Monday, October 31, 2011

Opening our hearts / Vayera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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

Get up and go forth! / Lech Lecha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Seussian Edifice Complex / Noach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Shemini Atzeret and the Grand Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Another mechitza we don't need / Parshat Bereishit

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

“What’s the problem, Eve?” God asked.

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

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

“What’s a man?” Eve asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, October 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman