Friday, December 16, 2016

Monster-Animal-Human-Brother at Last / Parshat Vayishlach 2016-5777

I recently heard this African parable: When he was far away, he looked like a monster. When he came closer, he looked like an animal. When he came closer still, he looked like a human being. When we stood eye-to-eye, he looked like my brother.

Jacob is returning to the Land of Israel following a long hiatus in Haran with Laban. He has four wives, eleven children, many servants, and numerous flocks and herds in tow. Jacob’s mind, however, is entirely focused on Esau, the brother he deceived and from whom he fled many years earlier. Returning now after more than two decades, Jacob fears that Esau still harbors a deadly resentment, so he sends servants ahead to propitiate Esau with gifts.

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet be saved.” (Genesis 32:7-9)

From afar, Esau appears to Jacob like a monster preparing to attack with his hoard. Jacob prepares accordingly: he divides his family and entourage into two camps, expecting that Esau will attack and hoping that Esau will manage to wipe out only one of the camps. But you cannot be too careful, so Jacob adopts an obsequious tone and fawning posture in a transparent attempt to strike a deal with God:

Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, Adonai, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.” (Genesis 32:10-13)

But Jacob doesn’t entirely trust God, either. He next instructs his herdsmen to select more “gifts” for Esau and drive the chosen flocks in waves to Esau: 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses (Genesis 32:15-16). This is no small “gift”! It is, in fact, a measure of Jacob’s anxiety. 

[Jacob] instructed the [herdsman] in front as follows, “When my brother Esau meets  you and asks you, ‘Whose man are you? Where are you going? And whose [animals] are these ahead of you? you shall answer, ‘Your servant Jacob’s; they are a gift sent to my lord Esau; and [Jacob] himself is right behind us.” (Genesis 32:18-19)

Esau now appears to Jacob as an animal who can be distracted and manipulated with enticing food or gifts. But Jacob is still wary and scared. That night he carries out his plan to divide his family and entourage into two camps and then crosses the Yabbok river alone. That night he famously wrestles with a “man.” For the biblical author this was evidently God, but later generations uncomfortable with such vivid anthropomorphism dubbed the man an angel. Still later generations suggested that Jacob was wrestling with his conscience, but in truth, there is no sign that Jacob has reached that level of moral consideration yet.

The following morning, Jacob actually lays eyes on Esau, who is approaching with his entourage of 400 men. To Jacob, Esau is close enough to appear like a human being with whom he can communicate:

[Jacob] divided divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. (Genesis 33:1-3)

Esau is no longer a monster, nor even an animal. He is a human being—powerful enough that Jacob bows before him, fearing that Esau’s intentions may still be deadly.

Within moments, they are close enough to look one another in the eye because Esau runs to greet Jacob.

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

Face-to-face, eye-to-eye, Esau is again Jacob’s brother.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Esau recognizes Jacob as his brother long before Jacob recognizes Esau as his brother. Had Esau any intention of attacking Jacob, he would not have given him two full days to strategize and prepare. Accompanied by 400 fighters, Esau could have attacked and slaughtered Jacob, his family, and his entourage immediately. And if that doesn’t convince  you, please note that Esau rejects Jacob’s gifts as entirely unnecessary and at the same time acknowledges him as “my brother.” After Jacob introduces his family to Esau,

[Esau] asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” [Jacob] answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” (Genesis 33:8-9)

Esau could see from afar that Jacob was his brother, but Jacob had to be eye-to-eye before he is able to recognize Esau as his brother.

Some of us are like Esau, able to recognize in the Other our sister or brother. And some of us are like Jacob: At a distance, the Other (immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, women, people whose political views differ from ours and who voted for a different presidential candidate—take your pick) appears to be a monster because we know nothing about them and, in our minds, write the script of who they are, how they think, what they believe, and how they will treat us. When the Other is a bit closer, we cannot entirely sustain the fiction we have created that they are a monster, but still consider them an animal, wholly unlike us. Once we come to know them, they become to us human beings and we discover that we have far more in common than we were willing to admit. But when we see meet the Other face-to-face—when we engage in meaningful conversation and listen carefully to their needs, concerns, fears, and aspirations—they become our brother or sister. And when the Other becomes our sibling, we become far more compassionate people.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mouth of the Well / Parshat Vayeitzei 2016-5777

How do you live in difficult or frightening times? That’s a question I’ve heard frequently in the past few weeks, coming from the mouths of people who are deeply troubled and apprehensive about the future and who sense that the country is dangerously divided—socially, economically, racially, and politically. Clearly, not everyone shares this sentiment, but the precipitous rise in racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic incidents around the country in the past month[1] should give all decent people pause for concern, regardless of their political proclivities. Beyond our borders, with nine countries in the nuclear weapons club (and Iran working feverishly to gain admission); ISIS continuing to wreak havoc on the lives of millions and precipitating the worst refugee crisis in decades[2]; a score of unstable, simmering hot spots including Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, North Korea, and Ukraine that could erupt at any time; and indeed the entire planet becoming one, big hot spot,[3] it is challenging to keep a cool head and level outlook. As many have noted, with a president-elect who knows little about foreign affairs,[4] less about diplomacy,[5] and doesn’t believe in science,[6] many find cause to be anxious. Does Torah have wisdom for us at a time like this?

This week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, begins by recounting Jacob’s leave-taking from his family, his arrival in Beer-sheba on his way to Haran, and his famous dream of the ladder. When Jacob awakes from his dream—having seen angels ascending and descending on the ladder and God standing at his side—he proclaims, Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, which is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17) In Jacob’s words, we find our first piece of advice: Recall that this place—every place—is the abode of God, a gateway to heaven. God is present everywhere, in everyone, regardless of how they voted, regardless of what policies or politics they pursue. The rampant demonization of the “Other” that has marked the recent campaign, and which is an on-going feature of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism here in the United States and abroad, threatens the moral fiber of Western society. Rejecting demonization begins not with an “Other,” but with each of us. Those who hold differing views (be they radically red, blisteringly blue, or whatever hue offends you) share this earthly abode-of-God with us and with this country we hold dear. We must understand each other and that requires building bridges for communication. Remember what your mother told you about why God gave you two ears and one mouth?[7] I’m quite sure I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah…” but now is the time to put it to action.

A second helpful lessons comes from the hasidic sage, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who explained the very next passage in our parashah:

Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners. There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well. (Genesis 29:1-3)

Levi Yitzhak explains in Kedushat Levi:
The verses can be interpreted this way: We know that the Holy One always longs to have goodness flow upon God’s people Israel It is the evil urge that impedes this flow. But when Israel are surrounded in joy, their happiness defeats those “outside” forces, and God’s grace and compassion bring forth blessing. This is: There before his eyes was a wellthat is the flow of God’s blessing. In the open—refers to the “holy field of apples trees [understood to mean the Shekhinah]”—this indicates God’s own great joy in giving [blessing]. Three flocks of sheep—refers to the three festivals of pilgrimage in the year [Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot]. The large stoneis the evil urge, which is called a “stone,” as in “if it is a stone, let it crumble” (BT Kiddushin 30b). On the mouth of the well—preventing the flow of God’s blessing. All the flocks were gathered there—refers to Israel, assembled together to celebrate the pilgrimage festival, amid great joy. The stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well—pushing aside the evil one and all his host, stopping them from holding back the flow. Then blessing and goodness can pour forth upon Israel…

Life is supposed to be a continuous blessing flowing from heaven to earth, as water continuously flows over a waterfall, or flows through an underground stream into a well. The well is a gathering place, a source of mayyim chayyim (life-giving water)—a place of community. It exists to provide water for all living creatures in need—people and animals alike—where those who gather can assist one another. Our yetzer ra (evil urge, or inclination) stops the flow, just as the stone stopped the mouth of the well, cutting off the flow of blessing. We stop the flow of blessing when we give in to the yetzer ra, when we act out of hatred and jealousy rather than love and compassion, when we demonize others rather than seek to help them, when we operate out of selfishness rather than with generosity.

Jacob and Rachel at the Well, by Pedro Orrente
But how do we roll the stone of the yetzer ra away from the mouth of the well to let divine blessing flow? Levi Yitzhak’s interpretation continues, commenting on Genesis 29:10[8]: “When Jacob saw Rachel, refers to the joy of bridegroom and bride, paralleling the joy of the festival.” Joy is our greatest tool for defeating pessimism, doubt, fear, and hatred. How that could be, you may wonder? Perhaps you think this sounds simplistic and naive, but it is far from either.

Our lives are filled with experiences both good and bad: love and rejection, loyalty and betrayal, happiness and sadness, triumph and failure, confidence and insecurity, strength and weakness, pain and pleasure. If you think for a moment, you can surely pull up personal examples of each from memory. We cannot know the future. Nonetheless, we are inclined either toward optimism or pessimism. Which inclination has much to do with which memories we privilege and how we interpret them. If we privilege memories of happiness, we expect happiness in the future. If we privilege memories of suffering, we expect a future marred by suffering. Therefore, in a sense, pleasure begets pleasure, and pain begets pain. What we focus on not only reinforces specific memories, but shapes our expectations and molds our character. Levi Yitzhak wants us to privilege joy in our lives—seek it, treasure it, focus on it, and remember it—because by programming ourselves for joy, we will be joyous, our attitude will incline toward optimism, and we will be receptive to blessing. What is more, we will be far more likely to be a blessing to others. With a positive and joyous approach to life, we will be resilient and energized to meet the challenges that lie ahead and to find the will and wherewithal to engage in the issues that concern us most, helping us to live more fully.

Levi Yitzhak’s message is universalistic in tone, but he has a particularistic Jewish message for us, as well: We should look to our traditions and to our community for joy. Our holy days, our traditions, and our community can all be sources of joy if we reach out and embrace them and incorporate them in our lives, removing the rock at the mouth of the well and letting blessing flow into our lives and through us, into the lives of those we love—and the life of the world.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[2] ISI has displaced more than 3.3 million people in Iraq alone. Millions have fled Syria, headed for Lebanon, Turkey, the Gulf States, and destinations in Europe.
[4] He said he would familiarize himself with key facts “when it’s appropriate.”
[7] Just in case your mother or father didn’t share this pithy teaching with you: the reason God gave us two ears and one mouth is because we should listen twice as much as we talk.
[8] And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. (Genesis 29:10)