Category Archives: divrei Torah

“Come to Pharaoh,” and whom we choose to serve

Come-here-pleaseThis week’s Torah portion is called Bo, for its opening words ויאמר יהו׳׳ה על–משה בא על–פרעא / Vayomer YHVH el-Moshe, “Bo el-Paro” — “And God said to Moshe, ‘Come to Pharaoh.'”

Most translations say “Go to Pharaoh.” But the Hebrew is pretty clearly “Come.” For me, the difference between “come” and “go” is that the first one connotes “the place where I am.” If I say to my son, “Come here, I want to talk to you,” I’m asking him to come where I am. If I say “Go over there,” I’m telling him to go to the place where I am not. So when Torah says Bo el-Paro, I hear God saying, “Come here to Pharaoh — to the place where I also Am.” (This is not my own insight — Zohar scholar Danny Matt sees this as an invitation to “come” into God’s presence, too.)

We might prefer to imagine that God is not with Paro. Pharaoh is the exemplar of toxic power-over. He regards the children of Israel as subhuman. He describes them with words that connote vermin swarming. He’s ordered policies that literally kill all of their male children. And yet with this one simple phrase, Torah reminds us that there is no place devoid of God’s presence. Not even the place where Pharaoh is.

The next thing we read in Torah is a bit troubling: כי–אני הכבדתי את–לבו / ki-ani hich’bad’ti et-libo, “For I have hardened his heart.” Whoa, hold up: God hardened his heart? Wouldn’t it have been easier for God to simply soften Pharaoh’s heart so that the children of Israel could be set free without all of this drama?

But if we look back at last week’s Torah portion, we’ll see a different phrase. Last week, Moshe and Aharon spoke to Pharaoh, and Paraoh hardened his heart and did not listen. Three times we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen, before we reach this mention of God hardening his heart. (Many of our commentators observe this, among them Rashi.) I think Torah is teaching us some deep wisdom about the human heart.

The heart flows in the ways to which we habituate ourselves. If we practice gratitude every morning, even on the days when we’re not “feeling it,” we can train the heart to incline toward gratitude. If we practice compassion toward others, even on the days when we’re not “feeling it,” we can train the heart to incline toward compassion. And if we practice hardening our hearts — maybe by telling ourselves that “those people” aren’t our problem; they’re a different generation, or their skin is different, or they dress differently or pray differently or speak a different language — then we train our hearts to incline toward hardness. Like Pharaoh’s.

Torah says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh had already hardened it, time and again. I think God just got out of the way and let Pharaoh continue being who he had already shown himself to be. That doesn’t mean God isn’t with him. We don’t get to say that God is only “on our side.” But it does mean that Pharaoh’s made his choices, and there will be consequences.

That’s verse 1.

In verse 2, God continues that the purpose of the signs and wonders — the ten plagues and our subsequent liberation — is so that we may teach all the generations to come the story of the Exodus. This is our core story as Jews, and we tell it in our daily liturgy, in the Shabbat kiddush, and in the Passover seder.

And in verse 3, Moshe and Aharon say to Pharaoh, how long are you going to be like this? Let God’s people go so that we may serve God. In God’s words, שלח עמי ויעבדני / shlach ami v’ya’avduni, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.” The root ע/ב/ד means service, both in the sense of the service the priests performed in the Temple of old (and the “services” we attend today) and in the sense of serving God with our hearts and our lives and our being. As we read earlier this morning, “Everyone serves something; give your life to Me.

Everyone serves something. The question is, do we serve Pharaoh — emblem of commercialism and and overwork, dehumanization and xenophobia, all of which are still perfectly alive and well in our day — or do we serve something else?

Judaism invites us to choose “something else.” Judaism invites us to make the profoundly countercultural choice of spending 25 hours each week disengaged from work, not only physically but also intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Judaism invites us to say: there is something more important than all of our making and doing and achieving, and that something is Shabbat rest. Not just “taking a nap,” though the Shabbos schluff is a time-honored tradition, but opening our hearts and souls to the weekly rejuvenation that becomes possible when we disconnect from workday consciousness and open ourselves to something beyond ourselves.

Judaism invites us to set aside the worries of the workweek and take a deep breath that goes all the way to our kishkes, all the way to our insides. On the seventh day, Torah teaches, שבת וינפש / shavat va-yinafash — God rested and was ensouled. (We sing these words in the prayer V’shamru each week.) When God rested from creating, God’s-own-self became ensouled in a new way. So do we.

May this Shabbat be a time of real rest and re-ensoul-ment. May we be reminded of the things that are more important than our budgets’ bottom lines. And may our lives be lives of service to God — and to the spark of divinity manifest in every human being with whom we share this earth.

 

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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If you will it…

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I’ve been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand — written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They’ve met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They’ve met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all “sides” of the conflict. They’ve visited holy sites together. They’ve eaten and prayed and wept and learned together.

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It’s easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope — and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that’s the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip…

…and it’s the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z”l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood.

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn’t even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here’s a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d’var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don’t want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there’s a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There’s injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week’s Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other.

Theodore Herzl famously taught, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The quote continues, “If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay.” The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being — to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being — so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can’t afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King’s vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

This is the d’varling I offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK’s “I Have a Dream,” set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R’ David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.

Miketz: Letting yourself dream

OriginalThe beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, describes two of Pharaoh’s dreams. First he dreamed about seven healthy cows who got devoured by seven gaunt cows. Then he dreamed about seven healthy ears of grain that got devoured by seven thin gaunt ears. Disconcerting images.

Both times, he woke and realized he’d been dreaming. And then one of his servants remembered the fellow named Joseph, languishing in prison, who was able to interpret dreams. And so Joseph was released from prison, and brought to Pharaoh to help him understand the meaning of his dreaming.

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z”l, wrote:

When my daughter, Shel, was 8 years old, she asked me, “Abba, when you’re asleep, you can wake up, right? When you are awake, can you wake up even more?”

(– Expanded Awareness and Extended Consciousness)

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, we can wake up more. We can wake from complacency. We can wake from routine. We can wake from taking things for granted. We can wake to hope and to wonder. That’s the good news. The frustrating news is that such awakenings are rarely permanent. We wake from complacency and recognize that if we want a morerighteous world, we have to build it… and then we forget. We wake from routine and recognize that being alive is a miracle… and then we forget.

This is spiritual life: being awakened into awareness, and then falling out of awareness, and then awakening again. None of us can live in a perennial state of gadlut, expansive consciousness. The great thing about the fact that we keep falling asleep is that we can also keep waking up. We’re designed to keep waking up. I posit to you that being “asleep” isn’t actually a bad thing. Spiritually, maybe we need the oscillation between forgetting and remembering. And maybe being “asleep” helps us daydream.

Pharaoh was troubled by his dreams. We’ve all had that experience: a recurring dream that sticks with us long after the day’s first cup of coffee. We wonder: what is the dream trying to tell us? What does it mean? My friend and teacher Rodger Kamenetz, author of The History of Last Night’s Dream, teaches that dreams aren’t “texts” to be “interpreted.” Rather, they’re landscapes of feeling. They can give us deep access to our emotions. (If this interests you, learn more about his practice of dreamwork.)

I wonder what would happen if we approached our waking dreams the way Rodger suggests approaching our sleeping dreams: entering the emotional landscape of the reverie, with a trusted guide and companion, and seeing what we can learn from that exploration of our yearnings. Waking reveries are different from nighttime dreams, but I think we should treat our daydreams with the same presumption of depth and meaning that we bring to thinking about the dreams that play out while we sleep.

I think our daydreams can tell us a lot about what we yearn for: not what we think we’re “supposed” to want, but what our hearts and souls actually crave. Maybe we ache for love, or for comfort, or for justice, or for being fully uplifted in all that we are. But most of us are taught, in a variety of ways, not to credit those yearnings. What would happen if we chose to wake up: not from those dreams, but with those dreams? What would happen if we brought our daydreams more fully into our waking lives?

We always reach parashat Miketz at this time of year. I imagine there’s something different, psycho-spiritually, about reading Miketz in Australia or Argentina where right now it’s high summer. Where I live, this is a season of deepening winter. Long nights, short days, battening down the hatches… Winter’s a great time to hunker down and pay attention to our dreams — the sleeping ones, and the waking ones — to see what they tell us about what we fear, and what we love, and what we yearn for.

What do you dream of: for yourself? For your family, whether blood or chosen? For your community? For your world?

If we allow ourselves to face our yearnings, we also have to face fear that our yearnings might not come to pass. The dreams of our hearts are tender. (If you’re going to delve into them, I hope you do so with a trusted guide, maybe a therapist or spiritual director.) When Joseph helped Pharaoh understand his dreams, Pharaoh made decisions about the future of his nation (and ours, too). What changes might we make if we took our own dreams seriously — the sleeping ones, and the waking ones too?

May this winter give you us space and safety we need to look at what we yearn for… and may we find the inner reserves of fuel we need in order to make those dreams come true.

 

With gratitude to my hevruta partner for opening up for me these connections between Miketz and dream.

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

 

The people who partner with God

Elshaddai

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob is given a new name — twice. Or maybe even three times. (It’s the same name each time.)

The first time comes on the cusp of his meeting with his estranged brother Esau. He is alone; he wrestles all night; as dawn is breaking he tells his opponent “I will not let you go until you bless me,” and the angel with whom he has grappled all night tells him his new name will be Yisra-El, Wrestles-With-God.

The second time comes later in the parsha. God appears to Jacob and says, “You whose name is Jacob: you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” Then Torah reiterates the name yet again, adding “and thus, God named him Israel.”

What’s up with the triple reiteration of this name? One answer is that the redactor wasn’t paying attention and he repeated himself, and said the same thing twice, and also conveyed something in multiple ways. But I think that’s a cop-out. Our tradition invites us to find meaning in these repetitions. If Torah says it three times, it must be important. What is it telling us?

It’s interesting that immediately after the third reiteration of Israel’s new name, God introduces God’s-self to Israel, saying, “I am El Shaddai; be fertile and increase, for nations will descend from you…”

Notice the juxtaposition of introductions. First God tells Jacob who Jacob is becoming: one who wrestles with the divine. (This is one of our people’s names to this day.) And then God tells Jacob who God is: אֵל שַׁדַּי‎‎ / El Shaddai. In Hebrew, names have meanings: they aren’t just sounds. So what does this divine name mean? “El” is pretty straightforward; it simply means “God.” But “Shaddai” is less clear.

El Shaddai is often rendered as “God Almighty,” but I’m not sure that’s a good translation. Some argue that the word relates to mountains or wilderness. Others, that it relates to a root meaning “destroy.” But in modern Hebrew, “shadayim” are breasts. I like to understand “El Shaddai” as a name that depicts God as the divine source of nourishment and flow. God as El Shaddai is the One Who nurses all of creation, Whose abundance flows like milk to nurture and nourish us.

In a related interpretation, Shaddai is seen as related to the word meaning “sufficiency” or “enoughness.” (As in די / dai, “Enough!” — or dayenu, “It would have been enough for us.”) El Shaddai is the God of Enoughness, the One Who gives us everything we need and then some. Perhaps the name El Shaddai can remind us that we too — made in the divine image — are “enough” just as we are.

There’s a sense of gender fluidity to this divine name, because “El” is a masculine word, and “Shaddai” (if you accept the shadayim connection) connotes femininity. Fluidity seems appropriate; after all, we call God the source of divine flow. The discipline of spiritual direction invites us to discern together where and how God’s flow manifests in the life of each seeker. God flows into our lives in different shapes and forms.

El Shaddai is only one of our tradition’s many names for God. The names we use for divinity change, as the faces of divinity we seek change.  Sometimes we need God to be the All-Mighty, our defender. Sometimes we need God to be All-Merciful. Sometimes we need God to be Friend, or Beloved, or Parent. For me, the name El Shaddai is a reminder that I can relate to God as the nursing mother Who aches to bestow blessings.

As the sages of the Talmud wrote, “More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk.” More than we yearn and ache — for love, for abundance, for sweetness — God yearns and aches to give those things to us. Think of someone you deeply love, to whom you want to give every good thing. Feel how your heart goes out to them: you just want to give! The name El Shaddai describes a God Who feels like that toward us.

This piece of Torah reminds us who God can be for us — and who we can be for God. The name Yisrael says it’s our job to be in relationship with God. To dance, to push back, to waltz, to fight, to suckle: the wrestle takes many forms, but the relationship is always there. Even when we’re angry with God, or when we feel as though God is angry with us, the relationship is there. The centrality of that relationship makes us who we are: the people Yisra-el, the people who partner with God.

 

 

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered on Shabbat morning 12/2. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

 

Related: El Shaddai (Nursing Poem), 2009. (Also published in Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia 2013.)

Through the (double) door: Chayei Sarah

Desert-cave-james-barrereIn this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, Avraham purchases a cave in which to bury his wife Sarah. The cave is named מכפלה / Machpelah. In English, it’s just a place-name. In Hebrew, it has a meaning.

The root of that word, כפל / k’f’l, means to double or to fold. Rashi says this teaches us that it had a lower and an upper cavern. (Others say, possibly a cavern within a cavern.) Or, Rashi suggests, it was called “doubled” because couples are buried there. Tradition teaches that Adam and Eve were buried there long before Sarah and Avraham. But our mystical tradition sees here something much deeper — pardon the pun.

The Zohar teaches that when Avraham first entered the cave, he breathed the scent of fragrant spices: a sign that within the cave was an entrance to the Garden of Eden.

For our mystics, the cave of Machpelah — the doubled cave — was two places in one. On one level, it was a physical place, a cave in the earth. And on another level, it was a doorway to another reality, a portal to the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden represents both the very beginning of time and the afterlife, the level of heaven where the righteous reside with God clothed in garments of light. Machpelah is a portal between earth and heaven, between “this world” and the “world to come,” between a reality in which we live apart from God and a reality suffused with divine Presence.

My son likes to play iPad games, like The Room and House of Da Vinci, that involve solving puzzles. Both of those games involve a mystical eyepiece, and when that eyepiece is activated, hidden things spring to life. Invisible ink becomes visible; hidden symbols and markings begin to glow. It’s as though there were another layer to reality, a realm of secrets, and only those who have eyes to see can decipher the clues to the hidden reality beneath. That’s pretty much what our mystical tradition teaches.

“Come and see,” says the Zohar. That’s the Zohar’s refrain: come and see. Open your eyes. If we know what we’re looking for, we can find ultimate reality, the presence of God. We can see that this cave isn’t just a cave: it’s also a portal. We can see that this moment isn’t just this moment: if we go through the portal of Machpelah, we simultaneously access the beginning of time and the culmination of all things.

But sometimes we can’t see what’s in front of our eyes. We get caught up in appearance: this looks like a cave, it’s just rocks and dirt. So the Zohar offers us another path in: the scent of spices, which is the scent of Eden, the place-and-time of humanity’s beginning and our most transcendent joy. Tradition says that when we smell spices at havdalah, our souls get a “hit” of the scent of Eden. Spice and fragrance are also associated with Shechinah, the immanent indwelling Divine Presence. The scent of spice, which is the scent of Eden, opens us to God.

Maybe there are scents that hyperlink you with other places and times. For me, one is honeycake baking, which immediately says “Rosh Hashanah.” Another is Bal á Versailles, my mother’s perfume. Another is rosemary on my fingers, which links me with where I grew up, and with travels in Israel, and with a friend’s back yard in California, and with a church rose garden in Alabama, and other places besides.

For the mystics, Machpelah was a trans-dimensional portal, a doorway in space and time. The physical cave of Machpelah is now beneath a building that is half-mosque, half-synagogue, and hotly-contested by all. But even in this physical place far away from that Land, we can harness this Torah portion’s invitation to be transported.

What transports you? What connects you with God, whether for you that means God-far-above or God-deep-within? What sounds / sights / sensations / flavors / scents lift you out of yourself and into connection with something greater than yourself? On this Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, what is the doorway you need to walk through to find the peace and connection and wholeness that will restore you?

 

 

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI at Shabbat services on November 11. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

On Avram, and Sarai, and #MeToo

This d’var Torah mentions mistreatment of women, including sexual assault. If this is likely to be triggering for you, please exercise self-care.


Metoo-480x480This week’s Torah portion is rich and deep. It begins with God’s command to Avram לך–לך / lech-lecha, go you forth — or, some say, go into yourself. It contains God blessing Avram. It contains, too, the birth of Ishmael to Avram through Hagar, which we just read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

But reading it this year, I was struck by a passage I’ve always glossed over: the part where Avram and Sarai go into Egypt, and Avram says to her, “You’re beautiful, and if they think you’re my wife they’ll kill me and take you — so pretend to be my sister instead.” And Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife.

Avram benefits greatly from this deception: he acquires “sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.” Meanwhile, Pharaoh is punished for sleeping with Sarai. God brings plagues on him and his household, until he comes to Avram and says, “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?! Take her back!”

Perhaps predictably, the text says nothing about what all of this was like for Sarai. She has been asked to lie about her identity to protect her husband. Also to protect her husband, she allows herself to be taken into Pharaoh’s court. She gives Pharaoh access to her body. Torah tells us nothing about how she felt, but I think I can imagine.

I don’t want this to be in our Torah — our Torah that I cherish and teach and love. But on the matter of women’s rights and women’s bodies and women’s integrity, our Torah here is painfully silent. It may not explicitly approve women being treated as property, but neither does it explicitly disapprove.

Or: neither does it explicitly disapprove here. As we move from right to left through our scroll, Torah changes. Genesis contains this story, and the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, who then seeks to wed her. Like Sarai in this passage, Dinah has no voice and no apparent agency.

But by the time we get to Numbers, Torah gives us the daughters of Tzelophechad, a surprisingly feminist narrative that gives women both voice and power. We can understand this dissonance from a historical-critical perspective as the weaving together of texts from different time periods. From a spiritual perspective, we can see this as the Torah herself evolving.

Torah reflects a trajectory of growth and progress: on humanity’s part, and arguably even on God’s part. But this moment in our ancestral story is distressingly patriarchal. It reminds me that the word “patriarchal” comes to us from our relationship with these very forefathers, who weren’t always ethical in the ways we may want them to have been.

This year I read these verses juxtaposed against the #MeToo movement that unfolded in recent weeks on social media: woman after woman after woman saying, harassment and misogyny and sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape are all part of a whole, and I too have been a victim of these proprietary and predatory behaviors.

Maybe Sarai chose to pretend for Avram’s sake. We don’t know; Torah doesn’t say. Maybe she was willing to allow herself to be raped to protect her husband. I can imagine situations in which I would allow myself to be violated to protect someone whom I love. But that is not a choice any woman should ever have to make.

I read recently about an exercise that Jackson Katz did in a mixed-gender classroom. He asked the men, what do you do to protect yourselves from being raped? And there was silence, and uncomfortable laughter, and eventually one of the men said, I don’t do anything; I’ve never really thought about it.

And then they asked the women, and the women generated a long list without even trying. I don’t walk alone. I don’t go out at night. I don’t park in dark places. I make sure I keep my drink in sight so no one can slip a roofie into it. I carry mace. I don’t wear certain clothes. I don’t make eye contact with men…

Most of us don’t even think about these things: not the men, who have the privilege of not having to worry about being treated as property, and not the women, who do these things almost unconsciously. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women are the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

Reading this story in Torah makes my heart hurt. I don’t want Avraham Avinu, our patriarch, to have behaved this way toward Sarai. But he did, and in the context of the time it was unremarkable. Notice how everyone assumed Sarai was going to get raped no matter what. That’s the assumption when women’s bodies are property.

Guess what: it’s still unremarkable. This is what patriarchy is, what patriarchy does: it allows men’s need to have sex, or to feel powerful, to trump the needs of women to have bodily integrity or to be whole human beings. Patriarchy is still real, and it is still damaging us. All of us. Of every gender.

Here are some things we can do to be better than this:

Listen to women. (Here’s a good essay about how exactly to do that.) Sarai doesn’t have a voice in this story: don’t replicate that today by not listening to women. Listen to us and believe us. When a woman says she was assaulted or violated, believe her.

Don’t say “but men get raped too.” Yes, they do, and that is terrible, and don’t derail the conversation to make it about men right now. Patriarchy is a system that centers the needs and perspectives of men over the needs and perspectives of women, in every way. Make the radical choice not to perpetuate that.

If you’re sexually active, keep active consent as your guiding light, and teach your children the importance of active consent too. If someone’s not enthusiastic, stop. If someone says no — or “not right now” — even if they say it through body language instead of words — then don’t do it. Whatever it is. Because no one ever is entitled to someone else’s body.

Understand that men feeling entitled to women’s bodies takes a million different forms: from harassment, to the way men talk to women or talk about women, to the way men look at women (and the way women are depicted in media), to the way men touch women. Understand that all of these things are part of a whole that we need to change.

If you are a man, you may be thinking, “but I don’t do those things!” I hear you. And: sexual violence is insidious. It’s in the media we consume, the scripture we study, the air we breathe. It’s shaped the way I think about my own body, and there’s a lot that I’m working to unlearn. Inevitably these dynamics have shaped you too. But here’s the good news: you can become aware of it and change it. And you can call out sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and rape culture in ways that I can’t.

I wish this story weren’t in our Torah. But Torah holds up a mirror to human life. What I really wish is that this weren’t such a familiar story, then and now. We are all Avram: God calls all of us to go forth from our roots, from our comfort zone, into the future that God will show us. We need to go forth and build a world that is better than the one Avram knew.

That trajectory — seeking to build a better world than the one we inherited — is itself encoded in Torah, and in the prophets, and in the whole Jewish idea of striving toward a world redeemed. This week’s Torah portion comes to us from a very early time in our human story. The familiarity we feel, upon reading this troubling text, reminds us how far we still have to go.

 

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

The stranger in our midst: Ki Tavo and Dreamers

635965444098234916-381174497_CYyDgmBUoAA12IkAt the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read instructions for when we have entered the land of promise. When we enter that land, we are to recount where we came from, remember our hardships in life’s narrow places, and then enjoy the bounty of our harvest, together with the Levite and the stranger who lives in our midst. Then Torah instructs us to set aside a tenth of the yield of the land and share it with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

That’s the first dozen verses of this week’s parsha: remember our hardships, be grateful that with God’s help we have made it out of slavery and into freedom, and share what we have with the needy — especially those who have nothing of their own (the Levites), the immigrant or migrant or refugee, and those who have no one to take care of them and keep them safe.

Our Torah was written a very long time ago. Sometimes it reflects sensibilities that are deeply alien. Sometimes we have to grapple with it, or turn it in a new direction, in order to find meaning in it. But for me, this year, these verses sound a clarion call that’s all the more striking for how ancient we know them to be.

No one in this congregation, to the best of my knowledge, is Native American. That means that all of us are descended from people who came to this land in search of something better than what we had known before. The first Jews came to North Adams in 1867 from Eastern Europe and Russia. My own ancestors came to this country more recently than that, from Poland and from Russia and from the Czech Republic — which was called Czechoslovakia when my mother was born there.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to the United States hoping that it would be the “goldene medina,” the land of prosperity and promise. My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to this land in hopes that it was a nation that held to be self-evident the truth that all human beings are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, had to struggle with a governmental system that sometimes held Jews in low esteem. There were quotas. There was red tape. There was economic anxiety, and when there is economic anxiety, people turn on the Other: on those who don’t speak or look or dress like them. You don’t need me to tell you how many Jews perished in the Shoah because they couldn’t get permission to enter this country where they would have been safe.

Today, this Shabbat, is the culmination of a week during which the President chose to end protection for “Dreamers” — the children of undocumented immigrants who came to this country, often at great risk to themselves, out of those same hopes that brought my own mother and grandparents here. The “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program had given them safety, security, refuge, and belonging. Some 800,000 young Americans are now living in mortal terror of deportation to so-called “home countries” that are not their home.

When you enter the land of promise, says Torah, the first thing you need to do is stop and remember where you came from. Torah cites the story of how our ancestors fell on hard times and descended into the land of Egypt and there were enslaved. (Each of us can tell our own family story of hard times that led someone to make the perilous journey to the United States. There were pogroms in the village. There was antisemitism in the town square. There were Nazis marching. We remember where our people came from, and how fortunate we are to be where we are now.)

And then, says Torah, you take your abundance and you share it. Share it with the stranger who lives among you: the immigrant, the refugee, the powerless. Share it with the Levite, who has no land of their own to farm and no crops to harvest. Share it with the person who has no protector to keep them safe from the cruelty of predators. Then, and only then, can you go to God and say, I’ve kept Your commandments, please give me blessing.

All of us are migrants to this land of promise. And if we have the safety of citizenship, we owe it to the Dreamers to fight for their safety and their inclusion and their continued right to live in this nation they already call home. We owe it to the Dreamers to protect them from the cruelty of a predatory government that would strip them of their status and send them packing. Then, and only then, can we go to God and say that we’re honoring the mitzvot and we seek blessing.

Sometimes Torah is ambiguous. And sometimes Torah offers teachings that appear to be in conflict with modern sensibilities. But on this issue, Torah’s teachings feel timeless and timely and unspeakably important. Today is Shabbat: a day to live as if the world were already perfected and suffering were already a thing of the past. But tomorrow when we re-enter the work week, I hope you’ll remember Torah’s call to action. We live in a land of promise. It’s incumbent on us to remember how fortunate we are to be here, and to share our good fortune with others in need.

 

See also: HIAS Slams Trump Administration’s Decision on DACA, Urges Congress to Protect Dreamers (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), US Jewish Groups Blast Trump’s Decision to Scrap ‘Dreamers’ Program as Cruel, Unnecessary (Ha’Aretz) How You Can Help (Mashable)

Also, from the Reform movement: Take Action to Protect DREAMers.

(This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this Shabbat, and is cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)