Vayishlach: Pain & Confusion

Image: The sciatic nerve, which is where Jacob was injured. (Lightspring/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Vayishlach “and he sent” is the name of this week’s Torah portion, a portion full of pain and confusion. It is so chock full of things to write about that I almost failed to write about any of them.

I can’t touch Dinah’s story this week. I don’t have enough emotional armor right now, so I’m not going there. Instead, I will point you to a sermon by one of my teachers and to a brilliant new book on the subject, The Story of Dinah: Rape and Rape Myth in Jewish Tradition by Gavi S. Ruit, with a forward from another of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Tamara Eskenazi. The sermon is available free online. The book is expensive: convince your synagogue library that they need it, or petition the library for it, because it is worth it.

The first line of Parashat Vayishlach seems straightforward: Jacob has been humbled by his suffering at the hand of the trickster Laban (and Laban’s daughters, Jacob’s wives.) He realizes that he is ready to make peace with his brother Esau. So he sends messengers – melachim – to his brother in hope that they can negotiate a peace and Jacob can return home.

The messengers return from the task, and report that Esau himself is on his way with 400 men. Numbers in the Bible mean all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all, but according to my Hebrew grammar instructor in Jerusalem, Yossi Lechem, “400 men” is code for “an enormous army coming to beat the daylights out of you.” Jacob panics and divides his caravan in two camps, then approaches Esau alone, camping for the night by the river. There he is accosted by and wrestles with ish, a man.

The Hebrew words in this parashah are fascinating and somewhat obfuscating. Melachim can mean either messenger or angel. Ish usually means “man” but in this passage may mean “angel” and possibly is a euphemism for “God.” Ish also appears in the phrase arba’ah ish imo, “400 men with him.”

Bottom line: this is a setup for a comedy or tragedy of mistaken identity. Which shadowy figure is God? A man? An enemy? An angel? And after all these years, who is Jacob?

I remember reading this passage when I was still very new at Hebrew, and I found it bewildering. I got something along these lines just from verse 4:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃

Jacob sent angels into the face of Esau his brother, in the Land of Seir, in the country of Edom…

Genesis 32:4, (a very) alternative translation

And frankly, while it is not a great translation (wheredid Jacob get the power to command angels?) it speaks to the mystery, the confusion, and the high stakes of this passage. Jacob has a relationship with the land in Canaan, and he believes his destiny to be tied to it. The land is in the possession of Esau, his twin who became his enemy because Jacob cheated him repeatedly. The only way Jacob can go home to this critical bit of real estate is by making up with Esau.

Then, as if things were not complicated enough, another ish appears by the bank of the river after Jacob is alone and vulnerable. This ish, all alone, beats him in a wrestling match, and gives him a permanent injury to his sciatic nerve (ow!) He also gives Jacob a new name: Israel.

The name is a new translation problem. The usual translation is something like this one from sefaria.org:

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

I’m more inclined to translate ki-sarita “Because you have persisted” and va-tukhol “and you have proven yourself able.” Thus:

Said [the ish], “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have persisted with deities and human beings, and have proven yourself able.”

Genesis 32:29 (alternative translation)

As I read it, Jacob hasn’t prevailed over much of anyone. He was cheated by Laban. His beloved, Rachel, participated in her father’s scheme. His first wife Leah knows that he doesn’t love her as much as he loves Rachel, and so his household is full of strife. His brother is apparently coming to kill him, and a mystery figure by the river has maimed him for life. The come-from-behind scrapper, the “supplanter” Jacob is now Israel: a fighter, not necessarily a winner, but a fighter.

As I write this, in December of 2019, we are living in a very confusing time. The Jewish community has been divided into two camps, pro- and anti-Trump. It is hard to tell the angels from the messengers. It is impossible to see where it is all going, but right now the Jewish community feels wounded by a resurgence in anti-Semitism worldwide and especially in the United States. Our synagogues are vandalized; our schools and other institutions are under threat.

But Jacob is still Israel: he’s a fighter. He may be terribly wounded, his house may be divided, but he never gives up. He persists.

May we each do our best to live lives of Torah. May we seek out the best in one another and ourselves. May we not be so impaired by our wounds that we give up the fight. May we not be in so much pain that we confuse friends and enemies. We are Israel, and we do not give up. We persist.

A Psalm for the Depressed

Image: A man holds his head in his hands. (Gerd Altmann /Pixabay)

Dear God. Dear. God. Hear my cry!

Like the Hebrews in the hand of Pharaoh, I am locked into the depths of a depression. I know it is an illness. I have sought treatment, and I am following directions as well as I can.

The words of Psalm 6 speak to me and to all the sufferers:

O God, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

Have mercy on me, O God, for I languish; heal me, O God, for my bones shake with terror.

My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, God —O, how long!

O God, turn! Rescue me! Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness.

For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears.

Psalm 6:2-8

This is billed as “a Psalm of David” – wow. The great warrior king of Israel seems to understand depression very well. I’ve never particularly liked King David, but now I feel a kinship to him.

Then at the end, David reminds me that there is a road out of this awful emotional place:

Away from me, all you evildoers, for God heeds the sound of my weeping!

Psalm 6:9

Away from me, all you evildoers! Away, the voices that clamor in my head! Away the memories of cruel words said, away! Away, self-loathing! Away, shame! Away, away, away!

David reminds me that Someone is listening to my cry, and his psalm closes with hope:

God heeds my plea, God accepts my prayer.

All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalm 6: 10-11

Who or what is God in this psalm? My guess is that David was as unsure as any of us when he wrote this. He was sitting at the bottom of life’s bucket 3000 years ago, and he wrote this little psalm, one of the shortest out of the 150 that we have.

God isn’t the point of this psalm, even if God is the addressee. David – the warrior king, the poet, the sweet singer of Israel – wrote this letter to every sufferer who hides under the covers, or cries in the parking lot.

This psalm is a postcard of consolation. He is saying, I was there too, right where you are now. I survived it. You will survive this too.

If you have sought out this article because you are depressed, remember that you are not alone. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Chat by clicking on the link. You can call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You do not need to be suicidal to seek out those resources – they are available 24 hours a day to assist you. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Resources Helpline can help you locate other assistance, and it is available 24 hours a day – just click the link to get to the info page.

We are not alone.

Toldot: The Best They Could

Image: Two men arm wrestle for cash. (Ryan McGuire / Pixabay)

Poor Rebecca: she is beloved of her husband Isaac but her kids fight something awful.

It started even in the womb:

The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD, and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

Genesis 25: 22-23

The phrase “If so, why do I exist?” always catches my heart. What does it mean?

?אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי

Genesis 25:22

Rashi says that what she means is, “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I want to become pregnant?” But that is not what she said in this week’s Torah portion.

She feels the children inside her, and she exclaims, “If so, why do I exist?” She questions the whole meaning of her existence as she feels the children “crushing” each other (v’yitro’tzatzu.) The verb means more than “struggle” – it means “crushing” – a battle for absolute dominance. They are trying to kill each other, she feels, and they are not yet even born! Even as they are born, they are fighting, with Jacob trying to pull his older brother back into the womb so that he can be born first.

Rebecca is aware from pregnancy that her sons dislike each other intensely. At the very beginning of their lives, Rebecca cries out, ” If so, why do I exist?” – “If these two hate each other, what is the point of my life?”

One of the developmental tasks of being a parent is the understanding that the child is a separate person. For biological mothers, it is very easy to understand: that baby came out of my body, they were once a part of me, I fed them from my body, I am biologically linked to them by hormones and similarities in our DNA. So how come this kid is doing something I would never do – like try to “crush” his sibling, whom I also love?

Why do parents exist? We human beings are slow developers. Children need care for years after birth, to find food and shelter, to survive predators, to learn the things one needs to learn in order to survive. Children need adults to nurture them, to sacrifice for them, to take sometimes unreasonable risks for them, because otherwise the species would not survive.

We do this for our children, who will always be separate people from us, people who will make different choices than we might have made. Rebecca is feeling the division between the two sons, and it is agony because she still identifies strongly with both.

Ultimately she and Isaac deal with their sons’ mutual animosity by each choosing a favorite child: Isaac preferred Esau, and Rebecca preferred Jacob. Patriarchy and primogeniture set them up for disaster: Isaac identified with the older son, who would presumably inherit everything of worth. Rebecca identified with the underdog, who was much like her: clever and willing to manipulate people and situations for benefit.

This may have been the best they could do. The combative twins are a contrast to their peace-loving parents. Isaac seems to be a mild gentleman, content to stay near home and cultivate his fields and flocks. Instead of waging war on neighbors, he negotiates. He walks in the fields in the evenings to pray. Rebecca is known for her kindness to animals, and her tender care of Isaac. And yet these two peaceniks beget the battling twins, Esau and Jacob! They must have felt completely outgunned by their children.

One of the wonders of the book of Genesis is how bluntly our patriarchs and matriarchs are portrayed in all their fallibility. These are not idealized pictures of saintlike ancestors. Instead, they are real people, who have children they don’t understand.

In my darker moments as a parent, I have thought a lot about Isaac and Rebecca. They wanted to be good parents. I am sure they did the best they could.

How To Plan Your Jewish Wedding

Image: Two wedding rings. (Pixabay)

Congratulations! You have found the love of your life, and you are looking forward to a wedding!

What’s the first thing to do?

Share the news with family and friends, of course! And they will immediately begin planning your wedding: where you should have it, when you should have it, who might be the caterer, the florist, the planner, and so forth and so on.

Stop!

That is all fine and good, but for a Jewish wedding, the first thing on your to-do list should be the rabbi or cantor who will officiate.

Why?

  • Because rabbis and cantors have busy schedules and cannot be in two places at once.
  • Because rabbi and cantor calendars get booked up long before “wedding season.”
  • Because there are dates in the Jewish calendar when most rabbis do not perform weddings. (Why would anyone want to get married on Yom Kippur? I don’t know, but I know rabbis who have gotten that request.)
  • Because the rabbi or cantor may have advice or requirements about things like the ketubah and the rings.
  • Because rabbis and cantors can help you plan the wedding service and support you in dealing with family issues.
  • Because many rabbis and cantors can provide premarital counseling, which is different from therapy – an opportunity to learn about your beloved, and for them to learn about you.
  • Because rabbis and cantors are professionals, trained to assist you in making your wedding day a sacred day.

Once you’ve got the rabbi or cantor, then you will have the date. Then you can call the caterer, and the florist, the wedding planner, the venue, the ketubah artist, Aunt Mildred, the dressmaker…

Even if you are planning a very simple wedding, your officiant is the place to start!

Don’t have a rabbi or cantor? Check out the directory at InterfaithFamily.com. They can help you find a qualified officiant.

When is Chanukah 2019?

Image: A chanukiah, or menorah, with only three candles lit.

Chanukah 2019 will begin at sundown on December 22, 2019, and it will conclude at sundown December 30.

For more about the holiday check out How to Chanukah, which has links to many resources.

A Letter to Mr. Khruchchev: Remembering President Kennedy

Image: JFK and Nikita Khruchchev in 1961. Public Domain.

It’s 56 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. I remember it vividly, even though I was a very small girl then.

Writing a different blog post for this day some years ago, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination. It struck me as having a special resonance today, after a week of impeachment hearings and memories of impeachment hearings past. It strikes me that while we are not as worried about nuclear war as we were back then, that we are in a war of words here in the United States. This war of words and of versions of the truth threatens the fabric of our democracy. Mrs. Kennedy’s words still stand: It is possible to be allied in pursuit of peace even when we are on different sides.

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The Introvert from Egypt

Image: A green game piece stands apart and separated from a group of red game pieces. (tillburmann /Pixabay)

Yesterday, I wrote about the question of the introvert in community by asking a number of friends how they handle it. Today, I thought I’d share the fact that I’m very much in sympathy with the student who asked the question, because I am myself an introvert, and suggest some insights that have helped me.

  • The more structure there is to a community event, the less it stresses the introvert in me. Attending services, I am there with others, I participate. In the service itself, once I learned how to participate, I could be completely present but also quite comfortable, sure of each interaction. After the service, then there’s the oneg, which is something else altogether.
  • The more UNstructured the event, the more it stresses the introvert in me. The oneg after services is a prime example. People are there, some I know, some I don’t, and some who look familiar but I am not sure. At first I am afraid that no one will talk to me. Then, when someone approaches, I’m worried about improvising in a conversation. My go-to when I feel completely at sea is to look for someone else who is standing alone. I walk over to them and introduce myself.

Strategies for settling into a community:

  • At first, concentrate on structured events: going to services, classes, funerals, shiva houses. Usually these events have someone leading, and all we have to do as participants is find a seat and be there. Cultivate some very small talk for before and after: “Hello. My name is…”– “The music was beautiful, wasn’t it?”– “This topic is fascinating! What draws you to it?” — “How did you know the departed?” — and once you can get the other person talking, just listen.
  • Having a task to perform lessens the stress. In the service, if all you feel comfortable doing is saying “Amen” at the appropriate times, say it with gusto. In adult ed classes, strive to look interested (the teacher will love you for it.) And at funerals and shiva houses, remember that your simple presence is the mitzvah; if you are there, and say little or nothing, it’s ok because you were THERE. You don’t have to talk at any of these high-structure events, except possibly for some classes. At the scarier, low-structure events, I do what I mentioned above at onegs: I seek out another wallflower and say hello. Then, even if we don’t sustain much of a conversation, at least neither of us is standing alone.
  • Eventually, try some less structured events: join a committee at synagogue, volunteer to help with an event. Here, again, having a task will help with the stress. In a committee, you can ask for a partner to help you do anything you want to volunteer for but feel unsure about: “Could I have a partner for this?” If you go to an event and there is clean-up afterwards, stick around to help with that. I have made lifelong friends that way.
  • Finally, remember that when God finished creation, God said, “It is very good.” You are a good person, introversion and all. Take time for yourself to recharge.

If you engage with community in small steps, the day will come when you walk into the oneg after services and it is no longer a wilderness of strangers. The day will come when you will gladly wave to friends and then, because you remember being a stranger, you will tear yourself away from friends to seek out the newcomers and the people who are standing alone.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19