A Blessing for Becoming (like Esau)

maxresdefaultReading this week’s Torah portion Toldot, this year, my heart goes out to Esau.

His father Isaac senses that death is near, so he sends Esau out hunting so he can prepare some game and receive his father’s innermost blessing. When he arrives at Isaac’s knee, he discovers that Isaac has given that blessing already to Jacob. “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” asks Esau.

And Isaac replies, “But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?”

Esau says to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!” and weeps aloud. The commentator known as the Radak embellishes Esau’s words: “can you not even grant me a blessing concerning any aspect of life which you have not given him?”

Isaac blesses him to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. “By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother,” Isaac continues, “but when you grow restive you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

Isaac is limited by his own zero-sum thinking and his preoccupation with the idea that one of his sons has to come out on top. Having blessed Jacob to rule over his brother, now he seems at a loss for what to say to Esau.

Jewish tradition invites us to identify with Jacob, who will eventually be renamed Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God — the name that inheres in our peoplehood. But I invite us tonight to identify with Esau. Feel what it’s like to be the older brother who ought, by all rights, to inherit land, blessing, good fortune. The brother who did all the right things, and now learns that he faces servitude rather than promise. When we inhabit Esau’s place, rather than Jacob’s, how does Isaac’s blessing make us feel?

It’s easy to see Isaac’s blessing to his older son as a kind of back-handed slap. “You’ll live by the sword, and your brother will dominate you until you overthrow him.” But I think we can find more in it if we try.

The first part of Isaac’s blessing is the same for both of his sons. Isaac blesses both of his sons with the dew of heaven, which our tradition understands as a symbol of grace. Torah too is compared to dew. Dew is the sustaining abundance that arises even in the desert, and grace is everyone’s birthright even when we’re in tough spiritual places. We too can receive Isaac’s blessing of dew: sustenance and nourishment for our tender places, kindness and wisdom to balm our sorrows and uplift our hearts.

The next part of Isaac’s blessing has to do with living by the sword. The Radak says this is the part of the blessing that is most exclusively Esau’s. We can understand it as the blessing of strength and prowess, the ability to defend oneself. At times when we may feel anxious about those who seek power over us — whether in our families, or our workplaces, or the public sphere — we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing of skilled and ready self-defense.

And finally, Isaac’s blessing offers the certainty that the day will come when Esau will serve no longer. His future may contain servitude to his brother, but that servitude will not last forever. This may be the most important part of Isaac’s blessing, because it contains the seeds of hope. At times when we feel subjugated or mistreated, we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing that things will get better. Isaac’s blessing reminds Esau (and us) that the tight places in life are temporary and will pass.

We all have times when we feel like Esau. Cheated and mistreated, in tight straits through no fault of our own. We all know what it’s like to be dealt a hand of cards that is not the one we had hoped for. To receive something that may not feel like a blessing: a bad diagnosis, or a door that closes, or a relationship that ends. In those moments we may feel like Esau, who came to his father seeking a sweet blessing and received a bitter one instead.

But even bitter blessings have the capacity to open us up to abundance. And developing the skill of learning to find the abundance concealed within the disappointment, the silver lining concealed within the raincloud, the gifts concealed within the blessing of the thing we didn’t ask for and didn’t want, can serve us well when times are hard — and even more so when times are sweet.

My prayer for each of us is this: When the rains don’t come, may there be dew, sustenance that nourishes even when our surroundings are spiritually dried-up. When we are in tight straits, may adversity help us hone our strength and our skills.

And when others act as though they have power over us, may we take comfort in the knowledge that our calling is to serve not those who claim dominance, but rather the Source of All. May we take comfort in knowing that we were not put on this earth to be diminished, but to be nourished and to grow until we can break the shackles of injustice. May we take comfort in knowing that even (or especially) when the night seems dark, we can have faith in the coming of the dawn.

May Isaac’s blessing for Esau this year impel us to awareness of our inner resources and our gifts. May our tradition nourish us like the dew. And may we release ourselves into the highest forms of service, and in so doing find faith in our own becoming.

These is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at the December 2 Kabbalat Shabbat service (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Deepening our connections with Williams

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to share with you some happy news: this spring, in addition to serving CBI as your rabbi, I will also be serving the Williams College community as interim Jewish chaplain to the College.

The position at the College (which officially begins in February) is halftime, as is my position at CBI. I know that there will be challenges in dovetailing these two positions, but I am confident that it can be done — and I hope that CBI will reap benefits from this opportunity to more closely connect our shul with the Jewish community and the multi-faith community at the College.

The students have already expressed to me an interest in figuring out how to be more connected with CBI. I’m hoping we can sponsor at least one celebration or program together during the spring semester, so stay tuned for more on that.

I will still be at CBI two days a week. I will still lead davenen (prayer) at CBI two Shabbatot a month. I will still teach my five b’nei mitzvah students. I will still teach the Introduction to Judaism class at CBI. I will still lead our meditation minyan on Friday mornings. I will still provide pastoral care and counseling. And I will still preside over lifecycle events at CBI from babynamings to funerals and everything in between.

I anticipate that there will be times when I have to say “no” to an obligation at the College because I am already committed to something at CBI, and times when I will have to say “no” to something at CBI because I am needed at the College. I know that won’t be easy for anyone (least of all for me!) and I ask all of you to please bear with me as I figure out how to walk this path.

I recognize that this news may evoke anxiety for some of you. You may be wondering whether I will still be able to provide sufficient service and care to the CBI community. I am happy to sit down with anyone who wants to talk about this and what it brings up for you. I promise you that I will do everything within my power to continue to serve CBI with whole heart, even as I also move into serving in this other way to which I am called.

With loving blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

The December 2016 / Kislev 5777 CBI Newsletter is now online!

The December 2016 / Kislev 5777 CBI Newsletter is Now Online!

In this month’s newsletter you’ll find Notes from the Rabbi, a report on book-making last month and information about an upcoming visit from sofer (Torah scribe) Kevin Hale, service times for Shabbat, First Friday Potluck and Shabbat Services, words from our new Board President, and more!

Read and enjoy!

A note from Rabbi Lori Shaller

A message from Rabbi Lori Shaller, who will be leading davenen (prayer) at CBI this coming Shabbat:
Please join me this Shabbat, Saturday, December 3 for a contemplative service. I will be on my yoga mat, suggesting movement and meditation prompts, as well as chanting some, and I invite you to bring your mat, if that speaks to you. You are also welcome to participate sitting in a chair. We will be praying the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, an Amidah and Kaddish, if there are those who want to pray kaddish. I hope to see you b’Shabbat!

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Toldot

Shavua tov / a good week to all!

return-to-shabbat Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Lori Shaller. This week we’re reading parashat Toldot. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

And here are commentaries from the URJ: Toldot at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Chayei Sarah.

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to all!

return-to-shabbat Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax. This week we’re reading parashat Chayei Sarah. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

And here are commentaries from the URJ: Chayei Sarah at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

An act of conscience: standing against oppression

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Y’all know that I am honored and humbled to serve, with my dear friend and colleague Rabbi David Evan Markus, as co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. CBI is part of the ALEPH Network, and I wanted to share with y’all a resolution and petition that ALEPH put forward recently. The full text of the resolution appears below, followed by a link to a petition that I hope you will consider signing.

The resolution urges us to stand with our Muslim neighbors if they should be targeted by religious oppression under the Trump administration, and calls on all Americans to stand with the oppressed. In this way we signal that we stand against bigotry. When we say “never again” about the Holocaust, we must mean not only “never again for us,” but “never again for anyone.”

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

 

slider-standing-with-non-jews-against-oppression

RESOLUTION BY MAJOR JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS ON DIRECT ACTION TO THWART ANY U.S. GOVERNMENT ACTION REQUIRING REGISTRATION OF MUSLIMS

As initially proposed by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal 

WHEREAS:

President-Elect Trump repeatedly has advocated and expressed his intention that Muslims resident in the United States will be required to register as such with the United States government; and

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution bans state action in respect of any establishment of religion, including tests and other qualifications on the basis of religion; and

Article II of the United States Constitution obliges the President of the United States to take care that the Constitution and laws of the United States are faithfully executed; and

Incitement and tolerance of invidious discrimination on the basis of any religion, ethnicity, race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation cultivates a civic climate that countenances all such discrimination, including anti-Semitism; and

Incitement and intolerance of religious discrimination have no place in any civil society; and

The Jewish people have living memory of anti-Jewish legislation and other official discrimination in Nazi Germany, including civic disqualification and registration with the government, preceding the Holocaust; and

Core Jewish spiritual values teach that one must not stand idly by the blood of one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:16), and that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18); and

Principles of deep ecumenism  view all religious traditions as potential paths to the sacred; and

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi  z”l (of blessed memory) professed faith with the Sufis of Hebron to exemplify the spiritual principle that Jews can and must stand in faithful co-religionist solidarity with Muslims;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT:

If Muslims are required to register as such with the United States government, then all Jews — and all other persons in familial or communal relationship with Jews — are urged to register as Muslims immediately; and

All Jewish clergy associations based in the United States — including OHALAH (Renewal), Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (Reconstructionist) and Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) — as well as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, its constituent organizations, all Jewish seminaries and other institutions of learning, and all other Jewish organizations, are urged to adopt, implement and publicize this resolution by all available means; and

All other clergy organizations and other faith-based organizations operating or having influence in the United States are urged to adopt, implement and publicize corresponding versions of this resolution most suitable to the tenets and contexts of their respective faith traditions; and

If Muslims are required to register as such with the United States government, then a goal is established that every United States resident promptly will register as a Muslim; and

Each ratifying organization will transmit a copy of this resolution to the official government office of Donald J. Trump as of its date of ratification; and

This resolution will be publicized by all available means.

SIGN THE PETITION!