Wednesday, January 7, 2015
No Cause/Cause: A Drash on Forgiveness
In this week’s parsha, Va-Yiggash, Joseph forgives his brothers for throwing him into the pit and selling him into slavery. It is the first time in Torah that anybody forgives anybody. And, a scholar named David Konstan in The Origin of Forgiveness argues that this is the first instance of forgiveness in written history. Before that and until today, there has been the alternative culture of honor in which there is appeasement – my honor restored by means of my hurting or killing you, or you’re paying me off, or maybe convincing me of your innocence. But no such thing as that elusive experience of forgiveness.
So what is forgiveness? I had the most contact with the concept as a kid asking for it and then as a parent, doling it out. Basically the transaction consisted of saying “I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again” with a certain especially cute look and voice. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. Then in my 40’s, for the sake of my sanity, I had to ‘forgive’ my parents. That time it followed the formula best laid out by Reb Lily Tomlin, one of the great sages of our age: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” Now I don’t do much forgiving on a personal level. I live among good people. There is a guy who betrayed me at the deepest level nearly 30 years ago, and I won’t let go because thinking of him goads me – I might not be writing this without him. Mostly today its public figures, Dick Cheney, Officers Wilson and Panteleo, Pat Lynch, Rudy Giuliani. It’s a long list, and no, I don’t forgive. If it eats at my soul to be furious at them, so be it. So what is forgiveness? How does Joseph do it? What can I – we – learn from this very first instance.
Part of what makes this difficult that Joseph’s forgiveness has nothing to do with the ordeal he puts his brothers through. After all these weird twists, which we’ll get into, he simply tells them, ‘Its not your fault; you and I are just pawns, puppets in God’s cosmic agenda. You couldn’t help yourselves, God was acting, speaking, scheming through you. And it was all for the good.’ So really, he is saying that there is nothing to forgive.
If that’s the case, then why has Joseph put his brothers through this complicated twisting set of torments, this trial by deception? They arrive the first time from Canaan expecting a business transaction. They have plenty of money, but they need to buy grain in the midst of a terrible famine, and Egypt is the only place that has grain. They come before this great and awesome man, the Regent of the most powerful country on Earth, the equal of Pharaoh, who is a God to the Egyptians. But instead of making a deal, Joseph questions and accuses these brothers, and then toys with them in completely mysterious ways, ways that make them sense that he’s toying with them, make them very paranoid. Joseph accuses them of being spies, he throws them into prison – their own pit – he secretly puts the exact amount of silver they paid back in their bags; he tells them they can’t come back without brother Benjamin, even though they have said it would kill their father. And then, when they bring Benjamin back, this unsettling Regent mysteriously commands them to dine with him in the palace, favors Benjamin, and then entraps them by planting his silver cup in poor Benjamin’s pack. Its all weird and terrifying, and from the beginning the brothers sense it has something to do with their terrible sin against their brother.
But, as I said, all this has nothing to do with Joseph’s reasons for forgiving them. So what’s going on? Why has Joseph put them through all this? Why has he taken so long, risked so much before revealing himself?
Well I would submit that long before his brothers appear, Joseph yearns to reconnect with his father and his brothers. He names his elder son Manasseh, ‘He Who Makes Forget,’ as in ‘I have forgotten my hardships and all my father’s house.’ It’s a little like Amalek – you know, Remember to forget Amalek? This is like, ‘Remember to forget your roots.’ But here the stakes are different. He must forget, or at least not linger on the past, because in order to make himself into the all-powerful Regent of all Egypt, to do the job he has been thrust into, he has to keep his mind firmly fixed in the present. Wallowing in the past, whether sentimental or resentful, is dangerous.
But there another side of the name Menasseh as an ever present reminder to forget: the reminder side. According to Rashi, Joseph has this special knowledge of how to prevent stored grain from rotting, and the secret, as Rashi knew, because he was also a vintner, is to throw some dirt from the soil in which the stored grain was grown, in among the grain. Joseph knows this, and his son’s name reminds him to keep in himself a handful of the memory of his roots. Else, he knows, he is in danger of hollowing out completely into the soulless figure who will soon enslave everyone in Egypt.
So Joseph keeps his family in mind, as his father kept Joseph’s dreams in mind. And when the brothers appear before him, bowed down, exactly fulfilling his childhood dreams, he wants more than merely to reveal himself to them, tell them its all ok because it’s what God wants. He wants to connect. In whatever way possible he wants to plant himself back in his family. He wants to know if his father remembers him; even cares that he’s gone. He wants to know who these brothers are – will they still be full of rage at his dominion; are they a threat to his body or his power and position? But Joseph is a smooth operator, well schooled in keeping his own counsel, hiding his feelings. So he stalls at first, making himself strange to them, making threatening accusations, imprisoning them.
And during these interactions, he overhears the brothers speculating that all this weirdness is happening because ‘we are guilty concerning our brother.’ And hearing that, Joseph turns aside and weeps. For the first time since he was a child in Canaan, Joseph is himself, even if only to himself; the mask torn away for a moment. He knows now that his brothers acknowledge their guilt, if only to themselves.
And that, we are taught at Yom Kippur, is the first stage of tshuva, to admit, to acknowledge our wrongdoing.
But what next? Is their shame merely at being caught out, even so indirectly? Would they attack their shamer – shame is a dangerous emotion, especially in a culture built around honor. And most important, would they do it again? That’s the true measure of tshuvah. How to find out? They can’t possibly throw Joseph back into a pit. Well, there is this other brother, the one closest to Joseph, the one whom their father seems to favor now, now that Joseph is gone. Would they sell him down the river if they had the chance? So Joseph sets them up. He sells them grain, but not enough. Because he knows what they don’t: that we are only two years into the seven year famine. They will have to come back. And he tells them you can’t come back unless you bring this other brother, this one whom your father keeps home.
Sure enough they must come back, and, to Jacob’s great grief, they bring Benjamin. And as soon as Joseph sees his only full brother, humanity overpowers his power once more, and he runs from the room to weep again. Now it gets truly weird for the brothers, as Joseph gathers them to a fancy meal in the palace, and shows all kinds of favoritism to Benjamin, as if to tempt their resentment. Then finally he sends them off, only to have his steward hide his personal silver divining cup; and then chase after them, and accuse them of stealing it. They howl their innocence, but he finds the cup of course in Benjamin’s pack. The steward has said that the guilty one must return to Egypt as a slave.
This is the temptation. The brothers could abandon Benjamin to his pit. But they don’t. they come back with him, a sign of growth already. And when Joseph orders them to leave Benjamin and return to Canaan ‘in peace,’ Judah steps forward. Judah, whom Nicole Fix so beautifully revealed to be a man who has grown into maturity, compassion and leadership, Judah ‘draws close’ to Joseph. Draws close, Va-Yiggash, is a brazen act in itself, not just one of pleading or appeasement, but the midrash says it is also an act of aggression. And Joseph allows it. ‘Let’s see what he’s made of,’ thinks Joseph. ‘And while he talks, I will think of my next move.’
But Judah proceeds to make one of the great speeches in Torah, certainly my favorite. I can’t analyze it depth here – maybe next year if I’m lucky enough to get this assignment again. But suffice to say that first he confesses – ‘God has found out your servants’ crime.’ It is tacit or maybe only semi-conscious, but by speaking collectively of the brothers’ crime, he does confess, and that – confession -- is the second stage of tshuvah.
Then Judah retells the whole story of what has happened to him and his brothers since they came to Egypt. But he tells it from his viewpoint, deeply personally, expressing his utter anguish at the possibility that he might return without Benjamin, which would kill his old father. But as personal as it is, Judah knows intuitively or from clues, that Joseph is vulnerable on the issue of their father, of Jacob. 15 times he says ‘father’ -- my father, Benjamin’s father, our father. He reveals that Jacob thinks Joseph was ‘torn by a beast’ – Joseph couldn’t know that.
And, Judah reveals that he has promised himself as surety for Benjamin. And somehow this must carry great weight when he says it, because Judah has a deep and scourging history with sureties, going back the first time to Joseph’s coat, which he presents to Jacob and asks if he recognizes it; then, as Nicole told us, Judah gives his seal, staff and ring as surety to Tamar, and later she asks if he recognizes them; and now he stands surety for his brother – begging to descend into slavery in his stead.
And he ends by saying:
“How can I go up to my father, when the lad is not with me?
Then would I see the ill-fortune that would come upon my father!”
And, “Joseph could no long restrain himself.” He sends all the Egyptians from the room and weeps so loud and long that everyone in the palace hears -- imagine the brothers standing there! When he recovers enough to speak all he can say is “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” MY Father. Finally he can say it. Finally he can reveal himself knowing who his brothers are; that they have changed; that they did not take the bait. They stuck with their brother this time. They have fulfilled the third stage of tshuva; given the opportunity they didn’t do it again.
The brothers stand dumbfounded, gobsmacked, mouths agape, terrified, frozen, while Joseph weeps and weeps.
Finally Joseph recovers himself enough to speak. He beckons to them; they va-yiggash, draw near, and he tells them:
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that G‑d sent me ahead of you…. But G‑d sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but G‑d.”
Joseph not only releases them from guilt, he brilliantly gives the brothers a story, one they can tell themselves and others – “It was not us who sent him here, but G‑d.” A story that lets them off the hook for what they did and also gives them reason not to resent him for what he has become, for the fulfillment of those dreams they hated him for before.
I think Joseph absolutely believes this mechanistic dehumanized theology. He says things like this over and over. But I also think that Joseph knows there are other levels of explanation, of tshuvah and forgiveness. He knows that if the return of his family is to mean anything, there must be a return to connection, to feeling, to a sense that he is part of the family he came from.
He has no desire to return and live among his family. Why would he? His life, his career, his greatness, are in Egypt, in this great role he plays. He has known that at least since he named his second son Ephraim, which refers to the irony of finding fulfillment in the land of his oppression, in Egypt. So he puts the family safely at a nice distance and carries on with his career.
So, to return to where I began, this is the first instance of forgiveness in written history. It can teach us a lot; not least that forgiveness is complex and difficult, rarely complete. It includes the elements we speak of at Yom Kippur: acceptance, confession and real change. We like to say ‘forgive and forget,’ but we see here that forgetting is neither necessary nor probably possible. Rather, we must strive to forgive even as we remember. This is a great story that presents an overwhelming human challenge.
Finally, a midrash: when Jacob dies, Joseph and his brothers, along with a huge entourage, carry Jacob’s body back to Canaan to bury it in the cave at Machpelah with Abraham and Sarah. And the midrash says that en route, they pass the very pit his brothers threw Joseph into. And Joseph stops the caravan; goes over to the pit, and says a blessing over it, thanking that pit, that scorpion filled emptiness, for all that it has given to him, to his family and to the story of our people. Shabbat Shalom.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
The Death of Sarah/The Life of Sarah
Drash on Parshat Chayyei Sarah
Arthur Strimling, 11/15/2014
Since the beginning of time, well, certainly since Sinai, every commentator on this week's parsha has had to say the following: "This parsha is called Chayyei Sarah, which means 'the life of Sarah,' but the first thing that happens is that Sarah dies." You have to say that; I think it is halachic.
This meme is usually presented as irony, but for me it is quite the opposite. For me, juxtaposing 'the life of Sarah' and 'Sarah died' is a simple assertion that after we die the power and meaning of our life is revealed. Sarah dies but the force of her life pervades everything in the rest of the parsha, and the next generation, and the next, and all generations. She is still present; we hear Sarah's voice every year at the High Holy Days, not only in the Torah texts we read, but primally in the cries of the Shofar.
Sarah's death is told immediately after the Akedah, so the story goes that she dies after hearing about what happened to her son, her only one, her beloved, her Isaac. Sarah, the most analytical, the most hard headed of the all the patriarchs and matriarchs; the one who would not take it on faith that there would be an heir through her, so she pushed her handmaid on Abraham. And who, when she saw Ishmael and Isaac going out into the field to play, could only see Cain and Abel going out into the field for murder. That hard, relentless matriarch, that Sarah, is destroyed when she hears about the Akedah. The logic of her life is broken. When all the structures she has built crumble, she crashes. In contrast, Abraham lives in the ambiguities of faith. He accepts absurdity over and over. He goes on. Sarah cannot bear the reality that what was true in the morning, in the evening becomes a lie.
There are many versions of how Sarah learns about the Akedah, mostly involving the angel Samael, also known as Satan, coming to tell her. But my favorite, from Bereshit Rabba, has Isaac himself returning to his mother after he survives the Akedah. Abraham is not there; he has gone from Moriah to a different place. But Isaac returns to his mother's tent. "What has happened to you, my son?" He is changed, haggard, jumpy, exhausted, ghostly, his eyes staring a thousand miles into nowhere. "Father took me to a mountain, and he built an altar and he tied me to it and he held my head with one hand and raised the knife with the other and then he stopped and cut me down and then he sacrificed a ram instead of me." And then Sarah cries [like sounds of Shofar]
Aaah aaah aaah/ ah ah ah ah ah ah ah/aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh!
and she dies. And every year when the shofar sounds, we hear her cries again.
Abraham mourns, and I think his mourning is deep and long. They have been through so much together, those two, for so long. In my mind, they have been collaborators, not lovers, not affectionate, living apart a lot of the time. He has used her over and over and over, and she disdained his love for his first son. But in the end, they have always worked together toward some great goal. Abraham and Sarah are collaborators at the deepest level, like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt ... or the Macbeths.
And then he goes off to buy a burial plot for Sarah. It is an amazing scene, comic almost, the old man and the king haggling in lavish rhetoric. But Abraham pays a ridiculous price. (The slander that Jews are natural hagglers does not come from Abraham, that's for sure). Nonetheless for the first time, for better and for worse, we Jews are in the complex murderous business of owning land.
Isaac, even though he is the future, disappears for most of the parsha. Rashi says that his ashes remained on the altar of the Akedah. What does that mean, his ashes remained on the altar? He lived didn't he? Well yes, but he might as well not have. He is walking dead. He lives alone in his dead mother's tent. How powerful is that image? losing a powerful beloved parent, one does, I do. Part of me lives in my dead mother's tent. There is a connection, a conversation that is lost, that cannot be replaced, as Lear says, "Never never never never never." Isaac is alone. I am surrounded by love and friendship, but still, some part of every day I live in her tent.
But life goes on, and it is Abraham, faithful Abraham, 137 years old, who takes it on; the destiny must be fulfilled. Elimelech, his faithful servant who once, before Ishmael and Isaac, was mentioned as Abraham's possible inheritor, is sent by Abraham to find Isaac a wife from his own tribe. That blood line thing that Jill Edelstein railed so eloquently against last week, will not let go.
And he finds her, oh, does he! Rebekah, the perfect foil for this ghost of a man, this Isaac. Like Abraham, Rebekah lives in bursts of verbs – running, carrying, pouring, running, carrying, pouring – she waters Elimelech and his ten camels. Ancient sages, who had time for this, figured out she must have carried more than 200 gallons of water – this watering is the Torah equivalent of Hercules cleaning the Augean stables. Rebekah is all action and fire, and yes she will yes, despite her goniff uncle's hondling, yes she will go to a land God and Elimelech will show her and yes marry this man she has never seen. And all her scheming patriarchal clan can do is take the money and say, "Girl you are going to be thousands of myriads!"
And then ... the scene that Lisa is going to read today, the meeting scene when Isaac and Rebekah first see each other. "How did you meet?" is the great couple question, and you better have a good story. (We do, but I'm not going to tell it here; ask us later if you want). But Isaac and Rebekah is the ur tale of love at first sight. Isaac is out walking alone, at sunset – he comes out of his mothers tent every day to watch the sun die, to relive that moment when life almost left him. He lifts his eyes and, look, a camel caravan coming. Focus moves in; Rebekah lifts her eyes and, look, she sees this man walking with his arms raised to the sky and ... and she falls off her camel. I know, I know, no reputable translator writes it like that. The reputable translation is that she just 'alights.' But it could mean she falls off her camel, and don't you want it to? Something she sees in him, in herself, in them together, thunderstrikes her. Rebekah, this woman of insight and action, gets it – "With this man I can create destiny, myriads of thousands for all time. With this man I will make history, we will be remembered forever!" Like all great lovers, she senses, she sees all that, so of course she falls off her camel!
And Isaac awakes. He takes Rebekah into his mother's tent and together they make it theirs, so they can go on to make a world. Sarah, who has hovered over, pervaded this whole story, does not go away, barely even recedes. She is there in that tent, but now Isaac can take power and life from her memory. The ashes he left on the altar can join hers, and he and Rebekah can go on. He is comforted after his mother, and so is Abraham who marries again, perhaps to Hagar if you like a bit of maudlin sentimental romance in your Torah, and who doesn't? And they retire to some Negev equivalent of Boca Raton, and have a bunch more kids.
And us? Can we too be comforted for a moment, at this moment in Torah. We all know this will not turn out any where near as well as it starts, but, still, let us savor the moment. Sarah's death has unleashed a chain of actions and connections that fulfill and reveal the true meaning and power of her life. At this moment, Sarah, too, is comforted in her tent. And us? Well, I know that I will never fully leave my mother's tent. But I also know, and this parsha confirms, that love and community and work can turn that empty space from one of death and ashes into a source of life and strength and light. As it is for Isaac, may it be for all of us. Shabbat shalom!
Saturday, October 11, 2014
The Crack in Everything
A Simchat Torah Drash
Simchat Torah is upon us this week. At Kolot we unfurl the entire Torah around the sanctuary, with adults and children holding it up. Last year, I stood in the gap between the two Atzei Chayim – the poles around which the Torah is wound -- a gave this drash. Hag Sameach!
“There is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
that’s how the light gets in.”
Those lines from Leonard Cohen have been a refrain throughout our Days of Awe. And now at the end of the Holy Days, the Torah itself finally cracks. Dvarim ends, and Tanach is all set to move on to Joshua, the next chapter, in which we conquer the Promised Land. But Torah says ‘No, Tanach, you go on ahead. I’m circling back to the very beginning and starting over.’ Torah insists on staying forever within its tight five book cycle. Why? What’s going on? How is the death of Moses connected and not connected to the beginning of Creation?
At the end of Dvarim, Moses dies, and, in the midrash, his final moment is a kiss from God, the kiss of death, a tsim-tsum, a kiss that draws out his final breath. And the next thing God does, at the beginning of Bereishit, is speak the words, “Let there be light.” And in order to speak even God must exhale. Perhaps Moses’ dying sigh is the very air that speaks the first words of creation. God takes in the crushing finality of Moses’ dying sigh, and transforms it into the first Tikkun, the words that bring the light.
But there is a space between these moments. And certainly we experience it that way – the scroll ends and begins; there are two scroll posts, two etz hayim; and traditionally we acknowledge the space by switching readers. So Torah is at once a perfect circle and a circle with a gap; the ends meet and do not meet. Rabbi Lippmann asked me to talk about the connections between the end the beginning, and I will, but on Simchat Torah, as we rush from the end to the beginning, let’s take a moment to stand in this crack and let the light get in. Or, as they say on the subway, ‘Mind the gap!’
My daughter-in-law witnesses death all the time; she’s a nurse in a cardiac ward. And she told me that the last act of life is a sigh. All the breath empties out. At the other end of life, when a baby is born, the first thing it has to do is breath in … gasp. Then she can scream, life can begin and go on until that final sigh. And as a student of Yogic breathing, Pranayama, I know that between each in-breath and out-breath, there is a gap, a space, an instant, a nanosecond where the impulse to move on to the next stage must drop in. So life begins with an inhale, an inspiration, and ends with an exhale, an expiration, and our lives, filled with all those in and out breaths, is the gap between the gasp and the sigh. And in between those ultimates, each inspiration and each expiration has its own little gap.
There is a theory about creativity that it has six stages: Dreaming, when we get an idea, an inspiration; Speaking, where we give language or outline to the idea; Forming, when we make a structure, gather materials, make rules; Fulfillment, when we execute and live the idea; and then the Decline to the Ending, when the show ends, the painting is done, the book is finished, the building built, the meal ends, the project dies. That’s five. And then there is The Gap. The space between creations, where we rest and float and wait for the next inspiration.
So now I invite you to experience what I’m talking about. When I give the word, please take a deep breath, and hold it just until you feel the need to let it out. This isn’t a breath holding contest; its just to let you experience that completely unconscious desire to breath, to live. OK, go….. Now do the same thing with an out breath. Let all the air out of you, and then hold until you feel the need, the hunger, to breath in…. Feel it? You can resist the need and hold your breath for a long time, but the impulse is still there, right?
Now, that tug may be nothing more or less than a physical impulse, but for me it is also a direct connection to the divine. This completely unconscious need to keep breathing, to keep on living, feels to me like something much larger than my body keeping me keeping on. Call it biology or the life force, or prana, or neshuma. Its something bigger than me keeping me going, inspiring me. And sometimes I think of that as a point of connection to God, as God signaling me to keep breathing … to live!
As Moses dies, so the midrash says, God hovers close by. God has told Moses more than once that he will die without entering the Promised Land, but Moses won’t let go. He tries and tries to change God’s mind, to let him cross over before he dies. In the end God grows impatient, and with a kiss, draws out Moses’ final sigh.
Torah says that the people mourn Moses for thirty days, and then go on across the Jordan. But God; what does God do? Moses was closer to God than any human before or since; they spoke panim al panim, face to face, like friends. So God has lost the closest agent, collaborator, friend God will ever have on Earth. Always solitary, unitary, unique, God understands loneliness and gives all creatures, humans included, the possibility of pairing. But, for God to be God, there can be no pairing, no true intimacy. Moses is as close as it gets.
So, with Moses' death there is a great gap, a vacuum, in the universe, in God. We humans go on with our story, on into Joshua and all the other books of Tanach; on into history, and on to our own time, our own struggles and triumphs. We long to move on to gain more freedom, to create the world for ourselves.
But God, alone and, dare I say, lonely, must miss Moses, must want Moses back. Perhaps God, who knows all stories from beginning to end, loves this story the most. So maybe God, having agreed never to destroy the world again, let’s the story go on, but has us tell this story over and over; study it, discuss and write about it, gnaw on it.
God takes that final breath of Moses, that inspiration, and exhales creation; the first breath out carries the words ‘let there be light.’ The crack in Torah, in time, in everything, has let the light get in again. And the story begins again.
[Cantor Segal sings ‘Elohai neshama sh’natata bi t’hora hi…’ as I read: ]
‘My God, the soul you gave to me is pure. You have created it, you shaped it, and you breathed it into me, and you preserve it deep inside of me. And someday you will take it from me, restoring it to everlasting life”
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Isaac & Ishmael at Abraham’s Grave
Rosh Hashanah Drash 5775 (2014)
(Read by Solitaire MacFoy, Noah Chasik-MacFoy, and Arthur)
70 years after Hagar and Ishmael were banished, after the Akedah, after Sara dies, after Isaac and Rebekah raise twin sons, and after Jakob cheats Esau out of his birthright, and runs off to become the first exile in our long history of exile, after Ishmael has 12 sons and countless grandchildren; after all this, Abraham dies at age 175. Torah says “Yitzhak and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave at Makhpelah…. There were buried Abraham and Sara his wife.” (Genesis 25:10). That is all that Torah says. We are left to imagine what they said, what they felt, what happened.
So imagine, Yitzhak has transported his father’s body to this cave where his mother already lies, he prays and as he does this oddly familiar stranger appears, accompanied by a youth. They stand facing each other over the grave. (Isaac begins the Kaddish; Noah begins praying quietly. Isaac stops, stares, Noah continues until…]
Ishmael: He was my father too
Isaac: He was … and you are welcome
Ishmael: Welcome? By rights, I should be welcoming you. The covenant was mine. I was circumcised before you were born. I was raised to be what you are, and then, in an instant it was stolen from me.
Isaac: It was God’s will! … And you really think I got off better than you? Look at me – half blind, mostly bedridden, and my sons are at each other’s throats. Some blessing, eh?
Ishmael: I heard he tried to kill you.
Isaac: No, not kill … Sacrifice! It was a test. Father told me, a test. God wanted to see if he was faithful enough even to kill his own son, his beloved, his only one.
Ishmael: Only one!?
Isaac: That’s what God said. And Father passed the test, so I did not pass on -- ha ha ha!
Ishmael: When I was still barely a youth, younger than him, your father threw mother and me out into the wilderness. He said it was God’s will, but we knew it was Sara; it was your mother.
Isaac: And even our names; you got Ishmael, ‘God hears;’ I got ‘he laughs.’ Ha! So you want to keep competing for most wounded?
Ishmael: When I was young I envied Cain. I wanted to kill you for what your mother, our father and God did to me. But our expulsion was also our liberation. Mother was free from slavery; we were free to live as we could, the life we could make. I see that now, when God has given me everything He promised Mother out there in the desert. I have founded a nation and we will become as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the shore.
Isaac: … Those are the exact words God said to father and to me. Many times. So God wants two great nations from one father. Ha!
Ishmael: You have the land. We wander.
Isaac: Is the world big enough for all of us?
Ishmael: You and I are old men now. We accept. But the young, my son here, I see that the rage lives on from generation to generation; non-negotiable, inexplicable; ignitable.
Isaac: And the knife is still at my throat. Sometimes I can’t see anything else. They say I am blind, but my eyes are fine; it’s the terror. And my sons and their sons inherit my Mother’s fear: of losing our birthright, our land, our connection to God.
Ishmael: Let us finish the business at hand and go our ways.
Isaac: You and yours, are forever welcome in our land …
Ishmael: As sojourners!
Isaac: Well, yes, but more. You are my brother. We might have ended by killing each other, but there might have been a different ending. Maybe we could have rewritten the Cain and Able story.
Ishmael: Ah, my brother is a sentimentalist!
Isaac: Anything for a laugh!
Ishmael: Enough, let’s get on with it and be on our ways. Farewell, my laughing brother
Isaac: Farewell, my brother whom God hears.
Isaac begins the Kaddish as Noah prays the Muslim prayer for the dead.
Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei raba b'alma di-v'ra
chirutei, v'yamlich malchutei b'chayeichon
uvyomeichon uvchayei d'chol beit yisrael, ba'agala
uvizman kariv, v'im'ru: "amen." ….
‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon him, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’
Written for Kabbalat Shabbat at Kolot Chayeinu,
Brooklyn, NY, November 19, 2010
I bring you greetings from your sister non-affiliated but deeply interconnected community, Congregation│Yahh! the neo-Hasidic-post-modern-Ortho-Reconstructio-Newal community that meets in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Church every Friday evening and Saturday morning, except the third Friday of the month when the Zen Wiccans are grand-mothered in. Everyone is still hoping for an ecumenical service with the Zen Wiccans, but our ritual committee is standing firm that, while it is fine for the Wiccans to draw a chalk circle on the floor at the beginning of the service, the star inside the circle has to be six pointed.
There is a lot going on at Congregation│Yahh!:
- the school had a Hebrew spelling contest, and, after extensive discussions with the parents’ committee, every child came in first;
- the logo committee is trying to decide if it would be too exclusionary to include Hebrew, being as the motto is ‘We are more inclusive than thou,’ and including Hebrew might make some people feel excluded;
- And the gala committee is trying to figure out how to include everyone who wants to come and still make money.
But this week I want to tell you about Cantor Rabbi Lili Montague, the founder, visionary, spiritual leader of Congregation│Yahh!. Lili is looking for a dream. It is early Friday afternoon, Lili is heading to her secret place in the park, kicking leaves as she goes, looking for a dream. She just left her mother-in-law-to-be Adele, who took her shopping for some items from the new Eileen Fisher line. As you know, Lili’s style is strictly crushed velvet jackets, long skirts and Birkenstocks, as if 1973 never ended. But Adele insists on upgrading her wardrobe, and Ilene Fisher is flowy, so it’s OK w/Lili, although she doesn’t see the point of spending so much money on clothes. In fact she feels a little guilty, so Adele and Harry, her father in law to be, ameliorate, or at least balance Lili's feelings by, for example, buying the top priced tickets to the Rabbis for Human Rights conference, at which her friend Rabbi Ellen Lippmann is speaking on Tuesday, December 7th at 12:30 at UJA Federation.
But time is pressing and Lili is trying to think about this week’s parshah in preparation for Shabbat, but her mind keeps wandering. The parshah is Vayeitzei, full of stones and kisses. And dreams. The big one where Jakob dreams about angels going up and down a ladder, and God promises to hold him forever. But Lili can’t reach the dream; she feels herself wandering in the wilderness like Jakob before the dream. She can’t focus; her mind keeps wandering, playing tricks on her - snatches of song, silly thoughts, urgent tasks, all dart and float in and out; she can’t focus! She kicks more leaves, keeps walking, wants to flee, to take the blessings she sometimes feels she has stolen, and flee.
Lili tries to think about Jakob’s dream, but she is flooded by an old song,
‘Irene, good night, Irene
Irene, good night
Good night, Irene, good night, Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams.’ …
There was an article in the Times this week reporting that scientists have documented that the more your mind wanders, the unhappier you are, or the unhappier you are, the more your mind wanders, they’re not sure. Adam said it’s called an ear worm when a song sticks in your mind against your will. Well, at least it’s about dreams. But then there are those weird verses like
‘Last Saturday night I got married,
Me and my wife settled down.
Now me and my wife are parted,
Gonna take a little stroll downtown.’
Which makes her worry about getting married – is there some unconscious reservation being expressed? And then there’s that really weird verse about
‘Sometimes I live in the city,
Sometimes I live in town,
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.’
Why is that going through her head?
How can this be happening now? Everything is going so well. A year ago there was no Congregation│Yahh! Lili was singing in late night cafes, and working in a senior center in the
Bronx. She led little informal Shabbat gatherings in apartments, and in no time it blossomed into a real congregation with a name, a meeting place, a following, a school, a board, even a couple of on-line mentions. And she has the miracle of Adam, her beshert, a blessing she didn’t even dream about a year ago.
But Lili feels adrift and robotic. At one level she knows exactly what is going on. She learned about it in school; it’s on every rabbinic and cantorial list serve – burn out, compassion fatigue, spiritual rut. In Sociology class they called it ‘the routinization of charisma.’ It’s what happens when your passion suddenly becomes your yoke; when the vision that fed your soul takes on a life of its own and starts to suck the soul out of you.
‘Oh, How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world.’
She knows all about it, expected it, but she never thought it would feel like this -- the resentment, the bitter taste, the desire to flee. Of course she won’t flee. She loves her community and the work and can’t really imagine a better life for herself. But still….
She pulls her mind back to Jakob’s dream, but The Baal Shem Tov shoulders his way in. It is said that when he was lost in his soul the Baal Shem Tov would go to a place deep in the forest, and that is what Lili is doing. Not the forest exactly, the park. She likes to get lost deep in the foresty places in the park. She is fearless. If anyone bothers her, which happened once or twice, she just starts singing at the top of lungs, and they either run away or stop bothering her and just listen as she walks on.
She has a favorite tree she likes to go to, a huge willow near some water and within hearing of a small water fall. The Baal Shem Tov would light a fire and pray in his place in the forest. Lili can’t light a fire, but she can pray and, like Jakob, she has a rock. She pulled it there with her friend Natalya when they found the tree. Natalya emigrated from
fifteen years ago. Her English is accented, but rich with her passion for ideas and words, and when she can’t think of the right word, she makes one up. When she saw the willow, she said ‘Ah, I love these kinds of trees, the Dripping Willow.’ Lily and Natala pulled this rock into place under the Dripping Willow, and as they did, they talked about Jakob pulling stones together, and how the rabbis say the stones competed to be his pillow. It’s wedge shaped, her stone, so she can sit on one end, facing East, or lie on the other, facing West. In the afternoon, like today, she lies down. Russia
She feels like falling, like giving up, like letting go. She wants to doze off but she can’t, too much agita. The stone is uncomfortable. She looks up at the tree with its huge trunk rising and all those branches drooping down, and she thinks of the angels moving up and down Jakob’s ladder. Maybe it was a willow tree, not a ladder. No one really knows what the word in Torah means.
The warm sun calms Lili, and she starts to doze off; she worries for a moment and then something else the Baal Shem Tov said floats into her:
Let me fall, if I must fall
The one I will become will catch me.
She hears it over and over almost like a song, almost to the tune of ‘Irene, good night:’
Let me fall, if I must fall
The one I will become will catch me.
And when she wakes, she remembers Jakob waking from his dream. ‘Surely God was here, in this place, and I, I did not know it.’
Later, at services Lili talks about Jakob, about how he commits this great crime, this betrayal. It has launched his life; everything, all his greatness with flow from this. But now, all he can do is flee, dodging through the wilderness, until he is so exhausted he has to rest. And then right in the middle of her sermon, Lili sings ‘Irene, good night.’ At first everyone is nonplussed but the song is so infectious they just join in. And then she stops:
“When I was a little girl I was scared to go to sleep, and my father would sing that song to me as a lullaby, but he sang it like this.
Lili, good night, Lili
Lili, good night
Good night, Lili, good night, Lili
I’ll see you in my dreams.
“And I felt so safe falling asleep, because I knew that even when he was asleep my Daddy would be seeing me, thinking of me, holding me.
She closes her eyes, pauses, and then speaks in a different tone, “We forget sometimes that in Jakob’s dream, as the angels are going up and down, God also appears, poised, hovering over him. And God tells Jakob, ‘Look, I am with you and I will guard you wherever you go.’ And Jakob became
Israel, and we are , and God is with us, guarding us, even in our falling, in our sleeping, in our wandering in the wilderness, even when we do not know it.” Israel
Friday, December 10, 2010
FEGS Health and Human Services presented me with the Charles Tanenbaum Visionary Award at Park Avenue Synagogue on December 7. This is my acceptance speech.
I have very little time and a lot to say. So I have to talk fast, and you have to listen fast.
A story. Once upon a time there was a gang of thieves that roamed from town to town, robbing and stealing, so, when they arrived, everyone would lock their doors and hide. Then one day they saw another gang, but when they entered a town everyone opened their doors, set out delicious banquets and gave them the best rooms. ‘How do they do that?’ said the gang leader. His spies learned these were wise men and women who went around dispensing sage advice about life, love, careers, health, ethics… everything. ‘What a great racket! We gotta get into this racket.’ So the gang stole wise man clothes, dressed up, and strolled into town looking as wise as they could. And sure enough all the doors opened, delicious food, the finest rooms. ‘This is great!’ But the next morning the whole town was lined up to get advice. ‘Uh, oh, we gotta pretend to be wise, so we don’t blow our cover!” And they did. For example, a wealthy merchant came to the gang leader: ‘My business partner is lazy and stupid. He never does anything and when he does it’s worse than if he didn’t. So, since I do all the work, don’t I have the right to skim a little more for myself?’ The gang leader started to say, ‘Of course, take the sucker for everything he’s worth!’ But then he thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be wise.’ … ‘No, if you do that you will be lowering yourself even below him. You must encourage the part of him that wants to do better and help him to rise.’ And so it went, and their cover was not blown. But, when it came time to leave, the elders of the town said to the gang leader, ‘We know who you are. But we decided that if we treated you as if you were a wise man, maybe you would be a wise man. And, look, you are!”
And here at FEGS that’s what happens every single day. All of us here have the job, the mission to see the possibilities in people and help them grow. We say, ‘You can hold a job, or get travel trained, live independently, get your GED, go to college, or create beauty in a story, a play, a jazz solo, or a painting.’ Here at FEGS our mission is to nourish what my hero Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’
And that’s what happened to me; Al, Gail, Ira, Jonas, Esther Ann, the Board, and everyone I work with here; you have looked at me as if I were a man of vision. So what could I do? I didn’t want to blow my cover!
Thank you so much, Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas and God bless!
Saturday, November 6, 2010
THE PATRIARCH OF MENTSCHLIKEIT
Rosh Hashanah Drash, 2009
Congregation Kolot Chayeinu, Park Slope,
 Brooklyn, NY
The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22. I have hated this story forever. For all the reasons every one hates it. It has been known in some version since before history, and as Kierkegaard says in Fear and Trembling, while most people know it and more or less leave it alone, some people it keeps awake at night. I am one of those.
Last year Rabbi Lippmann suggested dropping The Akedah in favor of something more, I don’t know, redemptive maybe? Maybe Abraham standing up to God over whether to destroy
Sodom and . It was a brilliant challenge; another reason I love Ellen and this community. Where else could anyone get away with that, much less the rabbi herself on Rosh Hashanah? Her sermon produced an amazing flurry of emails, pro and con, and a few months later we had a lively public ‘debate’ about the Akedah, and an astonishing crowd showed up -- this story matters! We had a profound and inspiring series of dialogues and I came away more convinced than ever that this story speaks to something very deep, primal, atavistic even, in the human psyche. Gomorrah
This year I was again fascinated by Isaac, who is my favorite patriarch. The story focuses on Abraham and God and so does most commentary. But the zeitgeist that Ellen evoked so movingly last night [i.e. economic and social crises] put Isaac front and center this year, because Isaac is the one who gets had. Isaac is the one his father and God are willing to use -- even toy with -- in order to make their points to each other. And in recent years, most of us I expect have had to live, like Isaac, with a nasty sense of being had. For years people in high places -- politicians, financiers, business leaders -- lied to us and played us. We knew it in our gut all along; sometimes, like Isaac we even questioned, protested, but we couldn’t stop it, and now we and our new leadership bear the trauma and will be paying for their lies and games for years to come.
In a way Isaac is the patriarch of being had. In the Akedah he is the lamb, a tool, a toy, an afterthought. And in the other story we all know about him, he literally plays the blind fool deceived by his wife and son Jacob into stealing the first blessing from his older twin, Esau.
Mysteriously, after the Akedah only Abraham comes down the mountain. Isaac disappears from the narrative, and only reappears to marry Rebecca, who becomes the true force field in that family. But Isaac is also the one who stays home, who never leaves the land, who tends to his father’s wells. He adores his wife – the only request he ever makes of God is on her behalf and at her behest; he loves good food; he raises his twin sons, and though they certainly don’t get along, he manages to pass on the lineage without bloodshed or casting anyone out. And that’s a first in biblical history – think Cain and Abel, think Ishmael and Isaac. So perhaps we can see Isaac anew, not as the loser patriarch, but as the simple good man, the patriarch of mentschlikeit.
So sit back and listen [or read] as if you never heard this ancient story before. I know, I know, it’s only too familiar, and it’s easy to hear it in the frame of our fixed opinions and interpretations. But as Isaac says, really, ‘You can’t step in the same river even once.’ 
THE PATRIARCH OF MENTSCHLIKEIT
[Picture a very old man lying as if in state, propped up with pillows, in a tent in the land of his father. Isaac is surrounded by sensual delights: delicious scents, fabrics fine to the touch, and food of all kinds—fruits, meats and wine -- and servants fanning him when he calls. Two years ago in this same bed he played the fool and gave his first blessing to his second son, and in that act it seemed he lost them both. But now, one has returned, his blood cooler than it was that night. He has hunted and brought game cooked the way his father likes. They have eaten together and drunk wine. The mother, the wife, has acted her part in the reunion, and left for the night. The son has told his father where he has been, how he wandered in the wilderness, that he now lives only a day or two’s journey away. He has missed this home, his parents. He hesitates; a question rises in his eyes, but he cannot speak it. There is a silence. Then the father begins to speak.]
Did you ever stand at the edge of a high place, and look out and think, ‘It would be so easy to jump?’ Not that you would, but it would be so easy. The first time I thought that, we were going up the mountain, father and I. I was running he was walking. I felt very very young. I was carrying the kindling, he a torch … and the cleaver. I was twenty feet above him, and I remember he was just below the switchback, the sun was right behind him and his eyes were all aflame. I felt my face flush, something flickered in my mind; I was ashamed. So I turned and looked away, out over the edge. And I thought, ‘It would be so easy to jump.’ Instead I took a stick out of the bundle and threw it off the cliff and waited to hear it hit. It took a long time, and when I heard it, father was sitting on a rock beside me breathing hard.
I know, you have heard this story before. But it is the only big story I have. I’m like a war hero, or Jonah; a man with only one story to tell. I lived to tell the tale, so now I live to tell the tale. But listen anyway, because I will never tell it the same way twice … and you must never allow yourself to hear it the same way twice. Like they say, ‘You can’t step in the same river even once.’
The sun was low on the horizon and something glinted in the corner of my eye. It was the cleaver laying on father’s lap. The flash from the knife cut my eyes. I was blinded. I cried out ‘Father.’ You know what he said: ‘Hineni, here I am’. And when he said that my eyes filled with tears … I was doubly blind …. He rose and started to walk on, but I stepped around in front of him… I had to know if what had flashed in my mind was true.
But I couldn’t ask directly … I had to test him. That was the word that came to me. ‘Test’ him. Father used to test me all the time – ‘Here is a lamb,’ he would say, ‘and a knife and some wood. Now what else do we need for a true sacrifice?’ And I always did my best, always told the truth, everything I knew, everything I thought. It was second nature to me. And he would nod and touch my cheek. But now I was standing in his place. I was testing him. Because the moment that knife blinded me, I saw.
‘Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?’ … You notice I left out the knife? I … just couldn’t let that word come through my throat…. I held my breath … And he lied!
‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’ Well, not exactly a lie … a weasel. He said, … ‘the lamb, my son.’ So it could have been ‘lamb, my son,’ like I might say, ‘I love you, my son.’ Or like ‘This is an appendage, my hand … ‘God will see to the lamb … my son!’
And we walked on together.
Oh, how I tried to make excuses for him: ‘He’s trying to protect me. He doesn’t want to frighten me; he wants me to be happy until the very last moment …. He loves me so much he can’t bring himself to come out and say it …. Poor father, he’s not sure if he can go through with it, I must comfort him.’ Or I thought, ‘Maybe he and God have arranged for a sheep to be up there, or the lads down below are bringing one up from our flock.’ And of course afterward I tried to convince myself that he knew all along that a ram would be there, and he wouldn’t have to go through with it. I gave him every benefit of every doubt.
I was a good boy. Until that exact moment I was such a good boy! I’m still a good boy, never been anything else, but not like I was then. Then I did everything asked of me, believed everything I was told; loved it all, everything, every day. I was named for laughter and just bubbled with it every minute …. Mother and father arranged every minute of my childhood, play and study, eating and sleeping, even playmates …. They sent Ishmael away, I thought because he teased me …. Now I know that other children might have rebelled at so much structure, so much love, but not I. I loved and trusted, and life was a joy, every minute. Even those three days of walking and climbing the mountain …. Until that moment, it was all a joyous bubble.
But the glint off that blade showed me what I was not supposed to see. Showed me that the one I trusted most in the world could take my trust and twist it.
Ah, now you’re listening. … I know, I know … you too … betrayed by the ones you love. By your brother … By your mother … By me. So now you are listening. The story always starts out the same, but it never ever is. See, you can’t step in the same river even once … it’s an old man’s prerogative to repeat himself.
We’re not so different, you and I. Like me you were betrayed; like me you ran away; and like me you came back …. Jacob will never come back. But I thought you would, and you have. And it only took you two years. Took me three. That’s good. That’s progress.
Drink some more wine … and give me some too. This storytelling dries me out.
Now that I am old, now that I have lived this good life, now that I too have been part of a great betrayal, I am more understanding. But then I was so young … so young that everything could change in an instant. In one blinding flash, I knew that all that trust could be turned against me. Father and God were in collusion to kill me.
I looked over the cliff. I thought how easy it would be just to drop off. No more choices, no more struggle, no more betrayal. But instead I turned and followed father… the habit of compliance is hard to kill.
Except now I knew exactly where I was going and what I wanted to do.
I wouldn’t jump off the cliff, but I would die. Gloriously. I would be the perfect sacrifice. I would give up my life in one instant, and for that I would gain eternity. Lose everything to gain everything. Eternity in heaven and immortality on earth.
I would suffer for an instant, but how much better that was than to be sentenced to a lifetime of struggle and worry and boredom and obscurity. I would die and go to God. And on earth I would be remembered forever as a martyr, an icon of perfect faith and purity.
It sounds silly now. But I was young, and when we are young, our lives are the thing we value least. In that moment it was all real and so easy, so easy .. .
When we reached the top I helped father build the altar; Oh, I was altogether with them, God and father. I was shaking; I told him, ‘Tie me tight so I don’t tremble or flinch and make you miss the perfect kosher cut.’ I was in rapture.
And then I was tied; I felt father take hold of my hair and pull my head back. Our eyes met. I kept my eyes open; I wanted to see everything. Salty hot drops falling off father’s face onto mine. Maybe tears, maybe sweat. I saw him lift the knife; I held my breath.
And then he stopped. I don’t know what happened. He looked away; he went into some kind of reverie. And then he lowered the knife, but to the ropes not my neck. And he turned away … I don’t think he ever looked at me again.
I didn’t know if I was alive or dead. I thought, ‘Maybe I crossed over to the other side. Maybe I blacked out and he cut my throat and now I am dead, and death is just like life, but numb.’ Because I was numb.
But then I heard bleating in the bushes, and father started to move and I felt my heart pounding and my breath and I moved my hand to my neck and it was whole and I sat up, and jumped and ran. Father called after me, ‘Come, we are saved, help me, this ram is too strong for me, help me complete the sacrifice.’
But compliance was over. I kept running … down the mountain into the wilderness. After three years in the wilderness, I didn’t want to die anymore. So I came home and lived in mother’s tent. And every evening about the time of the sacrifice on
, I would tremble, and go walking in the fields, until one day I saw a caravan and Elimelech and a young woman on a camel beside him. Father had arranged a marriage for me. I didn’t run; I stood still; I felt her see me, and then she just swooned off her camel and I ran to help her, but she didn’t need any help, never did. She just lay there tangled in her hair, looking up with such eyes. Mt. Moriah
I couldn’t really see her; my eyes were already pretty weak. But I could feel her passion, her hunger, and I knew she would be strong, she would struggle; she would be the desire in our life together. Some people are born to struggle. They live for it. Father was one of those, so is Rebecca, so is your brother, Jacob. And the world admires them. I never felt that need to struggle. Even in that moment of martyrdom, I wanted to be tied so tight I couldn’t struggle.
Me, I love life, just day to day, and food and Rebecca and children and crops … my neighbors … the land. I live for life, not destiny or riches or immortality or … God. That’s what I learned in the wilderness.
I am a patriarch they say, the second in the line. If so, I’m sure they will see me as the patriarch of the ones who get taken, the mediocre, the uninspired. Isaac, the obscure, opaque, blind link from the great Abraham to the great Jacob. But what I really am, what I … yes, my ambition, is to be the patriarch of the simple, honest, decent life. Of people who love a good meal with a lot of laughter … who love life more even than they love God.
So, Esau, you are back. You can get me some good game again; you can care for Rebecca and me in our old age. That’s a good son. Let Jacob struggle with his wives and his father in law, that goniff in
, and his sons and his God. We will stay here in our land and … laugh. Haran
 Actually this is almost a quotation from ‘Things I Didn’t Know I Loved’ by the great Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet. The actual line is, ‘you can’t wash in the same river even once.’ ‘And when we are young, our lives are the thing we value least’ is from the same poem, which can be found in Things I Didn’t Know I Loved: Selected Poems by Nazim Hikmet, Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk (Persea Books, 1975)