D’var Torah: Parashat Vayechi

Well, it’s been a long, bumpy ride for this family and what I’d like to do is take the time to pause and ask ourselves what, if anything, has been resolved.? This is an important place to ask this question because here at the end of Genesis we’ve reached a narrative break. When we return to the story of our people again at the beginning of Exodus, it is already four hundred years later and the camera has panned out considerably–whereas powerful, individual personalities will continue to play an important role in the sweep of the biblical narrative, the stage on which they act will be wider, the stakes greater, more political and less personal.

But the personal is political. Certainly all three generations of patriarchs and matriarchs would have been able to agree with that one. And so it makes sense at this point to reflect on what the final situation is between Jacob and his children, between Joseph and his brothers, and what lessons they’ve internalized along the way. It makes sense because the effects of these deeply troubled familial relationships will have their echoes for many generations to come. This is something Jacob seems to recognize and acknowledge in his final poetic/prophetic summing-up of his sons, of his relationship to them and of theirs to each other.

So the question again is, has anything been resolved? Has the messy tale of family resentment and sibling rivalry come to a close in anything resembling a satisfactory way? I want to hear what others think about this, but before I open the floor I’ll make a couple of comments.

First, this is the first point in the narrative where the “official” Abrahamic line–the list of sons in each generation who are not rejected or excluded in some way from the family tree–it’s the first time this line actually branches off. It’s important to remember that this fact is not (or at least not simply) the result of divine decree, but of a very human inability for members of the family to get along with each other.
Until now, the seemingly inevitable rivalry between brother and brother (and let us not forget, between husband and wife, between wife and wife) has come down to a question of either/or. In the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael is cast out, along with his mother, to survive as best they can in the desert, a sacrifice to family harmony, leaving his brother Isaac to face sacrifice of a different kind. Esau too, and by extension his descendants, are ultimately excluded as the price of losing the struggle that had been going on between him and Jacob since before they were born. In both cases, and entire potential branch of our extended Jewish family is lost, and G-d’s promise to Abraham that He would make his descendants into a great nation is held back for a generation.
If we were reading the beginning of the story of Joseph, knowing what had ome before but not how it was going to turn out, we would probably assume that the ending would turn out the same as it did for Isaac and Jacob–rivalry between brothers ending only when one had emerged triumphant and the others had been excluded from their inheritance and the story of our people. This is almost certainly why Joseph’s brothers, who after all must be aware of their family history, are terrified, despite his apparently heartfelt joy when they are reunited, that he is secretly holding a grudge against them and planning to take his revenge after their father’s death.

It isn’t as if reconciliation between brothers is totally alien to the biblical narrative before now–Isaac and Ishmael, after all, come together to bury their father (you have to wonder what kind of conversation they had at that funeral. I’m willing to bet that each came away with the feeling that the other brother got the better deal when it came to their treatment by their father). Jacob too has his emotional, if brief, reunion with Esau. But in neither case is the reconciliation complete, and both Ishmael and Esau ultimately go off to found peoples of their own–powerful peoples with important places in history, but not our people, not our history.

It is only here in the case of Joseph and hist brothers that forgiveness and reconciliation seem to finally “take.” There is certainly a great deal of anxiety and discomfort that remains in their relationship, and Jacob’s deathbed prophecy to his sons certainly contains more than a little of the old favoritism that set this whole drama in motion to begin with, but in this generation at least these tensions are not great enough to pull the family apart.

I find it significant that it is from this generation that our people takes its name. Cartainly we are all children of Abraham, and Isaac too is one of our common fathers. But when it comes to the question of identity, we are and have been throughout history b’nai  Yisrael–that is to say, the children of Jacob. The symbolic significance of Jacob’s G-d-given name, of Yisra-el as those who wrestle with G-d, is very powerful and important. But I believe that at least part of the reason why we are called by this name is as a testament to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. In other words, perhaps in calling our people b’nai Yisrael we can detect a kind of prophecy or expression of profound hope, that we be worthy of the name of a generation that was able to look past fear, resentment and conflict and to find peace on the other side.

D’var Torah: Parashat Be-Ha’alotecha

This parsha strikes me as an opportunity to think a little bit about prophecy. Prophecy plays such a central role in Judaism that it can be, ironically, easy to overlook. Our entire religious tradition is based on the prophetic experiences of our ancestors as recorded in the Torah. We’re familiar with the prophets, the speakers of prophecy, and with prophecies, the content of their statements. But what can we actually say about the institution of prophecy itself?

We might say that a prophet is someone to whom God speaks. In a certain sense, this is true. When we are first introduced to Moses he is an infant. Flash forward a number of years, and he is a young man enraged at the mistreatment of a Hebrew slave, then a husband and sheepherder in the land of Midian. Only after he hears the word of God calling from the burning bush–”Moses! Moses!”–does his career as a prophet truly begin. And yet, as the rabbis remarked, he was Moses before God had spoken to him, and Moses after God had spoken to him. Might we perhaps regard his slaying of the Egyptian overseer, as well as rising to the defense of Jethro’s daughters at the well, as prophetic acts?

At its most basic level, prophecy is about the right to speak, to innovate, to have one’s words and actions carry authority. For our tradition prophecy represents the wellspring of religious inspiration, the impassioned word that shakes up the status quo in the name of God’s moral imperative and establishes a new order, a new understanding, a new way of doing things. How people have understood this creative impulse has changed over the generations, as has our understanding of who has the right to speak prophetically and under what conditions. Nevertheless the impulse–in one form or another–has been with us throughout history and, I would argue, is with us still today. It is the constant companion of the Jewish people, the itch that refuses to allow us to rest comfortably while there is injustice in the world.

There’s an episode in chapter 11 of this week’s Torah portion where Moses, frustrated as usual by the people’s complaints, complains bitterly to God about the burden of leading such a difficult, intractable people. God responds by commanding Moses to gather together seventy elders “of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people.” (11:16) These elders will have a portion of the prophetic spirit which Moses enjoys placed upon them, so that they can share in the burden of the people with him. Moses does as God commands, and as the Torah puts it, the elders “spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue.” (11:25)

Meanwhile, back in the camp, two men named Eldad and Medad have not joined the other elders with Moses at the mishkan. Nevertheless, they too begin to prophecy, and this fact is reported to Moses. Joshua, who serves as Moses’ attendant, protests that he should put a stop to this, presumably indignant that prophecy should be “springing up wild,” as it were, among the people, outside of the carefully orchestrated transfer of authority taking place at the tent of meeting. Moses, however, tells Joshua to be still. “Are you wrought up on my account?” he says, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put his spirit on them!” (11:29) And nothing much more is said of the matter.

The lesson I take from this episode is that although the broad sweep of the narrative we find in Torah is linear, focusing on a successive chain of great leaders with uniquely powerful connections to God, whose struggles and triumphs shape us and our relationship of God to this day, we should not assume that everything that can be said about and in the name of God must come from the mouth of a Moses or an Isaiah. Even in the time of Moses, the greatest of the prophets, there were things God wanted the people to understand that God apparently felt were better communicated by other mouths than his.

According to one source in the Talmud, after the deaths of the last prophets recorded in the Tanakh, the holy spirit–that is, the genius for prophecy–departed from Israel. Some connect this with the destruction of the second Temple. According to this narrative, out of all the world only the Temple at Jerusalem was considered a worthy resting place for the divine Presence, and until it is rebuilt in the messianic age we remain cut off from the powerful experience of God that prophecy represents.

Personally, I take more comfort from a statement recorded of R. Avdini of Haifa, who said, “Ever since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the sages.” I think we can interpret this statement to mean that in some small way the prophetic impulse is present in anyone willing to look at the world with eyes eager to better understand what God asks of us. Can any of us ever be a Moses or an Isaiah? Of course not, but neither do we need to. They had their own extraordinary tasks to achieve, and we reap the benefits of their encounters with God to this day. But neither should we ever deny ourselves the authority to speak, to broaden and deepen in whatever way we can the understanding of those who came before.

D’var Torah: Parashat Mishpatim

Here’s the text of the d’var torah I gave today, if anybody’s interested:

Our parsha for this week is rich in commandments that attempt to regulate human relationships at their most problematic. Absent is the assumption that God’s chosen people will be free of conflict. What we find instead is a nuanced awareness of pain–of pain inflicted by one human being against another, and of the necessity of establishing social mechanisms to address this pain in a way that doesn’t destabilize the community. Reading the laws concerning redress of grievances, one can sense a careful balance being struck between the rights of the victim, the perpetrator, and of society as a whole. Of central concern throughout is the question of responsibility. Amidst a litany of injury, theft and even death inflicted by one member of the community upon another, we are asked at all times to keep the all-important questions in the forefront of our minds: to whom am I responsible, and for what, and to what extent?

The question of responsibility is complicated, and no single answer can capture its essence. Nevertheless, I would like to look at one understanding of responsibility suggested by an episode that occurs toward the end of this parsha.

In chapter 24, in a passage beginning with verse 9, we find the following:

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”

Exodus 24:9-11 
When contrasted with the hard-nosed legislation that makes up the majority of this Torah portion, the poetic effect of this mystical vision is quite striking. And yet its meaning in this context may seem hard to fathom. 

The opinion of Rashi was that the sapphire pavement is meant to signify the suffering of the people Israel. Just as the Israelites were enslaved and forced to make bricks in Egypt, so the memory of their suffering takes the form of brick-work laid out beneath the feet of God. In his ethical treatise, “Hokhmah U-Mussar,” Rav Simha Zissel describes this as an “imaginative projection,” the concrete form of a spiritual truth. But what is the truth that God wishes to convey? Doesn’t it seem out of place to insert a reminder of Israel’s recent suffering into this moment of supreme joy, this celebration of the newly-forged covenant between God and Israel?

For Rav Zissel, the answer to this question lies in a particular understanding of morality based on responsibility for others. A devotee of the ethical discipline of Mussar, his primary concern is with how people can better understand and strengthen their ethical selves. God, in appearing to the leaders of the Israelites with His feet resting upon a pavement of the sorrows they have just escaped, is expressing a profound solidarity with the people that goes beyond the simple relationship of master and servant. In other words, God is not so much reminding us of our suffering as He is reassuring us that He is aware of our suffering and willing to share in our burden. In this way, we can regard the sapphire pavement as a dramatic illustration of the fact that every genuine community, even that existing between God and His people, is founded on our ability to identify with the other’s pain, and our corresponding willingness to shoulder the burden of another. God’s willingness to share in the burden of His people can be taken as an illustration for our responsibility for the burdens of our fellow human beings.

This understanding of the sapphire pavement as an imaginative projection of God’s shared concern for the the suffering of Israel is underlined by the conclusion of this passage. There is a breathless transition here between three distinct moments: “… He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” These three moments present us with the ideal picture of a peaceful relationship with God. In contrast with other moments in the Torah where we see the people shrinking away from a direct experience of God in fear for their lives, here we find God and Israel united in the simple face-to-face of community. The non-violence of this moment, already implicit in the untroubled gaze of the people’s leaders on one side and the restraint of God who does not “raise His hand” on the other, is sealed by the final moment, wherein “they ate and drank.” 

There is some question in the tradition as to whether eating and drinking in this passage are to be taken literally or metaphorically. In the Zohar Rabbi Yose suggests the passage should be taken to mean “feasting their eyes upon [God’s] radiance.” Rabbi Yehudah, on the other hand, claimed that “They actually ate, nourishing themselves!” I would suggest that perhaps “they” in this case refers not only to the leaders of Israel, but to God as well–not in the sense of eating and drinking, but of engaging in the kind of fellowship best represented in our experience by sitting down together to share a meal. The power of this moment lies in the significance of the shared meal as the primal moment of community–God and Israel, sitting at the same table, united by the experience of a shared burden. In such a moment, even the infinite gap between God and humanity can be bridged in fellowship, providing us with the model for a non-violent relationship, not only with the divine, but with our fellow human beings.