Vayeshev: Power Embalance

Image: 3 strands of barbed wire, 2 hands climbing up. (geralt/pixabay)

Tamar was desperate. Her security and status were dependent on her ability to produce an heir for Er, the son of Judah, grandson of Jacob. Er had died, and so it fell to his nearest brother, Onan, to impregnate her. Onan did not want to dilute his own inheritance, and in his greed, he used Tamar’s body but spilled his seed on the ground. God sees the evil in his greed, and puts him to death.

Not knowing the real story, Judah blamed Tamar for his sons’ deaths. He looked at his youngest, Shelah, and said, “He’s too  young to marry.” He said to Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until I send for you.” Then he did his best to forget about Tamar.

A long time passed. Tamar began to realize that she had been abandoned, and she knew that this was both wrong and unfair. She had been a faithful wife to Er, and was cruelly used by Onan, and now it was clear to her that her father-in-law had no intention of sending for her. When she heard that Judah was coming near by her father’s house for sheepshearing, she hatched a plan.

She took off her widow’s clothing, and dressed herself as a prostitute, veiling her face and putting her beauty on display. She sat at a place where she knew Judah would pass, and waited.

When Judah came, he did not recognize her under the veil.  When he propositioned her, she asked what he would pay. He promised her a kid from the flock, but she asked for collateral: “You must leave a pledge until you send it.” She asked for his seal, his cord, and his staff – the equivalent of a modern driver’s license. He had sex with her, and they each went on their ways. Later, when he tries to send the payment, she is nowhere to be found. He tells his serving man to forget about it, lest Judah become a laughingstock.

Three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law was pregnant out of wedlock. “She’s a harlot!” roared Judah. “Let her be brought to me and burned!” 

Before she faced him, she sent a message and a parcel: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” In the parcel were Judah’s seal, his cord, and his staff. Judah looked at them in horror. What had he done?

Judah said, “She is more in the right than I; I was supposed to give her my son Shelah to give her a son.”  So he acknowledged the boys (she was carrying twins) as the heirs of Er, his son. Their names were Perez and Zerah. And all agreed that God looked favorably on Tamar, since she had been given not one but two sons.

The specifics of the story are antique, but the situation is quite applicable to our world today. Tamar was a woman who had very little standing in her society. She was a widow, and she could not have financial or social security without producing an heir for her deceased husband’s family. The men had all the power: Judah was the patriarch, and the fact that he blamed her for his sons’ deaths virtually doomed her. Onan was a creep: he was willing to take sexual pleasure from Tamar, but unwilling to give her the heir she needed. 

The world hasn’t changed all that much, unfortunately. The structures and customs have changed a bit, but the abuse of women goes on: many women abused at home 1 in 4 Jewish women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Gay men and trans people are abused at similar rates.

And in the Jewish communal workplace, our synagogues and institutions, 70% of the workforce are women, but 70% of chief executives are men. During the past year, many high-profile Jewish men have been named as perpetrators of sexual harrassment, sexual assault, and similar crimes. In many cases, the community sweeps it under the rug or shrugs, because we frame it as “he said/she said” and give the man the benefit of the doubt.

It’s Judah and Onan all over again, and again, Tamar suffers.

This is why I sit on the Rabbinic Advisory Council for Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area organization which aims to end domestic violence in the Jewish community. 

And now I am going to quote Shalom Bayit to tell you about what they do:

Shalom Bayit receives calls from about 100 women each year who are in abusive relationships. These women are from every city of the Bay Area. They are professional women, poor women, highly educated women, young women, older women; moms and those without kids, well-known donors in the community. They come from every congregation, every denomination, all sexual orientations, all walks of Jewish life.

Abusive partners exert control verbally through threats, intimidation, manipulation or emotional abuse – the Hebrew expression for that is ona’at devarim (oppression by means of words) – or through physical violence, sexual coercion, financial control, isolation from family or friends — all of which trap victims into a cycle of fear.

If you are unsafe at home or at work, please seek the support you need. You are not to blame, even if, like Tamar, you have done things to survive that give you feelings of shame. 

It is a mitzvah to call for help when someone is being hurt, even when that person is you. You can call the Shalom Bayit helpline (866-SHALOM7 in the SF Bay Area, and outside the SF Bay Area (510) 845-SAFE.) You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4672. 

If you know someone whom is being abused, or whom you think might be suffering abuse, let them know that you are there for them. Do not take more power from them by telling them what to do. Just say that you know people you can call, or that they can call. Tell them that you believe them if they tell you what is being done to them.

Ending abuse is a communal responsibility. We need to heed the example of Judah, who had the courage to look at his own behavior and own it. We need to be willing to see when we have been controlling in home or work relationships, and seek help in finding new ways. We must speak out about sexism when we see it, especially in the places where people are most vulnerable: at home and in the workplace.  And we should support organizations like Shalom Bayit and RAINN that provide help for the victims of domestic and sexual violence.

This drash on Parashat Vayeshev was written with inspiration and assistance from Shalom Bayit. To learn more about Shalom Bayit, or to donate, visit their website

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.

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Meet Betzalel, the Builder

Image: The hands of a carpenter, measuring and marking a piece of wood. (wohnblogat/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a long history of respect for scholarship. We value education as avidly as any people on earth. We honor not only Torah scholarship, but other disciplines for people who work with their minds rather than their bodies: law, medicine, academia, etc.

The larger society also has its priorities. Judging by how we compensate them, it’s fair to say that secular society most values sports stars, entertainers, and the occupants of  corporate suites.

Between these two realities, sometimes we tend to see those who work with their hands as lesser. We honor them less.  We value their work less. Torah teaches us that this is a serious error.

I recently was studying Parashat Ki Tavo, and reacquainted myself with Betzalel, the builder of the Tabernacle and the Ark.

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the Tribe of Judah. I have filled him with ruach Adonai, a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in every craft, to devise works of skill to work in gold, in silver, and in brass, and in cutting stones for setting, and in carving of wood, and work in all manner of crafts. Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent. – Exodus 31: 1-7

Betzalel and Moses offer two contrasting ways of understanding Torah.

Moses is educated by God on Mount Sinai; he carries his diploma (the tablets) down the mountain. Betzalel does not have Moses’ education; rather, he intuits the design of the Mishkan and its furnishings, even though he was not on Mount Sinai.  The Talmud points out that God told Moses to build in a particular order: the Tent, the Ark, then its furnishings. (Exodus 31:7-11) Moses passes the command to Betzalel, but mixes it up, “Ark, furnishings, Tent.” (Exodus 25-26) Betzalel gently corrects him, saying, “Was it Tent, Ark, then furnishings?” (Exodus 36) And Moses exclaims, “Yes! You must have been in God’s shadow [hence the name Betzalel – b’tzal-El] to know that!” (Berakhot 55a)

Moses is like a man with a formal education and many degrees. Betzalel is a craftsman who works with his hands. Yet had they not worked together, with mutual respect, the Mishkan could not have been properly built!

Similarly, Betzalel was from the tribe of Judah, a powerful tribe descended from the matriarch Leah. God appointed Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan, to work alongside him. Dan was a much smaller tribe, descended from Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. In Exodus Rabbah 40.4, Rabbi Chanina says, “[Thus we see that] the great and the small are equal.”

Betzalel reminds us to respect all people: not only scholars, but those who work with their hands, no matter their pedigree.

The Blessing for First Times

Image: A ripe pomegranate split open on the bush. (LeeTravathan/pixabay)

There is a special blessing Jews say for first times, or first times in a long time.  The blessing is called Shehecheyanu [sheh-heh-kheh-YAH-noo.]  It’s a big word, and a very special blessing that recognizes that our lives happen in time, and that not all moments are alike.

First, the blessing itself:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

And in English:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.

We say this blessing at times of joy or pleasure, times when we are glad to be alive and to have reached this moment. We don’t say it for things that happen frequently (like Shabbat) or things that are sad (like funerals.)  Here are some examples of “shehecheyanu moments:”

  1. At the beginning of each Jewish holiday.
  2. When we taste the first fruit of a season (e.g., the first berries in springtime.)
  3. When we acquire something new and precious to us, either as a gift or a purchase.
  4. Some Jews say the blessing to mark any first time special moment.

If you want to know more details about the traditional rules, you can find them in an article on the Orthodox Union website.

Don’t forget, while it is nice to be able to say the blessings in Hebrew, it is also fine to say them in English.

Here is a You Tube video by Bim-Bam explaining the blessing and saying it aloud.

When was your most recent “shehecheyanu moment?”

 

 

Flu Vaccination is a Mitzvah

Image: Sick child in bed, looking miserable. (Shutterstock, 1621894310)

Have you had a flu vaccination this year?

You might ask, What does that have to do with Basic Judaism?

Getting a flu vaccination if we are able is a mitzvah. It is in fact one of the most urgent commandments, the one known as the preservation of life.

The flu kills. It kills little children and old people. It kills people with compromised immune systems. It kills little babies who are too young to get the vaccine, and people who are too sick to get the vaccine.

It sickens people with whom we may have had only the slightest contact, who are unlucky enough to touch a railing after we have touched it, if we are carrying the flu.

Don’t spread the flu.

The best way we can avoid spreading the flu during flu season is to do two things:

  1. Get a flu vaccination.
  2. Wash your hands often and thoroughly.

I’m getting my vaccination tomorrow. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends we get a flu shot during October, well before flu season, so that our bodies have a chance to produce protection against the flu.

The nasal spray vaccine will be available this year, according to the CDC. If needles give you the heebeejeebees, ask if it is an option for you. As for me, I’ll be getting a shot. I hate the flu, and I hate the thought of killing someone with it even more.

Please, please join me in this mitzvah, if your health permits! If your budget and/or insurance do not make allowance for it, read this article and learn where to get a FREE flu vaccination in the USA.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom – Parashat Noach

Image: Watercolor of the Noah’s Ark story, by Prawny, via Pixabay.

This week’s Torah portion is Noach. It contains two famous stories: Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel. It might be tempting to think, “Oh, I know those!” and skip right over, but it would be a bad mistake.

The great thing about Torah stories is that even though the words do not change, every year when we come back around to them, we are in a different place in our lives. When I was little, I was fascinated by the thought of all those animals: it seemed wonderful! When I was a young mother, I thought about Mrs. Noah: poor woman, all those animals and children to care for! This year, I think about the Flood itself: after a summer of weird weather, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and wildfires, it seems eerily close.

Then this past Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that describes a world of food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population. They predict the end of our world as we know it, within the lifetimes of most of the people alive today.

So take a look at these famous stories: read the parashah for yourself! Here are some writers with different points of view on the stories in Parashat Noah:

We have to stop taking the world for granted – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

It is Almost Too Late to Save Our Planet – Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Noah, the raven, and the dove – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

The Open Invitation – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Righteous In His Time – Rabbi Jordan Parr

End Violence and Stop Maelstrom Flooding – Rabbi Nina Mizrachi

The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark – Rabbi Ruth Adar

What’s Shabbat Like At Your House?

Image: Potluck Shabbat dishes ready to travel to a friend’s home. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

From time to time I sit on a beit din, a court of three rabbis that meets with a candidate to decide if they are ready for the final steps of conversion to Judaism. At the risk of giving away too much, this is one of my usual questions: “What’s Shabbat like at your house?”

This isn’t a pass/fail question. Rather, I want to encourage the about-to-be Jew to be deliberate about their Shabbat practice. Shabbat is one of the keys to a happy and full Jewish life, and I want that for every Jew!

If your answer to the question is “Gee, I dunno” let me offer you some questions that may help you think through what you want from Shabbat:

  1. If “work” is activity that drains your soul, what parts of your life feel most like work? Is there any way that you can structure your life so that you can put down that activity or thing for at least part of Shabbat?
  2. If “rest” is activity that feeds your soul, what parts of your life are truly restful? How can you bring more of that into your life during Shabbat?
  3. Do you want a richer Jewish life? Shabbat offers lots of opportunities for growing Jewishly and spiritually, from synagogue services to freeing up time to read.
  4. Does connection with other people feed your soul? Shabbat can nudge us to make time for our families and friends. It can also help us to make friends, at synagogue services and other Jewish activities. It can be a day to invite someone over or to visit (or phone) someone sick.

I am not suggesting that you do everything at once. Let’s say, you decide to get to know more people at synagogue by going to Torah study. That’s a definite addition to your Saturday morning. You will learn a little Torah, and by listening to others, you’ll get a sense of who they are. They’ll get used to you, too, without either of you having to do a song-and-dance. Give that new activity a solid chance – say, four weeks in a row – and then sit down to think about how you feel when you are doing the Shabbat routine. Better? Worse? Making new friends? Mad at the world? Then, if it isn’t working for you, try something else.

If it is working, consider adding a new wrinkle. Say, you’ve lit Shabbat candles for the past month, and you enjoyed it. Consider inviting someone over for Shabbat dinner, and give that the 4-week trial. It doesn’t have to be fancy. See how it goes.

Shabbat is the treasure of the Jewish people. It is a day for enjoyment, for learning, for sharing, for reflection, for prayer, for getting enough sleep, and for love. Shabbat is a little different in every Jewish home.

What’s Shabbat like at your house? What would you like it to be?

Be Strong and Resolute! – Vayeilech

Image:  Eight hands join over a map. (Photo: geralt/Pixabay) 

Chapter 31 of Deuteronomy is also known as Parashat Vayeilech. Moses is about to die, and he’s worried about the Israelites. He’s had 40 years of their insubordination and complaining, and while he wants to give them good advice, he’s also not at all certain that they will follow it.

The advice begins with prophecy: “You’re going to cross into the Land after I die. You’ll follow Joshua, my successor, and God will be with you. You’re going to face opposition from the residents of the land, but with God’s help you will prevail, as long as you follow instructions.”

Then the instructions: first, to the Israelites, he says:

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ  (Hizku v’imtzu!)

Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31:6

And then immediately turns to Joshua, and says to him:

חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒  (Hazak v’amatz!)

Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31: 7

This seems redundant: why say it twice? Why first to the people, and then to their leader in exactly the same words, only changed from plural to singular masculine?

I believe he does this because he knows that in future, the people and their leaders will go forward in a covenantal relationship. Joshua, and the leaders who follow after him, will have to be strong and resolute to do their jobs properly. Sometimes they will lead wisely, and sometimes they will not. But they will not be alone, because they lead in sacred relationship with the people of Israel. Moses gives the people the same charge, “Be strong and resolute” and he gives it to them first. Going forward, they will not be led like little children; they will be led by leaders who are fallible, and who may need to be reminded from time to time of their obligations under Torah.

And indeed, in the next verses, Moses entrusts the Torah to the priests, and gives them specific instructions for regular readings of the Torah to the whole people of Israel:

Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. – Deuteronomy 31:12

The Torah is not a book for specialists, or only for the leaders. It isn’t only for the men. It isn’t only for born Jews, or for rich Jews, or for insiders. It is the inheritance of ALL Jews, “men, women, and children, and the strangers in your communities.” Regular reading will insure that the People know the Torah, and can hold the leaders accountable to it.

And indeed, as the years passed, we know that sometimes the leaders were wise and their work was informed by Torah. We also know that there were times when ordinary Israelites had to call them to account. Some of those Israelites were prophets, like Nathan and Jeremiah. Some of those Israelites were women, like Michal and in the rabbinic period, Beruriah. Some converts to Judaism became leaders of the People, like Avtalyon and Shemaya (Yoma 71b) and some called the leaders to account, as well.

The long path of Jewish history is a partnership between leaders and ordinary Jews. I see it particularly in the history of the Reform Movement, when early leaders such as Samuel Holdheim would have an idea (“Would it be a good idea to move Shabbat to Sunday?” and the Jew in the Pew would say, “Absolutely not!” There was nothing in the tradition to support a move to Sunday, and while having a different Sabbath than Christians was inconvenient, it was not impossible. Today, all Reform congregations celebrate Shabbat from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, just as do other Jewish congregations.

Jews and their leaders need to talk to one another, and we need to listen to each other, too. We have to make our arguments “for the sake of heaven,” (Avot 5:17) that is, for the greater good, not for our own aggrandizement. Questions, even questioning authority, are good as long as they seek the truth.

These discussions are not easy. It is not easy for leaders to listen, because it’s simpler if they don’t have to listen. It can be hard for an ordinary person to speak up, fearing they’ll sound stupid or that they’ll be ignored.

That’s why the text says “Be strong and resolute” twice. We need to be strong and resolute partners to solve problems and to move forward. We need to be strong enough to listen, resolute enough to speak up, and to act. That’s the only way we will solve the problems in this world, whether they are large global issues or small local problems: in partnerships.

Let us pray for partners in peace, partners in discussion, partners in the struggle for truth in this world! Let us pray that when we meet a potential partner, we have the wisdom and grace to recognize them as such.