Thursday, January 19, 2017

Refugee or Fugitive - Torah portion Shemot

In his zeal to counter the perceived threat from the Hebrews, Pharaoh issues a decree to kill the newborn boys:
"And Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying: Every newborn boy you must throw into the Nile, and every girl keep alive." (Ex 1:22)
He commands "all" his people, and doesn't specify "Hebrew" boys. The Talmud (T.B. Sotah 12a) picks up on this and suggests that Pharaoh's astrologers told him that the savior of the Hebrews was just born, but they didn't know if he was an Egyptian or a Hebrew. So Pharaoh imposed his decree to drown every boy on Egyptians and Hebrews alike.

In this interpretation, Pharaoh is so determined to stop the Hebrews that he's willing to kill his own people if that's what it takes.

The plain meaning however is that "Hebrew boys" is implied by the context. The phrase "all his people" then means that all Egyptians were commanded to carry out the decree against the Hebrews. Which is pretty terrifying when you think about it.

Just imagine for a moment... You're a Hebrew woman, and you're pregnant. No ultrasound in ancient Egypt, so you don't know the sex of your baby. You hope upon hope that it's a girl, because the terror of what will happen otherwise is too horrific to consider. You carry the baby to term and give birth. The baby emerges a boy. Your heart sinks. What should be a joy is now a living nightmare. The Egyptians have been notified of the birth, enter your house on Pharaoh's orders, wrench your newborn baby out of your arms, and then take him away to be murdered, discarded in the Nile. And you're not alone. Countless families are likewise bereft. The Hebrew community is beside itself with trauma and grief.

One mother however manages to avert the decree:
"... she saw that he was good, and she hid him three months. And she could no longer hide him, and she took for him a basket of bulrushes..." (Ex 2:2-3)
She hides him because she sees "that he was good." But this is a bit odd. Doesn't every mother see their child as "good"? Wouldn't they all try to hide their babies if they could? How does Moses' mother manage to hide him? This gives slightly different picture than the one I painted above, where the Hebrews are presumably resigned to the decree and painfully but obediently give up their babies to the Egyptians. Moses' mother is the exception, who sees something so special in her child that she rebels and does not consent. Instead, she hides him.

Let's skip ahead now. Moses grows up in Pharaoh's house. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of the Hebrew slaves, and Moses kills him. And he's forced on the run:
"And Pharaoh heard of this matter, and he sought to kill Moses, and Moses fled..." (Ex 2:15)
Interesting that Pharaoh, who would have been a grandfather to Moses, nonetheless sought to kill him, his own daughter's son. It might be surprising, except that this is the same Pharaoh after all who issued the initial decrees to kill the Hebrew boys. So Moses being a Hebrew might have always at the forefront of Pharaoh's mind. Perhaps he agreed to the initial adoption only as a very reluctant concession to his daughter. Or maybe he'd hoped that Moses' would cease to identify as a Hebrew and become fully Egyptian, which this incident clearly proved wrong.

In any case, note the textual proximity of these two events, Moses being hidden and Moses fleeing. They exemplify two different types of hiding:
1. Hiding because of who you are.
2. Hiding because of what you've done.
It's something like the difference between being a refugee, and being a fugitive. (Both words incidentally come from the Latin fugere - to flee.)

Clearly, we have sympathy for people who are being chased, hounded, hunted, for no good reason other than bigotry and baseless hate. We have less sympathy for those being chased and forced into hiding because of wrongdoings they've committed. The refugee is a victim. The fugitive has it coming to them.

One would think that this distinction should be pretty clear. The problem however is that those who force others into hiding because of who they are, often times also claim that these people have done something wrong, if not individually then collectively. To the oppressors and victimizers, the people they're hunting are looked at as fugitives, not refugees.

Yes, the Torah talks about the Egyptians terrorizing, murdering and enslaving the Hebrews, but the complicit Egyptians would no doubt have justified it by the notion that the Hebrews posed a threat to their society. And it is the same throughout history. Societies with an ideology and/or a policy to harm or oppress whole groups of people, invariably rationalize their righteousness and innocence based on the "good" they convince themselves they are ultimately promoting.

And yet there are instances where a problem, a real threat, does localize within a particular group. So how do we work out whether we're actually on the right side, responsibly addressing a bona fide threat, or whether we're simply deluding ourselves with rationalizations? I'll offer one suggestion:

If we lose sight of the individual, it's time to reassess.

Groups can have characteristics. You can make generalizations about groups. You can come up with statistics about groups. And those can be 100% true. But at the same time, many of the individuals within that group (and in some cases even the vast majority of that group) lack those characteristics, defy those generalizations.

Every individual therefore deserves to be judged, evaluated, for who they are - and not based on generalizations about their group. A focus on the individual human being has to be the overriding goal.

It sounds so obvious, but we are constantly judging people based on "categorical" assessments. We talk about whole groups of people as if they were a single entity. That is a blatant falsehood. Yes, erasing the individual makes it "easy" then to justify taking X, Y or Z actions against them. Erase the individual, and we erase our own guilt.

So in very practical terms, we need to start being more aware of the language we use to describe people. Notice when we refer to groups, and what that means to us about individuals within that group. Listen to how people talk. Pay attention. And don't let ourselves - or others - fall into the trap.

Start to do more of that, and we'll be living in a vastly improved world.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Did Jacob die? Yes and No - Torah portion Vayechi

Jacob finishes blessing (and admonishing) his children, and dies. Or does he? Yes, of course he does. Here's the verse:
Egyptian wooden sarcophagus, circa 14th century BCE
"And Jacob concluded commanding his sons, and he gathered his legs into the bed, and expired and was gathered to his people." (Gen 49:33)
Rashi cites the Talmud here, where Rabbi Yitzchak is invited to speak some words of Torah at Rabbi Nachman's table and says the following in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:
"Jacob our patriarch did not die." (B.T. Ta'anit 5b)
The scriptural basis for the idea, says Rashi, is that Jacob is the only person whose death is described in the Torah merely as "he expired" - as opposed to "he expired and died," as it says for Abraham (25:8), Ishmael (25:17), Isaac (35:29), and Aaron (Num 20:26).

Rashi doesn't quote the rest of the conversation from the Talmud. When Rabbi Yitzchak suggests that Jacob didn't die, Rabbi Nachman objects:
"Was it then for nothing that [Jacob] was eulogized and embalmed?"
Meaning, Jacob obviously died. The Torah talks about 40 days of embalming, 70 days where the Egyptians wept, Jacob's sarcophagus, a great procession of horses, chariots, and elders of Egypt accompanying Jacob's body to its resting place in Canaan, an additional 7 days of mourning in Canaan itself - so what do you mean he "didn't die"? I'll also add the slew of other verses in the very same narrative that do in fact use the word "die" relating to Jacob:
"When the time drew near for Israel to die..." (47:29)
"Behold, I am going to die..." (48:21)
"Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died..." (49:15)
"Your father commanded before his death..." (49:16)
So where is Rabbi Yitzchak coming from? He answers as follows:
"I derive it from Scripture, as it says: 'And you, my servant Jacob, do not fear - says YHVH - and do not be dismayed, Israel, for I am saving you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.' (Jer 30:10) The verse likens him (Jacob) to his descendants (Israel). Just as his descendants are alive, so too is he alive."
The conversation about Jacob ends there. The first thing to note is that Rabbi Yitzchak wasn't at all referring to Gen 49:33, regarding Jacob's death. He was talking about a verse in Jeremiah. It's Rashi who first connects Rabbi Yitzchak's statement to Gen 49:33, picking up on the fact that it doesn't use the word "died."

And that is precisely what a good "drash" does - it takes a teaching from the tradition and attaches it creatively to a verse. Of course, it was already explicitly connected to the verse in Jeremiah. But I imagine that Rashi saw an opening here that was too good to pass up - another "hint" to the idea that Jacob never died, and so therefore another place to attach Rabbi Yitzchak's concept.

But did Rashi actually believe that Jacob, the biblical figure, was still alive? Did Rabbi Yitzchak believe it? If so, did they believe he was alive physically, or spiritually, or in a metaphorical sense - i.e. by virtue of his descendants, the "children of Israel," being alive?

The question of "what did so-and-so believe" (i.e. what did they mean by their statement) is an interesting question, but ultimately an academic one, for historians and other scholars to debate. For instance, based on beliefs held at the time, or based on his collective statements in the Talmud, we might conclude that it's very unlikely Rabbi Yitzchak would have meant that Jacob the patriarch himself was still walking the earth. On the other hand, it might be the case that such a belief was not so outlandish at the time.

I say it's "academic" because I'm not sure what the religious significance would be for us if we had a definitive answer one way or the other. Is the goal to try to mimic the beliefs of others, to believe what Rashi or Rabbi Yitzchak believed? What if they believed different things? And even if we wanted to do it, how do we "get" ourselves to believe that Jacob is alive - physically or spiritually - if we really don't believe it?

In any case, I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that "Jacob our forefather didn't die" is not the pshat (plain meaning) of the text in Genesis, nor in Jeremiah, which frequently uses the terms "Jacob" and "Israel" poetically to refer to the Jewish nation. It's a drash, a homiletic interpretation. Pshat is an academic pursuit - its goal is to "discover" the plain meaning. Drash is a religious, pedagogical approach - it's goal is to "teach" something, using a verse as a mnemonic device or a jumping off point. Which doesn't mean that drash can't utilize vast knowledge and scholarship - it certainly can! Stringing bits of data from the tradition meaningfully and creatively together via associative thinking can entail the work of incredible genius. If done well, it can also impart vital ideas to people and offer guidance in their religious outlook and lives.

So yes, I'm interested from the standpoint of pure curiosity what Rashi and Rabbi Yitzchak believed about Jacob not dying - the "pshat on the drash" if you will. But from a practical, religious standpoint, I'm interested in what significance we derive from their words. What's our "drash on the drash" - i.e. what ideas are we reinforcing by attaching them to the idea that Jacob never died?

Of course you'll encounter some very different answers depending on who you ask. Many resonate with the mystical approach, the idea that Jacob himself is alive in a spiritual sense, for instance based on the Midrashic concept that the righteous are alive in their death - take away the bodily garment and their soul shines even more powerfully. Possibly the Jewish equivalent of Obiwan's "Strike me down and I shall become more possible than you can possibly imagine."

I'll say that for myself, I increasingly prefer the rational, non-metaphysical approach. For me, the statement "Jacob did not die," does not mean that Jacob the person continues to live - rather, it's another way of saying am Yisrael chai, "the people of Israel live." Which when you think about it is an incredible and inspiring thought, one that connects us to thousands of years of history. It's the idea of the Jewish nation as a living entity, one which continues the process of "growing up" and (hopefully) finding ways to contribute to the greater human project. That's how I personally would choose to understand the drash - because I believe it's a thought worth reinforcing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Joseph's Driver Safety Tips - Torah portion Vayigash

Joseph dispatches his brothers to Canaan to bring the entire family to Egypt, and offers some parting advice.
"And he sent his brothers, and they went, and he said to them: Don't become agitated along the way." (Gen 45:24)
"Become agitated" is a translation for "tirgezu" (from rogez), which in Biblical Hebrew implies emotional volatility, even shaking, in anger or distress. Rashi offers three explanations of the agitation Joseph warns against:
1. "Do not engage in a halakhic discussion, so the road does not agitate against you" (i.e. so that it is not unsafe for you, or alternatively, so you don't lose the way).

2. "Do not take large steps" (i.e. travel inordinately fast), "and enter the city in the sunlight" (i.e. travel during daylight hours).

3. "[Joseph] was worried that they might quarrel along the way about the matter of selling him [into slavery in Egypt], to argue with one another."
The third explanation, says Rashi, is the pshat (plain meaning) of the text - don't become upset with each other along the way. The first two explanations are citations from the Talmud (BT Ta'anit 10b), in the category of "drash" (homiletic interpretation).

Whereas the goal of pshat is to understand the meaning of the text per se, drash embodies the desire to impart ideas and values, relevant to people and their lives. With drash, the Torah text provides an anchor for a teaching - spiritual, moral, and sometimes just practical.

In this case, it seems clear that the sages of the Talmud were in the habit of getting engrossed in such vigorous and intricate discussions of halakha that the outside world almost didn't exist. That's great in the beit midrash (study hall), but when traveling long distances along dangerous roads, they would need to keep their wits about them and focus on where they were going. So not getting overly distracted in a discussion was sound advice, and attaching it to the "do not become agitated along the way" verse offered a helpful mnemonic to recall that advice.

Is this travel advice relevant to our day? Absolutely - in fact, it's critical.

The verse says: "Don't become agitated along the way." The Talmud adds: Don't be unduly distracted. Don't travel too quickly. And travel during daylight hours... It's not hard to see how to apply this nowadays to driving safety.
Don't be agitated = Don't drive angry, or aggressively.

Don't be distracted = Don't text or otherwise take your eyes from the road.

Don't travel too quickly = Don't speed in order to get somewhere faster.

Travel during daylight = Drive carefully at night, and don't drive if you're overtired.
Approximately 1.25 million people are killed in traffic-related accidents around the world each year. These figures include motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. 1.25 million is hard to wrap the mind around. Imagine walking onto the field at Yankee Stadium, filled with 50,000 people, all killed in car accidents. Then imagine 25 of these Yankee Stadiums, one after another, and you get the idea. And this happens every year.

Yes, if we were measuring heart disease, we'd be talking close to 150 Yankee Stadiums. But road fatalities are in the top 10 leading causes of death around the world. Some countries are more dangerous to drive in than others. For instance, you probably want to avoid driving in Eritrea, with 48.4 fatalities per 100,000 people. Micronesia is a safe bet with less than 2 per 100,000 people. (But then the island nation only has 100,000 people.) Israel actually makes the top 10 safest driving countries with 3.3 per 100,000. The U.S. is 11.6 per 100,000, twice as many as Canada.

But obviously location isn't the factor to change - it's our driving habits.

We have to stop being "agitated" on the road, driving when we're emotionally volatile - either upset or angry, or anxious about being late. These emotions cause us to drive erratically, irresponsibly, aggressively. It brings us to speed, tailgate, pass other cars when it's not safe, weave in and out of traffic, and perform all kinds of risky maneuvers on the road. A recent study found that driving while emotionally agitated makes people 10 times more likely to get in an accident.

We have to stop doing things that take our eyes off the road. Let's start with mobile devices. Texting makes us 6 times more likely to get in an accident. Dialing a phone number is actually double that. But it's not just phones. Reaching for anything in the car makes us 9 times more likely to crash. Reading or jotting down notes, 10 times more likely. Distracted driving is an epidemic. Distracted walking is too, though in a 1.5 to 3 ton car, we're also operating a deadly weapon. That thought needs to sink in every time we get behind the wheel.

We have to slow down. I'm not just talking about high speed limits, which correlate to more fatalities. I mean driving faster than is safe in a given situation. When we're driving in places where people could potentially cross the street, we need time to react. On my own dead-end street, where there are no sidewalks and people can walk out onto the street at any moment, even 20 kph (12 mph) is too fast. I'm constantly telling people to slow down. Getting somewhere a few minutes or seconds earlier is not worth the risk.

We have to be even more careful at night. All the risks of driving are magnified at night, because we can't see as well, even in well-lit spaces. A disproportionate number of road fatalities take place after dark. Our reaction time is just not as good. So again, s-l-o-w down. Remain constantly aware of the road so that you'll have time to stop. Because you may not be able to see a person, object, or animal until they enter the path of your headlights. Which gives you very little time to stop. Also, don't blind oncoming drivers with your brights. And if you're sleepy, pull over and rest.

There are of course lots of other risk factors to talk about - non-use of seat belts and helmets, driving while intoxicated, etc. Suffice it to say we have much room for improvement in terms of our "derech eretz" - how we conduct ourselves on the derech, on the road.

"Don't become agitated (distracted, reckless, aggressive) along the way."

The sages turned this verse into a mnemonic. We need to make it into our mantra, every time we sit in the driver's seat. Peoples lives, and our own lives, depend on it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Other-Siders: On being a Hebrew - Torah portion Miketz

Joseph's brothers are asked to dine at his house. The Egyptians in Joseph's house eat separately, and the Torah tells us why:
"The Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, because it was abhorrent to the Egyptians." (Gen 43:32)
What was abhorrent about it? We find out later that shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians (46:34). Commentators such as Rashi say that this is because the animals being shepherded and eaten by the Hebrews - sheep and bulls - are Egyptian gods. However, we have evidence that at least some subset of Egyptians ate beef and mutton, and the Torah itself speaks about Pharaoh (i.e. the Kingdom of Egypt) possessing livestock (47:6). So there may be more to this issue than meets the eye, and I think I'll leave it to the Egyptologists and other scholars to sort that one out.

At any rate, the Torah describes a taboo among Egyptians against co-mingling with Hebrews. The Hebrew experience, at least in Egypt, is decidedly that of the "other," the outsider. Which incidentally is built into the term "Hebrew" itself.

An Ivri (Hebrew) means a descendant of Ever (Eber), great grandson of Shem. From the root avar, it implies being from, or moving to, the "other side." The first person the Torah describes as a Hebrew is Abraham (Gen 14:13), who migrates from Mesopotamia to Canaan - the "other side" of the river Euphrates.

In the Neo-Assyrian and Persian Achaemenid empires, the tax district west of the Euphrates was known as Eber Nari (Avar Nahara in Hebrew, see e.g. Ezra 10:6), meaning, "the other side of the river." Mesopotamia was "here," on this side, and the communities to the west were "there," on the other side.

So the Hebrews are "other-siders" from a variety of angles. They're not Mesopotamians geographically, having moved from there, nor in mindset, having their own culture and beliefs. They're not Canaanites, but Mesopotamian immigrants. And not only are they foreigners among the Egyptians, but they're abhorred for being shepherds.

To a large degree, this characterizes much of the Jewish experience, certainly in the diaspora. We're other-siders. We're used to feeling like "guests" in our own homes. When we've been expelled or fled from our countries of birth, the tragic reality is that too often we've had nowhere to go, nowhere to call home. Even in the modern-day State of Israel, we're often told by people opposed to our presence to "go back" to Europe or North Africa - places we fled or were forced out of.

Without question, being an other-sider is a significant feature of the Jewish psyche. It can be unsettling and painful, but I'd argue that it also offers some distinct advantages. Possessing a certain outsider viewpoint on things imparts people with perspective. It's a bit like a cinematographer watching a film, as opposed to a regular movie-goer. A cinematographer almost can't help but analyze the film, in addition to (or instead of) simply experiencing it. In so doing, they'll notice things the rest of us are unconscious of, being wholly wrapped up in the plot.

Yes, there's a place for in-the-moment experience, being present rather than analyzing. But there's also a place for the "Hebrew" in us. It helps us to see differently, to take stock on where we're at, where society is at. It lends perspective on norms we otherwise take for granted, prompts us to think outside the box, and to look for new ways to improve things. Being other-siders causes us to step outside of ourselves, to engage in self-critique and self-correction. It's no doubt a key ingredient for so many individuals who go on to achieve greatness.

Of course, the same other-sider mentality can also cause people to become insular, to fear, vilify and blame the outside, and to overlook and downplay their own faults. It's something that can consume a person, or a culture, if they're not careful. So we need to use our "other-sidedness" judiciously, with the intent to become more conscious, more incisive, more imaginative and creative.

The truth is, everyone has a little "Hebrew" in them. We all know what it feels like to be left out, not be one of the gang. It's the pain of being an other-sider, but a pain which comes with the gift of perspective, and ultimately the promise of conscious advance. So if you ever find yourself feeling like the other, use it - embrace it, learn from it, and help the rest of us gain from your perspective.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Error Correction and Conscious Progress - Torah Portion Vayeshev

Judah accuses his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of having illicit relations after she's found to be pregnant. But of course Tamar turns the tables:
"By the man whom these [items] belong to, I became pregnant." (Gen 38:25)
She proceeds to bring out Judah's signet ring, his staff, etc. Judah recognizes them, and then says what is possibly my favorite line in the entire Torah:
"She is more right(eous) than I am."
Judah admits she's right - it was he who pledged to give her his son Shela in marriage and reneged. Tamar was left in the lurch, waiting around for years as a widow for a marriage that Judah never intended to make happen. Why is "she's right" among my favorite lines in the Torah? Because it's an admission of error. It's the willingness to engage in self-correction. And error correction is really the gateway to conscious progress.

Interesting that the English word "admit" has two connotations - to "concede" and to "allow in." When we admit we're wrong, what we're doing is allowing the possibility of absorbing a new idea, a correction over what we held previously. If we do not allow it, if our ego, pride and self-worth are tied up with having to be "right," or with a previously held position, if our resoluteness and iron will prevent us from self-reflection, we block the capacity for progress.

It should also be said that when a society and its institutions (and that includes Jewish ones) deem any idea or person unassailable, unquestionable, or beyond debate, this also impedes conscious progress, because it prevents the possibility of correction.

Judaism is, or should be, in part a celebration of error. Not error per se, but the awareness of it, and the desire to correct it - in order to move forward, morally and intellectually. That is the concept of teshuva, self-correction. In fact the word "Judaism" comes from Judah. The name Yehudah (Judah) is linked to the root yada - yielding, admitting, and acknowledging. (See Gen 29:35)

Judah's descendants become the kings, earn the mantle of leadership. And I would like to think that a part of Judah's "greatness" is linked to his willingness to engage in self-correction. His desire to learn from mistakes portends the humility needed for effective and virtuous leadership. Several hundred years later, David, a descendant of Judah, likewise has the tables turned on him by the prophet Natan, where the person David condemns turns out to be none other than himself. And he accepts Natan's rebuke. Admission of error, and the desire and commitment to make corrections - that is, in my estimation, the most noble and regal part of Jewish tradition.

But I think Tamar's greatness deserves a mention here too. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) praises Tamar for not coming out and chastising or embarrassing Judah, but instead presenting his belongings and giving him the chance to realize and admit his error. Natan uses a similar sort of technique.

Correction (improvement, betterment, progress) is the goal. And self-correction is better than correction by means of coercion, because it's more genuine, and because it stands a better chance of being implemented. It helps to want it. How do we help people want to self-correct? By engaging them respectfully rather than aggressively. Hostile confrontation generally puts people on the defensive and if anything makes them more likely to double-down on their position. And by giving people the experience of discovering their error for themselves. Not an easy trick to pull off, but one which we ought to learn how to do if we want to foster real teshuva, encourage conscious progress.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Parable of the Magic Chicken

I'm not a big purveyor of parables, but somehow the style seems particularly apt here. (H/T II Samuel 12, Natan's rebuke of David. Also inspired by my friend Rabbi Natan Slifkin's post.)

*   *   *

A person comes to seek the counsel of an esteemed rabbinic leader:

"Rabbi, a holy man in our community has been selling chickens. He guarantees that if you buy one of his chickens, it will lay enough eggs to feed your entire household and then some. He also says that it will only work if you do not purchase any other food, because that shows a lack of faith. In fact, he warns that if you do purchase other food, or worse, if you don't buy one of his chickens, your family will be be condemned to poverty.

People are buying the chickens in droves. Some because they believe the holy man's promise. Others out of fear, because they don't want to be ostracized by their friends, neighbors, and community if they are seen bringing additional food into their homes. This man also targets children, indoctrinating them to believe that they must buy these chickens or face ruin in their future lives.

And the chickens? It appears that they're just regular, ordinary chickens. They lay no more than 1 to 2 eggs a day, not nearly enough to feed a household. Children regularly go to bed hungry. Many are thin and malnourished. Families are suffering. Rabbi, what are we to do?"

With fire in his eyes, clearly shocked and incensed, the Rabbi answers:

"This is insanity, a travesty! When a person is brought to heavenly judgment, the first question they ask him is: Did you deal faithfully and honestly with people? Were you trustworthy in your business dealings? By making such empty guarantees, and convincing a whole community to buy into it, indeed scaring them to buy into it, this man is guilty of grave transgressions! He owes every one of these families every cent of what he guaranteed and failed to deliver, five times over. Of course he can't possibly pay them all back. Nor can he compensate them for their great suffering. Who is this 'holy man'? Bring him to me, so I can look him in the eyes and blast the fear of God into him!"

"Rabbi," says the visitor, "that man is you."

"The single chicken per household is your promise of abundant parnasah from a single earner, a woman and mother with nothing more than a beis yaakov education, which you've warned us not to supplement. You've told the men not to depart from their learning, and even the women you've forbidden from obtaining an education that would enable them to bring in enough money to support the family. You guaranteed us great abundance, and yet many of us can scarcely put food on the table, must rely on tzedaka to live. Some accept their poverty as a badge of faith. But many are scared to do anything different, not wanting to be seen as lesser in the eyes of their neighbors, or their own children, who they're also worried about marrying off. Others have lived this way their whole lives and simply lack the skills and wherewithal to do anything different.

Rabbi, you made this guarantee to us, and now I come to you on behalf of the community to ask you to cover that guarantee. Please, pay us the money you've promised we would have. And one more thing. I beg you, please stop selling us these chickens."

White as a ghost, and after a very long pause, the Rabbi responds...

*   *   *

Okay, let's leave it at that. I think you get the picture. Prose and form aside, is the parable fair? Let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Supporting Heroes - Torah Portion Vayishlach

"Deborah, Rebecca's nursemaid, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the oak, and [Jacob] named it the Oak of Weeping." (Gen 35:8)
Who's this "Deborah" all of the sudden? We know Rebecca had a nursemaid who came with her when she married Isaac (24:59), but she was never mentioned by name in all this time. And what's she doing with Jacob, anyway?

One idea is that Rebecca sent Deborah to Jacob in Padan Aram to let him know it was safe to come home. (See Rashi.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been around for all of Jacob's youth, probably helped raise him, just like she raised his mother before him. Deborah would've been like a grandmother to Jacob.

Another idea is that Deborah returned to Padan Aram early on but wanted to make this final journey with Jacob to see Rebecca one last time. (See Ramban.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been there with Jacob during his tenure with Laban, helping him to cope, helping him raise his own family, like a great grandmother to his children.

Either way, the Torah goes out of its way to mention Deborah's death. Her death is associated with weeping for Jacob. And I think it says a lot about the way people's death can affect us, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Part is the fact that the person is associated with certain times of our lives. Their death often brings up the emotion - the joy and pain - of those times, and also reminds us of the fact that these times are gone forever. This kind of grief can overtake us even if we've never met the person - like with the death of a musician whose music we grew up listening to, or any public figure who brings us back to certain times in our lives. That kind of "weeping" is not necessarily tied to the person, but to our own past.

For Jacob, there's no doubt that Deborah's death would have brought up so much of his complicated history - including the special close relationship he had with his mother, as well as the family stresses with his father and brother. Good times and also very trying times.

But then there's grief over Deborah herself. No, she wasn't a blood relative, any more than Eliezer was Abraham and Isaac's blood relative. But she was in a very real sense a kind of "matriarch" in the family. She was the person who provided nurturing and guidance to his mother back in Padan Aram, who was probably very much responsible for Rebecca turning out to be the person she was, the girl who would go on to marry Isaac and become a matriarch in her own right. And whether Deborah was with Jacob in his early years or later on, it seems clear that she was a rock for him, a fixture in his life. She stood by the family - loyal, trustworthy, nurturing and supportive - through thick and thin.

There's an idea that Deborah the Prophet/Judge was named after her, centuries later. Aside from the name, Deborah held court under a tree, near Beit El, where Rebecca's nursemaid was buried. If that's so, the original Deborah must have been seen as legendary in her service, as one of the founding pillars of the nation.

So I think it's particularly nice to see Deborah's death get a mention, even if Rebecca's own death isn't mentioned in the Torah. To me, it's a statement that people who dedicate their lives to service, who demonstrate such immense loyalty and commitment, who stand by us and support us in our lives - our friends, teachers, and mentors, volunteers, assistants, and helpers - these people are true heroes. Often unsung. And they deserve to be recognized and honored. They deserve to be loved and remembered.