Vayera:Abimelech and Harvey Weinstein?

shes-my-sister-t-shirts-men-s-t-shirtFool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Once again, Abraham comes into another king’s territory and passes his wife Sarah off as his sister, and once again, the king takes Sarah into his court, and once again, the king freaks out about it and returns Sarah to Abraham, along with lots of money and animals.

Back in Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai went down to Egypt. Abram was afraid for his life because Sarai was so beautiful, and he thought Pharaoh would kill him for her. So he came up with an idea to say his wife was his sister. Sure enough, Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s palace, but soon Pharaoh and his court were afflicted with plagues. Pharaoh brought Abram in front of him and yelled at him for the deception.  Avram and Sarai were sent away….with a whole lot more wealth from Pharaoh.

Fast forward to Genesis 20, parasha Vayera, and this week. Abraham and Sarah came into Abimelech’s territory. Once again, Abraham said Sarah was his sister, and she was brought (commentary says “kidnapped”) into Abimelech’s court. This time it’s God who comes to the King in a dream and lets him know that Sarah is married, and if he doesn’t do something about it, he will die. Abimelech talks back to God, saying he is blameless and deceived.

Next morning, Abimelech brought his court together, told them the truth about Sarah and they brought Abraham in, with Abimelech saying, “What have you done to this? What wrong have I done you that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom?” (Gen 20:9)

This time, Abraham tries to explain his way out of it by saying, yes, he and Sarah really are sister and brother, but with different mothers, so it was ok. The couple gets sent away, with more wealth…again.

There’s another important difference between the stories. In this week’s story, the King says, “He [Abraham] said to me ‘She is my sister’, and she also said, ‘He is my brother’”  (Gen 20:5) The first time, Sarai was silent, here she actively took part in the scheme. Why? Was it just to get her and Abraham more money? Did she feel trapped between her conniving husband and a powerful King?

This story really jumped out at me this week. For the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing about men in power taking advantage of women who had no power. Sexual harassment is more and more out in the open, more and more women are speaking up and saying no to being used and abused. Powerful men are being brought low. And it’s about time. More attention is being paid to the issue of how our men are being raised; raising our sons to be the kind of men who will speak out when they witness mistreatment of women and not just stay silent.

We can only hope that we’ve reached a real change in the culture. We don’t know how Sarah felt about being  used to deceive, but frankly, I can’t think of any woman relishing that job. I don’t think Abraham intentionally was abusing Sarah, or that Abimelech and Pharaoh were abusing Sarah. But she was being used in a scheme to (theoretically) save a man’s life, because he felt afraid, and either Sarah felt she couldn’t speak out, or when she did, it was to continue the deceit. We can’t change the Torah stories. But we can find meaning and relevance in them for today’s world. Sarah’s story, like so many others in the Torah, is a cautionary tale. For all the great and good Sarah and Abraham and God did elsewhere in this parashah, this event brings into relief what NOT to do.

 

 

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Lech L’cha: #MeToo

me tooLech l’cha. This parasha has so much in it, it’s hard to pick a focus. But, thanks to my sister, Rabbi Jan Salzman, in Burlington VT, she has made it easier. Rabbi Jan leads “Ruach HaMaqom”, a wonderful, warm and innovative community in Burlington. If you’re near there, or know someone who is, check it out, and say hi for me.

Anyway, the scene is Abram and Sarai (their names have not been changed yet by God) who have journeyed to Canaan. God has given Abram the promise to give the land to his descendents (of which he has none, by the way, but that comes later), and they’re facing a famine. So, off to Egypt, as so many will do subsequently.

Abram is afraid that he will be killed so that Pharaoh can have Sarai as his wife, because she’s very beautiful. So, he asks Sarai to pretend she’s his sister, and sure enough, Pharaoh takes Sarai into his palace. Abram gets a lot of riches from this: sheep, cattle, asses, slaves, and camels. Pharaoh is shocked (shocked!) to find out Sarai is Abram’s wife, and in a panic that stems from plagues that afflict his household, he says, “What have you done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say that she was your sister, so that I took her as a wife for myself?” (Gen 12:18-19) That’s a lot of verbiage for Torah, so we must pay attention.

As my sister continues:

“In light of our increasing outrage at the danger women experience around the world, about which most any woman can describe, this story holds many images for us today: of a woman being asked to hide her beauty so that she won’t be a target and, more fully, to protect her husband’s life. If we break down the previous sentence, we see 1) that we have to hide our beauty in order to do an end-run around sexual objectification; 2) that being beautiful, whatever that might mean, makes women targets; 3) that we must hide our beauty in order to protect the men around us. In a nutshell, this is the core of the #metoo social network movement.”

“Avram models for us behavior both laudable and repulsive. Wrestling with this part of the story during this time of our lives, calls forth from us the questions about motive, objectification, the sacrificing of our women in order to protect our families, and so forth.”

There was always a part of me that thought Abram was pimping out his wife to Pharaoh so he could get more riches. The Women’s Commentary on Torah says Sarai is a “co-trickster” (p59) in deceiving Pharaoh, saving his life and adding to the family coffers. This is a far more positive spin than I would have presented.

Women are not shocked by the number of stories coming out. What’s surprising is how many women are telling finally their stories, because there have been so many obstacles. No one would believe them, there would be no consequences for the assaulter, but plenty for the women, and the men were too powerful, controlling careers and hard-won successes.

What happens next for women in industries across the country is to be seen. But we know a few things from here. We have to involve men who will stand up against other men behaving badly. There are plenty of good, kind, decent men out there. But they’ve been too silent. Speak up, guys. And women, we need to not just alert younger women to what’s happening, but go with them to HR. We will not go willingly into Pharaoh’s palace any more. And yes, me too.

As usual, Torah gives us an opportunity to take ancient words and find contemporary wisdom. And as usual, I learn from my sister. Thanks, Jan.

 

 

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Noah: Relative righteousness

noahs-arkSix words. Six words to express a world of learning and hope and vision. It’s not easy to do , but it works when you pick the right six words. Like, “Shma Yisrael,Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad”  Those are good words.

My friend Alden Solovy, a wonderful liturgist and writer, suggested a Facebook exercise last week: Write a six word prayer. Our Facebook feeds were filled with short bursts of wisdom. Then, Alden focused our attention on Noach, this week’s parasha, and encouraged us to write a six-word “commentary”.

“Not enough to just be righteous enough.”

Noah was called a righteous man “in his time”. The rabbis interpret that in a couple of ways. Either Noah was righteous compared to everyone else at that time, and the bar was pretty low for that, or he was so righteous that he would have been considered righteous in Abraham’s time. God was so upset with the way things were going with this human creation that God wanted to upset the chess board and start over.

There was another man who was known as righteous in his time, and that was Lot, Abraham’s nephew. We read more about Lot later in Genesis, but there is also debate as to whether Lot was really righteous like his Abraham, or just in comparison to what was going on in town. For example, why did his hospitality to the strangers/angels/messengers “rate” higher than his willingness to hand over his young daughters to the crowd in place of his visitors?  But I digress. Back to Noah and relative righteousness.

We live in a time when righteousness has real implications for how our society proceeds. The Torah states clearly thirty-six times that we are obligated to take care of the vulnerable in society, the widow and orphan, the ones at the most precarious places in our communities. This is a real measure of righteousness, and we can ask ourselves how righteous is the leadership in our country, as heartlessness seems to be ruling instead.

The words “righteous” and “just” and “generosity” are linked in Hebrew through the shoresh (root word) Tz-D-K. This is no coincidence.  Decades ago, this country turned its back on millions of refugees from hell. We continue to turn a blind eye to those who pass through hell’s gates to find safety. And we continue to call it “policy” to tear families apart. Every country has a right to determine who comes into the country, and every country has the right to secure borders. But “justice” is linked to “generosity”, and accommodations must be made.

Noah may have been  righteous enough when the world was about to be destroyed.  Our world is threatened by bigotry and intolerance and hate. I don’t think we can settle for “righteous enough” anymore.

 

 

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Bereshit: Listen for the breath

dandelion breathIt’s good to be back.

I know I took a little time off from Jewish Gems, a weekly visit to the weekly parasha, but it’s a new year and the scroll has been rolled, and it’s Bereshit/Genesis, all is new….again. And my weekly Torah class started up again. As you know, I take a lot of notes in that class, and when an idea really stands out to me, I put little asterisks in the margin, and the thought I’m expanding upon had a few, so I knew it was important! With my gorgeous group of chevruta-niks (study partners),  we begin.

In the beginning …

In the beginning when God was creating…

In the beginning when God was creating heaven and earth..

In the beginning when God was creating heaven and earth,  the earth was tohu v’vohu…unformed and void.

The first thing is light. An undefined, primordial, not-the-Sun-yet light.

Y’hi or, v’yehi Or. “let there be light and there was light.” Y-HI…Y-HI… If you say the words out loud, you hear a lot of Y’s and H’s. Say them out loud. They’re light and breathy, silent but not silent. You have to listen really close to hear those sounds, you almost feel them more than you hear them.

That first light was different from the one that came on the 4th day, when the Sun and Moon were placed in the heavens, fully set into their courses in the sky. They became fixed for always, but that first light was anything but. It was like breath. Breath takes effort, but it’s barely felt unless you’re up close. Breath is subtle – you may not be able to see or feel it, but you can see what it does. Breath is personal.

Breath is powerful; anyone who’s ever taken yoga knows that.

The world was created by words and actions, very concrete and “loud”.  But that first one…Y’hi or, v’y’hi or…was quiet and personal. Maybe not such a Big Bang, and more of a cosmic snap-crackle-pop. But it was enough.

I took some time away from this weekly endeavor, through the month of so of holidays. I think I wanted to hear the snap-crackle-pop, and needed to withdraw a little to do that. The Kabbalists said that God withdrew just before Creation, so there would be room for it. After all, if God was all and everywhere, where would there be space for Creation? So God’s first act of creation, the Kabbalists said, was shrinking, a turning-in, a contraction. When I wrote songs, I know I needed to clear out my head, quiet all the voices in there (and there are a lot..it gets noisy!), make space for the creation, before I could write.

So now I’m writing again. Welcome back. May you find time this Shabbat/Simchat Torah to listen for the breath.

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Charlottesville and Skokie 2017

“Oh please, do you really think people are going to jump on the ol’ Nazi bandwagon?”

“You don’t really think the Nazis could attract a following, do you?” “Remember, we didn’t think so last time.”

“You must not have much faith in the American people”

“You get a bunch of neo-Nazi screwballs out there inciting to riot, something’s going to happen.”

“Guns and rifles are not nice. But if the Nazis come with guns and rifles, Jews will come with guns and rifles”

These are not lines from recent newspapers. They are from a play I’ve been in all summer, called God of Isaac. It was written almost 35 years ago, by James Sherman. He and I grew up in Skokie, around the time the Nazis tried to march in our hometown, and the event is supposed to be a back drop for the title character’s exploration into his own Jewish identity. We do four shows a weekend. We’ve had cast conversations back stage and at talk-backs with audiences, about identity and journeys. But since the weekend of Aug 12, our conversation has been about one thing – Charlottesville, and how bizarre and disturbing this secondary story line has become. We talk about it a lot backstage, each actor re-calibrating our lines almost unconsciously, given the lens we see them through lately.

I’ve been waiting to write about the last couple of weeks, waiting for my emotions to settle and my thoughts to start making sense. My worlds are colliding – my day job as a Jewish professional, as an actor in this play, and then there’s my father.

I have a unique connection to the whole marching-Nazis thing. My father was Richard Salzman. He was one of the attorneys for the Village of Skokie. Up until the mid-70s, it was a pretty predictable job, nothing too exciting. Then Frank Collin came to town and the job got a whole lot more interesting. Skokie wanted to keep the Nazis out; the ACLU said they had a right to march. Over two years, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and ultimately, the ordinances that Dad and his colleagues wrote on Skokie’s behalf to keep the Nazis from marching were found to be what Dad knew they were all along: unconstitutional. Free speech won over fighting words and hate speech.

So, for four shows a weekend, I go back to the 70s in the play, and off stage, I see today’s headlines through my father’s eyes. The time-travel is dizzying, and I find so many conflicting thoughts bouncing around in my head.

For example, one of the things I remember my father speaking a lot about is how unfair the Jewish community was to the Jewish ACLU lawyer who took on Collins’ case. Dad told us how his kids were bullied at school, his family experienced death threats, and how the lawyer basically left town. Dad thought it was a “shandah”, an embarrassment; it was simply wrong. That lawyer was doing his job, defending something we rely on to stay strong for all of us. I think about this when I read about the Nazis and white supremacists from Charlottesville who were outed, “doxxed.” The hoods were off, and they were identified; we have read about some of these people being disowned, fired, and who knows what’s coming next. Will some fool decide becoming a vigilante is justified? I’m not expressing sympathies for these individuals, but how is it different from what the Jewish community did? These despicable human beings, as far as we know right now, didn’t do anything illegal. The ACLU lawyers in Skokie were protecting what they were committed to, no matter how contemptible their clients were. The power we have with social media concerns me.

The social media also concerns me about the Nazis and white supremacists themselves. Back in the 70s, there were a couple of handful of Nazis, far outnumbered by the Jewish protesters. There a lot of people jumping on the ol’ Nazi bandwagon, and it’s no secret how the internet magnifies everything, allowing ideas that might otherwise die natural (and welcome) deaths to find others to follow, and followers to multiply.

I am certain that expecting or seeking ideological purity is never a good thing, yet this morning I heard about college graduates returning their degrees because their issuing institution supports Trump. Sooner or later, we will be in a post-Trump time, and what happens then? Have we completely lost the ability to engage in any conversation or relationship with those with whom we disagree? I know we’ve been divided before, and I have not changed my opinion about the current White House occupant and his detrimental effect on discourse, giving permission for racist and hateful opinions and acts to be acceptable now. That’s on him, I firmly believe. But what happens next? We can’t start firing people who hold different opinions. We can’t physically attack people who hold different political beliefs. We have to return to actual, informed civil discourse. We are going to have to rehabilitate the Presidency, and change the model.

I also think about what the court would have ruled if the situation in Charlottesville had happened in Skokie? Would the military garb, assault rifles, vitriolic and hateful speech would finally qualify as “hate speech” and would therefore be unprotected by the First Amendment? I fear it will take another march, more violence and death, and another case to go up the courts to change the ruling, and at the same time I fear this, I think I welcome it, because if what happened in Charlottesville isn’t incitement and fighting words, I don’t know what is.

Last Shabbat, the congregants of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville had to leave by the back door and spirit away their Torahs for safety. Jewish organizations all over the country are on heightened alert, and the current government is paralyzed even more than usual by the inexcusable comments of the President. There is no excuse for his resistance to state the obvious: Nazis are bad. White supremacists are bad. There are no “fine people” marching with torches and AK-47s, spitting out blatant, purely anti-Semitic and horrific words. There is no “other side” here.

Was there “another side” in Skokie decades ago? I wish my father were around, not just for the obvious reason that he died too early, but because I want his insights, and I wish we could talk about this.

My worlds are colliding every day lately. It’s making my head spin, my heart hurt, and my soul ache for the pain and horror that is taking over our communit and our country. Still, I am heartened by the resistance, the organizing, and the support in places like Boston. I am grateful for the non-Jewish supporters stood guard outside Beth Israel while the neo-Nazis shouted their hate, showing their neighbors that they are not alone.

My father fought for the values and rights in our country, both on the battlefield of WWII and the courtrooms in Chicago. That fight can’t be abandoned now. “We still have work to do”, says a character in the play. Indeed we do. Let’s get started.

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Stepping away

balance and lightHello all.
If you’ve noticed, there weren’t any posts the last couple of weeks, and this Shabbat is no different. The last few weeks have been particularly busy, and somehow, it became more important to take something off the schedule for Shabbat, instead of adding one! I am striving for balance.

So, for the next few weeks, until at least the High Holidays, I’ll be stepping away for a bit. I may post when inspired to do so, and I do love the upcoming parashot in Torah (lots is happening now!) but the weekly Divrei Torah will be on “vacation.” There are years of comments about each Parasha, each week. For example, this week’s parasha is Re’eh

Aug 26 – Shoftim

Sept 1 – Ki Tetzei

Sept 9 – Ki Tavo

Along the right side of the home page is an archive. Pick one from around this time of year, and enjoy. Or check out some other weekly commentaries, like one of my favorites, the folks at  Orot Center

Enjoy the rest of the summer, my friends, and may our preparation for the upcoming year 5778 be rewarding.

As always, you are welcome to contact me, comment, at anita613@gmail.com

Shabbat shalom.

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Matot Masei:That’s Ok, I’ll just stay here

(Apologies to how this is formatted. This is the best I could do with the tech environment I’m in)

Standing at the edge of the Land, amassing at the border, and preparing to go in, Moses heard something he never expected to hear, “Do not move us across the Jordan” . The tribal heads of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Menassah stated that they wanted to remain on the east side of the Jordan River, and didn’t want to cross over into the Land.

What?

Moses’ whole purpose on this journey was to move the entire Israelite community into the Land God had promised them. And now, so close, these Israelites didn’t want to go? Moses told them they were repeating the sins of the Spies, when heads of all the tribes went in to do a reconnaissance of the Land. Eight of the ten scouts came back and said the people would never survive; only Caleb and Joshua reassured the people they would be successful. As a reward, out of that original Exodus generation, only Caleb and Joshua survived long enough to see the Land.

But here were people who didn’t want to go in. They said the land on the east side of the river was better for them and their herds. They wanted to build shelters for their animals, build cities for their families. Moses said, “Are your brothers to go to war” (Num 32:6), meaning, are they going to fight for the land, and you’re going to sit out the struggle? The tribes agreed to send in “shock troops” to help fight the battle for the Land, but afterward, they wanted to go back to their families on the east riverbank.
Today, we are on the cusp of another battle, between Jews in Israel and those outside the Land. Recently, non-Orthodox Jews have been attacked again by the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, questioning their actual identity as Jews and restricting access to places like the Kotel, to live their authentic Jewish lives as they see fit. The rift between the ruling ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Jews around the world is getting wider, deeper and far more hurtful. I don’t consider myself in the Diaspora – as the tribal heads of Reuben, Gad and Menasseh said, they liked the land where they were, as do I. But they were asked to fight for those who would go in, and for generations, Jews around the world have done the same. But the East-Side Israelites’ identity wasn’t questioned; in fact, God approved of their actions, blessing them.

Few in the Israeli government are blessing me and my fellow non-Orthodox Jews now. What then, is my real responsibility to Israel? Am I expected to keep supporting, both literally, figuratively, financially and emotionally, a country which questions my own Jewish identity, and works to keep me away from my own Holy Places in a way I see fit? It has become quite a strain, one that pulls on my heart daily.

The East-Side Israelites were blessed for recognizing that, though they weren’t going into the Land, their identity and authenticity as members of the community and their connection to those that were going to live on the west side of the Jordan was just as strong and just as valid. Today, we deserve no less. Or they risk even moreso the deterioration of community ties, and the alienation that will follow. It’s already started.

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