Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vayishlach: Jacob's History, My History, Your History, Delivered 12/6/2014

This past week, I read an article by Dr. Heather Miller-Rubens, the Catholic scholar at the Institute of Christian & Jewish Studies (ICJS), on the subjective nature of history.  The article has come across my desk – or more accurately, my laptop -- as part of the reading assignments for this fall’s Clergy Forum, an on-going study opportunity for clergy that ICJS offers.  The Clergy Forum always tackles interesting and challenging topics in order to foster intentful while respective dialogue between Jews and Christians.  This year, they have expanded their mission to include Islam in the conversation with the welcoming of their first Muslim scholar into the conversation.
This fall Forum’s focus is the Middle East, specifically on what we Jews call the matzav, the “situation” or “condition,” a singular word that in Hebrew conveys the weight of the conflict between Israelis, Palestinians, and the neighboring countries that share borders with Israel. 
I have always found this word, matzav, to be an interesting idiom for this complicated, emotionally laden, and often violent, “situation.”  The use of such a common, ordinary word to describe it is telling of how Israelis have come to accept This Situation as the normal state of affairs.
But, I digress.  Dr. Miller - Ruben’s article is required reading for our forum because it reminds us to question the truth of the histories to which we hold on so tightly.   We, Jews, need this reminder when it comes to Israel.  A central challenge to the situation, the matav, in Israel is the differing narratives that exist and a lack of cross-cultural respect and validation for those narratives.  As I discussed on Erev Yom Kippur this year, our – the Jewish - understanding of Israel and how it came to be is not the only truth, it may not even be the best truth.  It is one truth, but our story alone isn’t the full history.  There are other peoples who have equally powerful and compelling narratives regarding this sliver of geography that sits between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan, and it is thoughtless and irresponsible of us to dismiss those narratives and the people who hold tightly to them.    Of course, Ferguson, Missouri is a stark reminder that we Americans, too, fail miserably in validating the narrative of the other.
Which leaves us with a challenge: how do we honor our own story, one that carries immense power and truth for us without invalidating the story of another human being who shares in the broader history of humanity?
Perhaps, Jacob’s wrestling match can inform us.  The assumed, the popular, understanding of this match that takes place in our Shabbat portion is that Jacob wrestles with a representative of God and prevails.  And for this gallant effort, he receives, in addition to a bum hip, a new name, Israel, that serves to forge his identity as a patriarch of the Jewish people.   But, is that how it happened on the shores of the Jabok?  One of my favorite things about studying Jewish commentary on Torah is that here we are comfortable with many truths.  The Rabbinic method, at least the aggadic, the story telling, tradition, opens the text to many different understandings, to differing truths.
Louis Ginzburg, for instance, culling a number of earlier midrashim offers a different perspective than the most commonly expressed.  His midrashic narrative views Jacob as being subject to bullying, if you will, from God’s angels, who, lead by Michael, ganged up upon him.  In this telling, Jacob doesn’t prevail against God; rather, God saves Jacob by assisting him in prevailing against these angels that were going rogue.  Scolding one of those angels for harming Jacob, God is clear, “You are my priest in heaven, but Jacob is my priest on earth.”  This rendering brings a very different nuance to our history.  Instead of Jacob earning his name for his physicality and his ability to vanquish even a Divine messenger from on high, his new name reflects his valued status and his meriting protection in his role as patriarch.
The Torah text itself provides little in the way of detail.   Jacob is left alone after sending his family ahead.  He wrestled an “ish” until dawn, and when this “ish” didn’t win, he did something to Jacob’s hip.   It is the word “ish” that leaves this history open to various understandings.   The peshat, the plainest meaning of the word ish is man.  But, biblically ish can also denote a distinguished person, someone of rank or a position of public office.  It is not, on its own, a word typically used to refer to God, and it is rarely left without further clarification.   
As I expect I’ve shared previously from this bema, I like to think that Jacob was wrestling with his own demons.   I imagine him faced with a bout of insomnia on this eve before he reunites with his estranged brother.   What must have been going through his mind?  After agreeing to go along with his mom’s plan in tricking his father, did he feel as though he deserved the wealth and power he had accumulated?  Perhaps he was struggling with the reality of his life choices: were his really any better than his brother’s?  Did he ever treat his brother with respect, or was the lentil incident just an episode of normal sibling rivalry?  He and his brother came from the same place, yet their histories diverged in two dramatically different directions.  Was that Jacob’s doing? Is he in part responsible for their estrangement, or Esau’s being shut out of the Israelite line?  
I imagine that Jacob tossed and turned on these questions so fiercely throughout the night that he bruised his own hip on the stone filled ground upon which he tried to sleep and later dedicates.  “Oh my God,” Jacob uttered, “I have survived this tumultuous night.”  But, he did so with renewed clarity, strengthened and ready to cross the Jabok in order to reconcile with his brother before shouldering the responsibility of Israel.   
Jacob’s internal wrestling should inspire us to wrestle with our own assumptions about what we consider true about our history.  Those experiences that are most significant, most formative to us, may have led to very different, and quite possibly detrimental, consequences for others.   We can’t undo the past, but like Jacob, we can work to come to terms with the multiplicity of narratives present in any history so that we can move forward.   It is incumbent upon us to consider historical narratives besides our own if we are ever to achieve honest and mutual respect and understanding.   Whether it’s Israel, Ferguson, or even Plymouth Rock, we must remember that our story isn’t the only significant story.  It certainly isn’t the only truth.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tolodot: The Important of Isaac's Story. The Importance of our Story. Delivered, 11/22/14

This past week, our Rabbi Emeritus, in his eulogy honoring the life of Ruth Lederer, invited us to consider which phrases stand out as most important in Torah.   As he noted, there are quite a few good choices, some that might come immediately to mind are: the Shema, a text which tradition asks us to keep at hand and recite twice daily.  We certainly recite it on Shabbat; Bereshit bara Elohim, those first words of Torah which started it all; Anochi Adonai Elohecha, God’s identifying Godself at Sinai and those famous Ten Utterances that followed.  Rabbi Buchdahl had other examples of choice words from Torah, but his point, and what he so beautifully (and so appropriate to Ruth) expressed was that rarely, if ever, do we think of  יצחק תלדות אלה (Eleh toldot Yitzchak), “these are the generations of Isaac” as one of the more memorable sound bytes of Torah.  Perhaps, we should.
Eleh toldot Yitzchak.  Literally, “these are the generations, or this is the line, of Isaac.”  But, where are the generations?  Seriously, let’s look at the text we are about to read (Gen. 27:19ff): “These are the generations, or this is the line, of Isaac son of Abraham.  Abraham begot Isaac.”  That’s it.  No other begots.  The text immediately proceeds not to a genealogical list descending from Isaac but rather to tell us that, “When Isaac was 40 years old he married Rebecca.” From that point, the focus is on Rebecca’s pregnancy and the birth of their twins.
 So, where are the generations?  Arguably, after such an announcement, “These are the generations…,” we would expect a genealogical list, specifically in this case, a list of those who descend from Isaac.  But, instead, we are only told about Abraham’s lineage:  Abraham begot Isaac.  A pointed redundancy since Isaac has just been identified as Abe’s son.  In the paragraph preceding the start of this week’s portion, we are reminded of the other half of Abraham’s line, that of Ishmael, but there we are given a list of Ishmael’s descendants.  So, where is Isaac’s list?  Why does Torah not list Isaac progeny, Jacob and Esau, similarly? 
One way to understand the text is to imagine that somewhere in the editing process of the Torah, Isaac’s short genealogical list got cut out.   More likely, the word toldot had a more nuanced meaning in its ancient rendering.  Instead of “these are the generations, or this is the line of,” a more appropriate translation of eleh toldot here, and one suggested by our creation story told earlier in Genesis (“Eleh toldot hashamayim v’haaretz b’hibaram” – this is the story of the creation of heaven and earth [Gen 2:4]), so too,  Eleh toldot Yitzchak,  “this is the story of Isaac.”
This is the story of Isaac.  Now this makes much more sense.  The text highlights that particularly in Isaac’s case, he is more than just a passing link in the chain of tradition.
Though the text will move quickly on to discuss Isaac’s sons, Eleh toldot Yitzchak, reminds us that he is central to their story.  We don’t often think much about Isaac.  He easily gets lost, or as I characterized a couple of weeks ago when discussing the Akeidah, he gets silenced not only by Torah, but by the arc of Jewish literary tradition.  Even the midrash elaborates on his father and his kids far more than on him.  The Midrash reminds us that his father smashes idols and exemplifies devotion to a singular God.  Jacob is characterized as eager to leave the womb when his mother passes a place of study whereas Esau pushes to get out when passing a pagan temple.  Another midrash regarding Isaac’s sons notes that the Hebrew word for twins used here in the text is missing its silent letters, a grammatical form labeled “defective,” to indicate that only one of the twins is righteous.
There is plenty our tradition says about Isaac’s dad and his boys born to him and his wife Rebecca.  But, what about Isaac?  Isaac remains quiet, yet Eleh toldot Yitzchak his presence is vital not only to his immediate family but to the line of the Israelite nation.  Isaac is presented as the one who rebuilds and preserves.  We read this week of his re-digging the wells that his father dug that had then been filled in by the Phillistines. And, he renames them, not with his own names but with the same names his father used.  This effort is arguably one of the most important insights we have into Isaac’s character.  He isn’t an innovator, but he is a consolidator who enshrines tradition and ensures the continuity of his father’s legacy.  He is clearly characterized here as the vital link of tradition between Abraham, his father, and Jacob, his son.
  Eleh toldot Yitzchak, Isaac’s story is important.  Even though the author didn’t give Isaac much of a voice, even much of a characterization, eleh toldot Yitachak, he understood the value of Isaac’s life and underscores Isaac’s contribution to Israelite history, to our history.
Isaac is so often painted as the unsuspecting victim.  Not only in the Akeidah, but here in this week’s portion when his sons, with their mom’s help, trick their father out of his blessing for the first born.  Perhaps, Isaac isn’t so unsuspecting.  An insightful midrash, one I believe included in the Plaut commentary, asks us to imagine Isaac as knowing exactly who his sons are by their choice of words during that famous incident of trickery.  He doesn’t need to see them.  He knows his children.  He knows how they speak, and he recognizes Jacob by his immediate reference to God.  Why doesn’t he speak up and put a stop to the game?  Perhaps because Isaac understands his own story more than we generally give him credit for.  He understands that his role is that of preserving this covenant laid out by God.  A God that he knows Jacob recognizes and Esau ignores.  Isn’t it better for him to let Esau believe he was tricked out of blessing then for him to know it was never intended for him in the first place? That he wasn’t God’s chosen one?  Indeed, a difficult question for any parent to answer.  

Eleh toldot Yitzchak.  This indeed is the story of Isaac.