Wednesday, November 20, 2013

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address.  As I heard, at various times over the past couple of days, words from President Lincoln's famous address I am reminded just how impactful his words became.  For a two hundred and seventy word address, they are quite profound. (1)  I recall asking teachers over the years how long a particular assignment or essay needed to be.  The often heard response, and something I now say to Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, is that it is about quality not quantity.  Well, Lincoln, sure taught us that lesson.  The timing, the event itself, the country's needs at the time, President Lincoln's charisma, or any number of factors play into the staying power of the address.  However, it is episodes like this one that are pointed to as a turning point in history.  Simply by the way his words have been remembered, do we recognize that dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg became not only an important monument to the lives lost, but a monument in time.

There are many events, or points on the timeline of history that remain as turning points.  They are dates we all remember, like 1776 and 1492.  Perhaps it is the year 164 BCE, the first Hannukah that sticks out in our mind this year.  Just as timely, it was Abraham Lincoln who fixed Thanksgiving as a National Holiday on the final Thursday of November beginning in 1863, and maybe that represents a turning point.  And while Thanksgiving seems to be a fixed date, so many have asked what is with Thanksgivingukah!  The convergence of Thanksgiving and Hannukah may mark a turning point too.  (Read more about this phenomenon by clicking here>>.)  Well, not really!  Its importance, that of the overlap, certinly isn't of great significance like the address, like 1776 or 1492.  But, it certainly has marked a great coming of age for American Judaism and popular culture.  The widespread curiosity has certainly been fascinating.  

Profound moment in history or not, turning point or not, this reality certainly provides for an interesting overlap of themes.  Hannukah, a celebration of lights, Jewish identity and the miraculous brings rich traditions in each Jewish home.  Thanksgiving certainly has its share of family traditions, regional observances and the like.  One commonality is the way these two holidays bring families together.  The Thanksgiving table can ring as one of the great gathering places in Americana.  The Hannukah party (or parties in some families) brings a similar gathering to mind.  As we prepare for the Great Thanksgivingukah of 2013/5774 I hope we all enjoy great opportunities to be with family, friends and community.  
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Evon

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wednesday November 13, 2013

You know…the more I study in Judaism, the more time I spend studying texts, perusing colleagues’ and fellow Jews’ divrei torah I realize a couple of things.  First – boy, do I have a lot to learn!  But, as Jews we know that our main task in life is to learn, from these texts, from life, and from each other.  The other thing that continues to strike me as strange, things that really turn me around is finding out that things are just not as simple as I learned them in Sunday school.  I mean – that whole God is everywhere and no where thing at the same time…that worked when I was 5…now it is just mind-boggling.  Oh yeah, that whole Noah’s ark thing…two of every animal.  Really?!?!?!  So, this list could go on.  For me it is not so much about the reality of it, or the miraculousness of it, but rather what we learn each time someone from our long shalshelet hakabbalah – chain of tradition, offers a new insight or a different view.

This year, so it is with our Parsha – Vayishlach.  Jacob departs the house of his father-in-law, sends messengers ahead to check out Esau and we find the famous story of Jacob wrestling with the divine being.  The story is familiar.  We think about Jacob’s two great encounters with the likes of divinity.  First, in his flight from Esau he dreams of the ladder, the angels going up and down.  Now, upon returning and seeking reconciliation he sends his family forward and returns to the Jabbok River.  There, on the shore of the river Jacob wrestles with…as it says in one verse an איש – meaning man.  Yet, later, just six verses later as Jacob names the place Peniel because he has seen God - אלוהים, as the verse states, “כי ראיתי אלוהים פנים אל פנים – for I have seen God face to face.”1  So, back to Sunday school – I grew up believing – as I was taught – that Jacob wrestled with an angel.  So, which is it?  Is it another human being?  An angel?  Or actually God?

What I learned in Sunday school suddenly becomes more complex.  And, for me it is not about whether it is actually God, or an angel, or perhaps another human being, but rather what each of those possibilities can teach us.

The text that really gave me a new understanding this year comes from the Midrash that teaches that Jacob’s sparring partner was actually another man – or at least related to that man.  Hama Bar Hanina said regarding the “man” who wrestled with Jacob, it was the guardian angel of Esau.  To this Jacob alluded when he said to Esau, later, “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”2

So, in his effort to once again confront his brother, Jacob must overcome his anxiety about this encounter.  The apprehension is so much that Jacob engages in this mystical struggle with all that Esau is – but in the form of an angel.  Jacob is doing everything he can to prepare for this moment.  Ramban teaches us about this epic confrontation that, “one brings gifts and sacrifices to worship God, and Jacob also brought gifts and offerings to placate his aggrieved sibling.”  Furthering this idea, Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, “perhaps what the Torah, and Ramban, are pointing out is that we communicate best not by relying on superficial devices of words, and thoughts, but rather by allowing our deepest parts to respond to the presence of the other.”3

The guardian angel of Esau – this description of that mysterious sparring partner on the shore of the Jabbok River opens up a whole new view of relationship.  I loved this story when it was about wrestling with God or an angel…any old angel.  But now, the guardian angel of Esau – this is different.  When that divine being takes on the title of Esau – it is an “other.”  And, as Rabbi Artson teaches us it is about allowing our deepest parts to respond to the other.  So, Jacob once having prepared for the actual confrontation, with Esau’s angel, he can allow that deepest part to respond – in the presence of the other Esau himself.

There is just something about human interaction that requires our attention.  There is something hidden within our being that necessitates our entire being – that deepest part must respond. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches us that, “Abraham, Moses, and the prophets taught not a Jewish truth, but a human truth.  God has chosen only one dwelling place in this universe and that is the human heart.”4  It is this God within that we respond to when we are truly in the presence of another.  It is all of these that Jacob wrestled with – he began his journey of wrestling with God as he set out on his journey seeking to establish his life and a relationship with God.  It is an angel on the shore of the river – and eventually he struggles to be present, truly present before Esau – and only then was their reconciliation possible.  Jacob had to ready himself not for whether he saw God, an angel, or an angel in Esau’s face – but rather he had to be ready to be seen by the other – truly seen.  It is most important that we are cognizant of how we present ourselves – not our clothing, possessions, accomplishments, or titles – but rather are we truly enabling others to build stronger and more lasting relationships with us.

When we walk into a room full of strangers we prepare one way, and into a room of friends we present differently.  What matters most is how aware we are of ourselves – are we enabling others to see the deepest part.  Knowing that all of us created בצלם אלוהים – In God’s image and as Rabbi Sacks teaches – with God dwelling in our hearts – when we know this, then that deepest part can respond to the other.  Jacob may have seen angels moving about on that ladder.  On the shore of the Jabbok, Jacob may have confronted Esau’s angel, or God Godself, perhaps it was even Esau himself.  But, it is not about what Jacob saw, but rather how was he seen –  the reconciliation, the building of a stronger relationship was only possible when Jacob presented just himself – after all those gifts, after all the words, and thoughts of preparation – it was just Jacob and Esau.  They were face to face – for in both of them dwelt God – in their hearts.  May we all find that deepest part of ourselves – that place where God dwells – and share it with others building stronger and lasting relationships.

Shabbat Shalom

1 Genesis 32:31.
2 Genesis Rabbah 77:3 on Gen. 33:10.
3 The Bedside Torah:  Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams.  By Bradley Shavit Artzon & Miriyam Glazer, P. 58.
4 Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan.  A Letter in the Scroll, p. 191.  

Friday, November 8, 2013

Friday November 8, 2013

This week, we read a Torah portion (Vayetze) that among many lessons reminds us of the divine presence.  It is the story of Jacob's flight from his brother Esau.  We hear the tale of Jacob's dream of the ladder, with angels ascending and descending to and from heaven.  Upon waking, Jacob exclaims how God is, "present in this place, and I did not know it!" (Gen. 28:16). This is an important component of Jewish theology and the various understandings of divinity.  The ever-present God that is in everything is something many of us have been taught from an early age.  

Yet, there have been many times throughout our Jewish history that events cause us to question this theology.  The Holocaust during World War II was one of those times.  This weekend marks the anniversary an event that many consider the "official" beginning of the tragic events that befell our people during World War II.  Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, occurred 75 years ago in 1938.  It is viewed as a turning point by many because of the state sponsorship of the violence that appears to have taken place.  Whatever the case may be, this commemoration reminds us of a time when recognizing what Jacob did after his dream becomes more difficult.  How is that we can recognize the divine presence amidst such awful events and unthinkable acts of vilence and hatred?  

This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves.  But, just as Jacob had to recognize that only he had responsibility for his actions in the story that continues in Torah over the coming weeks, I, too, have evolved my theology to realize that evil exists in others' acts.  The divine presence is something we bring into the world when, and only when, we recognize the beauty that is possible in our actions and behaviors.  As we celebrate Shabbat this week and mark the 75th anniversary of this horrific period in world history, may we all commit ourselves to always work for the positive and embrace the divinity within each of us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Evon