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