Archive for December, 2006

Hanukkah: Remembering The Good

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

Happy Holidays to one and all! For my those readers who are
celebrating Hanukkah, we’re in for a treat this year, because only
occasionally does Hanukkah have two Shabbatot [Sabbaths] in its eight
days. Thus, this week we read a special Haftarah [prophetic reading]
instead of the usual haftarah for the Torah portion Miketz, but it’s
the special haftarah for the times when there is a second Shabbat
during Hanukkah.

This text, from the book of 1 Kings, which is also the haftarah for
the Torah portion Vayehkel, describes the crafting of the implements
and vessels for the First Temple. Since Vayekhel is all about the
building of the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary, this text connects an
early period of Biblical history with a later one. The connection with
Hanukkah is also clear: King Shlomo [Solomon] crafted and dedicated
the sacred objects of the first Temple, and the Maccabees would purify
and rededicate the sacred objects of the Second Temple.

What’s interesting to me is the specific verses from 1 Kings 7 that
the rabbis chose; these verses distinguish between the contributions
of King Hiram, of Tyre [in what we’d now call Lebanon] and those made
by his friend and ally Shlomo, king in Jerusalem:

“Hiram also made the lavers, the scrapers, and the sprinkling bowls.
So Hiram finished all the work that he had been doing for King Solomon
on the House of the Lord: the two columns, the two globes of the
capitals upon the columns; and the two pieces of network to cover the
two globes of the capitals upon the columns, the four hundred
pomegranates for the two pieces of network, two rows of pomegranates
for each network, to cover the two globes for the capitals upon the
columns . . . . .” (1 Kings 7:40-42)

The verses above are only a part of the description of Hiram’s
contributions to the Temple- for the full description see the text
link below. To me, the inclusion of the contributions of a non-Jewish
king towards the building of the sacred center of the Jewish nation is
striking on a holiday which commemorates the revolt against another
non-Jewish king, albeit a much less friendly one, Antiochus. Perhaps
bringing the story of Hiram into Hanukkah helps us remember that not
all foreign powers were hostile to Israel, and indeed, although the
Jews have certainly suffered persecution over the centuries, we’ve
also made friends, allies and partners with peoples of every culture
and nation.

Even today, when there is a real threat of anti-Semitism in Europe and
the Middle East, there are also strong ties of affection and respect
between Jewish communities and their neighbors, both secular and
religious, in many countries where our people live. The Hanukkah story
is one of courage and hope, of vision and determination, but we cannot
say that these events are paradigmatic in Jewish history. Our people
have had our ups and downs, our periods of great glory and our periods
of great struggle, times of suffering under Antiochus and the
contribution of beautiful gifts from Hiram- and to the extent that we
remember that there is goodness in the world, along with evil, we can
build up the good, and bring its light wherever it is needed.

Hag Urim Sameach [Happy Holiday of Lights] and Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

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Vayeshev: Absence and Presence

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

Greetings- Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is almost upon us, and
thus also Parshat Vayeshev, which switches the focus of our narrative
from Yaakov to Yosef, with a slight detour into the life of Yehudah
and his family. As many of you will remember, Yosef is a proud young
man who is favored by his fathers, and who has dreams in which sheaves
of grain, and then the celestial bodies, bow down to him:

“He [Yosef] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying,
‘Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and
eleven stars were bowing, down to me. And when he told it to his
father and brothers, his father berated him. ‘What,’ he said to him,
‘is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and
your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?’ So his brothers
were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.”
(Bereshit/Genesis 37:9-11, JPS translation)

Well, one can certainly understand the brother’s annoyance- nobody
likes to be told that they’ll bow down to somebody else, much less a
younger sibling. What’s more interesting is Yaakov’s reaction: “are we
to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you?”
Again, one can understand that a father would not like to be told of a
dream in which he bows to his son, but by this point in the story,
Rachel, Yosef’s mother, has been dead many years- so why would Yaakov
mention “your mother” in his objection to Yosef’s dream?

Our friend Rashi has two thoughts on the matter. First, “your mother”
here refers to Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, with whom Yaakov also had
children; Rashi refers to an earlier midrash [rabbinic interpretation]
which posits that Bilhah raised Yosef like a son after Rachel died.
What’s nice about this interpretation is not only that it solves the
problem of Yaakov saying “your mother” in reference to future events,
but it subtly implies that parenthood is not just about biology, but
also a state of emotional, ethical and spiritual commitments.
(Something important to remember in the debates over what constitutes
“family values.”)

Rashi’s second comment builds on the first, but is a bit complex. He
quotes a principle from the Talmud that “there is no dream without
meaningless elements,” meaning that not every symbol in a dream is
worthy of deep consideration. Rashi then goes on to say that Yaakov
intended to dismiss Yosef’s dream as meaningless, so that the other
brothers would not be too jealous or disturbed, and thus bringing up
“your mother” is a way of saying “just as it’s impossible for your
mother to bow down to you, the rest of the dream is nonsense too.”

Again, Rashi’s reading is plausible, given that it would certainly be
in Yaakov’s interest to calm the situation and defuse the mounting
jealousy between Yosef and his brothers- jealousy for which he himself
is largely responsible, after giving Yosef a special coat and favors.
Yet while Rashi’s reading is plausible, and holds out for us the
example of someone trying to make peace between others, what seems
more likely to me is not that Yosef’s dream contained meaningless
elements, but rather that Yaakov’s response revealed more than he
intended.

While the “Freudian slip” is by now a punchline in countless jokes,
it’s also true that one’s emotions reveal themselves at stressful or
unguarded moments- one contemporary psychologist (John Gottman) calls
this “leaking.” Thus, when Yaakov refers to his first love, Rachel, in
the future tense- “are we to come, I and your mother and your
brothers, and bow low to you?”- perhaps what is being revealed is not
only Yosef’s naivete or arrogance, but Yaakov’s unresolved grief, such
that a slip of the tongue shows the extent of his inability to fully
live in a world without Rachel.

To put it another way, perhaps Yaakov refers to Rachel because for
him, she has never truly died. Yaakov shows special attention to
Rachel’s children [Yosef and Binyamin], perhaps as a channel for his
grief, and when that special attention causes stress and dissent in
his family, the deeper emotional currents rise to the surface.

Many people who have lost a loved one experience slips of the tongue,
even years later, referrring to their loved one in the present tense,
or reaching for the phone before snapping back to the present.
Yaakov’s reference to Rachel illustrates how a person, family or
community can be as deeply influenced by who is not there as who is-
absence can drive emotional dynamics as powerfully as presence. Those
we love continue to shape our lives long after loss; such is the power
of love and the impressions made on a human soul, shaped forever by
the most powerful relationships a life may offer. In the case of
Yaakov, and many others who have known both love and loss, the past is
not dead, in fact, it’s not even past.*

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*Paraphrasing Faulkner, of course.

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Vayishlach: Seeing the “Face of God” in Others

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Well, it’s a rare week in which a matter of Jewish law decided by a
committee of 25 Conservative rabbis gets major play on television
news, not to mention the New York Times and Time magazine. (Links
below.) In case you haven’t heard, the Committee on Jewish Law and
Standards ( a.k.a. the “Law Committee”), which is the central halachic
[Jewish law and practice] advisory body of the Conservative Movement,
this week accepted a scholarly paper [t’shuvah, or responsum] which
allows for (but does not mandate) the possibility of Conservative
rabbis and congregations adopting a more affirmative stance towards
same-sex relationships.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be heated conversations
at rabbinic gatherings and in congregational boardrooms for many
months to come, but the one question I’m sure is on the minds of many
faithful readers of Rabbineal-list is : OK, there’s a big controversy,
but what does this have to do with this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because as my teacher Rabbi Artson taught
me, and I’ve taught to many in his name, one of the greatest things
about being Jewish is that whatever the issue at hand is, there is
something to be learned from the weekly Torah portion- it always works
that way! First, let’s catch up from last week: Our ancestor Yaakov is
on his way back to the land of Canaan after years away, and he is
bringing a large camp of women, children and animals with him. He
spends the night alone before meeting his estranged brother Esav, and
then, in a dramatic scene the next day, apparently reconciles with
him. Yaakov presents Esav with many animals as a gift, and humbles
himself before the older brother he has not seen in many years. At
first, Esav refuses to accept these gifts, saying he “has enough,” but
Yaakov persists:

“But Yaakov said, ‘No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor,
accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face
of God, and you have received me favorably.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 33:10)

Commentators disagree about Yaakov’s meaning here- did he mean that he
is humbled before Esav as one would be before God, or did he mean to
imply obliquely that he, Yaakov, has seen the face of God in a vision
(thus suggesting he is under Divine protection) which might cause Esav
to think twice about any plan of revenge? A simpler explanation is
that Yaakov is saying that just as one does not enter a sacred space
to meet God empty-handed, he does not wish to meet his brother
empty-handed.

All of these are plausible readings, but our Conservative Etz Hayim
commentary suggests another way to understand Yaakov’s reference to
“seeing the the face of God.” Etz Hayim suggests that Yaakov is not
trying to tell his brother to back off, but rather informing his Esav
that because he, Yaakov, has seen the face of God, he is no longer the
same Yaakov who stole Esav’s blessing so many years, but one who has
learned that even his estranged brother is made in the Image of God
and is thus worthy of respect and the opportunity for reconciliation.

It’s important to note that the Torah portrays Yaakov and Esav as
struggling with each other even in the womb- they are almost
paradigmatic rivals. While it’s certainly possible that Yaakov was
merely trying to flatter Esav by saying “to see your face is like
seeing the face of God,” I feel a real humility in Yaakov’s words, a
sense that the long struggle has reached a turning point. Even though
Yaakov and Esav do not ultimately live together, they do achieve a
certain detente- which is a great improvement over plans to deceive or
kill one another!

Returning to the news of the day, I see the Conservative movement
turning from a place of struggle between competing factions (liberal
vs. conservative, progressive vs. traditional, etc.) to a new phase in
our journey together. The challenge now is to see, as Yaakov did, the
face of God even in those from whom we are estranged. There are those
in our organizations and synagogues who are outraged that the Law
Committee endorsed a perspective they understand as contrary to Torah,
and there are those who are furious that the Committee didn’t go far
enough in enacting policies of inclusion and progressive change.

Not only that, but as gay men and women become more visible in our
communities, some will struggle to see the face of God in them- may
they be blessed to do so. On the other hand, those of us who see this
week’s decision as a long-awaited step in the right direction must be
reminded that those who disagree are also our brothers and sisters,
equally passionate about Jewish ethics, community, and values, equally
endowed with the Divine Image.

“To see your face is like seeing the face of God”- to know the sacred
humanity of others is to be unable to hate, and may be even the first
step along the journey towards loving one’s neighbor as oneself- which
is, after all, one of the great principles of the Torah, no matter the
issue that may temporarily divide us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- before we get to our usual Torah portion links, here’s a
smattering of news and opinion on this week’s Law Committee decision.
The first link is to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which has a
special section of news and op-eds in the top right corner:

http://jta.org/

The Jewish Forward:

http://www.forward.com/articles/conservative-panel-votes-to-permit-gay-rabbis/

New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/07/us/07jews.html?em&ex=1165640400&en=ff825115d4e\
83c4a&ei=5087%0A

Time Magazine:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1567109,00.html

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