Shabbat Shalom! – Vayetzei

This week’s Torah portion is Vayetzei, “And he left.” Jacob leaves his ancestral home in a hurry, fleeing the rage and despair of his brother Esau. In last week’s portion, he tricked his twin Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. In this portion, he will learn what it is like to be tricked out of something rightfully his.

Jacob’s uncle Laban is a tricky fellow, too, and Jacob will suffer at his hands in this portion. Readers often gloss over the degree to which the sisters who will become Jacob’s wives are complicit in Laban’s deception. Leah knew that Jacob expected to marry Rachel, but when her father substituted her for her sister under the wedding veils, she went along. Rachel said nothing either. Thus Jacob, who wore animal skins to deceive his father, was himself deceived in his wedding bed by the women he married!

A hagiography is a piece of writing that makes its subjects seem to be saints. Torah is often the opposite of a hagiography. The writer(s) tell us stories about the family of Abraham that most families would bury and never tell.

This week’s interpreters:

The Mouth of the Well by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Rachel and Leah Show Us a Thing or Two by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Regarding a Ladder by Rabbi Jordan Parr

The Power of Persuasion by Rabbi Rafi Mollot

A Midshipman’s Torah: Dealing with Dishonesty by Rabbi Nina Mizrahi

As Only God Knows by Rabbi Marc Katz

Communication for Good or Bad by Miriam Jaffe

Vayetzei: A Broken Family

Image: A pile of stones. Photo by Mathias_Beckmann/Pixabay.

Towards the end of Parashat Vayetzei, after the drama between Jacob and Laban has played itself out, we find an account of a treaty between the two men.

They don’t like one another. Each believes himself to have been cheated by the other. Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah, then got seven more years of labor from him to earn the hand of Rachel. Then Jacob, angry at his father-in-law, used trickery to enrich himself by means of Laban’s flocks. Laban resents it, believing Jacob’s wealth is stolen from his pocket.

Both men see themselves as the victim of a cheating scoundrel.

Finally, Jacob sneaks away with his wives, his household, and his flocks, and Laban follows in hot pursuit. He whines that Jacob crept away secretly, robbing him even of a chance to say goodbye to his daughters, even robbing him of his household gods.

Jacob roars back at Laban, and the twenty years of resentment pour out of him. And then, just at the moment we expect the two men to come to blows, Laban points out that like it or not, they are family: Laban’s daughters are Jacob’s wives. They have more in common than their grudges.

“Come, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.” (Gen 32:44) Jacob sets up a pillar, and they make a pile of stones and share a meal. And in a telling detail, they call the place by two different names, words that mean the same thing, one in Aramaic and one in Hebrew. As alike as Laban and Jacob are in many ways, ultimately they do not understand one another at all.

Sometimes, when families or individuals cannot get along, peace looks like a boundary line, respected by both, though they cannot understand one another at all.

A Prayer for Social Media

Image: Hands typing on laptop. Mug saying “Keep calm.” Photo by Pexels/Pixabay.

Some people use social media to torment others. Some use it to deceive others. Some use it to manipulate. And there’s no denying that it is useful for all those evil ends.

However, I believe that social media has great potential for good. It can be a way to reach out to others, to support others, to connect with others. It has changed the world several times already. It can help people band together to tell the truth and to do good deeds.

Words create worlds. 

One of the traditional prayers that closes the Amidah reached out to seize me this morning as a prayer for my use of social media:

  1. My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.
  2. Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.
  3. Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.
  4. As for all who think evil of me, cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes.
  5. Act for your own sake, for the sake of your Power,
  6. for the sake of Your Holiness, for the sake of Your Torah;
  7. So that Your loved ones may be rescued, save with Your power.
  8. And answer me. – Mishkan Tefilah, p 180.

On the surface, this prayer may seem to say, “Dear God, please help me be a doormat.” That is not what it says. Bear with me, and let’s look deeper.

“My God” – This prayer is directed at God. If that’s problematic for you, try substituting, “My best self” or “Reaching beyond myself.” This is a prayer about reaching beyond what comes naturally to us.

Line 1 – I want my speech to serve good, not evil. I will be truthful.

Line 2 – I will strive to be active, not reactive. I will stay centered.

Line 3 – Centeredness doesn’t come easily, but I have experienced it through my study of Torah, and I will continue to study. Mitzvot (sacred duties) guide me along that path; I will continue to practice them at this keyboard.

Line 4 – There are people online and in the world who dislike me and who behave badly towards me and towards others. They make me angry and I want them to stop it. (I’m putting this politely. Feel free to insert stronger language as works for you.)

Line 5 – 6  I recognize that I am only one person, with one point of view. I don’t really know what is best for everyone. However I want the best for everyone. So I hope that God, or a Higher Power, or the Good will prevail over me if I’m not right in a particular case.

Line 7 – This is serious stuff. People are suffering, or will suffer. I desperately want there to be less suffering.

Line 8 – I stand up and say this to God and to the Universe: I want action!

This is a prayer about knowing exactly my place in the scheme of things, understanding what I am and am not capable of knowing and doing. It’s a prayer for the kind of humility that can make things happen. It’s a prayer for being the kind of person I want to be, including a reminder to myself that I am not always right, but that I hope for the best.

I say a prayer like this not because I think God is magic and if I say prayers, things will magically happen. I say a prayer like this to remind me of the person I want to be, the person who is centered in Torah and doing good in the world. It’s easy to lose track of that goal unless I remind myself regularly with prayer.

Words are important. They are powerful. They can build dreams, or they can destroy a life. I pray for humility and care in my use of words, today and always, so that I may do good and not evil.

 

 

Respect Without Prejudice

Image:  On Friday, December 2, a fire engulfed a warehouse in Oakland, California leaving more than 30 people dead. Among the deceased were Cash Askew, 22, Em Bohlka, 33, and Feral Pines, 29 – all of whom were transgender.  Photo credit: NBC News, via GLAAD.

Imagine that someone you loved died in a terrible disaster. (If you really do this, it will hurt. but try.) Imagine then that the media accounts of that person’s death mangled their name and gave the wrong gender.

Just stay with that for a moment. Adds insult to injury, doesn’t it?

 

Yesterday, GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) issued a call to the media to get its act together and treat the dead with respect.  Every person has a right to their name. (Do we really have to debate that?) Every person has a right to have their gender reported accurately. (Again, imagine that a news story reported that you were a gender you are not.)

Transgender people are not that different than you and me. I had to get glasses before I could focus six inches beyond my nose. No one comes up to me and rips my glasses off my face shrieking, “Fake! You are really blind, you should act blind!” No, polite people let me wear my glasses, and they do not comment upon my glasses or act as if my glasses are some sort of freak show. My glasses are a minor part of my identity. But no, I was not born with glasses and I cannot “pass” as someone with 20/20 vision.

The GLAAD press release outlines some rules for the media which are also good general rules for talking to and about trans individuals:

  1. Follow the lead of the person (every person, trans or not) in using pronouns and gender identifiers. If you don’t know or are confused, ask, “What pronouns do you prefer?” No further investigations are necessary or appropriate.
  2. Call people by the name they prefer. President Jimmy Carter wanted to be called Jimmy, and way back in the seventies, we didn’t have trouble adjusting. I know people with horrible names their parents gave them, and they prefer to go by a different name. Some make a legal change, some don’t, but the custom is to call them what they want to be called. Trans folks deserve the same respect.
  3. When there is conflicting information, go with the individual’s wishes. I knew a woman who was divorced, and for her children, she chose to keep her married name. Her father didn’t like it; he kept calling her bank and other places and telling them she was using her maiden name again. When she went to the bank and said, no, THIS is my name, everyone agreed that her father was misbehaving and they used the name she preferred.
  4. Questions about “legal name” and anatomy are not appropriate unless there are actual legal reasons to ask them. (OK, this wasn’t in the GLAAD release, but I’m teaching about social behavior.) If a random person came up to you and asked you questions about your genitalia, you would likely be too shocked to speak. This happens to trans folks all the time, and they feel the same way any of us would. When someone comes up to me and introduces themselves as “Debbie” it would be rude for me to say, “But is that the name on your birth certificate?”  Add to this the sad fact that for some transgender individuals, they’d like to have a legal name change or some sort of medical intervention but they cannot afford it. Then those “curious” questions are really shaming questions about money as well as gender.

Jewish tradition is very firm on the idea of respect for persons and respect for the dead:

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood. – Bava Metzia 58b

Respect for the dead informs every aspect of Jewish funeral arrangements. We guard the modesty of a dead body, not even looking on it unnecessarily. (That’s why you will never see an open casket at a Jewish funeral.) We don’t embalm the dead unless it is required by law, because it is disrespectful, and so on.

Respect the living and the dead. This is not complicated unless our prejudices make it so.

How Israelis see the American Presidential Election

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing a shofar. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Blank, all rights reserved.

Rabbi Stacey Blank serves as the rabbi of the Reform/Progressive Kehilat Tzur Hadassah, outside of Jerusalem. I found her take on the election really interesting, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

 

RabbiStaceyBlank's Blog

I have been asked over the past month, “How are Israelis reacting to the results of the presidential elections in the US?”  So, after enough people have asked, I figured that it might be worthwhile to put out my analysis from my little corner of Jerusalem.

First of all, I will disclose that I voted absentee for Hillary Clinton.  I was very excited for the possibility of a woman president and I thought she was a well-qualified candidate.  I share many of her stated social values, and I believe that she sincerely cares deeply for the American people and has dedicated her professional life to improving people’s lives through public policy.  She is someone who has vast experience in national government and could have used that to navigate the presidency.  And I do appreciate an American government who nudges Israel to not forget about always trying to make peace, even…

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It’s “Just Business,” Right?

Image: A man fastening his tie. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

In the film The Godfather there’s a very famous line, spoken by Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

Michael Corleone is in the process of becoming a criminal, and the “business” to which he refers is a crime. I wonder sometimes if the people who say “It’s strictly business” about their own dealings realize that they are quoting a criminal.

Usually when a person uses the phrase, they are implying that if something is business, then the usual moral laws don’t apply. Perhaps the action in question is technically legal, or a loophole is found that can make it fall outside the purview of the civil law. And so they say, “It’s just business,” meaning, “Don’t bother me with that morality stuff – that’s for sissies.” Or simply: “It doesn’t matter. It’s just business.”

However, that’s not how Jewish tradition approaches business at all. In the Talmud, behavior in business is seen as so telling of a person’s character that it is the first question God asks at the Seat of Judgment:

When a man is brought before the [heavenly] court he is asked:  “Were you trustworthy in business?” – Shabbat 31a

An enormous block of the Talmud is taken up with business behavior, and it is the topic of a significant chunk of the medieval codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulkhan Aruch) as well. There are mitzvot having to do with weights and measures, with accounts payable and receivable, with payroll, and a myriad other aspects of business life.

Sometimes these mitzvot are remarkably similar to what an MBA would recognize as “Business Ethics” and sometimes not. That’s the reason that the second question at the Seat of Judgment is “Did you set a time for Torah study?” We are not born knowing how to live a life of Torah; we have to study with other Jews and struggle with the texts and the tradition.

The news is full of “just business” that might qualify as Torah transgressions: waste and destruction of natural resources, misleading claims, and dangerous workplaces, to name just a few. I am sure that the people responsible for companies that indulge in such practices tell themselves that they are doing it to stay competitive, that such moral qualms are a luxury they can’t afford.

Torah teaches us that everything we do matters. It matters if we deal fairly with others. It matters what we do with the natural world. It matters when a landlord doesn’t maintain their building. It matters when an employee’s children go to bed hungry. It matters when I pay a few dollars less in taxes and a bridge falls down.

It. All. Matters.

Torah is challenging. Torah is expensive (ask anyone who keeps kosher.) Torah is almost always the harder way of doing things. But at the end of a life of Torah, we can look back and see ways in which the world is a bit better for our having lived in it.

And that is what matters, isn’t it?

The Ghost Ship Fire

Image: A woman grieving, black and white. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

The first I knew about it was when my phone rang by my bed. It was my ex-father-in-law and still dear family, Jim Scott, asking if I’d heard from “the boys.” My sons are in their 30’s, but to some folks they’ll always be “the boys.” No, I hadn’t… why?

Friday night there was a terrible fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. I had heard about it on the radio before I went to sleep, described as a “warehouse fire.” I hadn’t thought much about it. By morning the building was being described as an artist collective, and there had been a party there, then a fire with many, many casualties.

“I am sure they weren’t there,” I said, on automatic pilot. “I’ll get back to you.” I phoned the elder son, the artist, and he was slow to answer (not a morning person – but neither am I.) He works in an artist collective, but in another part of town, and my mama-instinct told me he hadn’t been there, but we needed to hear his voice. He answered, thank God.  I ascertained that he was alive, and told him to call his granddad immediately.

I texted his brother the musician, and yes, he was fine. I told him to get in touch with Granddad. Then I began thinking about all the mothers and grandfathers and friends everywhere hearing about that fire. I looked on Twitter for news.

People, when something like this happens, remember that survivors and friends are combing social media and the news, hoping for information. Out of human decency, please DON’T:

ANALYZE the situation based on little information, and PLACE BLAME.

BLAME the victims for being foolish. (The things I saw used ruder words.)

MAKE JOKES. (I can’t believe I need to say that.)

SPEAK HATEFULLY about groups to whom the victims might (or might not) belong (in this case, African Americans, Californians, liberals, Oaklanders.)

MAKE GHOULISH SPECULATIONS (Again, can’t believe I have to say that.)

As I write, on Sunday afternoon, they are still searching for bodies in the ashes. So far, all my sons’ friends are accounted for, but as Aaron said to me, friends of friends died in that fire. This was close to home.

Think carefully before posting anything but sympathy in the wake of a tragedy. Please. It is a mitzvah to comfort mourners, but surely it is one of the worst of sins to torture them.

brothers

This is a photo of my sons that I took about a year ago. Good guys, both of them.

Update, 12/4/16, 7:34pm, PST: At this writing 33 bodies have been recovered from the scene, and 7 of them identified. I know of two people whose families and friends await news; I hope I don’t learn of more. 

Update 12/6/16, 3:46 pm, PST: 36 bodies have been recovered, and 90% of the building has been searched. The Oakland Fire Dept does not expect to find more bodies. I know of one family who expects bad news; they are still waiting for identification of the remains. I know that this is no longer fresh news, but keep in mind that families are still waiting for identifications, no funerals have yet taken place, and the criminal investigations are just beginning. California Governor Jerry Brown set an example for all of us when he declined to speculate on causes this morning.