Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chanuka and Parashat Miketz: On Miracles

Do you believe in miracles?

Chanuka begs the question. Al Hanisim ve’al hapurkan, we say and sing. “For the miracles and for the salvation,“ we thank you, God.

What is the miracle of Chanuka? Usually we say there are two. The military miracle, that a small band of Maccabees was able to defeat the mighty Syrian-Greek army. And the miracle of lights, that a single jug of oil lasted for eight days instead of one. But maybe these two miracles are –like the two dreams of Pharaoh that Josephs says are really one in this week’s parsha – actually two manifestations of the same phenomenon. Both miracles express the strength of something small, a single can of oil and a tiny nation. Chanuka is about the triumph of the small, the survival of the nation of Israel, which, like a little flame set against the backdrop of a long winter night sky, should, by all rights, have flickered and died long ago.

Chanuka teaches us to believe in miracles, strengthens our faith in the indomitable divine spark in our midst. Chanuka is by necessity a winter solstice holiday; coming at our darkest time in the year, it reminds us to believe in light even in the midst of darkness. In Pharaoh’s dream from this week’s parsha, the skinny cows and skinny stalks of wheat swallow up the fat ones. That is the natural way of the world, the way of our worst fears, that trouble will outflank fortune, evil crumble good, darkness overwhelm light. But on Chanuka we are all -- like Yosef -- able to combat such nightmares. We stand, armed with our little lights, and push against the darkness, declaring our faith that light – no matter how faint -- will always triumph.

Is this realistic? Sometimes the evil side has the bigger army, the larger guns, the power of the state to torture and kill. On Chanuka we assert that miracles are realistic, that it is not numbers or power or might that prevail, but spirit, the spark of divine light, the flame inside us. The Maccabees and their little can of oil stand for all those who should have given up but didn’t, all those who fight might with courage and faith – the American revolutionaries, Gandhi and his followers, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

On Chanuka we remember their heroism and are strengthened by it. The word Chanuka has the same root as the word for education, chinuch. Chanuka is a kind of education, an education of the soul. We begin with one candle – small and flickering – but over time, our faith grows, and each night we find ourselves capable of pushing back against that darkness a little bit more, until, on the final night, our houses are sparkling with light, and we, with courage and faith.

Unlike the miracles of Passover – the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea – the miracles of Chanuka happened through human agency. On Chanuka, we learn that we, too, are responsible for playing our part in making miracles happen. We thank God daily for turning darkness into light each morning, but He has also implanted in us the divine spark, a spark which is also capable of turning darkness into light, of lighting a candle in the midst of the darkest of nights.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Parashat Vayeshev: Yosef's Transformation

Our ancestors did not start out great. They grew, over time, through struggle and ordeal, into greatness. In the past few parshiyyot, we saw Yaakov suffer and grow in his own way. Now it is Yosef’s turn. Yosef starts out haughty and vain, taunting his brothers with his favored status and dreams of grandeur; we will watch him learn -- through the experience of being brought low, again and again – to be humble.

There are three sets of 2 dreams in the Yosef narrative and each set marks a different stage in Yosef’s development. The story begins with his own dreams, in which the earth and the sky bow down to him and revolve about him. What hubris! What blasphemy! While his father Yaakov dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven with God nitzav -- standing -- at the top, Yosef’s dream contains no God. No god, that is, except himself, the only one whose sheaf is nitzavah – standing -- in contrast to the bowing sheaves of his brothers.

Yosef is literally lowered from his pedestal multiple times in this parsha -- thrown down into a pit by his brothers, hurad, “brought down,” to Egypt, in the south, and then thrown into jail, also called here a “pit,” a place of lowness.

It is in jail that we begin to see a change in Yosef. The second set of dreams in the Yosef story does not belong to Yosef, but to the butler and the baker, his jail-mates. Yosef has grown. He is no longer narcissistically self-involved – dreaming of a world that revolves around him -- but is able to hear the needs and stories of others.

He also here acknowledges for the first time that God has something to do with his abilities, telling his dreaming jail-mates, “But God surely has interpretations! Tell me [your dreams].” This is new, this invocation of God as His partner, a definite step forward. And yet, at the same time, the statement implies an equation of himself with God – Yosef doesn’t spell out why they should tell him the dreams if it is God who has interpretations, making it seem like he is an extension of God in some way, also a kind of hubris.

Two more years of jail cure him. The final change in Yosef can be seen in next week’s parsha, in Yosef’s reaction to the third set of dreams, Pharaoh’s. In one word he reveals a complete change of attitude: Biladay, “Not I,” he says, but “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Not I. What a long way Yosef has travelled from those first dreams of self-absorption!

Ironically, it is now – now that he can stand ego-less before Pharaoh, a humble servant of God – that he realizes his dreams of grandeur, becoming viceroy to the king. True greatness cannot be achieved without humility. One’s own dreams are only realized if one learns to listen to the dreams of others, becoming part of the world, not above it, a brother to others, not a god.

Yosef’s journey of self-transformation was a long, hard one. It inspires us with the possibility of transformation and also with the challenge to -- like Yosef -- turn life’s ordeals into opportunities for personal growth.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Parashat Vayishlach: On Separation

The parsha begins with a reunification – the meeting between Esav and Yaakov after 20years of estrangement – but its theme is actually separation. After the two brothers hug and kiss and make up, Esav suggests that they continue their journey together. But Yaakov thinks otherwise. Using his children as an excuse, he says he’ll catch up to Esav in the land of Seir. He never does. Instead he goes to his own land, the land God had promised him.

Yaakov and his family are becoming a nation, a separate nation with its own identity. Yaakov’s descendants will no longer return to the family home in Padan Aram as he did. Last week’s parsha ends with a peace treaty between Yakov and Lavan -- the representative of that Aramean family -- as they agree to part ways amicably. And this peace treaty, a pile of stones, is significantly named by each in a different language -- Yegar Sahaduta in Aramaic and Gal Ed in Hebrew -- the different languages helping to demarcate the new boundary between the two families and nations.

This week’s parsha completes that separation from the Aramean family and its idol-worshipping legacy as Yaakov instructs his household to get rid of their idols, burying them under a tree. Nahum Sarna suggests that the death and burial (also under a tree!) of Devorah, Rivkah’s nursemaid (35:8) -- a detail which seemingly has no place in the narrative – is, like the purging of idols, a symbol of the final severing of contacts with Mesopotamia. Rachel’s untimely death, related to her theft of Lavan’s household idols and Yaakov’s hasty oath concerning the thief, carries a similar message about the need to end such attachments to the Mesopotamian family idolatry.

Amidst all this, the Dinah story appears with its own theme of separation. The story begins in the city of Shechem with Dinah going out to hang with benot ha’aretz, “the local girls.” She is trying to assimilate, become part of the gang. When she is raped by the local chieftain’s son, the chieftain and his son offer Yaakov and his family a chance at just such assimilation and integration into the local population. “We will marry your daughters and you will marry ours, and we will become am ehad, one nation.” For Yaakov and his sons such integration is an impossibility; they are appalled at the sexual immorality that took place – “an outrage had been committed in Israel” -- and are certainly not about to join such a society. Their use of circumcision -- they demand that all males in the city be circumcised and then attack them in their weakness -- is in this respect more than a ploy; circumcision is indeed a sign of the difference between them and their fellow Canaanites, and it is this distinction which Yaakov’s sons wish to uphold.

And so Yaakov and his family--on the verge of becoming a nation -- move away first from Esav/Edom, then from Mesopotomia and finally from the local Canaanites in their own land. Their destiny is to be “a nation that dwells apart.”

Apart, yes. But to what end, the Torah seems to ask? For, soon after this incident in Shechem – where the sons of Yaakov condemn the local populace for their sexual immorality – we hear that Reuven, Yaakov’s eldest son, sleeps with his step-mother Bilhah. And then, in next week’s parsha, we begin the painful saga of Yosef, with all the terrible deeds done to him by his brothers.

Living apart is not enough. More than separation is required to create a nation that adheres to high moral standards. The Torah and its laws are needed. Maybe this is what Moshe learned, much later, in Exodus, when he went out of the palace that second time. The first time he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, and understood that salvation from outsiders was needed, but the second time, Moshe saw an Israelite hitting an Israelite, and must have understood that salvation from ourselves is also required. The Torah is that salvation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parashat Vayetze: On Angels and Flies

Running away from his angry brother Esav and heading toward Haran to find a wife, Yaakov stops and sleeps on a sacred spot and dreams a famous dream: Above his head, there is a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels climbing up and down and God standing above.

Among the many interpretations of this dream, there is a midrash that compares the dream to the following strange scenario: A baby is lying on a bed with flies swarming around him. Along comes his nursemaid, lies down on top of him and nurses him, causing the flies to run away (Breishit Rabbah 69.3).

In this midrash, the flies are the angels, the sleeping baby is Yaakov, and God is the nursemaid. Now angels are usually understood as images of protection and aid, and so Rashi understands them here, but not so this midrash. For this midrash, they represent busy chaotic movement, like the buzzing of flies, a disturbance to one’s calm sleep. The midrash is picking up on the up and down movement of the angels and their multiple number. If they were merely portending good tidings, they would move solely upward. But no, they represent in their movement the ups and downs of life, its complications and travails. And, being more than one – the midrash says there must have been at least 4, 2 going up and 2 going down – their movement must have created a feeling of wild, swarming chaos, like the feeling one has in a room full of toddlers.

Indeed. Yaakov is, after all, headed, in this very parsha, to a life with 4 wives and 13 children. Not a life of peace and tranquility. Moreover, his is a life marked by great ups and downs, joys and difficulties. He is by all accounts successful, gaining his father’s blessing, marrying and having many offspring and becoming a wealthy man. These are the ups. Yet even amidst these pleasures, he is continually plagued by trouble -- conflict first with Esav and then with Lavan, the early loss of his most beloved wife as well as the loss of his favorite son for most of his life, his eldest son’s sexual misconduct, a daughter’s rape and the consequent extremely violent behavior of two other sons. It is no wonder that Yaakov, at the end of his life, tells Pharaoh that his life has been short and hard.

So, in the dream, Yaakov sees these angels –representing all the many life events that will bring him up and down the ladder -- he sees them all buzzing about, but he also sees something else, and here’s what the midrash is driving at. He sees God standing still at the top. Vehineh Hashem nitzav alav. Behold God was standing above, like the nursemaid driving away the swarming flies. The midrash highlights the way this verse creates a contrast to what comes prior. Vehineh, “Behold” the difference; the angels were moving up and down, moving, moving, moving, while God is simply nitzav, standing still. Maimonides says that this word, nitzav, when used in reference to God, means to be stable and permanent, constant (The Guide I:15). This is what Yaakov needs in his crazy chaotic life, a ladder held steady by a God who stands calmly and everlastingly at the top, making sure the bottom of the ladder also feels firmly planted in the ground, mutzav artzah. Life’s flies – the disturbing but necessary ups and downs of daily existence—do not exactly disappear with God standing above, but they no longer bother the sleeping baby, they no longer have the same disruptive power over Yaakov. After the dream, Yaakov builds a matzevah, which, like God and the ladder, is a stable standing structure, a permanent monument. It is an expression of what Yaakov has gained from this vision, a sense of stability amidst travail, a sense of peace amidst the flies.

Yaakov, more so than perhaps any of the other patriarchs, lives a life that looks familiar to us, an imperfect life filled with complications and troubles. God does not interfere much in his world; rather, He stands above, keeping the ladder steady, providing a well-spring of calm amidst a whirl of stress and chaos.

Further Thoughts: Some Other Interpretations of the Dream:

1) Rashi -- The movement of the angels up and down the ladder represents the changing of the guard. Yaakov is leaving the land of Israel so he needs different angels to accompany him outside the land. The old ones are leaving and the new, exilic ones arriving from above. This also explains the order of movement, first up, then down. At the end of the parsha, Yaakov meets up with angels once again, and here, too, Rashi explains them as the returning land of Israel angels coming to take their place as Yaakov begins his journey home. The angels thus surround the parsha, very much as they are meant, according to Rashi, to surround Yaakov wherever he goes.

2) Ibn Ezra and Radak similarly see the angels as forces of protection. They understand the ladder as intended to convey to Yaakov a sense that God controls all the events that take place on earth, that there is continual communication and control going back and forth between earth and heaven.

3) A different midrash (also Breishit Rabbah, 68.12) sees the ladder as a symbol of the Temple altar. The angels are the priests that go up and down the ramp to the altar, which is intended as a way to communicate with God, standing above. This interpretation is buttressed by the sense that Yaakov has reached "the place," a sacred place, the same place where the binding of Yitzhak occurred and the same place the Temple would be built.

4)Still another midrash (also Breishit Rabbah, 68.12) associates the sulam, the "ladder," with Sinai, pointing out that the two have the same gematria, the same numerical count of letters. According to this reading, the angels are Moshe and Aharon, going up and down the mountain, bringing down the Law for the people, as God's Presence comes down to reside at the to of the mountain. Both of these last two interpretations emphasize the sense of the ladder as a means of connecting heaven and earth, people and God, a way of facilitating communication between these two realms.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Parashat Toldot: Esav's Cries

Vayitzak tze’akah gedolah umarah ad me’od. “He cried out an exceedingly great and bitter cry (Gen 27:34).” This is the Torah’s description of Esav’s reaction to the news that his brother Yaakov had stolen his blessing.

We can rationalize Yaakov’s actions. He had in fact bartered for the first-born rights earlier in the parsha so the blessing was his for the taking. He had more foresight and was more polite and respectful than his brother. He is our ancestor, after all, and Esav is not.

But still, that cry of Esav’s -- tze’akah gedolah umarah -- screams out to us. Whatever else Yaakov did, he hurt Esav. Esav suffered because of Yaakov’s actions.

And such suffering, says the midrash, does not go unheeded by God. “Rabbi Hanina said: Whoever maintains that the Holy One blessed be He is lax in dispensing justice, may his bowels become lax. He [God] is merely long-suffering (Breishit Rabbah 67:4).” When, according to Rabbi Hanina, did God punish Yaakov for causing Esav to suffer? Hundreds of years later, during the time of Esther, when Mordecai hears of Haman’s plan to kill the Jews. There we are told that Mordecai cries the same cry as Esav -- Vayizak ze’akah gedolah umarah – “He cried out a great and bitter cry (Esther 4:1).”

When you cause someone pain, it has repercussions. “Hurt people hurt people.” Yaakov’s actions began a long-term cycle of hatred and suffering.

What is so remarkable about this midrash is that it paints God as being on the side of Esav. Esav is the father of the nation Edom which is traditionally understood to represent Rome, and therefore considered Israel’s arch-enemy. Here we have a story of God heeding the cry of Israel’s enemy, and indeed, punishing Israel for that enemy’s suffering. There is a famous saying that puts it this way: “More important than having God on your side is making sure that you are on God’s side.”

God is Israel’s God, but God is also the God of the world, and most particularly, the God of those who suffer. It is their cries that draw Him into the world. “Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground (Gen 4:10),” says God after Cain kills Abel, using that same verb tza’ak. And it is the tze’akah, the cry, of the mistreated in Sodom that draws God down to earth there too. Later, in Exodus, we are told that if we mistreat the poor, the widow or the orphan, they will surely cry out to God – tza’ok yitzak eli – and then God will come down to exact retribution (Exodus 22:22, 26).

God hears the cries of the mistreated, whatever nationality. Hagar, too, suffered at the hands of our ancestor Sarah, and there too God hears and responds. In fact, her son – also the father of an enemy of Israel – bears as his name the memory of God’s ability to hear such cries, Yishmael, meaning “God hears.”

Not all the deeds of our ancestors are meant to be emulated. The message here is not to act like Yaakov or Sarah, who cause the pain, but to act like God, who hears the cries of suffering. Perhaps that was the purpose of all the suffering the Israelites later endured in Egypt, to create a nation that -- because it was born out of suffering -- would always be attentive to the suffering of others.