Toldot: No more



(Image credit to Sharon Rosenzweig, artist extraordinaire)

Some say the most difficult passage in the Torah narrative is the binding of Isaac, when God asks Abraham to kill his own son as a sacrifice to God, to prove his faith and obedience to God.

That is a tough one, but it is a story that highlights the relationship we have with God; what will we do or not do to prove our devotion?  There is another disturbing story that highlights the relationships we have established with others.

For sheer discomfort at the deception, lying, manipulating, and “how is this all considered a good thing?”, I give you parashat Toldot, aka in my head, “Esau gets a bad rap”.

In the beginning of the parasha, we read of the birth of twins, Esau and Jacob.  Esau is the older, and Jacob is born, “holding on to the heel of Esau” (Gen 25:26)  We learn that Esau is a man of the field, a skilled hunter, and Jacob is an “ish tam”, a simple man, who stays by the tents.  (Gen 25:27)  We also learn that, in the time-honored tradition of dysfunctional Biblical families, the parents have favorites:  Isaac favors Esau, and Rebecca favors Jacob.

But that’s only the backdrop.  It gets interesting later on, when Isaac gets old and blind, and ready to confer the blessing on the oldest.  Remember, by this time, Jacob had manipulated Esau into selling him the eldest’s birthright, by offering him food when he was at his weakest, returning from the hunt, famished.  “Sure, brother dear, you can have some of this yummy stuff I’ve cooked, but first you have to trade away your birthright to me.  So how hungry are you?” (Ok, that’s a paraphrase, and not a translation that would pass at JPS)

Isaac tells Esau to go get him some meat, and prepare it the way he likes it.  Rebecca the Lurker overhears this, and gets a meal together for Jacob the Trickster to bring in to his father, wearing animal skins so Isaac wouldn’t realize it’s his younger son, deceiving him.  Finally, when Jacob gets the eldest’s blessing, Esau came running back and realizes he’s been tricked.  “Have you only one blessing, Father?  Bless me too, Father!”, Esau sobs. (Gen 27:38)  One of the most heartbreaking verses in all of Torah.

I’d been told my whole early childhood, in Hebrew school, that Esau was a bad guy, that he is forever our enemy.  Esau did nothing wrong.  The Rabbis had to come up with a reason that he got the short end of the blessing-stick, and so created a narrative that justified it.  Now more than ever, we have to be vigilant against made-up narratives that explain oppression, hatred and intolerance, narratives that somehow make it ok.

It is not ok.  No more making an inherent, automatic  enemy of Esau.  We can’t change the text in Toldot, but we can change what we learn from it.  It’s not that the Esau/Edomites/Arabs are forever our enemies.  We’ve seen what it does to a people to swallow the assumption that someone, the Other, is always to be distrusted.  That makes the Other inferior to us, and it’s a short hop to being reviled, which means hateful, even violent action taken against them is justified. Plans to register Muslims makes it all the easier to vilify them….we know where they are.  When you demean another’s holy ground, as in Standing Rock, it’s easier to justify attacks against them – they are less-holy-than, less-deserving-of; they are less.

In Toldot, we read of a wedge between brothers, one that is supposedly insurmountable.  We may not be able to remove the wedge, but we have to be able to reach across it and begin to repair the damage done.  That is the new lesson of Toldot.





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Chayeh Sarah: Holy Space

daplSarah died.  In the entire history of the Jewish people to this point, this is the first time we read about someone dying and being buried.  Abel died back in Eden, but we know nothing about where he was buried.  The Torah spends a lot of real estate on the story of what Abraham does after Sarah dies.  The entire chapter 23 of Genesis, 20 verses, tell the story in great detail.  It was really important.

Abraham was a resident alien in Hebron, so he had to jump through some legal hoops to get the cave of Machpelah all squared away as a family burial site.    Only Rachel was laid to rest elsewhere.  Through a series of negotiations with Ephron, a Hittite, Abraham is able to buy the land and procure for generations this burial site.  Ultimately, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah were all buried there.

The Torah wouldn’t spend so much time on this story if it weren’t important.  People ascribe a great deal of importance and meaning to the place where they bury their loved ones.  We are not unusual in this area;  everyone recognizes the sacred space that is a cemetery.  These are places that deserve respect.

Respect everywhere, that is, except in North Dakota, where the North Dakota pipeline (DAPL) is being built through sacred Native American burial grounds.  At Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, hundreds and hundreds of “water protectors” have been protesting the laying of the NDPL, saying that it runs right through their tribal burial grounds.  A CNN report quoted Spotted Eagle, a 68 year old elder of the community as saying, “What if the Great Sioux Nation decided to build a project through Arlington Cemetery?”  Spotted Eagle points out that Western eyes can’t even see where these burial grounds are.  “Archaeologists come in who are taught from a colonial structure, and they have the audacity to interpret how our people were buried.  How would they even know?”

What’s happening at Standing Rock is more than an embarrassment.  People are being water-cannoned in freezing weather.  Rubber bullets and tear gas are being used on an unarmed group of protesters.  We’ve seen this happen in Selma and Birmingham, and now against Native Americans in North Dakota.

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow.  Our simplistic school-days story tells us that during a difficult winter, with starvation and disease all around, the people who were already living here welcomed the ones who arrived  on their shores, and shared a meal.  At this point in our nation’s history, welcoming everyone to the table is more and more crucial to our future as a country.  Yet, the irony is inescapable.  At a time when we tell a story of the Native Americans who help the immigrants, the descendents of those immigrants display the ultimate disrespect – threatening to desecrate holy burial grounds.

This is a “shandah”, a shame, and more,  a horrible injustice.  Abraham knew how vital it was for a community to set aside a place for respecting its dead, in perpetuity, to own and maintain for all generations.  He knew what it was to create sacred ground.  How can we stay silent when that right is so violently denied to others?

Wishing you a table full of food, joy, loving faces and renewed commitment to be grateful for what we have, and to fight for justice in our land.

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Vayera: Don’t feed the mob

family-welcomeThis week’s parasha is so full of narrative and meaning, I hardly know where to begin.  But since I must narrow it down to something, and since I’m still reeling from the events of last week, looking for rays of hope and light, let’s take a look at the idea of “hospitality” and “welcoming”.  These are ideas that happen to be in the news a bit more these days.

First example of hospitality:  Abraham welcoming the strangers.  Three strangers come walking by Abraham’s tent, and he rushes out to greet them.  In fact, if you animated this little scene, you’d have Abraham raising a lot of dust.  He runs, he rushes, he greets, he bows, he hastens, he fetches.  He gets Sarah to put together something for them to eat, and bathes their feet to refresh them on their journey.  He has yet to ask them who they are or where they are going.  He only knows they are travelers and he can welcome them into his home.

Abraham gets a blessing for this; the men/messengers tell Abraham and Sarah that they will become parents within the year.  It’s laughable, given Sarah’s age, but they are reassured it will come to pass.

The next example is right after this – Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham’s nephew Lot has a home, a wife, and four daughters.  Two are married.  God and Abraham are arguing over God’s plan to destroy the cities, given their wickedness and pervasive evil.  Abraham is trying to get God to change plans, but after finding fewer than 10 righteous people, God will not save the town on their behalf.

We similar language now.  Lot is sitting by the gate, sees two strangers, runs to greet them, bows, welcomes them to his home, but he has to convince them, unlike Abraham’s visitors.  Lot also prepares food for them, but just after dinner, the townspeople come to Lot’s door and demand he hand over the visitors, “Where are the men who visited you tonight?  Bring them out so we may know them.” (Gen 19:4 )  Lot tries to talk them out of it, by offering up two of his virgin daughters to the mob.  They won’t have it.  The Rabbis interpret “so we may know them” as intent to commit sodomy, turn them over to the mob that intends sexual assault.

Finally, the two men/messengers tell Lot to take his wife and daughters and sons-in-law, and leave town, because God’s about to destroy the place.  The sons-in-law don’t believe him, so Lot leaves with his younger two daughters, his wife, and heads for the hills.

God, indeed, destroys the towns. And then, after their mother turns into a pillar of salt, and believing their father is the only man left alive in the world, the daughters get their father drunk and sleep with him in turn, each becoming pregnant.  Not making this up.

So we have two stories with mysterious visitors who are obviously messengers/angels.  Two acts of kindness towards them…come to my home and I will feed and house you.  Two prophecies fulfilled – one for a new child within the year, and two from the most forbidden of relationships.

What do we make of these parallel stories?  Hospitality begins with respect and generosity, as both Lot and Abraham demonstrated. Is it the way they played out – with Lot’s believing that submitting his two young daughters to mob assault is better than abetting a homosexual assault?  Sodom and Gemorrah were wicked cities, and Lot was affected.  He so devalued his daughters (did they hear him offer them to the mob?) that their boundaries were gone by the time they arrived in the hills, where incest became an acceptable concept for them.

Hospitality and respect; neither can exist when one group is pitted against another, when one group is devalued or considered disposable, and another must be avoided.  Lot faced violence,and rather than saying no to all of the intended violence,  he tried to mollify the mob by “feeding them” vulnerable individuals, becoming no better than they and eventually falling victim to unconscious participation in the basest of acts.  In an atmosphere of threat and violence, when outsiders are seen as fair game for attack, when fear of “others” is fanned to the point of violence, well…that society will be destroyed.

Hmmm.  Yeah.

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Noach: Rainbows

rainbowEveryone has a rainbow story.  The first time you saw one.  The time you saw a double rainbow.  They are stunning and magical and ethereal and fragile; they make you stop and really look.   I once saw a triple rainbow.  I was at a folk festival, back when I toured as a folk musician, and was camping with my very young daughters.  Naturally, seeing as how it was a festival, it rained.  When it finally stopped, I was sitting on the hillside listening to the music on the main stage below, and three rainbows appeared over the stage.  I have never seen anything like it before or since.

This summer, our nephew got married out at my sister’s farm.  Friday night, we were making Kiddush in the living room, and not on the porch, because it was raining.  As soon as the rain stopped, we all went outside and saw a double rainbow over the valley.  We broke into laughter and exclamations of joy, taking it to be a great sign for the bride and groom, for their marriage and their future together.

I once saw a rainbow’s end, where it “landed” in a field, just in front of a cow.  I saw a multi-colored cow.

Rainbows are a sign.  This week’s parasha tells us that, in the story of Noah. “I have set My bow in the clouds and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.” (Gen 9:13) God has just finished destroying the earth through a great flood.  There are floods in other creation stories, too, and the rainbow holds a place in other cultural tales.  Sometimes they’re the pathway between Heaven and Earth, for the gods to travel on.  They are a bridge, a link between our earthly existence and the sparkling heavens.

There is a Native American tradition that says the rainbow signals a time when all people will come together as one. People will put aside their differences and heal Mother Earth.  I can see the connection between our tradition and theirs.  God promised to never destroy the earth again, that it was our sacred duty to multiply.  But it’s not only dominion over the earth; God lays out the principle of not eating the life-blood of any living animal.  Notice and respect the line of distinguishing life and death.  Notice the link between now and the future.

Notice and respect the way rainbows fade in and out of sight, depending on how much sunlight is shining, what’s in the way, and if you catch the light just right.  So much of what is beautiful and precious and rare is just like that.  Not every rainstorm ends with a rainbow.  The sun has to come out, just so.  When we have life-storms, and the sun comes out just so, those rainbows shine into our souls and hearts; we can see the fragile, sacred beauty that follows as a promise of hope.



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Bereshit: Click boom

hamilton “Who lives, who dies, who tells the story?”

We tell it over and over again.  We read it in books.  Sometimes it’s made into a bad movie.  Then we read it again.  But what possible relevance does it have to my life?

No I’m not talking about Torah.  Well, I am. Of course.  But I saw “Hamilton” last night, and it’s there, too…all of it.  History,my history, our shared history, re-done, re-envisioned, re-imagined, re-cast, re-scored, re-ignited.  And truly relevant.

The show was flawless.  Layers upon layers upon meaning, hidden in layers, with some toe-tapping fun and humor scattered throughout.  That man Miranda loves the English language, and he molds and shapes and stretches it into verbal sculpture, beautiful to behold.  It’s breathtaking, and at the same time, breathes life into old tales.

What matters is telling the story in each generation, in the language of each generation, with enough shout-outs to the past to keep the connection alive.  Midrash tells us that God gave us Torah in 70 languages, so that each person could understand it in their own way.

This weekend, we begin again with the Torah, Genesis, Bereshit, in the beginning.  We know it, we’ve read it, we’ve seen it in bad movies, and all the characters will show up again in the grand play that is the Creation of the World.  “All the world is a stage,…” and all that.

I love the chaos that came before the land and the sea.  I love the “tohu v’vohu” that exists before existence.  Before that spark of creation there was something already present – the swirling, noisy, messy , confusion from which order comes.  God must have created the chaos, too, and then thought, “Well, that’s not working.  I can do better.  If I want this thing called Earth and Humanity to last, then I’d better sort things out.”  God knew what the goal was, and looked around at the materials at hand, so to speak, and said, “Let’s get to work.”

If the goal is to keep a good idea going, then order must come from chaos.  Jewish life is a verb, it’s not a feeling.  To live is to do, and like any good idea, the essence must translate into action.  For Hamilton and what became this astounding American experiment, we must do….vote, work for ideas, get involved.  The founding fathers made order out of chaos, and we are still grappling, wrestling, playing out the grand vision.

The same is true for our own Jewish lives.  Bereshit reminds us that where there is chaos, find the essence, the beauty, the core ….and go on to create something wondrous.  Jewish life will be re-invented and re-formed if it is to be respected and recurring, and relevant.  And as “Hamilton” teaches, sometimes we need to pay attention to voices that haven’t been heard in the narrative, look at them in a different light, add to the story, and add to the fabric that is our history….and our future.


Who lives,  who dies, who tells the story.  We are alive, we continue to tell the story.  We begin again, “In the beginning, as God was creating the heavens and the earth….”





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Netzavim and New Year: Spiraling


Teshuva.  Tefilah. Tzedakah.

That’s what we will keep hearing next week, as we welcome the New Year.  Those are the keys to unlock the door to a good New Year.  Those are the balms, we read, for our souls that have missed the mark so many times over the last year.

I’m not so good with Tefilah, and Teshuvah is tough.  I just studied a bit with my weekly Torah class on this topic.  There’s a section of Deuteronomy (Chapter 30:1-10) that we read this time of year, in parashat Nitzavim.  Within ten verses, the word “shuv” or turning, appeared eight times.   That makes you pay attention.  Turning back, turning inward, turning toward…it’s not just turning in circles.  I don’t really want to go back to the beginning, or back at all.  I would prefer to move on, maybe envisioning spirals instead of returning back to “Go.”   Teshuvah, as “atonement” doesn’t really capture the idea; we go back to those times when we chose the lesser option, but we don’t stay there either.  Rather, we use it to impel us move beyond, choosing better.

Now, Tzedakah has been in my heart and mind a lot.  As many of you remember, I recently started coming downtown Chicago every day for a new job, and among all the good things, there is the constant reminder of those who literally have no place to go.  I see the same people along Jackson Blvd, and if I change my route, I see completely different people, with the same needs.

Tzedakah isn’t charity; “charity” is from love, “tzedakah” is from righteousness.  It’s not something we do out of the goodness of our hearts – it’s commanded that we live righteous lives, and that includes taking care of the vulnerable in our communities.

But it’s so hard, not the sharing or giving part, but the enormity of the need and feeling I can’t really help in any meaningful way.  I’ve started talking to some of the women, especially.  How did they get on the streets?  It seems to start with “I moved here with/for this guy”.  One day, there was a new face on the street, and she seemed so young.  I gave her some money, but stayed to ask her name.  “Do you have any family?”  She had a mom.  “Have you called her?”  She’d been thinking about it.  She’s the same age..younger, in fact…as my daughters.  I imagined their faces, looking up from the hand-made cardboard sign.  “Call her.  Trust me, she’ll want to hear from you.   Call her. If it were my daughter…”  and I started tearing up.  “Call her.”  I haven’t seen her since, though I keep an eye out.  Maybe she did call.

One woman I’ve seen regularly is named Michelle.  Yesterday, it was getting chilly, so I offered her a cup of coffee, and asked how she takes it. She seemed surprised I asked.  When I mentioned I was taking the coffee to a woman on the street, and the barista said, “Michelle?” Yes, Michelle.  As I gave her the coffee, she hugged me.  “I worry about you, Michelle. I don’t know how to help you.”  She asked me to pray for her.  I don’t know how.

Which brings us back to Tefilah.  I’m still not so good with it, and I really don’t know how that helps Michelle, or any of the others I see.  Maybe it’s connecting the three – Teshuva, Tefilah and Tzedakah – in a continuous spiral, one leading to the next and to the next.  I’m better with action than with deep reflection, or at least, that’s the way it seems sometimes.  Actually, I reflect on things all the time.  Is that prayer?  Is that “turning”?   Is Tzedakah handing out the money, or is it looking for them each day? Good things to think about next week.


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Ki Tavo: Pledges and oaths

icon_pledgeThis week’s parasha, Ki Tavo says that when you bring that basket of first fruits of your harvest to the local priest, to offer it up to God, “you shall recite as follows before Adonai your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.  The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.  We cried to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea…Adonai freed us from Egypt….He brought us to this land…[why] I now bring the first fruits of the soil…” (Deut 26:1-10)

Say it every year, every harvest, repeat these words. It’s our origin story.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Say it every day, every morning in school, repeat these words.  These, too, are our origin story.

What are the important concepts in these recitations?  For the Israelite farmer, it’s remembering that our history was one of oppression and slavery; we cast our lots with those folks who came out of slavery and were freed; in short, liberty.  The following texts read “you shall enjoy together with the Levite and stranger in your midst, all the bounty (Deut 26:11), and you must remember to give part of your yield to the most vulnerable in your society – the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.  In short, justice for all.

What’s the takeaway from the Pledge?  Liberty and justice for all, exactly those words.

These are not loyalty pledges.  These are acknowledgements of the most important social values the people have; never forget the fundamental values of the community.  A loyalty pledge, however is a “legal” document that is required for an individual to get the advantages of membership in a group, like employment or tax benefits…or vote.  Over and over, loyalty pledges, especially the ones that target “subversive” groups or organizations, have been found to be unconstitutional.  I remember when I moved to Connecticut.  In order to register to vote, I had to swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the State of Connecticut, and the United States (in that order, mind you.  Pennsylvania was the same; must be something about those 13 original colonies.)  Well, I thought long and hard about that, but in the end, I decided to go along with it, since it didn’t require me to state I was part of any particular group or political bent.

It does us well to beware the loyalty pledge.  We shouldn’t have to prove or provide personal statements of faith, especially religious statmements, to be a part of our society.  It is crucial that we remember that as we finally see the finish line to this seemingly endless political race.  There are those out there who would find it very easy to cross the line into loyalty pledges, professions of religious alignment, and more, if they haven’t called for them already.

However, it does us well to remember fundamental values of our society, in a formal statement.  We do this allt he time, publically and powerfully.  Secular wedding vows. Citizenship oaths.  Testifying in court.  Ki Tavo reminds us to state clearly who we are, where we came from, what we believe in, and how those values permeate our daily lives, and our unending gratitude for the bounty we enjoy.


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