”
  • Be especially careful when your anger is provoked by how someone has spoken to or treated your child. Parents often feel their children’s pain more keenly then their own. Remember that your child is watching your response and learning from you: this is your moment to shine.
Rabbi Simchah Bunam (18th – 19th century), begins with a question others have asked: Why does Torah say that Judah approached Joseph? Wasn’t he already standing before Joseph? He then explains the midrash above.
Commentators on the Torah pose the question: Surely Judah was [already] standing and talking with Joseph, and vice versa, so why [does the text use] the expression he approached? Now it appears that prayer is accepted only if one prays from the depths of the heart and the essence of the soul – such a prayer is received favorably. Similarly, in the case of war, one must arouse oneself with all one's inner powers in order to fight one's opponent, and similarly with conciliation – consider this carefully. So this is the meaning of [the phrase], Then Judah approached him – that Judah came closer to his own essence, and on this basis we may explain the midrash. (Simchah Bunam of Pshische, Kol Simchah HaShalem, Jerusalem: HaMesorah, 1986, p.51.)
Rabbi Bunam is telling us that Judah’s “approach” was not physical, but rather psychological and spiritual. He was calling upon all his emotional, psychological, and spiritual reserves to respond appropriately and constructively to the terrible, threatening situation in which he found himself. Nothing less, Rabbi Bunam is reminding us, is what we must do on many occasions in our lives.

Many years ago I popped into a store to pick up something one of my kids needed for math class. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to get, so when the clerk asked me what I sought, I provided a clumsy and confusing answer. With impatience and annoyance, she said, “You shouldn’t come in looking for it until you know what you want.” My first reaction was a combination of embarrassment and anger. But then another thought occurred to me: maybe this wasn’t about me at all. So I said, “I’m sorry I don’t know what I’m supposed to be getting. But are you okay? How are you today?” She looked at me in shock and began to cry. As the tears flowed she told me that her husband had asked for a divorce that very morning and then the story of her troubled marriage tumbled out during the next 45 minutes. I am so glad I didn’t react with anger and indignation; I would hate to think how that would have compounded her pain that awful day.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jacob and Esau: Jews and Power / Toldot

I recently taught a course at the Baltimore Adult Institute entitled “Jews and Power.” The question that inspired me to put the course together was raised by Ruth Wisse in her book Jews and Power; she claims that Jewish culture has trained us to place greater value on our moral performance than on the necessities of survival. Wisse considers this “moral solipsism.” The Bible is filled with examples of powerful and courageous Jews, from Abraham to Samson, Deborah, David, and on to the Hasmoneans (in the Apocrypha). The biblical prophets, who linked national power to moral strength, and encouraged Jews to put themselves on trial for their political actions, were instrumental in shaping a culture of extreme personal responsibility, and a theology that blames the people Israel for every suffering they endure at the hands of their enemies. Two millennia in the Diaspora has reinforced an aversion to power that Wisse claims now threatens Israel’s survival.

For several months, I gathered materials – passages from Tan”akh, Talmud, midrash, Jewish folklore from around the globe, Zionist writings – to consider the Jewish perspective on having power. What I found was less the concern that Wisse raises, than the lauding of brains over brawn. The motif of the clever Jew who survives the dangers of capricious power by his wit and adaptability is ubiquitous. It is the picture of Jewish survival through the ages in Exile.

This afternoon, Naomi Benzil, who participated in the class, dropped me a note to say that the story of Jacob and Esau recounted in this week’s parashah can be viewed through this lens. Naomi pointed out that the conflict between Jacob and Esau reflects a rejection of power.

Naomi makes an interesting point. Esau, the earthy hunter, uses his physical prowess and power in the world. Jacob employs his intellect at every juncture: he tricks Esau out of the birthright and blessing. He is scheming and conniving and survives by his wits. He becomes an excellent model for Jews in the Diaspora, powerless and at the mercy of the ruling power, living by their wits and surviving because they are adaptable and clever. To elevate him to the level of an exemplar, however, the Rabbis have to effectively trash Esau. They do this by equating Esau with Rome, famous for its violence and decadence.

Now, in the 21st century, we live in a completely different world. There is a State of Israel. She possesses formidable weapons and wields extraordinary power. Israel is daily faced with a myriad ethical questions about the use of power. Israel struggles with these questions because there is never an ideal answer that balances the use of power and the highest Jewish morality: Jewish morality was distilled in the nearly powerless milieu of Exile.

There are no easy answers, but Jacob taught us that God is found in the struggle itself. Torah tells us that the night before he reunited with his brother Esau, Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25, Parshat Vayishlach). If Jacob was alone, how could a man have wrestled with him? One classical explanation is that Jacob was wrestling with his conscience, confronting the morality of this own behavior toward Esau. Jacob – who must live in the real world, where life is complex and messy and there is often no morally perfect course of action – struggles to find the best path through the moral thickets. So does Israel. So should we. Only hindsight is 20/20, and often not even that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bring on romance! But there's more to marriage / Chayei Sara

Everyone likes a good romance, even the most recalcitrant curmudgeon. Several weeks ago we read Torah’s sweeping statement, Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Torah expresses an ideal: that if possible, a person find an ezer k’negdo, a helpmeet – best friend, confident, lover, intellectual partner – with whom to forge a life. (Torah presumes a heterosexual union, but we know that homosexual unions can enjoy the same qualities.) The ideal – finding an ezer k’negdo who is a true soulmate – happens, but less frequently than any romantic (and even hardened realists) would hope.

As Torah chronicles the generations from Adam and Eve through our patriarchs and matriarchs, we find such a union in Isaac and Rebekah.

In this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to Nahor in Aram-naharaim (in Mesopotamia) to find a wife for Isaac from among his own kin. Abraham’s ties to the Land of Israel are deep, but he does not want Isaac to marry a local because they are steeped in idolatrous practices. How is a suitable partner to be found for Isaac? Is there a shadchan (matchmaker)? JDate.com? Rather, Eliezer administers a test of character:
[Eliezer] made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city [of Nahor], at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Genesis 24:10-14)
Eliezer is immediately rewarded by the approach of Rebekah, whose generosity and graciousness are matched only by her beauty. This is the stuff of romantic legend, and the epic continues in the tent of her father, Bethuel where Eliezer breathlessly tells his tale and Rebekah accedes to the marriage although she has never laid eyes on Isaac.

The scene Torah paints for us of the first glimpses Isaac and Rebekah have of one another is delightfully romantic:
Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to her servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” and the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24: 63-67)
In fact, this is the first time Torah has told us of two people falling in love with one another. And it will not happen again soon.

The Rabbis pondered how such a match is made. Could Eliezer have known that Isaac and Rebekah would connect on such a deep level, or was it pure luck? Or perhaps God intervened behind the scenes? We find this whimsical story in the midrash that makes the point that such unions are not easily made, and are a precious thing:
A Roman matron asked Rabbi Yossi how long it took God to create the world. He replied: “Six days.” She asked: “What has your God been doing since then?” Rabbi Yossi replied: “Making matches. This man to that woman, this woman to that man.” The Roman matron replied with surprise: “Is that all? Why anyone can do that!” Rabbi Yossi observed, “It may seem easy to you, but for God making a good match is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea.” But to prove her point, the Roman matron returned home and lined up all her household servants – 1000 men and 1000 women, paired them up and married them off. The following morning they returned to her, one with a black eye, one with a bruised face, one limping, and another wounded, each with its own misery and saying, “This one that you designated for me I do not want.” The Roman matron sent for Rabbi Yossi and said, “Rabbi your Torah is truth and it is beautiful and praiseworthy. You spoke well in all you said.” (Beraishit Rabbah 68 and Vayikra Rabbah 8)
Torah is, above all things, down to earth. Marriage is about respect and loyalty over the long term. It entails creating a household, raising children (if the couple chooses and enjoys that blessing), and sticking around for the duration. And yes, some marriages need to end; Torah provides for this, as well. Torah is no romance novel. By setting the bar where it does, Torah encourages us all to identify what is valuable and enduring in our primary relationships and find strength and support in that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bring back sacrifices? / Parshat Vayera

Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah is often interpreted in light of the idolatrous sacrifice of children to the god Molekh. Human sacrifice, and in particular child sacrifice, were common in the ancient world. The story of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) is often understood as the Torah’s seminal account concerning sacrifice and worship: human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice.

Torah reviles human sacrifice. Leviticus 18:21 instructs:
Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molekh, and do not profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
Leviticus 20:2-5 tells us:
The Lord spoke to Moses: Say further to the Israelite people: Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molekh, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones. And I will set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he gave of his offspring to Molekh and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned My holy name. And if the people of Israel should shut their eyes to that man when he gives of his offspring to Molekh, and should not put him to death, I Myself will set My face against that man and his kin, and will cut off from among their people both him and all who follow him in going astray after Molekh.

In a later age, after the Second Temple was destroyed, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah study, worship, and deeds of loving kindness) came to replace animal sacrifice. While God did not explicitly forbid the continuation of the sacrificial cult, as the account of the Akedah has been understood to forbid human sacrifice, but rather Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim filled the void after the Destruction of 70 C.E.

Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204) famously wrote in his philosophical treatise Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) that the sacrificial cult was a primitive state of religious practice that God intended from the beginning to be phased out eventually and replaced by an intellectually and philosophically superior mode of worship: prayer. For Rambam, the rabbinic troika of Torah-Avodah-Gemilut Chasadim is far preferable to the earthy, smelly, noisy rites of the Temple. (Yet Rambam describes in his law code, Mishneh Torah, a vision of the reconstructed Third Temple in which priests again officiate at animal sacrifices. Curious, no?)
Are we moving forward? Are we progressing through stages of spiritual growth, from human sacrifice, to animal sacrifice, to worship without blood? If we are, is it all gain, or are we (forgive the pun) sacrificing something along the way?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in a letter written in 1911, wondered how Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac demonstrated greater love and fervor than the sacrifices made by idol-worshipers of the same era. He recognized that we ought not presume that idolatry is no more than a fearful effort to acquiesce to the frivolous or capricious demands of primitively-conceived imaginary gods. Idolatrous worship can also reflect deep awareness of the divine in the world and a desire to reach out to, and commune with the divine. The challenge of the Akedah for us, Kook wrote, is not the simplistic claim that Abraham’s worship of Adonai was superior to pagan practices, but rather whether our intellectual and philosophical understanding of God, our primarily cerebral approach to being in covenant with God, can compete with the blood, sweat, and tears – the earthy and gripping daily encounter with life and death – that characterizes paganism.

Our modern, streamlined, sophisticated, aesthetic worship strikes many as dull and uninspiring. Whether it be davening so fast few can truly delve into the meaning of the words, or endless responsive readings and prayers-turned-into-performance-pieces, many Jews find Jewish worship fails to move them. This is not a call to return to animal sacrifices – far from it! – but rather a call to consider what it is that moves people and helps them find their place under the wings of the Shekhinah (God’s indwelling Presence on earth) in the synagogue.

Perhaps the answer lies in the notion of “sacrifice” after all. When we give up something of ourselves to someone, we bind ourselves to them. When we challenge people to reconsider the way they think, work, value others, live, and love, they must often give up something of themselves in order to change and improve. When our worship includes study of prayers and sacred texts that afford this challenge, people are moved. When we provide opportunities for discussion and exchange of ideas, the telling of stories, people can bring their gifts to the altar, sharing them with the community. Certainly there are other factors, as well (music leaps to mind. There is no one formula because we are all different, but there are many intriguing and promising approaches we can try.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grand Scheme or Plan C? / Parshat Lech Lecha

The Lord said to Avram: Go forth 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. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Upon these words, Avram sets foot into history, the progenitor of the People Israel, God’s first covenantal partner. Were the People Israel and the covenant at Sinai part of God’s grand plan from the beginning? If we view these from the perspective of Torah alone, we came into being to serve God’s larger purpose once God realized what humanity was like. But seen through the eyes of the Rabbis, the Jewish People was part of the Grand Scheme before the world was created.

First, Torah’s view: God created people to live in the Garden of Eden forever. Imagine eternity in Club Med, but with only one other person, no responsibility, and no moral discernment. God thinks the people have everything, but Eve recognizes that an essential component of her humanity is missing. Without moral discernment, she and Adam are just more sophisticated versions of the other animals lumbering around the Garden. The Tree of Life keeps them alive, but it is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that will permit them to become truly, fully, and genuinely human: creatures with moral discernment, free will, and the capacity to choose good over evil. Eve eats the fruit, feeds it to Adam, and thereby gives life to all humanity. But life must now be lived outside the Garden, where conditions are tough. God’s Plan A has failed: people cannot live meaningful lives without moral discernment and prefer being fully human to being immortal.

So God inaugurates Plan B: life outside the Garden. There, human ambition and aggression take over and humanity descends into an abyss of violence and corruption. God has placed no restrictions on human behavior. No surprise then that evil is ubiquitous. God decides to wipe out all life save a representative sampling to repopulate the world: Noah, his family, and the animals are brought onto the ark. Plan B is washed away in the waters of the flood.

God institutes Plan C after the Flood waters recede and life is reestablished on earth: God chooses one man – Abraham – and grows him into a family, and grows the family into a nation, and makes a covenant with that nation at Mt. Sinai, giving them a Torah – a constitution designed to teach them how to behave with compassion, pursue justice, and build a society in which the most vulnerable are protected rather than victimized, and all people have the opportunity to live lives of decency and holiness. From this perspective, the Jewish People are Plan C, a thought that arises in the mind of God as a corrective to the problem of humanity out of control.

God births humanity in the Garden of Eden, and like every parent, God does not know precisely what they will be like, nor how they will behave, until they grow and develop and show their true colors. Like every human parent, God must adapt God’s strategy for dealing with them, experiment on occasion, and change course when a strategy does not work well.

Now the Rabbis’ view: For our Sages, the Jewish people were part of the Grand Scheme from the beginning. Midrash Beraishit Rabbah 1:1 tells us that the word “beginning” – as in “In the beginning God created” – is code for “Torah” and signals that Torah was used as the very blueprint for creating the universe:
The Torah declares: I was the working tool of the Holy One blessed be God. In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, "In the beginning God created" (Genesis 1:1), "beginning" referring to the Torah, as in the verse, "The Lord made me as the beginning of his way" (Proverbs 8:22).
In other words, the Torah precedes Creation. God pulls Torah out of a back pocket, unrolls it on a table, gazes into it, and uses it to create the universe, just as an architect uses a blueprint, or as a chef uses a recipe.

This raises some interesting questions:
  • Does it matter if we are Plan C to convey God’s teaching and healing to the world, or whether we were part of the Grand Scheme from the beginning?
  • How does the distinction between being part of the Grand Scheme, and being Plan C, impact our relationship with the world?
  • Stepping back, we might also ask: Do you believe that the Jewish People have a mission in the world? If so, what is it? Alternatively, does the idea of a Jewish mission to humanity bother you?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, October 4, 2010

Parshat Noach / A New Road in a Water-Sogged World

Our parashah opens with these words:
This is the line of Noah – Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his age, Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
Midrash Tanhuma observes that Noah’s name appears three times in this verse and comments that Noah was in a unique position to see three different worlds: the world when it was first settled, the world when it was destroyed by the flood, and the world when it was once again settled after the flood.

But just how unique is Noah’s experience? Isn’t it the case that anyone who has survived a disaster has experienced three different worlds: the world before, the world of disaster, and the world after? This leads me to ask: is the world so different before and after, or is it we who are changed by our experience?

Who wouldn’t do their utmost to avoid tragedy and the often-ensuing trauma it brings in its wake? Yet so much is out of our control. What remains in our power – even when it seems all control is lost – is our response: how we frame what has happened in our minds, and how we respond morally. The last passage of the Flood story, ignored by most, interpreted by many, provides a fine example. We are told that after the people emerged from the ark, Noah planted a vineyard. He drank the wine, became drunk, and lay naked inside his tent.
Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. (Genesis 10:22-23)
First, I’d like to dispense with the most notorious misinterpretation, that Ham commits homosexual rape on his father, Noah, and that his descendants, the Canaanites, are consigned to slavery as punishment (see verse 25). This absurd and offensive interpretation was used to justify American slavery of Africans. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Ham has sexual, or even physical contact with his father, Noah. Rather, Ham treats his father with extreme disrespect, thereby violating the most fundamental societal relationships: parent-child. Noah is drunk, yes, but in his private tent. Ham calls his brothers over to witness their father’s state and thereby seeks to humiliate him before his own sons. This is precisely the sort of behavior that brought on the flood: rampant immorality and disregard of human dignity, even in the primary relationship of parent-child. Ironically, we compound the problem – and exemplify the antediluvian world when we use passages such as this to further a homophobic social agenda. It is now only two weeks since Tyler Clementi’s anguished plunge off the George Washington Bridge, the fourth teen in little more than a week to commit suicide in response severe bullying. To use this passage to further the sin of homophobia is suggest that the world after the flood is not qualitatively different than the world before the flood.

And indeed, Torah is telling us in this closing passage of the Flood account that human nature has not changed. Evil is not “out there” but rather “in here” – in our minds and hearts. Our Rabbis taught that we are endowed with two yetzarim (instincts, or urges) – one to do good and one to do evil. These two yetzarim struggle with one another continually, and our job is to ensure that the yetzer tov (the good inclination) wins out over the yetzer ra (the evil inclination).

But note how two of the three brothers respond: Shem and Japheth refuse to partake in Ham’s humiliation of their father. Instead, they discretely and respectfully cover their father’s nakedness put him to bed to sleep off the wine. Noah has been through a trauma. He is the poster child for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The world – and his life – will never be the same. He has witnessed unspeakable horror, which he could not prevent, and he is forever changed. His initial response – getting rip-roaring drunk – is not a hopeful sign, but his sons’ loving and respectful protection of his dignity is a highly hopeful sign. They pave a new road for humanity, one in which even in the face of violence and trauma, a humane and loving response is possible.

What is the message for us? The world does not change until we change. In a world of increasingly corrupt and crass behavior we can redouble our efforts to respond with patience, kindness, and the conviction that decency matters.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, September 27, 2010

Parshat Beraishit / Eternity in Eden: not all it's cracked up to be

Much has been made of the serpent and his role in the Garden of Eden story, not to mention his ability to speak. To my thinking: much too much.

Scholars point out that in ancient cultures, serpents and snakes were often considered divine and invested with powers ranging from fertility, wisdom, and immortality, to evil. With that overlay on the Torah, the serpent takes on epic dimensions and the story is made to center on the serpent’s manipulation of Eve. In concert with this thinking, Torah commentators have identified the serpent with Satan, again focusing on Eve’s vulnerability and the serpent’s power over her.

Perhaps Eve manipulated the serpent as much as he appears to have manipulated her. Eve lives in the lap of verdant luxury, a life of infinite leisure and no responsibility. Think Club Med for eternity. So long as she eats the fruit of the Tree of Life, she will remain alive, surrounded by fruit-laden trees and idyllic scenery. But where in this existence does she derive purpose and meaning? She has no responsibilities, no tasks to perform, nothing from which to derive satisfaction and fulfillment, and all the time in the world to do… nothing. What is more, she lacks moral discernment. She can experience the world physically and emotionally, but she cannot discern good and evil and act morally. She is a higher order animal, but has not yet blossomed into a fully human being. Somewhere in the deepest recess of her being she understands that without moral discernment, she is not substantially different from the other animals that share the garden habitat. She longs to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Tree of Knowledge is forbidden fruit. God has told her that the cost of moral discernment will be mortality: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17). It’s a trade-off. She can continue to eat from the Tree of Life and thereby be immortal. Or she can eat from the Tree of Knowledge, become fully human by acquiring moral discernment, but be cut off from the Tree of Life and hence surrender immortality. Yet perhaps it’s a good trade-off, because immortality coupled with no responsibility generates malaise: nothing has meaning or purpose.

Eve has a long time to make this choice. Immortality is like that. At some point, she makes her decision yet worries that it is the right one, because this is a can’t-go-back-again step into an unknown and finite future. That’s where the serpent enters the picture. He seems to entice Eve to do what she would otherwise never have done. I think he simply provides her with emotional cover to forge ahead with her plan to move humanity to a higher level, one in which moral discernment and mortality make purposefulness, spirituality, and meaning not only possible, but the sine quibus non – the very grounding – of humanity.

We are here because Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, knowing that she would have to surrender access to the Tree of Life as a result. She purchased moral discernment at the cost of immortality, not only for herself but for all of us. Our very lives – and our potential to live them well and meaningfully – are due to her courageous decision to truly become the Mother of all Life. Each day is a precious gift precisely because we do not have an infinite supply. What will you do today to honor the gift of life?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Parshat Netzavim-Vayeilekh / Moses: Jim Collins' Ideal CEO

How often have we heard someone say, “May you live to be 120!” The origins are found in this week’s Torah reading. As Parshat Vayeilech opens, Moses has reached the age of 120, the ideal maximum lifespan of all human beings since the Flood (Genesis 6:3). Moses has reached the end: he can no longer be active and God has forbid him from entering the Land of Israel. Joshua will succeed him. It is time to pass the mantle of leadership to Joshua and step aside gracefully. We see in Moses’ response to the situation what a truly great leader he is.

Jim Collins piloted a groundbreaking study in how good companies became great companies. The book describing the research and results of this study is entitled Good to Great. In 2003, Collins wrote an article in which he described his list of “the ten greatest CEOs of all time.” Here’s what he says about great leaders. Think of Moses’ personality and career as you read this (the emphases are mine):
Great CEOs build organizations that thrive long after they're gone, making it impossible to judge their performance until they've been out of office at least ten years. That criterion—legacy—was one of four I used to winnow a universe of more than 400 CEOs… [Other included] impact (presiding over innovations—whether technical or managerial—that changed things outside the company's walls), resilience (leading the company through a major transformation or crisis)...

So what, exactly, made these ten so great? Strikingly, many of them never thought of themselves as CEO material. The second-greatest CEO on the list initially refused the job on the grounds that he wasn't qualified. No. 9 described herself as "scared stiff." No. 5 was once told flatly, "You will never be a leader." Striking, too, is the sheer scale of their time frames. Surrounded by pressures to manage for the quarter, they managed for the quarter-century—or even three-quarters of a century…

Yet if one thing defines these ten giants, it was their deep sense of connectedness to the organizations they ran. Unlike CEOs who see themselves principally as members of an executive elite—an increasingly mobile club whose members measure their pay and privileges against other CEOs'—this group's ethos was a true corporate ethos, in the original, nonbusiness sense of the word corporate: "united or combined into one."
These are the qualities we need in our community leaders these days: people who are deeply connected to the Jewish people – our history, our destiny, our covenant with God, and our mission; people who focus on the legacy they will leave; people who are humble and step up to the plate for the sake of the community; people who see that they serve the community.

The great leaders are like Moses: humble, committed to Judaism, wish to serve God and the community, and see their service as a privilege. Fortunately, we are blessed to have many such leaders among us. May we have many more, and may all our institutions be blessed with the courage and conviction to search out such leaders, and reserve positions of leadership for people of heart and wisdom.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, August 23, 2010

When rote recitation is priceless / Parshat Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo opens with a description of a ceremony called Bikkurim (First Fruits), in which farmers brought the first fruits of their harvest to the priests in the Temple each year. The ceremony expresses gratitude for the fertility of the Land of Israel and the bounty of the harvest.
When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. You shall go to the priest in charge at the time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-3)
Torah then prescribes words that the farmer is to recite, a declaration that concisely summarizes Jewish history and identity:
“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10)
I want to share three observations about this formula:
  1. First, it is one of only a few declarations that Torah requires to be recited verbatim and, as the Mishnah asserts, in Hebrew, not in the vernacular (Sotah 33a).
  2. Second, we learn in the Mishnah (Sotah 7:2-3) that originally some people were able to recite the formula independently, but others could not and required prompting. In time, it was observed that those requiring prompting were embarrassed and stopped bringing their bikkurim (first fruits). It was therefore instituted that everyone would be prompted so that no one should suffer embarrassment.
  3. Third, this formula is found in the Passover Haggadah, thus achieving a special place of prominence in the post-Temple world of Rabbinic Judaism, assuring that it would be preserved as more than a paragraph in a Torah reading once each year.
The Bikkurim (First Fruits) formula, and the requirement to recite it yearly, delivers a powerful message about the importance of teaching everyone in the Jewish community the basics of Jewish history and identity. Every farmer – whether educated or not, where wealthy or needy, whether committed to God, Torah and Israel or not – recited the same formula, articulating a basic understanding of Jewish history and identity. This short formula opens the door to countless questions about Jewish history, theology, practice, and ethics. Would that we could establish a minimum baseline of Jewish learning today for all Jews so they could appreciate, and benefit from, their heritage! There are many creative learning programs in the Jewish community for people with extensive and impressive backgrounds in Hebrew and Jewish studies. We need new and innovative programs that share the wisdom, ethics, and joy of Judaism with all who wish to absorb it, and especially those who have no background.

The use of a prompter for everyone, in order to avoid embarrassing anyone, is yet another lesson to us of the importance of inclusion. So often Jews walk into a synagogue and find themselves in “alien space” because they are unfamiliar with Hebrew, the order of prayers, the customs associated with prayer, and the tunes being used. Do we, as a community, insure that there is someone to sit with them and guide them through the service and accompany them to whatever meal or social gathering follows the service? Or do we permit them to sit alone and suffer embarrassment? Just like those who stopped bringing their bikkurim (first fruits), those who experience the synagogue as “alien space” will not return to our sanctuaries.

Our Rabbis were wise to insert the Bikkurim (First Fruits) recitation into our Passover Haggadah where we would encounter it each year, not in the context of a Torah reading but precisely in the context of a ritual that is all about questioning, learning, and discussion Jewish identity and the meaning of living Jewishly. Perhaps it was their way of sending message into the future.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Parshat Ki Teitzei / The sins of the parents?

Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor will children be put to death for parents: they shall each be put to death only for their own crime. (Deuteronomy 24:6)

Let us set aside two troubling issues (and these are biggies) for a moment in order to concentrate on yet another troubling question. Let us set aside: 1. Capital punishment (in brief: Torah not only permits it but mandates it, but the Rabbis effectively legislated capital punishment out of existence by placing severe restrictions on carrying it out); and (2) The notion of a punishing God (to which I do not subscribe, but clearly it was an inherent part of the theology of our ancestors).

Having set aside two enormous issues, I take up what appears to be a fundamental contradiction within Torah itself. Or is it? Two passages in Exodus and another in Deuteronomy suggest that God punishes children from the sins of their parents:
You shall not bow down or serve [other gods] for I, the Lord your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My Commandments. (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34: 6, 7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 express essentially the same idea couched in virtually identical terms.)
Yet the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both quote a proverb common in their day, “Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted” and unequivocally rejects the theology behind it. Ezekiel says: As I live – declares the Lord God – this proverb shall no longer be current among you in Israel (Ezekiel 18:3)… The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone (Ezekiel 18: 20).

How can we explain the apparent contradiction? The language of Exodus 20:5, 34:6, 7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 is poetry, not religious dogma to be interpreted literally. The writer compares the relatively short duration when the consequences of the sins of parents are experienced by their children, with the exceptionally long period of time when God’s love will be experienced by those committed to God. This is a remarkable statement. How often have we seen the consequences of parents’ choices propagate suffering generation after generation (consider the effects of alcoholism, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse). Children do suffer from the behavior of their parents, but Exodus 20:5, 34:6, 7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 tell us that when God enters people’s lives, the deck can be drastically stacked against the propagation of pain and suffering. When people believe in the possibility of change and goodness, they stop the cycle. Consider those who come from troubled backgrounds and have set for themselves – and many, many generations to follow – a different and positive course.

Ezekiel explains that punishment for sin is not God’s goal at all. Rather repentance is. What a wonderful reminder for us during Elul, the month set aside for teshuvah (repentance) in preparation for Rosh Hashanah.
Moreover, if the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws and does what is just and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness he has practiced, he shall live. Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die? – says the Lord God. It is rather that he should turn back from his ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:21-23)
As God’s focus is on repentance and forgiveness, so should be ours. As God stacks the deck wildly in favor of love over punishment, so should we. God wants us to live lives of blessing. May our repentance in this month of Elul bring us and all those we love blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Parshat Ekev / How did this paragraph get into Shema?

Last week we read the first paragraph of Shema in parshat V’etchanan. It’s a beautiful paragraph that teaches – in poetic language – how to make God and Torah the center of our lives. It doesn’t define either God or Torah for us and therefore its words grow with us through the generations and centuries. This week, we open to parshat Ekev where we find the second paragraph of Shema, a paragraph that encapsulates the Deuteronomic theology of reward and punishment in such detail and specificity that many find it troubling. There appears to be far less wiggle room for interpretation:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil – I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart, bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children – reciting them when you stay home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11: 13-21)
According to Deuteronomy, loyalty to God’s covenant, in addition to being rewarded with new grain, wine, and oil, fertile flocks and herds, health and well being for people and animals alike, will bring military victories and secure borders. Failure to keep God’s covenant will result in unmitigated disaster. Is this how the world works?

According to Deuteronomy, God holds all the cards, and we have but two choices: obey or rebel. The processes of nature take their cue – day by day – from God, who considers our lives and decides if we deserve blessing or curse. Leaving aside the obvious clash with science, is this the God you worship?

On the one hand, Torah in general, and Deuteronomy in particular, sees God as all-powerful, coercive, and punishing. On the other hand, it is equally true that Torah asserts that God loves Israel passionately, is eternally loyal to the Covenant with our ancestors and us, and seeks continuous relationship with us. Are they two separate views, or two sides of a single coin?

Put another way: Is a God who rewards and punishes in a way that brings on waves of human suffering a God I want to worship? Or are the ideas encapsulated in Deuteronomy human expression, the words of people who understood the world – and God – in a particular way that perhaps differs from my way? If the answers to these questions are yes and no (respectively) all is well and I have no trouble praying this paragraph. If, however, the answers to these questions are no and yes (respectively), how do I incorporate the second paragraph of Shema into my prayers in more than a perfunctory way? How do I interpret them extract religious meaning from them?

For me, the answers are no and yes, so I will attempt to construct a rationale for praying the second paragraph of Shema.

First, a frame for my response: Moses reminds the Israelites that God subjected them to privation in the wilderness, and then nourished them with manna to teach them ki lo al ha-lekhem l’vado yi-kheyeh ha-adam, ki al kol motza fi-Adonai yi-kheyeh ha-adam “that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (Deuteronomy 8:3). It is not necessary to see God as a coercive, bullying Being to find meaning in these words: the world is a dangerous place and life is filled with hardships. To cross the Wilderness – a place of challenge and ultimate freedom (i.e. the ability to make moral choices) – mere bread (i.e. satisfying physical needs) is not sufficient. We need both more and less. There are times when we can get along without even bread; we can experience privation and survive with out bodies, minds, and integrity intact. And even when we have sufficient bread (i.e. our physical needs are met) that alone is not sufficient. We have spiritual needs, satisfied by God however we conceive God, that are integral to our survival and wellbeing. What we need is no simple matter, and the Israelites learned that their desires and actions impacted one another at every turn.

With this truth in mind, the second paragraph of Shema (quoted above) comes to remind us that all our choices have consequences that affect not only us, but others, as well. It’s easy to lose sight of this in the day-to-day tussle of life. It’s easy to slip into seeing everything as an isolated event and evaluating things according to the “what’s in it for me?” or “how will it affect me?” criteria alone. This paragraph reminds us that our lives are intertwined with those of others and our decisions have an impact beyond our range of vision. That message alone is worthwhile and can help us retool our thinking and behaving in as diverse arenas as our utilization of energy and natural resources, our proclivity to engage in lashon hara (gossip), and our involvement in issues of social justice. No wonder our tradition delivers a daily dose of it.

I don’t subscribe to the theology of Deuteronomy, but I benefit from the daily reminder that my life is interwoven with the lives of others and the life of the universe. It’s both a head and humbling thought, isn’t it?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av in the 21st Century

Today is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the infamous and tragic date on the Hebrew calendar when the First Temple (of Solomon) was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It is a day of fasting and mourning, when Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) is read in the synagogue, Torah study is set aside, and the customs of mourning are observed.

For many liberal Jews, there are two significant impediments to observing Tisha B’Av. First, nearly two millennia have passed since the destruction of the Second Temple. Should we continue to mourn? For those who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple – for those who believe that prayer, study, and deeds of kindness are superior ways to worship God than the reinstitution of sacrifices – Tisha B’Av raises this question: is it relevant? A second problem for many Jews trying to extract meaning from Tisha B’Av is that while it commemorates two cataclysmic historical events, the Talmud lays the blame for both squarely at the feet of the Jewish people: their sins led to the destruction of both Temples. In the minds of the Rabbis, the Babylonians and Romans were mere instruments of God for punishing Israel for her sins. This theology is troubling to many modern Jews.

I acknowledge both concerns as legitimate, but for the moment, I want to move around them to ask: without evaluating these concerns, what lessons can we extract for the 21st century from the historical events and traditional interpretations surrounding Tisha B’Av? Viewed in this way, Tisha B’Av is a primer in why religious communities and institutions fail, and how we fail our religious communities and institutions.

Tradition holds that the First and Second Temples were destroyed for very different reasons. (Or were they really so different?) The Talmud tells us that the First Temple was destroyed because the Jewish People were engaged in idolatry. They violated their exclusive covenant with God and worshiped the idols of surrounding peoples, flagrantly neglecting the moral obligations of Torah. They failed to address the suffering of the most vulnerable members of society, and engaged in hedonistic moral crimes. The people were more concerned with their narrow, personal interests, than the needs of those in the community suffering deprivation, and the manner in which the sacrifices were being carried out on their behalf in the Temple. The Rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. The community was in an extreme state of disarray and disunity. People placed their own self-aggrandizing concerns above all else.

In a sense, the two explanations – for the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple – are the same. Misplaced values and priorities, selfishness and self-aggrandizing behavior, weaken the bonds of community and cause the disintegration of religious institutions. When people pull together as a community, setting aside some of their personal desires in favor of the needs of the community, the community thrives and is strong enough to resist assault from without. In both cases, had people operated as a true community, the Rabbis tell us, they would have been able to save Jerusalem. Certainly we can recognize the vicissitudes of history, and the role the Babylonians and Romans played in the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but at the same time, we have all seen the truth that how we set our priorities, and how we live in community, can be either destructive or life-sustaining.

Seven special Haftarah portions pave a spiritual road from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. Each offers us the promise of forgiveness, the possibility of substantive change for ourselves and for our communities. The Torah portion we will read on the shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah spells out this choice in unmistakable terms:
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments, laws, and rules, that you may thrive and increase… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. (Deuteronomy 30: 15, 16, 19, 20)
May our choices and priorities be for life and blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, July 12, 2010

Summing up, saying farewell / Parshat Devarim

Sefer Devarim has another name in Jewish parlance: Mishnei Torah, which means “repetition of the Torah.” Mishnei Torah is the name that lent itself to the title “Deuteronomy” that we use in English.

The fifth book of the Torah has a different character from the other four. It consists of:
  • Five discourses delivered by Moses that review and summarize the Israelites’ experience, from redemption from bondages in Egypt until they reach the border of Eretz Yisrael four decades later.
  • One of the two most ancient pieces of Hebrew poetry we have in Parshat Ha’azinu. (The other is Shirat HaYam – the Song at the Sea – in Parshat B’Shallach.)
  • Two narratives concerning Moses’ preparations for transition of leadership to Joshua bin Nun following his death (chapter 31), and the account of Moses’ death (chapter 34).
  • Deuteronomy looks forward to Israel’s life in the Land of Israel and the fulfillment of Israel’s covenant with God, and foresees as well the pitfalls that might befall a nation attempting to establish itself, chief among them the danger of falling into idolatry. Success depends upon Israel’s ability to create – on the basis of Torah – a society in which justice and compassion prevail.
In a sense, our lives are a microcosm of Deuteronomy: searching to fulfill our covenant with God, seeking a life established on the twin pillars of justice and compassion. Like the ancient nation Israel, we pray for health, security, peace and prosperity. And like the ancient nation Israel, each of us falls prey to idolatrous distractions and unworthy diversions.

Moses’ review of the Israelites’ experience – the nation’s lifetime thus far! – is a combination life review and ethical will. Moses does not merely recount the past; he reflects upon it and offers both wisdom and warning for the future. His experience guiding Israel out of Egypt and through the Wilderness becomes the basis for Moses’ ethical will to the Jewish people.

There is a wonderful, time-honored tradition in Judaism of writing ethical wills that has fallen by the wayside, but is well worth resurrecting. An ethical will – most often in the form of a letter – is a vehicle for sharing your values, wisdom, and hopes and dreams for your loved ones, and to bestow forgiveness and blessings on them. It is among the greatest gifts you can give those you love.

Please consider writing your own ethical will. Here are some resources to help you:





Robert U. Akeret with Daniel Klein, Family Tales, Family Wisdom: How to Gather the Stories of a Lifetime and Share Them With Your Family.

Barry Baines, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.

Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer, So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.

(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Of Vows, Vengeance, and Women / Parshat Matot-Masei

Parshat Matot is about vows (primarily by women) and violent vengeance (primarily against women).

Two weeks ago we read of the incident at Baal Pe’or, a troubling narrative inserted into the story of Balaam. In Numbers chapter 25 we are told that Israelite men are lured into idolatry by Midianite women, evoking God’s wrath. God instructs Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before God, so that Adonai’s wrath may turn away from Israel” (25:4). But at just that moment, an Israelite man takes a Midianite woman into the Tabernacle where they copulate. Pinchas runs them through with a spear, halting the punishing plague in progress that had already taken 24,000 lives.

The account of Baal Pe’or, and the subsequent war of revenge against the Midianites, has many troubling features, not the least of which are Pinchas’ vigilantism against Zimri and Cozbi (the couple coupling in the Tabernacle) and the very idea of a war of vengeance. My focus here, however, is the manner in which woman are portrayed as sexual sirens who lure men into idolatry.

In this week’s parashah, God demands that the Israelites go to war with the Midianites on account of Baal Pe’or. God spoke to Moses, saying: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin” (Numbers 30:31). This is to be Moses’ last battle, a war of vengeance. The war is a success. No Israelite soldiers dies. The Israelite soldiers capture a bounty of spoils – cattle, herds of sheep and goats, human captives and their possessions – yet Moses is not satisfied:
Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against God in the matter of Pe’or, so that God’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the dependents, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every female dependent who has not had carnal relations with a man. (Numbers 31:13-18)
God did not issue this command to Moses (Numbers 30:31, see above). Is the order to slaughter women from Moses alone? Moreover, how are the officers to distinguish between women who had carnal relations with Israelite men, and those who did not? It is unlikely they can, and once the slaughter begins, it is unlikely that distinctions will (or can) be made.

And there is more: The soldiers must undergo an intense purification because, having killed human beings, they have become ritually impure. The purification takes a full week. When it is completed:
The officers of the troop divisions, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, approached Moses. They said to Moses, “Your servants have made a check of the warriors in our charge, and not one of us is missing. So we have brought as an offering to God such articles of gold as each of us came upon: armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, that expiation may be made for our persons before God.” (Numbers 31:48-50)
The told offered that day by the officers totaled 16,750 shekels. The commentary to Etz Hayim notes, “This parenthetical comment underscores the magnanimity of the officers’ contribution. Although a census requires a monetary ransom from each person (Exod. 30:12), the officers donated more than twice the amount needed to ransom the entire army – ½ shekel of silver per soldier (not to speak of gold), totaling 16, 750 shekels. Thus each infantryman could keep his booty (see v. 32).”

The officers don’t bring any old booty. They bring specifically and exclusively jewelry – it seems, jewelry belonging to the women they have killed – to offer atonement. The jewelry suggests that the sin of Baal Pe’or rests with the Midianite women – all of them – even more than the Israelite men with whom they consorted. The image of women as sexual sirens leading men astray stands at variance with other presentations in the Torah (the strong matriarchs) and Talmud (the woman refused to worship the Golden Calf and were rewarded with Rosh Chodesh; see Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 45). I’m not claiming that this is a singular theme in Torah or Talmud, but any generalization is dangerous, and we should guard against them all.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What is "Jewish law" anyway? / Parshat Pinchas

Do you know who Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are? We meet them in this week’s parashah, Pinchas, and they are also mentioned in Numbers chapter 36 and Joshua chapter 17. They are sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad, who died without having left a son to inherit his land.
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family – son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph – came forward. The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, that banded together against Adonai, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Do not let our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen! (Numbers 27:1-4)
Until this point, the land of a man who died without having sired sons would pass to other male relatives, passing over his daughters entirely. Zelophehad’s daughters approach Moses to appeal the inheritance laws they consider unjust. Moses, in turn, appeals to God, who responds favorably:
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, who shall inherit it.’ This is the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with Adonai’s command to Moses. (Numbers 27:6-11)
This is an inspiring account. Here are five women, disenfranchised by the rules of inheritance, who bring their case to Moses. Moses appeals to God, and God responds by revising the law to correct – at least partially – its intrinsic injustice.

To me this suggests that Jewish law is not immutable, fixed for all time, and beyond human touch. To be a genuine reflection of the human-divine covenant, it must be flexible, pliable, and able to respond to human needs and the demands of justice and compassion. I have heard the response, “But it was God who amended the law, not Moses, and certainly not lesser mortals.” I am not impressed by this response.

Rabbinic tradition – the Oral Torah itself – is predicated on the notion that scholars immersed in Scripture and Mishnah, employing the best of human reason, and endowed with a keen sense of justice and compassion, can arrive at halakhic decisions that are accepted by the community as the “will of God.” At least most of the time. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they recognize that there are differing and even contradictory legitimate possibilities. And sometimes they are creative, using sacred text to build something new laws on the foundation of Jewish values and sensibilities: Hillel’s prosbul (tractate Gittin) to protect the poor, and the rabbinic value of tza’ar ba’alei chaim (the prohibition against causing pain and suffering to an animal – tractate Baba Metzia) are examples that jump to mind.

Halakhah is a term we often translate “Jewish law” but I think it’s a deceptive and misleading translation because it suggests that Jewish law is fixed for all time, immutable and unswerving. Halakhah means “walking” or “going” or “proceeding.” It conveys movement, a sense of response by those who seek to follow God’s way and do God’s will. Indeed, if our way of being Jewish in the world – of determining the path we should follow – cannot incorporate all that we learn along the way (science, psychology, history, and ethics are just the beginning), as well as our growing and evolving theologies and spirituality, it is not in my mind genuine halakhah. It is merely a set of rules (“permitted,” “forbidden”) and not an organic response to God in our lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Balaam and Abraham / Parshat Balak

When visitors arrive at our house, the dog barks wildly in excitement, causing an irritating distraction. Imagine if he barked in English! Now that would cause a fascinating distraction. Similarly, the talking donkey of Balaam causes a huge distraction to those who enter this week’s narrative in parshat Balak. Too often we get stuck on the remarkable talking donkey and miss other aspects of the story.

If we set aside the donkey for a moment, we find resonances of Abraham, and particularly of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). The Akedah is a troubling tale, however we interpret it. That Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his child on an altar horrifies us. That God would require it – either as a test or as a genuine sacrifice – perhaps horrifies us more. How do we resolve the tension created by a man whose trust in God is so complete that he cannot locate the boundary between following God’s moral dictates, and committing an egregious act of murder?

Throughout, the story of Balaam, the prophet of Moab who is on the take, evokes that of Abraham, the first prophet of Israel who gives up family and homeland to follow God. The resonances between their stories beg us to compare them.

Balak, king of Moab says: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Number 22:6). When God first commands Abraham (still Avram) to leave Haran, God says, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, 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 it shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you; through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed(Genesis 12:3). The prophet with the power to bless and curse has met up with the descendants of the man who holds God’s special blessing in this regard.

Abraham responds to God’s command (most notably and frighteningly in the Akedah, the binding of Isaac). Balaam lacks Abraham’s proactive desire to do God’s bidding, but affirms his inability to violate God’s will (Numbers 22:18).

When God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, we are told va’yashkeim Avraham ba-boker va-yachavosh et chamoro (Abraham arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey – Genesis 22:3). Of Balaam, we are told va’yakom Balaam ba-boker va’yachavosh et atono (Balaam got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey – Numbers 22:21). The language is nearly identical. Like Abraham, Balaam took two servants with him, again employing nearly identical language: sh’nei na’arav ito (Genesis 22:4); sh’nei na’arav imo (Numbers 22:22).

I even hear echoes of the Akedah in the verses that follow, with their short clipped phrases and generous use of verbs, reinforced by the trop (cantillation):
There Abraham built an altar
And arranged the wood
And bound his son Isaac
And placed him on the altar atop the wood.
Abraham reached out his hand
And took the knife to slaughter his son. (Genesis 22:9-10)

The donkey saw an angel of God standing in the way,
It’s sword drawn in its hand.
The donkey swerved from the path
And went out into the field
And Balaam beat the donkey to turn her back to the road. (Numbers 22:23-24)
Abraham carries a ma’achelet (knife) while the angel of God wields a chereb (sword). Abraham’s knife is intended to sacrifice Isaac; the angel’s sword prevents Balaam from being delivered to the appointed spot where he can curse Abraham and Isaac’s progeny, sacrificing them to machinations of Balak.

Both Abraham and Balaam are stopped by an angel of God. Neither is permitted to complete his intended devastating act.

Perhaps our Rabbis meant us to connect these stories, because they identified both the ram that Abraham ultimately sacrificed, and the donkey that spoke to Balaam, as being among ten special aspects of creation prepared on the eve of the first shabbat. In fact, they are the only two animals on the list:
Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach and his followers], the mouth of the well [of Miriam], the speech of the donkey [of Balaam], the rainbow, the manna, the rod [of Moses in Egypt], the Shamir [a legendary worm that cut through stone], the script [writing on the tablets], the writing instrument [with which the tablets were inscribed], the tablets. (Pirke Avot 15:8)
Ultimately, Balaam blesses Israel with a magnificent blessing that echoes Abraham:
Who can count the dust of Jacob
Number the dust-cloud of Israel? (Numbers 23:10)

God now said to Avram, after lot had parted from him, “…I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth. Only if one can count the dust of the earth will it be possible to count your descendants…” (Genesis 13:14-17)
Ironically, the morally degenerate prophet of Moab confirms the blessing of descendants of Abraham. Balaam’s story evokes that of Abraham, but also runs counter to it in this essential point: Balaam never sets out to do God’s will, as Abraham consistently does; he simply cannot violate God’s will. While Balaam seeks to avoid God’s wrath, Abraham is dedicated to walking God’s path. In that, there is a world of difference. Where are we?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Legalism and Love / Parshat Chukkat

An ancient anti-Semitic canard goes like this: Judaism is a dry, unfeeling legalistic religion lacking spirituality. Indeed, legalism is a powerful biblical metaphor for our relationship with God: we have an eternal, deeply committed, all-encompassing relationship with God. It is like a marriage in that it entails love and loyalty. It is like a parent-child relationship in that it is eternal and unconditional. It is like a teacher-student in that it involves guidance, direction, and sometimes rebuke. There is nothing dry and unfeeling in these relationships! Quite to the contrary.

This week we read Parshat Chukkat. The word “chukkat” comes from “chok” which might be translated rule, law, directive, or statute. In fact, Hebrew has a number of words that fall into this general category: mitzvah, mishpat, eidah, and chok. What distinguishes them?

There are, generally speaking, two kinds of mitzvot (commandments): mishpatim (laws, or judgments) are commandments that human reason can discern and arrive at on its own. Mishpatim include the commandments to give charity, and the prohibitions again murder and theft. Even if God had not commanded these laws, we would have come to them on our own. Chukkim, however, are mitzvot that we accept as divine decrees but cannot fully comprehend with our rational minds. Among these are the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of family purity. Preeminent on this list, the law of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, with which our parashah opens. The law of the Red Heifer defies all logic. It’s not that it’s irrational, it’s more that it is supra-rational – it is entirely beyond human logic. The mishpatim reflect the magic of love and devotion: we do them out of a sense of love and devotion to God and God’s people Israel.

Eidot, which we might translate “testimonial,” are commandments that symbolize or commemorate an event or something else of great meaning. Shabbat menukhah/ sabbath rest is an example, because it commemorates Creation and permits us to engage in imitatio dei/imitation of God. Another example would be the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach, whereby we relive the experience of our ancestors. A third example is tefillin, which is the literal fulfillment of poetic passage in Torah. While we might not have assumed or deduced any of these mitzvot from the Torah, once they are explained, we can appreciate their purpose.

The combination of commitments we understand and those we don’t, but follow out of love and devotion, amount to a tradition of staggering spirituality: every face we greet is a reflection of God, every facet of life can reflect God’s holiness, every act can be an extension of God’s hand in the universe. There is no pocket of life called “religious” that we pull out once a week, attend to quickly, and return to a closet. All of life – in its astounding beauty, violence and ugliness, and quotidian messiness, can be responded to with a religious soul. The injustices that plague our neighbors become our concern because they are God’s concern. The pain and fear that haunts others generates a mandate to providing comforting care because we are the hands of God, and mitzvot meaning doing, responding, acting, being present. How could anyone for a moment think this is dry legalism, lacking spirituality? Only those for whom spirituality is an all-about-me activity.

The metaphor of law bespeaks Judaism’s premium on engagement in relationship in all its finest expressions: love, caring, justice, and compassion.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Swallow or Cradle? / Korach

Judy Klitsner recently published Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mind and Undermine Each Other (JPS, 2009). Her thesis is that “… if certain gnawing theological or philosophical questions remain after studying one narrative, a later passage my revisit those questions, subjecting them to a complex process of inquiry, revision, and examination of alternative possibilities.” (p. xvi) The result is a chorus of voices coming from the Bible on any one issue. Klitsner demonstrates how Jonah comes as a corrective to Noah’s lack of self, how the midwives in Egypt rewrite the Tower of Babel narrative on the subject of individuality, and how Jethro provides a corrected model of leadership through Moses as against Melchizedek’s influence on Abraham.

Could the same phenomenon occur between Torah and Talmud?

Parshat Korach tells the story of the most notorious mutiny in the Wilderness. Korach, a priest of the tribe of Levi, challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority. You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation? (Numbers 16:3) Korach gathers 250 chieftains among the Israelites and stages a full-scale rebellion. The story culminates in the spectacular and hair-raising climatic punishment of Korach and his minions:
Scarcely had [Moses] finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us!” And a fire went forth from Adonai and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense. (Numbers 16:31-35)
The violent end that meets Korach and his comrades is deeply troubling. Could they not have been brought back into the fold of Israel? Was the only possible, or appropriate, response violence? Is the earth, that harbors, shelters, and nourishes life, to be seen as murderous, a global graveyard waiting to swallow alive those who do not tow God’s line?

I see evidence of two correctives in the rabbinic literature.

The first is found in Pirke Avot. While some interpreters have understood what happened to be an earthquake that rent the earth, our Rabbis sought a different understanding of the opening in the earth – va’tiftach ha-aretz et pi-ha va’tiv’la otam / the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them – to have a unique, one-time quality. In Pirke Avot 5:8 they list it first among ten things created on the eve of the first shabbat, at the very end of creation, even after humans were created. For the Rabbis, Korach’s rebellion is foreseen and God prepares for it as the world itself was coming into being. The suppression of Korach and his followers was a one-time event, not a regular feature of God’s interaction with Israel, and certainly not indicative of the nature of the earth itself. I think this is the first corrective.

The second corrective may be found in another account of the earth swallowing up people. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sotah, the Sages tell us that when Pharaoh attempted genocide against the Israelite baby boys, the pious Israelite women redoubled their efforts to conceive and bring forth babies into the world. As soon as they gave birth, angels cleansed and massaged each newborn, and God provided breast-shaped stones to nourish them with honey and oil. The account continues:
When the Egyptians became aware of these infants, they came to slay them. But then another miracle occurred, for the infants were swallowed up by the earth. At that, the Egyptians brought oxen and plowed the area where they had disappeared. But as soon as the Egyptians left, the infants burst forth out of the ground like grass in the field. As the infants grew up, they came running to their homes in flocks. Later, when God revealed himself at the Reed Sea, these infants [now grown] were the first to recognize God, for they said, This is my God (Exodus 15:2). (Talmud, Sotah 11b; Shemot Rabbah 1:12)
Here the earth is a warm and protective cradle, sheltering the infants against the genocidal shock troops of Pharaoh. While Korach and his minions went shrieking down into Sheol – the shadowy pit beneath the earth where those who die an ignominious death end up – the infants come bursting forth like wildflowers in the spring. While Korach and his followers are erased from the people Israel forever, the infants grow up healthy and strong, return to their families, and are the first to recognize God at the Reed Sea, because they have already experienced God’s redemption – in the warm, loving, protective embrace of the earth.

And how do we approach the world: as swallower or nurturer? Perhaps the Rabbis recognized the danger of seeing the world as ready to swallow us up, and God ready to punish every act of insurrection. We can experience the world as dark and intimidating, danger lurking at every bend, or we can perceive the world as a wide-open wonderland, teeming with life and bursting with blessings. It can certainly be both, but are we not better off presuming that earth – and the life it supports – will be kind, nurturing, and redemptive? When it comes to our relationships with God and other people, is this not the better assumption, so that we can reach out to God and other people, and experience the love and care they have to offer?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman