I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:
“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)
and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.
But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!
In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies. In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.
In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.
In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.
So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of men, but it is the deeds of women that set this great saga in motion.
Yesterday I moved into my new home. Last night, the skies over the Bay Area opened and it has been raining ever since. Last night I got the kitchen set to rights and was contented, today I am watching the gutters overflow and am looking for someone to help.
Life is like that. You get things all tidy and — oops! — something else happens. When I was young, I found that very frustrating. Now that I am older, I know that it’s just how it goes. Now that I am older, I know to be grateful it’s something as simple as the gutters.
There is a Jewish voice who speaks to this phenomenon. His name is Kohelet, the voice of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and he’s the original Grumpy Old Guy. According to tradition, he was King Solomon in his old age. According to those sources, in youth, King Solomon wrote Song of Songs, the great erotic love poem of the Bible. In his prime, he wrote the book of Proverbs, a repository of wisdom. But in old age, he wrote Ecclesiastes, saying, “All is vanity.”
At the end of the book, after looking at all the kinds of pleasure life has to offer, and all the problems life has to offer, he concludes:
Not only was Kohelet wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
— Ecclesiastes 12: 8-14
There are some things in life that are clearly good, or clearly bad, but for many things, we won’t really know until it all plays out. There’s an old Jewish story in which a man gets a horse for free, and he crowed, “Good luck!” Then his son broke his leg riding it, and he cried, “Bad luck!” Then the Russian Army came through drafting all the young men, but they didn’t take the man’s son because he had a bad leg — but the man would no longer declare something “good luck” or “bad luck” because the truth is, it’s often hard to tell.
May your gutters run freely, may your feet stay dry, and may all of us learn to reserve judgment until we have all the facts!
A rabbi was setting up her home, to make it more suitable for feeding people and welcoming them. She went on the internet and ordered a table and chairs for the patio. Then she called the local appliance company and talked to them about a washing machine. There had been a washing machine in this house before, and everything seemed all set up for a standard size machine. Then she waited.
The first delivery man arrived, with the table and chairs. He got them off his truck, and dumped them on the front walk. The rabbi began to open the boxes to check for damage. He made a comment about suspicious women. Then he stuck his clipboard at her and said, “Sign here.” The rabbi felt a little nervous about this guy, who seemed angry about something, so she didn’t ask if he could help her get the boxes inside.
The rabbi wondered how she was going to get the furniture into the house. She figured she would call friends. She felt annoyed, but shook it off.
The second delivery man arrived, with the washing machine. He came into the house and looked where we would put the machine, and he frowned. “I think there may be a little problem,” he said, “Machines are bigger than they used to be.” He fished out his tape measure and sure enough, the machine he had delivered was not going to fit.
“Oh no!” said the rabbi. “I am so sorry you made this trip for nothing!”
“We will measure to make sure the next one fits,” he said, very kindly, and so he did. Then he said, “I need to take photos, so that my bosses will know that I really measured.”
The rabbi felt badly that his bosses did not trust his word, but she was very happy. The delivery man could have left her feeling stupid or angry, but instead he taught her the secret of allowing 4 inches for the hose, which she had not known. She called the appliance company to order a smaller machine, and to tell them that Mr. Diego was a great delivery man.
I have no idea what was going on with the gentlemen who delivered things to my house this week. I just know that one of them left me feeling nervous and annoyed, and the other left me feeling good, even though he was the one who delivered a disappointment.
They reminded me of the power we all have in even the most trivial encounters. We create worlds with our words, just as in the Creation story of Genesis 1. The first delivery man created a world that seemed dangerous and unfriendly. I have no idea what was going on with him, but I knew I didn’t want to ask for any favors, and I definitely didn’t want to invite him into my home. The second guy had totally the opposite effect: he came to bring a washer, but ultimately had to deliver bad news, but he did it with such kind words that I was glad our paths had crossed. The “world” he created with his words was a world in which he had the power to treat me well, and so I responded by calling his company to tell them he’s a great guy. This was a world in which people have the power to do the right thing.
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!”