Sunday, December 29, 2013

The weight of a fool's wrath / Parshat Bo

A stone is heavy and sand is weighty, but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both.

 (Proverbs 27:3)

You probably think I’m going to apply that verse to Pharaoh. I certainly could. In the aftermath of the plague of hail, in the opening of parshat Bo, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 10:1). His courtiers want to let the Hebrews go, and the next plague of locusts not only reinforces that desire but prompts Pharaoh to admit his guilt and ask for forgiveness, but the moment the plague of locusts subsides, God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 10:20) and he reneges. The plague of darkness comes next and following this one, too, God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 10:27) and he refuses to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt. Torah next announces the coming tenth plague, the worst by far, and yet again God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 11:10). Might we invoke that verse from Proverbs and intone: A stone is heavy and sand is weighty, but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both?

Pharaoh’s hardened heart has an assist: God stiffens it. Pharaoh has a vested interested in the slaves: they build his storehouses, integral to his robust economy and crucial to maintaining his power. And while Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s anger is reinforced or facilitated by God, his wrath is initially inspired by vicious hatred. His attempt at the genocidal extermination of the Hebrews, recounted in Exodus, chapter 1—however ill considered from the perspective of economics and power—leaves no room for doubt on that score. Pharaoh will decimate and bankrupt his country: this fool’s wrath is heavier than both stone and sand and, we might add, brick.

But what are we to say of people who hate without investment or involvement, and against all reason and proportion? To say they are misguided is an understatement.  They are fools driven by wrath inspired, propelled and fueled by hatred. I speak of the American Studies Association, which voted on December 16 to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. The ASA describes itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” Why is a group of university professors dedicated to the academic study of American history focused so intently on the Israel-Palestinian situation, to the exclusion of all other hot spots around the world? Why is this the only conflict on the globe that ignites flames of anger in their hearts? Out of the dozens of conflicts in the world outside the domain of their academic raison d’etre, why does Israel alone receive their exclusive, undivided attention and animus?

A clue is seen in the bullying techniques employed by the ASA leadership to insure passage of the now infamous anti-Israel resolution. Jonathan Marks, professor of politics at Ursinus College, in an article he published in the Wall Street Journal entitled “A Vote Against Israel and Academic Freedom” (December 16, 2013) tells us:

Make no mistake: Supporting the U.S. boycott campaign is not merely a way of criticizing Israel or expressing solidarity with Palestinians. The campaign calls for boycotting "Palestinian/Arab-Israeli collaborative research projects or events." In other words, it actively discourages opportunities for cooperation and mutual understanding. And while the campaign does not condone a blacklist of Israeli academics, it does warn that "all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid."

After describing how the leadership of the ASA went to great lengths to squelch the airing of any other than an anti-Israel viewpoint Marks writes:

The ASA's Facebook administrators made the concession to welcome posts from "all sides" hours after the online magazine InsideHigherEd, widely read among academics, published a blistering piece by Henry Reichman of the American Association of University Professors decrying the "one-sided and disingenuous presentations sadly offered on ASA's website." The same day, InsideHigherEd reported on another letter, signed by the eight former association presidents, exposing how the "membership vote [was] being undertaken with only one side of a complex question presented."

The Wall Street Journal issued a terse editorial under the headline “Shame of the Academy.” After noting that the ASA employed “bullying tactics” to push through the resolution, preventing any other viewpoint to be aired until after the vote, evidence of “the political corruption of the American academy,” the editorial continues:

Yet it's still worth pondering what must go through the mind of a professoriate, presumably dedicated to free political speech, that would choose to boycott the most democratic country in the Middle East. The country in which Arabs are treated far better and have far more rights than they do in most Arab lands. And the country that is America's most reliable ally. We can only imagine what these same professors must teach their students about the supposed crimes of America.

JeffreyGoldberg pointed out that the ASA has taught us a lesson in effective scapegoating. Larry Summers, speaking on the “Charlie Rose” program, deplored academic boycotts of any kind and the double standard applied to Israel in this case. He said that singling out Israel for boycott is “anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent.”

A more entertaining way to communicate this message may be seen and heard in Ari Lesser’s youtube video rap “Boycott Israel.” Lesser points out the inherent double-standard of boycotting Israel but not China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, India, Pakistan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Russia, the Ukraine, and many other nations whose egregious human rights violations are well known… but don’t concern the brilliant minds and conscience of the American Studies Association.

What we are really talking about is unfiltered wrath, unconsidered hatred. What we’re talking about is demonization, the very same demonization Pharaoh inflicted on the Hebrews three millennia ago, alive and well in the hallowed halls of the ASA.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, likens the American Studies Association to the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that lives to hate:

Let's be frank. Although the ASA & the ISM [International Solidarity Movement] talk a great deal about peace, they really don't want it and even seem frightened at the prospect. They want war. They want utter defeat for one side. To them Israel— regardless of any accommodations which might be made to the Palestinians—has no legitimacy. In their Manichaean world view, there are good guys and bad ones. The Jews are the bad ones.

The Palestinians and Israel recognize each other. They are negotiating with each other. The process is slow and a final agreement is elusive, to be sure, but to quote Churchill "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war."

President Abbas had said that he opposes boycotts against Israel. But that doesn't stop these zealots (aka "peace activists") from their extremist agenda. They voted to boycott anyway. They know better than President Abbas. Like the Iranians and Al-Qaeda, they are more Palestinian than the Palestinians. Seems like a lot of fanatics think that way.

Throughout history, foolish fanatics steeped in hateful wrath have demonized the Jews. Today, we see it in the heady world of this group of academicians who disguise their hatred of Jews and Judaism by demonizing the Jewish state. The fanaticism and hatred of the Pharaoh of Egypt lives and breathes more than 3,000 years later in the hearts and minds of the American Studies Association. They have brought shame on the academy.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Throwing soot in the air / Parshat Va'eira

Many years ago, in a frenetic flurry of preparing to travel to North Carolina for the High Holy Days, I sterilized some baby bottles to take along since I would not be “on tap” at all times. I put the bottles in a pan of water and while waiting for it to reach a boil, I went off to pack clothing. By the time I remembered the bottles, the water had long since boiled off, the bottles were beyond melted, the pot burned, and the kitchen blanketed in a black, sticky, sooty mess. It was awful, truly awful, but it was also fortunate that I didn’t burn the house down. I vividly remember that black, sooty mess. This unhappy episode came to mind while reading about the sixth plague against Egypt—boils—in this week’s parashah, Va-eira:

Then Adonai said to Moses and Aaron, “Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh. It shall become a fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and cause an inflammation breaking out in boils on human and beast through the land of Egypt.” So they took soot of the kiln and appeared before Pharaoh; Moses threw it toward the sky, and it caused an inflammation breaking out in boils on human and beast. (Exodus 9:8-10)

The other nine plagues are initiated either by God, or by Moses or Aaron holding out a staff or extending an arm over Egypt. The plague of boils, however, requires that Moses and Aaron gather soot and throw it up into the air. Not only that, but God specifies that the soot must come from kilns. Why soot? And why must it come specifically from the kilns and not cooking fires or some other source?

Bricks were sun-dried in ancient Egypt, but our ancestors who told and retold the story of Israel’s servitude in, and redemption from, Egypt, knew another process: bricks baked in kilns. 

I’m guessing that they projected their method of brick production back in time onto the Egyptian venue. The image of soot acquired from kilns creates a fascinating and powerful image: To bring the sixth plague, Moses uses the very soot from the very same kilns in which the Hebrew slaves bake bricks to build Pithom and Rameses. This act is a step in the process of Israel’s redemption. The soot that is the direct byproduct of the people’s toil and suffering paves the way to their freedom.

Throwing the soot into the air becomes a symbolic gesture of the Israelites’ growing awareness of God and hence the possibilities for life that lie beyond slavery. For 400 years, Torah tells us, the Hebrew slaves toil under the Egyptian sun before they cry out to God. That is to say: it takes four centuries for them to become aware of God’s presence and hence their own value as human beings. When Moses and Aaron throw the soot in the air, it marks a step in the direction of throwing off slavery: the people are gaining an inner awareness of self, their first step toward freedom.

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (c. 1730-1797) wrote in Me’or Einayim:

The secret meaning of the Egyptian exile is that true awareness was in exile; people were unable to attain the awareness required to serve our blessed Creator, that of which Scriptures says, Know your father’s God and serve Him (I Chronicles 28:9). Awareness is the root that brings one to full love and fear of God. Know in faith that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:30), there is no place devoid of God (Zohar III:225a), and that God is the true pleasure of all pleasures and the life of life. Then you will come to realize that within any pleasure, were the flow of divine light and the life-force to disappear from it, that pleasure, like all created things, would return to primal chaos, to the void. This is true of all the worlds, both higher and lower: if one could imagine that God’s vitality might depart from them, they would be as naught.

Liberation from bondage—true freedom—begins and culminates inside us. When we become aware of God (or, if you prefer, the Divine Light, or Divine Flow, or Life-force of the Universe, or Unity of All) we come to recognize our own uniqueness and value, and we come to know ourselves deeply. For the mystics, self-knowledge, knowing ourselves as we truly are deep within, is an encounter with God. It seems that in facing the challenges of life and the inevitable suffering that is part and parcel of life in this world, we have the opportunity to encounter God within (to attune ourselves to the Divine Flow) and engage with the divine. The Chernobler Rebbe also reminds us that if we shut off the valve to the Divine Flow, if we shut ourselves off from awareness and self-knowledge, we “return to primal chaos,” to greater pain and suffering.

The Exodus can be seen as a chapter in our national religious history. But it is also a paradigm for each and every individual who struggles to overcome that which binds and enslaves him or her. If we are honest with ourselves, that is each of us. Until we realize we are in bondage and that liberation is possible, until we come to know ourselves, our value, and our potential, we will remain in bondage, never changing, never growing, never moving toward freedom. The Divine Flow (or again, if you prefer the Divine Light or the Life-force of the Universe, or the Unity of All) is always available. The next move—to throw the soot into the air—is ours.

Nelson Mandela famously wrote, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” (A Long Walk To Freedom, 1994) Perhaps that is why we return to Egypt year after year for a week each spring during Pesach. We find Egypt unchanged, but with increasing self-knowledge we see how altered we are. The primal chaos of Egypt recedes further and further from the reality of our souls. Redemption comes step by step. Can you throw some soot up in the air today?

(Just to finish the story with which I opened: My husband said very little when he saw the kitchen disaster, but his fear about what might have happened was evident on his face. I scrubbed the cabinets and floor, and he repainted the entire kitchen a lovely shade of blue. Then he went out and bought me an electric kettle that turns itself off when the water reaches a boil.)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Something to believe in / Parshat Shemot

Before we wax poetic and pious in our vilification of the genocidal Pharaoh of Egypt who orders the deaths of the all the Hebrew baby boys, we might do well to recall that the Bible tells us that God causes, commands, and threatens genocide on numerous occasions. God brings a flood that destroys virtually all life on earth—human and animal:

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Genesis 6:13)

God commands the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites:

You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity… (Deuteronomy 7:16; see also Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

God threatens to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Samaria in the prophet Hosea’s disturbingly graphic description:

Samaria will bear her guilt,
For she has rebelled against her God
They shall fall by the sword
Their infants shall be dashed to death
Their pregnant women ripped open.
(Hosea 14:1)

It is but a small comfort to note that biblical historians assure us that the genocides of Scripture are not historical. That lets both God and the Israelites off the hook, I suppose. But why are these stories here in the Bible? Are they a warning to us? Most likely not, since God initiates genocide on numerous occasions. More likely tales of genocide, imagined and threatened, reflect fear, animus, and fantasies locked deep in the human psyche.

Alas the lock on that chamber of our psyche is easily picked. The past century alone has been rife with real genocides, rivers of blood, oceans of bones. In addition to the Holocaust: the Armenians, Gypsies, Serbs, Cambodians, Rwandans, Kurds, Darfur, and the Hutus.

What is it in us that makes it possible for a person to participate in carrying out genocide? And what can we do? In the aftermath of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel, psychologists asked questions about the depth of human depravity and the human capacity for evil. Eichmann claimed he was only following orders. Could it be that an authority figure could coerce someone into committing heinous crimes? Is it that easy?

In the early 1960s, Yale professor of psychology Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiments to explore whether people can be induced or coerced into conforming to the orders of an authority figure to harm or kill another human being (please read about them here). If subjects balked at administering electrical shocks to another human being in the name of “teaching” him, the tester would employ a graduated series of scripted verbal prods, in this order:
·      “Please continue.”
·      “The experiment requires that you continue.”
·      “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
·      “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

There were numerous iterations of the experiment, some in which the “teacher” saw the person receiving the shock, and even held his hand down on the instrument that delivered the shock. However, the statistic people recall and still talk about is the “baseline” 65% of men (because only men were used in the experiment) who obediently administered the highest dose of electricity: 450 volts.

Prof. Alexander Haslam, currently of the University in Queensland, Australia, and Prof. Stephen Reicher of St. Andrews University in Scotland reject the long-standing interpretation of the experiment. They note in a paper entitled “Contesting the ‘Nature’ of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show” that Milgram’s conclusion,

“ignores copious evidence of resistance even in studies held up as demonstrating that conformity is inevitable…[and] ignores the evidence that those who do heed authority in doing evil do so knowingly not blindly, actively not passively, creatively not automatically. They do so out of belief not by nature, out of choice not by necessity. In short, they should be seen—and judged—as engaged followers not as blind conformists.”

In the final analysis, Haslam and Reicher tell us, tyranny “flourishes because [perpetrators] actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous. It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work and that makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success.”

Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS, understood this. In his 1943 Posen speech he appeals to the Nazi soldiers’ need to believe in Nazi ideology in order to carry out atrocities:

"Most of you men know what it is like to see 100 corpses side by side, or 500 or 1,000. To have stood fast through this - and except for cases of human weakness - to have stayed decent, that has made us hard. This is an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory in our history… We had the moral right, we had the duty towards our people, to destroy this people that wanted to destroy us.”[1]

The Nazis who committed unspeakable brutality were not responding to authority and threats: they believed in what they were doing. Prof. Ben Kiernan of Yale, in Blood and Soil, examines mass violence throughout human history and identifies four ideologies that motivate genocide. While there are differing opinions on the ideologies he identifies and his application of them in all cases, it is important to note that the core impetus and justification is one or more ideology.

Recently, I was describing Milgram’s experiments to my friend Harry at the gym. He didn’t recognize the name Stanley Milgram initially, but before I could say very much, he became excited and cut in to tell me that in the late 60s when he was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University (approximately 20 years old), the psychology department paid him $20 to participate in an experiment. Harry remembers it vividly. He described the set-up; clearly it was a replication of the Milgram experiment, which was run at a number of universities. Harry said that when the tester told him he was to administer an electric shock he responded in disbelief, “Are you kidding?” The man assured him it was okay to do this, and allowed him to feel the first two of ten supposed levels of electrical shock. Harry insisted on experiencing the higher levels himself before he would agree to subject anyone else to it. The tester said he couldn’t. Harry got up to walk around the partition to check it out himself, but the tester stopped him. Harry refused to participate on any other terms. The tester announced, “The experiment is over.” Harry was certainly not cowed by authority but more importantly, at a time when, as he pointed out to me, New Jersey still executed criminals by electric chair, he could not possibly do this to another human being, seen or unseen, known or invisible.

Haslam and Reicher’s interpretation of Milgram’s experiments reveals an aspect of the human psyche it is crucial to understand. People will go to virtually any length for what they believe in. Our conviction and commitment, our willingness to go to any length is both our best and our worst trait. It is this facet of the human psyche that makes great evil, such as genocide, possible. But it is also this trait that energized and sustained Nelson Mandela z”l for 27 years in three different prisons, propelled him to the presidency of South Africa, and gave him the enlightened vision and raw courage to institute a new constitution and create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We all need something to believe in—something bigger than ourselves—and if we don’t find something compelling and worthy, we will find something selfish and banal. Religion at its best (and in its only legitimate formulation) guides us to believe in righteous and worthy principles and endeavors beyond the narrow confines of ourselves, and emboldens us to stretch ourselves in ways we didn’t know we could: to pursue justice, to act with compassion, to respond forcefully when others are abused, and to promote human rights. This is not to say that only religious people can believe in something worthy. Atheists can and do, and more power to those who promote justice, compassion, equity, and human rights. Religion does not have a monopoly on values and wisdom. However, religion offers a wealth of powerful, spiritual, inspiring myths and practices, and a community with which to live them.

In one of Nelson Mandela’s most famous speeches, delivered at the beginning of the Rivonia trial in 1964 at which he was convicted of sabotage and sentence to prison for life, he said:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people…. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

We all need something greater than ourselves to believe in, something that makes our world better. This is especially true for our children. We need to raise more children to become Harrys; then we will have more Mandelas.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] To read the entire speech, go to and type “Posen speech” in the search box on the top right of the window. The first response will be a pdf file. It is available on other websites, as well.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How much truth to tell? / Parshat Vayechi

Do you always tell the truth, accurately, precisely, and completely? If you’re human, probably not. R. Shimon b. Gamliel taught that, the world endures because of three things: justice, truth, and peace (Pirke Avot 1:18). Despite the emphasis we rightly place on honesty and transparency, telling the unvarnished truth is not appropriate in every instance. Parashat Vayechi provides an example of when not to disclose all, and how to shade the truth appropriately and elegantly when necessary.

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” (Genesis 47:28-30)

It is abundantly clear that Jacob’s primary concern is that he not be buried in Egypt. Accordingly, when Jacob dies, Joseph orders the physicians of Egypt to embalm his father, a process that Torah reports requires forty days to complete. We might think that Joseph has Jacob’s body embalmed because this is Egyptian practice, but it is far more plausible that Jacob will need to transport his father’s remains a long distance before interring them in the Cave of Machpelah.

…when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court, saying, “Do me this favor, and lay this appeal before Pharaoh: ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now, therefore, let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.” And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath.” (Genesis 50:4-6)

Joseph does not tell Pharaoh’s courtiers that Jacob was loathe to be buried in Egypt—the full truth—but rather that he wished to be buried with his ancestors, a partial truth. The real reason would have been an insult to Pharaoh and all Egypt; the given reason is understandable and innocuous. Regardless, Joseph is not entirely truthful with Pharaoh.

Torah tells us of other lies that were told, not only without criticism, but apparently with approval. God tells the first. And Sarah [eavesdropping on the conversation between Abraham and the three angels who have come to announce the birth of Isaac] laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12) Sarah cannot imagine Abraham capable of siring a child. God reports her words to Abraham rather differently: Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” (Genesis 18:13) In God’s telling, Sarah’s concern is her own capacity to conceive, not Abraham’s ability to impregnate. The midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, also lie. They tell Pharaoh that they have been unable to comply with his command to kill the baby boys of the Israelites, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth” (Exodus 1:19).

Philosophers and theologians have long argued whether lying is ever morally permitted or not. If the lie would benefit the one who hears it, is it permissible? Do the intentions of the one uttering the lie matter? Ought we apply the “Golden Rule” (“Do unto others…”) or Hillel’s principle (“What is hateful to you…”)?
While Scripture generally lauds truth telling, the Rabbis recognized that the realities and exigencies of life require us to exert sound and sensitive judgment. Sometimes the moral road involves bending the truth, avoiding the truth, and even outright lying.

Talmud permits lying in the interest of peace, and provides three examples.

R. Ilai said in the name of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon: It is permitted for a person to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace, as it says (Genesis 50: 16-17): "Your father [Jacob] commanded before his death, saying: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘O please forgive the offense of your brothers and their sin for they have treated you so wickedly.’"

R. Natan said: It is a mitzvah [i.e., to lie in the interest of peace], as it says: And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (I Samuel 16:2).

The School of R. Yishmael taught: Great is the cause of peace, seeing that for its sake, even the Holy One, blessed be God, changed the truth, for at first it is written, ‘My lord [i.e., Sarah’s husband Abraham] is old,” (Genesis 18:12), while afterward it is written "And I am old" (18:13). (BT Yebamot 65b)

The first example, rather than citing Joseph’s lie to Pharaoh (which is clearly intended to keep peace) curiously cites his brothers’ blatant lie and coercive fabrication concerning what father Jacob said before he died. The Talmud next cites God’s advice to the prophet Samuel to use the deception of a sacrifice to conceal his true mission to anoint David as king in place of Saul. This is followed by the example of God’s fudging of the truth for Abraham, which we mentioned above. Perhaps most surprising is R. Natan’s view that there are times when one is commanded—not just permitted—to lie. And indeed, this is confirmed in a famous discussion in BT Ketubot 16b-17a concerning what one says about a bride. The School of Shammai say we call ‘em as we see ‘em, but the School of Hillel tell us that one always praises the bride as beautiful and graceful regardless of objective reality.

Absolutists, from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant have claimed that deviation from the truth is never morally justifiable. Like the School of Shammai, they leave us no wiggle room to employ our best judgment. While we can always know we are “right” by never lying, the sensibilities and feelings of others may well be sacrificed on the altar of smug self-righteousness. The absolute standard may simplify things but that is not the same as improving things. Rabbinic tradition is replete with stories of Sages who told lies, formulated ruses, and avoided the truth in order to spare someone humiliation or hurt feelings. Sometimes we are trapped by a question we are asked—surely this has happened to you—but the Rabbis even considered the possibility that a lie created ex nihilo could have moral weight. I leave you with one more marvelous and instructive teaching from the rabbinic imagination:

When two people quarreled, Aaron [the High Priest] went and sat near one of them and said to him, “My son, do you see what your friend is doing? He is beating his breast and rending his clothing saying, ‘Woe is me! How can I even look at my friend? I am so ashamed of myself since I was the one who offended him.’” Aaron would sit with him until he removed the hatred from his heart. Aaron would then go and sit next to the other and say to him, "My son, do you see what your friend is doing? He is beating his breast and rending his clothing saying, ‘Woe is me! How can I even look at my friend? I am so ashamed of myself since I was the one who offended him.’” Aaron would sit with him until he removed the hatred from his heart. When the two met, they would hug and kiss each other. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12:3)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gimme gimme / Parshat Vayigash

Can you imagine a synagogue, church, or mosque without prayer services? Prayer is a central function of communal religious life. Jewish prayer is complex, highly scripted, and requires study and practice to truly master: when to stand or sit, what order to say the prayers, which are said communally and which are said privately, not to mention extensive choreography that accompanies many prayers. While Christian prayer may not be as complex, one Baptist minister put it this way: “Prayer is a lot more than reciting words. It requires mastering both theory and technique.”

For all this, traditional and spontaneous prayers boil down to four types: Thanks, Oops, Gimme, and Wow. However we conceive God—a power outside us, the divine spark within us, the totality of the universe—and wherever and however we offer these prayers—in synagogue wrapped in a tallit, on the beach listening to the waves lap up against the shore, or nestled among the trees in a pine forest—prayers of gratitude, prayers for forgiveness, and expressions of awe come naturally, straight from the heart. Appreciation, remorse and awe are part of our make-up. And while seeking what we want is also a natural part of our human make-up, the Gimme prayers are different. Who are we petitioning? What is it appropriate to ask for? Is there a God who can or will deliver on our requests? Given our personal beliefs concerning God, does petitionary prayer even make sense for each of us? Where is the line drawn between self-serving requests and petitions that are not fundamentally selfish?

As this week’s parashah, Vayigash, opens, Joseph has successfully entrapped his brothers. Judah approaches Joseph to plead on behalf of Benjamin, in whose saddle pack a silver goblet was planted and subsequently discovered by Joseph’s men.

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. (Genesis 44:18)

Midrash Tanhuma (Parshat Vayera 8) tells us that the term vayigash (“he approached”) always connotes prayer. This would suggest that Judah’s petition is expressed before Joseph, but directed to God, as well. Rabbi Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec (1704-1772) in his commentary Or Torah tells us that Tanhuma’s observation applies here to Judah. Friedman writes:

When you arise to pray before the blessed One, this is how you should behave: the entire intention of your prayer should be to bring strength to the Shekhinah [God’s divine presence]. This is the meaning of what the Sages say [in BT Berakhot 30b]: Pray only with a serious demeanor; be mindful of the beginning of all beginnings. Even though you are asking for something that you need, your intention should be that whatever it is not be lacking above. Your soul is a part of God, one of the limbs of the Shekhinah. The goal of your prayer is that the lack be fulfilled on high. This will certainly make your prayer acceptable, and the adversary will be unable to find blame in you… (Or Torah)

Or Torah sets the bar for petitionary prayer high: I should align myself with God’s purpose and pray accordingly. It’s not clear that such prayer is petitionary in the common sense of petitionary prayer. Let’s consider Judah’s plea, which Or Torah understands to be a prayer. Judah is worried about his father, Jacob, who was heartbroken when he thought Joseph had been torn to shreds by wild animals. Judah is keenly aware that if he returns home without Benjamin, when [Jacob] 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 (Genesis 44:31). Judah cannot bear the thought of being responsible for his father’s pain and possible demise. His entreaty clearly serves his own purpose, perhaps not in an entirely selfish manner, but he is motivated first and foremost by his own self-interest.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” Judah’s words are a clear admission of his weakness. Yet they also shape a specific request.

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, helps us here. He famously wrote: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Petitionary prayer that seeks personal growth and change fits both Gandhi’s teaching, as well as Kierkegaard’s characterization of prayer. And it certainly fills Or Torah’s standard that our intentions should be to fulfill what is lacking above. It removes us from the bind of selfish concern. And regardless of how we understand God, this is prayer that is both appropriate and can be answered.

With this in mind, I want to share with you a prayer I ran across some time ago. Unfortunately, I do not know the source. It’s one of those pieces that makes the rounds through internet sites and newsletters, but no less worthwhile for its extensive travels:

Help us become
A little less impatient with those we deem too slow;
A little less arrogance because of all we know;
A little more humility, seeing our worth is slight;
A little less intolerant even when we are right.
A little more forgiving and swifter to be kind;
A little more desirous the word of praise to find;
A little more eager to help others to rejoice;
A little bit more careful to speak with gentle voice.
A little more willingness to extend a helping hand;
A little more eagerness to listen and understand;
A little more effort to see another’s view;
A little more determined to live faithfully as a Jew;
A little more resolve to do what should be done;
And a greater understanding that, truly, “We are one!”

Rabbi Morris Adler taught: "One who rises from prayer a better person, that person's prayer is answered." Amen.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Joseph or Judah: which way should we face? / Parshat Miketz

The recent Pew Research Study on American Jews has once again evoked fear, despair, and hand wringing in many quarters of the liberal Jewish community. Here are some of the highlights—both attitudinal and behavioral—taken directly from the Pew website:

·      The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.
·      The number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.
·      Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.
·      Two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion.

The alarm bells paraphrase the immortal words uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West: “We’re shrinking! We’re shrinking!” Will liberal Judaism disappear through assimilation? Is this the end of us?

Miketz means “at the end,” referring to the end of Joseph’s two-year hitch in Pharaoh’s one-star dungeon. The notion of “the end”—be it the ominous specter the Pew Report holds forth to some, or the conclusion of Joseph’s time in prison—evokes another question about ends: What end do we have in mind when we choose how we will live our Jewish lives— in our own heads and hearts, in our homes, and out in the community?

Pondering Joseph’s scheming efforts to test his brothers, who have come down to Egypt in search of food during a famine in Eretz Yisrael: What end does Joseph have in mind? His brother Judah’s straightforward behavior and response provide a sharp contrast. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in his commentary on Parshat Miketz in Shemot HaRe’iyah, compares the brothers. Judah responds to present and pressing reality because for him, it’s all about survival; the Jewish people must live apart from other nations in order to preserve their heritage. Joseph, in contrast, focuses on a future messianic goal when, nations will walk by Your light (Isaiah 60:3). Joseph therefore concerns himself with the greater world and the spiritual elevation of all people, not only Israel.

Let’s explore this a bit more. Consider Judah, the pragmatist and isolationist: He is focused on his family and the internal discord caused by a bratty younger brother, Joseph, who sows seeds of jealousy. When his brothers propose killing Joseph, Judah convinces them to sell him to a traveling caravan of merchants and bring home his blood-soaked cloak to convince their father Jacob that Joseph is gone, once and for all (Genesis chapter 37). Judah seeks equilibrium in the family, but he does not seek goodness or righteousness, either for his family or anyone beyond the clan. His dealings with Tamar (chapter 38) are honest and forthright, but again his focus is to resolve conflict within the clan. In Parshat Miketz, confronted by Joseph’s scheme, Judah’s focus is on holding the family together. He convinces Jacob that Benjamin must be permitted to travel to Egypt to satisfy the needs of the Egyptian Prime Minister, or the family will starve (43:8-9). Once Joseph reveals himself, Judah’s focus turns to placating Joseph.

When Judah and his brothers reentered the house of Joseph, who was still there they threw themselves on the ground before him. Joseph said to them, “What is this deed that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me practices divination?” Judah replied, “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.” (Genesis 44:14-16)

Joseph sees the world, and his place in it, differently. He lives among the Egyptians. He dedicates his life energies to seeing that they survive the famine. He settles his family in Goshen where they can live together but are not wholly isolated from the Egyptians. The Rabbis noted that Psalm 81:6 spells Joseph’s names with an additional hey: יהוסף rather than יוסף. The Sages of the Talmud (Sotah 36b) tell us that the angel Gabriel added a hey to Joseph’s name, a letter from God’s name, and midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 12:9) explains that the additional hey enables Joseph to understand each nation’s language and appreciate their spiritual potential.

In short: Judah is able to see only what is. Joseph is able to see potential. Judah focuses inward on preservation. Joseph focuses outward on possibility.

The seeming choice of where to invest our energy and effort is for many a perennial dilemma. If we do not attend to the present and effectively pass down our traditions to the next generation, how many next generations will there be? That is the fear buttressed by the results of the Pew Study. Yet if we live isolated, insular lives, how can we fulfill our purpose and have a positive impact on the world beyond our own communal borders? What difference does it make that Israel exists, if we exist only for ourselves?

Perhaps Hillel put it best, and note that he uttered these words more than 2,000 years ago long before the Pew Study was issued:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when? (BT Pirke Avot 1:14)

The tension between self-preservation motivated insularity and assimilation-risking openness is with us in every generation. It always has been. The trick—and truly it is a magical dance—is to maintain a balance between the two. If we do not preserve our traditions and identity, we cannot pass our heritage and values to our children, let alone contribute to the world. If we have no positive impact on the world outside our own communal borders, then we exist selfishly for ourselves alone. There is no magic formula, no magic wand, and there are no guarantees. But one thing is certain: We need to keep the ends—both Joseph’s and Judah’s—in mind. If we raise our children in an environment of joyous and meaningful Judaism, we can accomplish both ends. No guarantees, of course, but what in life is certain save death and taxes, as Benjamin Franklin noted. But take heart: a joyous, meaningful Jewish life will appealingly convey tradition to future generations, and facilitate our sharing the wisdom of our tradition with the world. And there’s a bonus: it will be religiously and spiritually satisfying to us. So it’s a win-win-win. Please keep Hillel’s wisdom in mind: If not now, when?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman