Friday, November 17, 2017

Esau the Superhero

 One thing about superheroes, especially in the 21st century, is they’re not always as popular as we might expect within the stories we tell about them.

The last time Superman flew across the movie screen the world was calling for him to step down or go back home to Krypton.  The last time the Avengers fought against the forces of evil, the US government sought to rein them in as a result of unintended tragic consequences of their battle.  When Batman last faced the joker and faced criticism, district attorney Harvey Dent said, “Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Our ancestor Jacob appears this week in our Torah in a similar way, though it’s not the first time we see him in this light.  So many times Jacob accomplishes objectives by literally keeping others in the dark – which makes me think of the title of the Batman movie quoted above, ‘The Dark Knight’.  There are times that Bruce Wayne must act in a way that casts the guilt lens on himself in order to maintain the good image of another like Harvey Dent, but Jacob appears to pursue his goals primarily for his own good and at the expense of others.

He purchases the birthright from his brother Esau when his brother is exhausted and famished after the hunt.  For sure, he never says to Esau, are you sure you want to sell this to me?  Do you know what it means for you to sell the birthright?

And now, with Rebecca’s help he dresses up like his brother, and together they deceive and defraud both Esau and Isaac in one stroke.  We might say, Jacob already purchased the birthright in which case he’s entitled to the better blessing, but we can also say with assurance that the birthright wasn’t Esau’s to sell in the first place, kind of like the Brookly Bridge, although I hear it’s going for a great price this weekend in honor of TBEMC’s 100th anniversary.

The darkness continues here as we retell the story of Jacob lying to his aged father who is blind.  We recall the instruction in Leviticus, Lifnay ee’vair lo titen michshol. Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.  Jacob, the one who as our tradition explains, stays in the camp studying Torah, clearly missed that key teaching.  Isaac is not as passive though as we might think.  The Mahari puts us inside Isaac’s mind as though Isaac says to himself, “Due to the fact that I’m doubtful about who is the person in front of me, I’m going to lengthen the conversation so that I can better know the voice and know who it is.”  But the Mahari also points out that Jacob is clever, and so he only answers in one word ‘Ani’ making Isaac’s job almost impossible.

The intention of portraying the superheroes as flawed makes them more like us, so we can better relate to them.  Jacob though he is our ancestor is out for his own interests, and we feel empathy for Esau as our Rabbis also did despite their criticisms of Esau and the way they connected him to Rome, the evil empire.

Just one example, a midrash tells us, “Esau shed 3 tears, one from the right eye, one from the left, and one down the middle of his forehead that was suspended between his eyes.  If that tear had fallen, the Jewish people would not ever have been redeemed from under Esau’s hands (Esau here as the embodiment of that later evil empire)…Due to those tears Esau inherited the fertile Mount Se’ir, and the Jewish people must, in their own tears that resulted from Jacob’s actions, request God to have mercy upon them.”(Yalkut)

How then do we read today’s Torah portion?  As an indictment of our ancestor, meant to encourage us today to hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make?  Or do we read it simply as the mysterious unfolding of God’s plan that goes forward despite the pain of those who suffer in its wake? 

One other way we may read the story is by re-focusing our attention to redeem Esau in the hopes of restoring his image and integrity, the same way that the superheroes strive to redeem themselves when they cause harm.  Let’s remember how Esau redeems himself when he embraces his brother years later, and his only interested is greeting his brother and he has no interest in the gifts Jacob brings out of fear. 

Esau surmounts and surpasses his brother in that moment.  God must redeem and liberate us, but Esau finds it within himself.  That power, to find hope, to find the possibility of transformation within ourselves, is a superpower that we all have.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Lech Lecha 2017/5778: Warrior Teachers

Avram – Abraham is many things to many people.  He is an ancestor of the Jewish people as well as Christians and Muslims.  He was the first to accept the idea of the One God and to follow the voice of the One God to go toward the Holy Land.  He’s the first to plead with God, to intercede on behalf of others at Sodom and Gomorrah.  He was the first of our three ancient ancestral fathers and along with Sarai, the first to bring converts to their newfound faith.  He is a father to Isaac and Ishmael.

This week, we read about Avram the warrior, the lesser-known Abraham persona.  The one that the Rabbis of the past sought to diminish.  Some didn’t want to see him that way. 

When invaders enter the region, they kidnap Lot, his family and possessions, and carry them away on their way north.  A fugitive finds Avram, tells him what happened to Lot, and Avram collects a group of men to pursue them.  They pursue, overtake, and fight against them until they free Lot and his family.

The Rabbis say, he wasn’t mustering soldiers, he was mustering students of Torah.  But we know that like the Maccabees and the Israelis, we have to fight, even students of Torah must take up arms when there is a threat, but the fight is not always won with weapons.  Words spoken, even softly, are also powerful.

Two days ago, Tal Flicker, an Israeli judo athlete, won the Judo Grand Slam competition in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.  All Israeli athletes at the competition could not participate under the Israeli flag.  And when Tal Flicker won gold, they did not raise the Israeli flag nor play Hatikvah.  Instead, they raised the international judo flag and played the international judo federation anthem. 

While the flag went up and the oriental melody played, Flicker mouthed the words to Hatikvah, quietly to himself, in an act of what writer Yair Rosenberg calls ‘a moment of dignified defiance’. 

Our ancient Sages wished to make Abraham the warrior into a Torah teacher and scholar.  They even said ‘there was no one who observed the mitzvot like Abraham our ancestor’ (Nedarim 32a) even though he of course lived long before God gives us the Torah.  They said he didn’t even carry weapons when he left to go after Lot.  He took some dust and wheat that miraculously turned into weapons at the necessary time.

This past Thursday in Abu Dhabi, Tal Flicker, the warrior, made himself into a teacher of Torah.  Who is a warrior hero our ancestors ask?  Ayzehu gibor?  Ha’kovesh et’yitzro, the one who conquers his evil inclination.  Tal Flicker and his teammates could easily have lodged formal protests, banded together to sing the anthem out loud, even held up the Israeli flag, but they did not, nor did he.  Like our ancestor Channah, who prays fervently in a soft voice, moving her lips in prayer but not speaking it, Tal Flicker fights back against the enormous pressures in the same way because that’s the way to victory in this type of fight.  Patience, vision, self-confidence, and faith. 

Our Sages describe prayer as avodat ha’lev, the work of the heart, and again, Tal Flicker communicates this message in his own way, quote, “Israel is my country”, he said to Israel’s channel 2, “The anthem that they played of the world federation was just background noise.   I was singing Hatikvah from my heart.”

The prayers of the heart are powerful.  They come from a place that is unscripted, raw, and honest because they are unfiltered.  This Shabbat, as we continue in our service, let’s listen to those prayers and give quiet, dignified voice to them as much as to the prayers we sing out loud together. 

Avram was a teacher and a warrior though the Sages wished to diminish this aspect of his story.  Tal Flicker was a warrior and he became a teacher too, showing us how quiet and determined words can help us to hear and follow up on our prayers that come from the inside, that, with God’s help, we can believe in our own strength, our own ability, and our own faith to confront and overcome our challenges. 


Saturday, September 2, 2017

Ki Tetze: A Lesson from Mr. Rogers

I have fond memories of Mr. Rogers TV show.  One of the lessons he taught was based on a lesson his own parents taught him.  When something terrible happens, he teaches us the thing to do is to look for the helpers, to appreciate all the people who choose to go in to help, support, and make people safe.

Out of the horrible stories and images of flooding in Houston, one bright spot are the stories of those who have helped stranded dogs, picking them up off the rooftops of cars surrounded by water, of people on horseback with deep water around them opening up the gates for other horses to escape rising water, stories of those who drove cattle over flooded roads toward safer ground.

While the analogy is not exact, our Torah portion this week reminds the Israelites if they see a fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep, really any animal or anything, that has gone astray, we must not ignore it, we must return it.  Even if the owner is far away or we don’t know where the owner lives, it’s up to us to bring the animal home and care for it until the owner claims it.

The Torah emphasizes that for every lost animal or object, “Lo tuchal le’hit’alem” – An interesting choice of words here, you may not remain indifferent to it.  Why does the Torah phrase this in the negative?  Why not say, “Take good care of it” or “Look after it”.

The great Rashi explains, that ‘do not remain indifferent’ means do not close your eyes k’eelu ain’cha ro’eh oto, as though you do not see it. 

It can be more convenient to walk on by and avoid taking responsibility for the wandering animal.  It takes significant effort to lead the animal or animals, to feed them, and care for them.  It could be easier to move on and get on with our own responsibilities.  Many Israelites were herders, they already had their own flocks to feed.

But Rashi catches us at one of our human weak points.  He reminds us how often we look away when we should engage.   Elsewhere the Torah reminds us not to ‘avert our eyes’ from those among us in need and to provide for those like the stranger, widow, and orphan – those who could easily have been or have become invisible to the rest of the community.

In these weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the mitzvah of caring for and restoring the animal to its owner, the mitzvah of not remaining indifferent, transforms into a mitzvah not only about 4 legged creatures, but about us 2 legged creatures.  The New Year is a celebration of hope for the days ahead, but even more so it is a time to make certain each member of the community is recognized, welcomed, as part of our larger mishpochah, the big family.  The Haftarah we will read on Rosh Hashanah, the story of Chana is one of the quintessential reminders of what the holiday means.  Chana, a woman in an excruciating existential struggle, pours out her soul in a quiet and fervent prayer – She ‘shouts in a whisper’ (Reb Ziskind, Yesod ve’shoresh ha’Avodah) --  and just at the moment when she needs to most to be heard and her fervent prayers validated, the priest dismisses her on account of his unfamiliarity with intense but softly offered prayers.

Mr. Rogers taught us that one way of praying is looking for the helpers, appreciating them, thanking them.  Let us be the supportive presence around the mythical Chana, the help she does not receive except through a promise from God.  This season we each have the opportunity to be a helper, to make the best use of our voices, our hands, and abilities to who is feeling lost, disconnected, unheard, anyone who is feeling like an outsider or who is flooded with pain, suffering, and loss will know that we are there to guide them into the New Year.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Parshat Shoftim: Tzedek Amongst the People

There is an old Yiddish joke about the atheist in the community who goes to shul regularly. He is outspoken about his objection to God and religion and so someone challenges him- what are you doing at services? He responds: Goldstein goes to shul to talk to God, and I go to shul to talk to Goldstein.
Schmoozing, chatting, catching-up with each other are all important parts of participating in Jewish community.  I believe though the story is flawed.  The story proposes an either/or but the truth is that we are at shul both to talk to God and to talk to each other.  Since God created us all in God’s image, having a dialogue with our fellow community members is an act of prayer that honors the way God gives us each a voice, a perspective, and special gifts to share.
We do not function as Jewish islands, cordoned off in our personal prayer bubbles.   Rabbi Baruch Zeilicovich, a colleague of mine here in New Jersey, taught that chayim, the Hebrew word for life, is in the plural – meaning that we are a community minded people, a family.
Our parsha this week focuses on how we organize ourselves, specifically to make sure there is justice in the world.
The famous words ring out ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…’ Justice, Justice you shall pursue…
But our palace of justice is not an ivory tower, it is our shul, our town, the Kiddush table, the classroom.
How do we create a community that functions well amongst people of so many different backgrounds and personalities?
As Tevye teaches us, “It’s not easy!”
To follow from Rabbi Rachel’s teaching last week about the importance of mitzvot between people, bein adam le’chavero, R. Alexander Ziskind of Grodno helps us by teaching that the way to holiness and relationship to God starts first with encouraging us to implement two mitzvot:  Love your neighbor as yourself (ve’ahavta li’re’acha kamocha) and ‘B’tzedek tishpot amitecha’, Judge your neighbor fairly & thoughtfully.  Tzedek here is not book justice, it’s the way we strive to create harmony amongst people, not unanimity or complete agreement, but harmony. 
Reb Ziskind explains that we achieve this harmony by creating empathy – that we share in each other’s simcha, and we journey with others in their sorrow.
The teaching ‘Judge your neighbor thoughtfully’ is so critical for us in sharing our space and time with each other.  We cannot always know the context that informs how a person is feeling.  If we cannot find a way in to discover the context, what’s happening in someone’s life, then b’tzedek tishpot is about avoiding assumptions about why someone is feeling or acting the way they are.  Tears can be tears of joy or sadness.  One person’s closed eyes are meditation and the other’s are distraction or fatigue from a tough week. 
And so we see that justice – tzedek- amongst us is about creating a sense that we’re in it together, that we’re looking out for each other, and supporting each other, and that sometimes our ‘job’ is to help shape and change and other times our work is simply to be there, in the spirit of the song, “Don’t walk in front of me I may not follow, don’t walk behind me I may not lead, just walk beside me and be my friend and together we will walk in the path of Hashem.”