Friday, November 19, 2010

More Jacob

This is the D'var Torah I'm planning to deliver tonight at Temple Beit Torah. Enjoy!

This week, the Jacob saga continues. Our patriarch, on his way back to Canaan after years of exile with his wives, concubines, children and considerable wealth, is still afraid of his brother, Esau. He divides his entourage into three camps in case Esau attacks; that way he'll have a remnant with which to start over.

In the night before Jacob's meeting with Esau, he wrestles with an angel all night. Another dream? But no, this time it is apparently seen as an actual, physical encounter. As the sun is rising, the angel blesses Jacob and re-names him Israel, meaning he-will-strive-with-G-d.

Despite Jacob/Israel's fears, Esau awaits with a loving reception...sort of. Outwardly it's an encounter one would expect between two long-separated brothers, but the Rabbis clearly felt some ambivalence about the undercurrents of the meeting. And Israel clearly feels it, as he tells his brother of his plan to settle in another part of the Land, far away from the flocks and pens of his brother who has also become quite wealthy in the years of their separation.

Israel clearly does not fully trust his brother. But he understands he must make an attempt to reconcile with him if they're to live in the same country. So he sends a delegation ahead with gifts and warm greetings, and he physically approaches his brother without an accompanying war party.

Jacob is caught in the broad nether-land between fully trusting and fully distrusting. And we, likewise often find our relations with others falling into that extensive ground.

It is dangerous to trust others completely. How many of us can relate to having been 'burned' after lending a considerable sum of money to a relative or a close friend or associate? Who among us had an unfortunate experience after co-signing a loan? Has anybody ever let someone stay in their house and returned to find something missing or broken? And these are just examples of PERSONAL trust that was returned with bad-will.

What about relations between groups, for example the different groups with which we find we must forge alliances in order to improve life in our country, in our world? I'll give you an example that comes immediately to mind, from my recent experience that some of you here tonight experienced with me. As you know, I recently invited a representative of the Muslim community to come and teach us something about Islam. Since it is alleged that Americans in general are very ignorant of Islam and likely to fear it and its adherents out of that ignorance, does it not follow that we should be willing to sit and learn something from a representative of that community? Very hearteningly, a number of you showed up to listen and learn respectfully.

The presentation by Mr. Yousufi was supposed to be in the framework of a series of discreet events that would ultimately, hopefully lead to some form of dialogue and fellowship between members of his community and this one. We hadn't worked out the details, but we had discussed the process to some degree. And an agreement that we made immediately in our discussion - it was Yousufi's suggestion, but in offering it he could have been reading my mind - was that we should leave the Arab-Israeli dispute out of the structure of the dialogue. Yousufi expressed that it would could not be anything other than a point of contention, conspiring to spoil any good efforts we might be making. From my standpoint, it is irrelevant to the notion that we are two minority groups in American life that actually have quite a bit in common. Few of you find that the large part of your Jewish consciousness resides in the conflicts of the Middle East, and my assumption was that for most members of the local Muslim community that would also hold true. Perhaps, but clearly not for Mr. Yousufi.

Despite our agreement, Yousufi chose to use his audience with us to lecture us about the sins of Israel. Some of you responded quite vigorously,as I would expect you to. But most importantly, an excellent opportunity for further dialogue and mutual support between our two communities vanished, at least for the immediate future. And that's unfortunate.

I trusted Mr. Yousufi, but in truth I didn't stick my neck TOO far out, and that minimized the damage. To be honest, in proceeding with the 'baby steps' toward dialogue I was very much thinking about Israel's caution in approaching his brother, as chronicled in this week's Torah portion. If one aught to hold one's brother, Esau,at arm's length after a bitter conflict,how much more so one's distant cousin, Ishmael? Approach,trust as much as necessary to open a dialogue, and be ready to either open up more-or withdraw, depending on the other side's behavior. Or to put it as we did when I worked in intelligence: In G-d we trust...all other we monitor.

As I've said on so many occasions that I know I sound like a broken record - for those who remember what a record is! - The Torah, whatever the process that resulted in our having it in its existing form, is an endless repository of some of the most sublime wisdom known to humanity. The lesson we learn from Israel this week is just one example.

Shabbat shalom!

Monday, November 15, 2010

What We Learn from Jacob

I love the patriarchal narratives found in the book of Genesis, and in particular I find the chapters featuring the stories of Jacob and Esau, and Jacob's his sons riveting. Why? Because these biblical actors are so incredibly ordinary, regular people with foibles like your and mine. And in their ordinariness, they can teach us so much about life - important lessons to help us live together understand and respect one another. Often, when I hear of the disfunctionalities of peoples' family lives, I am reminded of the very issues faced, and in many cases overcome by, our patriarchal families.

For example, the issue of sibling rivalry pops up time and again. We're taught that the twins Jacob and Esau fought for dominance even in their mother's womb, distressing Rebecca to the point where she asked G-d to take her life. When it was time for their birth, Jacob tried to hold Esau back so that he could be born first. No, I don't think we're supposed to take this account literally; I think it serves to set-up the story of the deep rivalry between the brothers and Jacob's desire to supplant Esau as the favored one.

After the twins' birth, each parent developed a preference for one of the boys. we read that Isaac favored Esau, the hunter, 'because the taste of game was in his mouth.' Translation: Esau was developing into the 'manly man' that Isaac, who lived in the shadow of his powerful father, never became. On the other hand, Rebecca favored the outwardly mild, thoughtful and clever Jacob.

When they were young, Jacob manages to wrest the Firstborn Rights from his brother; coming out of the field famished after a day of hunting, Esau smells a delicious lentil stew that Jacob is cooking, requests some, and Jacob agrees but demands the Birthright in return. Esau, declaring 'what good is a Birthright if I'm going to die,' accepts the trade. Some readers would criticize Jacob for the uneven exchange, but my reaction is to be critical of Esau. The truth is that he wasn't dying, he was just hungry and so focused on his bodily needs that he couldn't think clearly. He spurned the Birthright by letting it go so easily, for a bowl of stew.

More condemnatory of Jacob is the later incident where the blind and dying Isaac asks Esau to go hunt a deer and fix the venison stew that he loves, so that after eating and sating himself Isaac can give his final blessing to his firstborn son. Rebecca, wanting the blessing to go to Jacob, colludes with the younger twin to get Isaac to unintentionally give the blessing to Jacob instead. This enrages Esau (with more than a little justification) to the point where Rebecca sends Jacob fleeing for his life. But clever and thoughtful Jacob learns an important lesson from the adversity; after a strange dream while resting during his flight, he realizes that G-d is there with him, to comfort and protect him through his travail. Jacob declares famously, 'G-d was in this place, and I - I did not know it.'

Returning after years of exile with his two wives and two concubines, Jacob still fears his brother's wrath. he approaches cautiously and is skeptical when Esau receives him with apparent welcome and forgiveness. We read this account in this week's Torah portion,Vayishlach. having received a blessing from what appears to be an angel of G-d on the morning of his re-entry to Canaan, Jacob realizes that he will have to remain alive in order to realize the blessing; out of his caution, he holds his brother at arm's length and moves his family into a region where Esau has not established himself.

Jacob's growth to maturity, his learning important lessons from the adversities he faces, sets the stage for similar life lessons by his son, Joseph. But that's a subject for another essay. For now, I certainly recommend the Jacob narratives as presenting important life lessons even for us, in the 21st century of the common era. Enjoy!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Postlude to the Elections

I’m as interested in politics as most of the people I know because the results of the struggles for political control of our society, after all, directly affect our lives as individuals and as members of a society. Having said that, I’m not what one might call an ‘activist.’ Unlike many of my colleagues (in the rabbinate and in Christian ministry) I try to avoid making politics a part of my pulpit persona. Believe me, on the rare occasion when I transgress his principle I usually hear about it from someone in the congregation. But here, on my weblog, I feel freer to address subjects one might call ‘political.’ Although I do not aspire to be a pundit or a political analyst, I am particularly interested in the nexus of politics and values as I’ve expressed her a number of times.

So, what is my take on the mid-term elections of this week? What is the lesson from the (some would say, spectacular) gains the Republicans made in the US House of Representatives, as well as many governorships and state legislatures across the country? How about the Republicans’ failing to make significant gains in the US Senate? Again, I’m not a skilled political analyst, but here goes…

President Obama, in his press conference on Wednesday, explained the ‘shellacking’ (his word) that his party took by acknowledging that the economy hasn’t yet rebounded significantly enough since his election to improve people’s lives; the people took out their frustration on the ruling party. Of course there’s truth to that, but if the President really thinks that’s the only reason for the turn of events then he’s sadly mistaken.

The American people are largely frustrated by the way that government has been operating in the last two years. While President Obama has lived up to a number of his campaign promises (but not all) with regard to policy agenda, he has completely ignored his promises as to how his government would operate.

The openness and accountability that Obama promised, never materialized. Much of the electorate has watched the way that Obama’s White House and the congress controlled by his party (but particularly, the House of Representatives) has operated and been dismayed. Even many of those who agreed with a particular part of the legislative agenda (say, the health care reform initiative) were shocked by the tactics used to pass it, and by the lack of openness in revealing the contents of the legislation. Very emblematic of what was wrong with the process was Speaker of the House Pelosi’s declaration (concerning the health care bill), “We have to pass the bill, so you can find out what’s in it.” Most of the folks I know, wondered if Speaker Pelosi even knew what was in it. And then there was the President’s declaration (offered when concerns were raised over the congress’ intent to use ‘reconciliation’ to pass the health bill) that “the American people aren’t interested in process, only in results.” I have to say that I cared about the process, and most people I know expressed similar concern.

So we’re frustrated over the stubbornness of the economy, but that’s not all. Voters expressed their frustration by voting to significantly change the balance of power in the House. But why not the Senate?

Again, I’m not the ├╝ber-pundit, but it seems that the Republican candidates who failed to unseat Democrats in the races so many were watching carefully (e.g., Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada) did not engender trust in the voters. They were seen as too extreme, too inexperienced, or too flaky. Perhaps the electorate simply voted on the principle ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know.’

Perhaps, the mixed result of the election, points to the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the American voter; even when frustrated and wanting to send a clear message to those in power, they were not about to vote for those they considered unqualified. That’s the message I got, anyway. It gives me cause for optimism about the future of our country.