I forgot to post yesterday. So much for the great resolution. But I shall get back on the horse and ride, even if the horse feels dead at the moment.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yetze, we read the story of Jacob and Laban, a story of a man and his horrific relationship with his father-in-law. Jacob and Laban spent all their time and energy circling one another, trying to get an advantage or get even after the other had taken advantage. Their foolishness would haunt the family for generations.
Laban had two daughters, one beautiful, one with “weak eyes.” Jacob wanted the pretty one. Laban (and his daughters) deceived Jacob and married him to Leah, the one he didn’t want. So he wound up working another seven years for the wife he wanted. Jacob, who had tricked his brother out of his birthright in the last Torah portion, was now the victim of a cleverer trickster. He got even by breeding Laban’s sheep and goats in such a way that he profited from the deal. Meanwhile his two wives had a fertility competition, dragging in concubines and competing to see who bore the most sons. It is no surprise that those sons grew up to be a contentious lot.
Why on earth do we keep this stuff as holy Scripture? Perhaps it is to teach us that all of life has the potential for holiness, even the messiest, most unholy bits of it. The God of Israel insisted on seeing potential in a bunch of people who seem more suited to The Jerry Springer Show.
So yes, it’s been a rocky day at Chez Coffee Shop Rabbi. I’m tired and dirty and can’t think what to type. But I refuse to give up on my potential, because if God could see potential in scheming Jacob and his two fussing sister wives, then maybe there’s hope for me.
Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph. He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.
Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead. Instead:
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21
It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.
People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.
Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.
It is taught: Rabbi Eliezer the great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in thirty six places – and some say, in forty six places – concerning the stranger? Because humanity tends towards evil. Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’? – Bava Metzia 59b
Over and over, the Torah repeats to us a commandment concerning the stranger, that we will not mistreat the stranger, that we will be kind to the stranger, that we will in fact love the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (“the great”), a first century rabbi, one of the greatest rabbinic minds in our history, commented upon it. He said that this commandment is repeated so often and in so many ways “because humanity tends towards evil.”
We tend towards evil especially where strangers, people not like ourselves, are concerned. The drive for survival wired our ancestors’ brains to think automatically in terms of “friend” and “enemy.” If someone is strange looking, he might be dangerous. “Better get her, before she gets me,” thinks the deepest parts of my brain, the parts that trained in scary places in the distant past, and less distant places, like high school and the business world.
Torah calls us beyond the programming we inherited from our ancient forbears. It seems awfully risky to adopt “love” as our default approach. Our impulse to hate the stranger is embedded deep in the brain, so that it is intuitive to strike out at someone we see as a threat. It is surprising that the Torah commands it, but so it does, again and again and again.
On Aug 21, 2013, we were witnesses to a remarkable example of the wisdom of this Torah lesson. A young man walked into the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Center in a suburb of Atlanta armed with assault weaponry and over 500 rounds of ammunition. One of the women he took hostage surely saw him as a stranger: he was white, she was black, he was armed, she was not, he felt he had nothing to lose, she feared for her life. And yet Antoinette Tuff looked at Michael Brandon Hill and she was able to see a human being, and to speak with him and to listen to him as a human being. And because she did that, no one died that day.
If you have not listened to the recording of their conversation made by the 911 operator, I recommend it. You can listen to it here: http://youtu.be/1kVpipSXRKA
I cannot imagine a higher-pressure situation than Ms. Tuff faced. But she chose to see Mr. Hill as a human being. She listened to him. She spoke to him from her heart. She did not talk down to him. Over the conversation: as he revealed the troubles that had led him to this very bad decision, she listened to him without judgment. “We all go through something in life.” She offered to walk out with him, to give himself up to the police.
She said, “We not going to hate you, baby.”
I don’t know that I could be that calm in the face of such a situation or could speak with such kindness to a man with a gun. But I do know that’s what it sounds like to love a stranger.
What are we ordinary people to take from this? Perhaps the next time we see a stranger, we could observe our impulse to hate and fear that person, and then choose something different. Perhaps we could choose love, and in doing so, choose life.
During the three weeks before Tisha B’Av, Jews read the three Haftarot of Affliction warning us about the penalties for ignoring our responsibilities as Jews. Those readings are a bracing antidote to fusses over fine details of liturgy or who-slighted-whom in the High Holy Day honors. A little taste from the first chapter of Isaiah:
Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
According to Isaiah, unless we care about those who suffer, and we do something about poverty and injustice, we have missed the point of Torah.
John Scalzi at the Whatever blog points to an interesting article that includes a calculator for the cost of raising a family in several major metro areas in the U.S. and compares it to the official federal poverty line, which is currently $23,550 for a family of four. The same article points out that a single adult with a full time minimum wage job will make $15,080. To sum up, in my own neighborhood:
Cost for a family of four to live in the SF Bay Area with a minimum level of security: $84,133.
Federal poverty line for that same family: $23,550.
Minimum wage job, 1 adult: $15, 080. Even with 2 adults working: $30,160.
Contemplate those figures for a few minutes.
In my own personal circle of acquaintance, I know of several folks who lost jobs during the Great Recession and who have not managed to find work again above the minimum wage level. Most are middle-aged adults who have responsibility for teenaged children and/or aging parents. They are not stupid people, nor are they lazy people. They are unlucky people in fields where employers would prefer to fill positions with younger employees who don’t have as much experience and therefore cost less.
I know of another person who worked at a job she loved for many years. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made a lot of money, but she saved what she could. However, she could not afford disability insurance, and when her knees and back gave out (it was a physical job) she, too, was middle-aged and uninteresting to employers. She’s been tangled in the red tape of public assistance for months, and I am worried that she will become homeless.
I know way too many young people for whom college wasn’t an option, because they had no wealthy relatives and they have a healthy fear of the crippling debt that a college education requires of such people these days, even for a state college. The ones who went to college are in a different pickle: they are mostly underemployed and drowning in debt. See, they had to work summers to pay for college (even with the debt) and wealthier peers spent that time at unpaid internship jobs. A resume with a well-chosen internship on it trumps one with none – so the poorer student cannot compete.
Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
I’m focusing here on the personal economic misery among people I know, but the cost to us all is staggering. The great boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s was fueled by a large educated workforce in the United States. Now no one but the wealthy can afford to go to school. (If you are grumping about “part time jobs” and “scholarships” you have not sent anyone to college lately.)
Back in 590 BCE, Isaiah preached that if Israel did not take care of her poor, disaster would result. God was fed up with the fancy ritual that substituted for the Torah virtues of hesed [lovingkindness] and tzedakah [relief of the suffering.]
I do not have the eloquence of Isaiah, but if Tisha B’Av has any meaning for us today, it is that we neglect the care of the poor at our peril. When we focus so tightly on the Temple edifice, we fail to hear the voice of the speaker in Lamentations, the scroll we will read this Tuesday: he does not wail at length about the loss of that edifice. He weeps for the suffering that he has seen, the destruction and waste of a great city.
This Tisha B’Av, whether you fast or not, let us consider what we personally are going to do about the suffering all around us. Have we given as much tzedakah as we can to the agencies that relieve suffering? Have we explained to our elected officials that we are not going to vote for them again unless they can manage to get something done? have we organized with others on behalf of those who suffer? Have we done everything in our power to see to it that every neighbor can go to sleep at night feeling “minimally secure?”
Jeremiah and Isaiah are crystal clear that our fast does not matter, is in fact offensive, if we are not doing something to right the wrongs around us. Nor do I think that we get points for indignation, unless we are actually Doing Something.
Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of mourning, but if it is only that, then we are trapped in the past, a dead religion.
Torah is more than a museum piece. This Tisha B’Av, let us arise, let us say, “Torah is alive, it lives in each of us, and there is work to be done!”
“Which Bible is best, Rabbi?” That’s usually how the question is phrased. Rather than talk about which is “best,” let me give you a quick lesson on which Bible is which, and you can decide for yourself.
The JEWISH BIBLE is different from the Christian Bible. The obvious difference is that there is no New Testament. Then if you compare tables of contents, you will also see that the two are arranged differently and that many Christian Bibles have more books, even after you take away the NT. Those books were included in an early translation of the Jewish Bible, but were not included when the Jewish Bible was finally set at 24 books in roughly the 2nd century of the common era.
For Jewish study and prayer, I strongly recommend a Jewish Bible. It will be easier to use with the group, if only because the books will be in the same order and have the same names. The Jewish Bible is often called the TANAKH. That is an acronym of the words Torah [Teaching], Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the three divisions of the Bible.
Unless you read Hebrew, you will read the Bible in TRANSLATION. The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. No translation is perfect; every translation reflects choices by the translator. If you want a really good idea of what the text says, you will have to learn Hebrew. Next best thing is to check a couple of different translations when you are wondering about translation. Here are some of the most common ones:
New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPS or NJV) – This is the translation you will encounter in most liberal (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) synagogues. It was begun in 1955 and completed in 1984.
The Living Torah (1981). A user-friendly but still scholarly translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox Rabbi. It is noted for its detailed index, footnotes, and cross-references.
Koren Jerusalem Bible – This is the first Israeli translation of the Bible into English. (It should not be confused with the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which is a completely different thing.) The Koren Bible is distinctive in that proper nouns, names and places are transliterated and not Anglicized.
Art Scroll Tanach – Mesorah Publishing issued the Art Scroll Tanach in 1993. The English translation is amended with explanations from Rashi and other commentators. It is a less literal but more traditional interpretation of the text.
There are also some notable modern translations of Torah (1st five books of the Bible) and a few more books:
Everett Fox – This is possibly the most literal translation of the words in the Torah. To stay close to the Hebrew, Fox sometimes mangles the English. It can be a useful aid but I would not want this to be the only copy of the Torah in my possession.
Robert Alter – Alter’s translation, like Fox’s, hews close to the Hebrew, but with a more poetic ear.
If I had to answer the question above with a single title, I would say, “the Hebrew Bible.” (Then we could argue about which manuscripts, but I know that’s not what you mean.) If you are looking for a good Jewish translation of the Bible, each of the titles above have its advantages and disadvantages. My advice is, get yourself a Bible, whichever one appeals to you, and then do your best to wear it out. The best Bible is the one you actually read.
At the beginning of Numbers chapter 12 we have a famous story. Aaron and Miriam gossip about Moses. God calls all three – Moses, Aaron and Miriam – to the Tent of Meeting and makes it clear that Aaron and Miriam are out of line. When the Presence of God departs, they see that Miriam is covered with scales. She has been stricken with tzara’at disease: her skin has turned white and is flaking everywhere. As such she must be banished to live outside the camp until the disease clears, if it clears.
Aaron is overcome with guilt and speaks to Moses as if his brother were God himself: “Master, please do not hold this sin against us: we were foolish, and we sinned. Let her not be left like this!” Moses turns to God, and voices a simple prayer, El na rafah na la – “Please, God, please heal her.” God answers that she will have the tzara’at for seven days and may then return to camp.
Often when we tell this story we focus on the part where Moses prays and God responds to the prayer. Many of us pray this same prayer for our loved ones who are sick. Indeed, it is part of Jewish tradition to pray for the sick.
However, the story as written is not a story about miraculous cures. Aaron, who has seen Moses “work miracles” many times, turns to Moses for magic: “Please, Master, let her not be left like this!” Moses does not stop to argue with Aaron about magic or miracles. He turns away from Aaron, to God, and prays for his sister, “Please, God, please heal her.”
God’s answer is not the answer either brother wants. Miriam will not be healed immediately; her illness will run its course. What God gives them is some relief from uncertainty: eventually she will be able to return to the camp.
When we pray for healing for our loved ones, we may feel like Aaron, panicked and wishing for a magic cure. Or we may be like Moses, hoping for God to work a miracle. Usually, though, as with Moses, our prayers are not answered with miracles. Disease runs its normal course and chronic illness is chronic. The refuah shleimah (“complete healing”) we pray for is perhaps more properly translated “a restoration to wholeness.” Prayers for the sick are not magic. What they can do is turn our hearts to the sick people in our community so that they are not stuck indefinitely “outside the camp,” isolated and ill. Sometimes a refuah shleimah means a cure, and sometimes it means something more subtle but no less miraculous: an arrival at a place of peace with circumstance and life.
May all those who are suffering in body or spirit find a true healing, a state of wholeness, and may we all reach out to them with love and shalom.
For the past couple of years, a group of us have celebrated Shavuot by “Tweeting #Torah to the Top.” We’re on Twitter (you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi) and in the hours before Shavuot, we tweet divrei Torah [words of Torah] to try to get to the top of the “trending” [most Tweeted] list. Every year, I’ve had fun, I’ve met some terrific Jews, and enjoyed a symbolic celebration of this least-celebrated festival.
If you are wondering how to do it, see what my esteemed colleague Rabbi Mark Hurwitz has to say:
——————– I have been exploring how to use Twitter and Facebook as tools for Jewish community organizing. We know that these social media were central to the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in Egypt. How might we use them to raise consciousness among the Jewish people around the world?
Beginning in 2009 Reconstructionist rabbi Shai Gluskin organized an attempt to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot, using Twitter. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):
Are you in? A 49th day of omer prep for Shavuot #Torah fest. Goal: get many tweeting Torah and see #Torah trend in top 10 the whole day.
Each year, those who participated enjoyed a great day of learning, sharing, and meeting. Jews (and others) all over the world, from various walks of life and “flavors” of Jewish life, tweeted what they thought were valuable and important thoughts of Torah. Nonetheless, we have never been able to get “#Torah” to “trend”. Is it because, however broadly defined, “#Torah” is simply not of interest to the vast majority of Jewish tweeters?
What can we do to make #Torah go viral? Are there tools that those of us committed to this effort are missing? I open the question up to this forum for discussion and invite you all to join our project.