Friday, January 29, 2016

Finding the Authority Within or How to Survive Advice from your Father in Law

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Yitro 2016

“I need not expand on the importance of the theme of authority. Few are the educated people who can exist without depending on others, or develop a truly independent opinion. One cannot overestimate the power of people’s lack of internal decision making and their craving for external authority. The incredible rise in frequency of neurosis we see around us since the power of religion has been decimated serves as a measure of this.” (Sigmund Freud, Opening Lecture at the Second Psychoanalytic Conference, 1910)

This week’s Torah portion is all about authority. Its second half tells the quintessential moment of Jewish authority: the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It’s a hierarchical model of authority if ever there was one – with the Law given from up high and forced on the nation. The Israelites accept wholeheartedly, bowing their heads to Divine Authority, saying: נעשה ונשמע - We will perform and we will hearken. That’s at least how one strand of our tradition tells it. For Freud, it is the moment of the inhibiting Super-ego being crowned over the id and ego, a heteronomous power which if internalized properly will bring out the healthy and productive individual. It is a tale of human yearning for external authority.

Discussions of the trouble with external authority abound. But the story of Sinai is prefaced by another tale of authority; one which puts a spotlight on our relationship to our own, internal authority. The juxtaposition makes a claim: before we establish the role of external authority, one’s own sense of internal authority must be met face to face . This psychological exercise is played out by the quintessential underminer of authority: the parent-in-law.
Yitro, Moses’ father in law and Priest of Midian, comes to visit his son-in-law’s band of runaway slaves in their desert abode. Before leaving, the seasoned priest teaches his entrepreneuring young son-in-law a lesson in systems. Seeing Moses overburdened “from daybreak until sunset” by those seeking the ear of the leader, he advises him to create a multi-tiered human justice system which can transmit God’s word to the people without over-burdening the sole prophet. It’s a lesson in the move from charismatic leadership to bureaucratic leadership, as Max Weber will call it centuries later. But what is actually going on is Yitro calling Moses out for not recognizing his own authority, and not recognizing that the “locus of control” to his situation resides in himself.
This is how the little family spat is described in Exodus 18:

Now it was on the morrow:
Moshe sat to judge the people,
And the people stood before Moshe
from daybreak until sunset.

When Moshe’s father-in-law saw
all that he had to do for the people,
He said: What are you doing to the people!
Why do you sit alone, while the entire people must stand before you from daybreak until sunset?

Moshe said to his father-in-law:
It’s the people who come to me to inquire of God!
Whenever they have some legal-matter, it comes to me –
I judge between a man and his fellow
And make known God’s laws and his instructions.

Then Moshe’s father-in-law said to him:
Not good is this matter, as you do it!
You will become worn out, yes, worn out,
Not only you, but also the people that are with you,
For this matter is too heavy for you,
You cannot do it alone!
Rather, listen to my advice…
(Exodus 18:13-24)

וַיְהִי, מִמָּחֳרָת,
וַיֵּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה,
לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-הָעָם;
וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה,
מִן-הַבֹּקֶר עַד-הָעָרֶב.

וַיַּרְא חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-הוּא עֹשֶׂה לָעָם;
וַיֹּאמֶר: מָה-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה לָעָם?? מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה יוֹשֵׁב לְבַדֶּךָ,
וְכָל-הָעָם נִצָּב עָלֶיךָ מִן-בֹּקֶר עַד-עָרֶב.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹתְנוֹ:
כִּי-יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם, לִדְרֹשׁ אֱלֹהִים.
כִּי-יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר, בָּא אֵלַי,
וְשָׁפַטְתִּי, בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ;
וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת-חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹהִים, וְאֶת-תּוֹרֹתָיו.

וַיֹּאמֶר חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵלָיו: 
לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה.
נָבֹל תִּבֹּל--גַּם-אַתָּה, גַּם-הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עִמָּךְ:
כִּי-כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר, לֹא-תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ!
עַתָּה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, אִיעָצְךָ...
(שמות יח יג-כב)
One is enticed to read Yitro as the stereotypical conniving father-in-law: first, he spies on his son-in-law at work. Then he takes license to criticize his practices: “What are you doing?? Why are you doing it alone, and causing all these people to wait for hours??” When Moses gets all defensive (“I didn’t ask for this, they started it…”), Yitro turns to outright criticism, and finally to the sharpest weapon of the in-law: Let me give you some advice…
This is how Rabbi Hayyim Ben Attar, one of the most attuned readers of dialogues in the Torah, reads the discussion between them: “Moses heard in Yitro’s words a criticism, as if he is forcing them to only adhere to his judgement, and not to others” (Or haChayim Exodus 18:16).
Of course, the contentious reading of Yitro and Moses’ relationship is not necessarily so. We’ll never know what tones (and undertones) filled their conversation. But as the experienced High Priest teaches Moses how to run an organized religion, he also names something about Moses’ insecurities.
A basic adage of organizational psychology claims that if a dysfunction in a system is perpetualized, it’s probably because it serves a need for all parties involved. As we view the long line of Israelites waiting on Moses’ word from morning to night, it is clear what need this is serving: like New Yorkers who love to wait in line for the “best food in town”, Moses is the only authority in their eyes, the all-powerful savior from Pharaoh, and they want to receive truth, leadership and guidance from his mouth only. But what need is this burdensome dysfunctional system serving for Moses? Why does he need an external review in order to change the dysfunctional system he allowed the Israelites to create around him?
I’d suggest that Moses doesn’t change the authority structure not because he actually enjoys being the sole authority, but because he feels deeply equivocal about the authority invested in him. He doesn’t feel empowered to hand it to others because he can barely admit that he is holding it himself. True, he’s exhausted, but this too serves a need: His loudly portrayed exhaustion shields him from having to take action beyond that which is already on his plate. (Thank you to David Levin Kruss for this point. I would have thought of it myself but have simply been too exhausted and overworked this week to do so…).
The dysfunctional system created around Moses allows him to continue to locate the “locus of control” in his life outside himself. First it resides with God, then with the Israelites; never with Moses. He doesn’t see himself as holding any authority, but simply serving external referents. That is a sure way to achieve exhaustion, but also to avoid recognizing one’s own power and responsibility, one’s internal sense of authority. Yitro supplies Moses with the wake up call that forces him to take the reigns.
I find Moses’ discomfort with his new found authority very relatable. The stage of life between 30-45 or so (or 80 in biblical terms) shoves us into all kinds of new authority roles which are not simple to embrace (even as we crave them). A parent who disciplines their child, the employer who fires and hires, the supervisor sending others on complicated and risky task. Truly recognizing and wielding the “authority vested in us” is no simple task, as it forces us to come to terms both with the burden of power and with the recognition of its boundaries  Often, it requires an external event - a conflict or failure or critical voice to bring us to terms with how much authority we actually do wield. Many people hold an unjustifiably inflated sense of their own power and authority, but equally pernicious are those who hold an unjustifiably deflated sense of their authority.  As the Prophet Samuel says to King Saul, before firing him: “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel!?” Saul’s inability to recognize the burden of his own authority causes his downfall. Perhaps it is the fact that Samuel was no Yitro…
A big part of coming to terms with our own authority is recognizing what is actually being asked of us in our new role, and the mixture of projections and actual needs that people bring to us. The brilliance in Yitro’s advice to Moses is not in the judicial structure he suggests, but in the way he allows Moses to see what he, Moses, brings to the table, and in that way come to terms with his authority:

Listen to my advice, so that God may be-there with you:
Be-there, yourself, for the people in relation to God. You yourself should have the matters come to God;
You should make clear to them the laws and the instructions,You should make known to them the way they should go, and the deeds that they should do;
But you – you are to have the vision to select from all the people: men of caliber, holding God in awe, men of truth, hating gain; You should set them over the people as chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, so that they may judge that people at all times.
So shall it be: Every great matter they shall bring before you,But every small matter they shall judge by themselves. Make it light upon you, and let them bear it with you.If you do thus in this matter, when God commands you further, you will be able to stand, and also this people will come to its place in peace.
Moshe hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, he did it all as he had said. (Exodus 18:19-24)
עַתָּה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, אִיעָצְךָ, וִיהִי אֱלֹהִים, עִמָּךְ;
הֱיֵה אַתָּה לָעָם, מוּל הָאֱלֹהִים, וְהֵבֵאתָ אַתָּה אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים
וְהִזְהַרְתָּה אֶתְהֶם, אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַתּוֹרֹת;
וְהוֹדַעְתָּ לָהֶם, אֶת-הַדֶּרֶךְ יֵלְכוּ בָהּ, וְאֶת-הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּן.
וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל-הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים,
אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת--שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע;
וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים, וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת, וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, בְּכָל-עֵת.
וְהָיָה כָּל-הַדָּבָר הַגָּדֹל יָבִיאוּ אֵלֶיךָ,
וְכָל-הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפְּטוּ-הֵם;
וְהָקֵל מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְנָשְׂאוּ אִתָּךְ
אִם אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּעֲשֶׂה, וְצִוְּךָ אֱלֹהִים, וְיָכָלְתָּ עֲמֹד;
וְגַם כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה, עַל-מְקֹמוֹ יָבֹא בְשָׁלוֹם

וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, לְקוֹל חֹתְנוֹ; וַיַּעַשׂ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָמָר.

Yitro helps Moses differentiate between what only he can give, and what other fine people can do. He helps name the values and traits needed to do some aspects of Moses’ job (caliber, awe, truth, hating gain), so that they can be delegated to others, while highlighting the ways in which Moses is irreplaceable, the things that only he can provide: “the matters that come from God”.
We often undervalue the very things we are best at, those skills and powers that come to us most naturally. This makes sense, since that which comes naturally to me requires very little effort –and therefor I underestimate or overlook its value. It is in all the ways in which we fall short, all the skills that require enormous effort and concentration that we attribute a high value to, thus making the half empty glass of our skills feel much more important.
Yitro helps Moses recognize that it is him that they are seeking, not just God; he helps him see his own voice and importance in the system, helps him make that which is projected on him and his own internal self assessment more congruent. He thus allow Moses to loosen his grip on the untenable system that he allowed the Children of Israel to create around him. Once Moses can come to terms with his own internal authority, he can begin the work of truly bringing God’s matters to the people.
The fact that the people weren’t really ready for it, well, that’s a whole different Torah portion…

Friday, December 25, 2015

Reclaiming the Brotherhood: Facing Homegrown Misanthropy

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | VaYechi 2015

For a few weeks now I’ve been meaning to write about my ancestor, Levi. The mythical father of my own tribe of Levites, he’s been rearing his head a lot lately. Together with his brother, Shimon, Levi is the first Child of Monotheism who unsheathed the indiscriminate sword of vengeance. In the killing of all the men of Shechem, Levi is the mascot of twisting the demand for justice and security into an isolationist and vengeful approach. He trademarked the claim, in avenging the rape of his sister Dina, that deceit and butchery are justified in the name of brotherly solidarity (“Should our sister then be treated like a whore?”). Together, Levi and Shimon hold the patent on turning Abraham’s covenant into a veil for violence.
And they’ve been accruing quite a lot of royalties lately. Each week Levi’s fingerprints appear on more and more news stories: in the religiously justified violence and extremism from various children of Abraham, but also in the increasingly isolationist approach of populist politicians. You know it’s a Levite isolationism when it condones butchering in distant camps while keeping the home camp closed and pure… Finally, for those following the latest wedding fashions in extreme-right-wing Israel, in the appalling – but not unfamiliar – call for revenge and violence from my own relatives.

As I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do amid this tidal wave, I’ve been thinking about Levi’s father, Jacob. Grandpa Jack’s weak response to his children’s misconducts is infamous. First, his lack of response upon Dina’s rape by Shechem, then his tacit approval of Levi and Shimon’s request that all of Shechem’s town circumcise themselves, and finally his repudiation of their actions, which is focused on the political ramifications with would-be allies and neighbors (“You make me reek among the settled-folk of this land!”), and not confronting the actual violence and lying involved.

At the end of his life, from the safety of his deathbed, he returns to Levi and Shimon’s actions. In the midst of this week’s Torah portions blessings to all his other children, Jacob issues the following curse:

Shimon and Levi - such brothers.
  Wronging weapons are their ties-of-kinship!
To their council may my being never come,
  In their intimacy may my person never unite!
For in their anger they kill men,
  In their self-will they maim bulls.
Damned be their anger, that it is so fierce!
  Their fury, that is so harsh!
I will split them up among Jacob,
  I will scatter them throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי – אַחִים! כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי. כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז! וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה! אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:

A Star of David and the Hebrew word ‘Revenge’ are spray-painted on the walls of a Palestinian home which was burned down by arsonists on July 31, 2015 in the Palestinian village of Duma, near Nablus (Zacahria Sadeh/Rabbis for Human Rights)
Nachmanides explains that Jacob’s resounding curse functionally cuts them out of Abraham’s inheritance, giving Shimon and Levi no independent share in the land of Israel (probably reflecting the fact that neither tribe had their own land in Biblical Israel). They are to be kept scattered among their brothers due to their “fierce anger”, “harsh fury”, and their “Hamas”-like ways (“Hamas” חמס in Hebrew, “deceitful wronging”, is the same verb used to describe the crimes of the generation of the Flood). For they “caused the name of God himself to be desecrated as people will claim that a prophet of God caused such hamas and robbery”.
But Nachmanides also zeroes in on the first word of the curse: Brothers. אחים:
Simon and Levi – Brothers” – Some understood this as Jacob at first seemingly giving them credit, describing them as brothers to the core, believers in fraternity. For their hearts were passionate over the fate of their sister.
I imagine Shimon and Levi’s ears perking up as they hear their father honor them with the title which they self-identify with so strongly. “Yes, we are brothers indeed. In a family where solidarity fell apart time and again – we were the loyal ones, weren’t we?” But then his compliment turns into repudiation: if that is brotherhood, may my legacy have nothing to do with it; may my being never become associated with this version of fraternal intimacy.
Today, I hear Jacob’s curse as a desperate plea. Please, may these powers that I have unleashed into the world not take over what the name of Jacob/Israel will become. May the family that I fathered not become smothered in brotherly fundamentalism. May such “Brotherhood” (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, GOP, DNC) not become synonymous with the project of Abraham. Jacob’s curse is not a prescribed destiny, it is a charge to the rest of his children: make sure that Levi and Shimon’s ways do not come to define what being a Child of Israel means. In a twist, he turns the fraternal charge from one of violent protectionism and vengeance into one of watchful moderation, engaged repudiation, brotherly intervention to mediate the fury and anger when they arise.
Why do I return to Levi in confronting these dangerous, disgusting and disheartening trends? Precisely because Levi is my relative, he’s my backyard, the symbol of homegrown extremism. Framing this violence as coming from my own family is a way of taking responsibility for it. Not liability, but responsibility. Levi symbolizes the challenge of confronting homegrown hatred and homegrown violence.

I do so in repudiation of the fact that so much of the discourse in response to recent events has focused on othering those we disagree with, distancing ourselves from any relationship with those who take the name of our religion/nation/story in vain and desecration, and ignoring the fact that there are values at the core of this hatred that must be engaged and countered. Hiding behind words such as “radicalization”, “fundamentalism” or “populism” is a way of creating a chasm between ourselves and those “others”, and in so doing washing our own hands from any association. Levi reminds me that what we must repudiate while engaging. Study the motivations and implications, then truly rival their ideology, from up close and personal. Not let them claim the values, dreams and names which are actually our inheritance. Not let them define what Jacob’s path is in our eyes.

As one Bronfman Fellow said to me this week at the end of our joint Mifgash Shabbaton of Israeli and American Bronfmanim: This weekend I understood how  for my parents and grandparents the mission statement of the Jewish People was “I am seeking for my brothers”. In response to the Holocaust, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the insecurity of Israel, they felt that fraternity called upon them to fight for Jews against their joint enemies. But today we live in the opposite reality, not of Jewish disempowerment, but in deep Jewish privilege and power. For me, she said, “I am seeking my brothers” means that I must not be silent - for my brothers faces have changed. I must seek them out and call them out – and I must do it first, for they are my brothers. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful for My Portion: Thoughts on Entering, Exiting and the portion of the Bronfmanim Community

Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah would pray when he entered the Beit Midrash (=House of Study) and when he left, a brief prayer.They said to him: What is the nature of this prayer?He answered: Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion. (Mishna Berakhot 4:2)

Rabbi Nehunya has been on my mind. In the last three weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of entering and exiting and everywhere I went, I taught this text. Three weeks ago at our Ten Hour Israeli alumni seminar in Tel Aviv. Two weeks ago with our North American Alumni Board members in Boston. Last week in Arizona, Becky and I got to study it with Adam Bronfman (and our tireless board president, Dana Raucher). Last night – already back in Jerusalem – it was with my virtual journal group of 2015 Bronfmanim. In each place, the teaching resonated differently, but the questions were the same. I feel so thankful to be a part of this varied and spread out community and to be able to study Torah with people united by their thirst for learning, for intentionality and for community.
As a Thanksgiving gift, I wanted to share with you some thoughts about this text (here it is in a sourcesheet format, in case you dare share it at your table). And as my own personal moment of Thanksgiving, I want to share some unabashedly promotional snapshots from the Bronfmanim community which have inspired me these last few weeks. As Paris and Brussels, Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, New Haven and Chicago, become ever more complicated places, I return to the power of the Bronfman community to serve as an antidote to polarization, a breath of inspiration amid cynicism, a model for a community of nuance amid disagreement.

On any given day, we find ourselves entering and exiting a variety of locations and contexts. In each place we have a different role to play, a specific responsibility, a different amount of power we can wield. We might even hold different names in each context (friend, father, boss, student, employee, client, daughter…). We move between these contexts constantly, and sometimes - like a whisper only we can hear - the context is switched and our role becomes entirely different than the one before it. In this decade of smartphones, our contexts keep switching and overlapping in faster and faster succession. We are constantly entering and exiting.
But then Nehunia ben haKanah stands at the doorway, and pauses for a brief prayer. “What is the nature of your prayer?” they challenge him. “Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion.”
I’d suggest Nehunia’s prayer is a call to intentionality as we enter and exit our various contexts. He’s warning us about the detriments of not noticing the context that we’re in, not being aware of the role, responsibility, and power that we wield; of the name we must answer to. His solution for himself was to create short moments of intentionality, kavana, and tefilla. He allows his hands to shake a bit, before entering a role of power and responsibility. Let no mishap happen because of me. Then, upon exiting, he brings his hands together in thanksgiving and appreciation, ensuring that next time he enters, he recalls the goodness and not just the trepidation.
Nehunia’s personal prayer is metonymic of the entire project of Mishna Berakhot, the tractate from which this aphorism is taken. Berakhot is a calling to live intentionally in the world, and it offers a unique formula, which one could call “The Secret Structure of Jewish prayer”, but I prefer to call it: The Art of Sandwich making.
 Berakhot encourages us to sandwich our experiences, trials and tribulations with brief prayers. “Before one enters a city, say one prayer. As you leave the city, say one prayer”. We are called to say a blessing before eating, and four blessings after. So too with waking and sleeping, with learning, with seeing an old friend. We even say blessings before we say blessings, and say blessings after we’ve said blessings. Sandwich upon sandwich upon sandwich.
Yet before it became a ritual murmuring, it was a call to intentionality. A note to self: be wary of the power you wield. A reminder: be thankful for our portion. I’d like to enter all my contexts the way Nehunia enters the Beit Midrash.

Learning, Service and Reciprocal Kindness
The last two words of Nehunia’s prayer deserve an extra focus. He gives thanks, acknowledgement – a noble and universal sentiment – but not for his destiny, or calling. Rather, for his portion. As he leaves, he demarcates an area which is “his portion”. The language is interesting: “portion” acknowledges that what he has is part of something larger than himself, that he is simply a part, a portion, of a grander scheme. Yet on the other hand, it is undoubtedly his. “My portion”. May my portion be among those that are thankful for their portion. merely my portion, yet it is mine nontheless. Even if I never get to see the whole.
This past month I’ve been lucky to experience many such moments of thanksgiving; of seeing that portion that we at the Bronfman Fellowships have received in the world. They are the outcome of the hard work of our amazing team; of the trust, thirst and care that you - our community - invest in it, and of the fruition of Edgar's vision which Becky and I have been lucky to call our portion. And it feels both entirely new and as old as the most cliched Mishna in our tradition.  Our portion stands on three things. 
When eighty busy Israeli Bronfmanim in their twenties and thirties take two days out of their lives to re-immerse in deep face to face conversations, or when fifty college students cram into a room at ten o’clock on a Friday night because of a thirst to engage in a kind of study too rare on their campuses – our portion is one of true learning, Torah Lishma.
When ten friends drive three hours in the desert to console a Bronfman alum they hadn’t seen in years as she buries her estranged father surrounded by strangers – our portion is one of Gemillut Hasadim, reciprocal kindness and support.
When Israeli and North American alumni board members come together across time zones and language barriers to discuss with seriousness and enthusiasm how to allocate money that you entrusted in their hands, and to discuss whether to support projects in communities distant from them geographically and ideologically, yet that they care about deeply, our portion is one of Avodah, service and social responsibility.
As I exit this month of Bronfman busyness, I pray that these moments illuminate something on your end as they have in mine. In a world of many mishaps, I give thanks for a community that helps me regain faith in learning, service and communal support. As clichéd as that sounds, sometimes faith in clichés is what the world needs more of. 
Happy Thanksgiving

רַבִּי נְחוּנְיָא בֶּן הַקָּנֶה הָיָה מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּכְנִיסָתוֹ לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, וּבִיצִיאָתוֹ תְּפִלָּה קְצָרָה.
אָמְרוּ לוֹ: מַה מָקוֹם לִתְפִלָּה זוֹ?
אָמַר לָהֶם:בִּכְנִיסָתִי - אֲנִי מִתְפַּלֵּל שֶׁלֹּא תְּאַרַע תַּקָּלָה עַל יָדִיוּבִיצִיאָתִי - אֲנִי נוֹתֵן הוֹדָאָה עַל חֶלְקִי.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Being Abraham’s Child in a time of Human Darkness

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Lech Lecha 2015

“Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim / the Father of Multitudes

Shined forth like a star / to illuminate the darkness.
You deferred Your anger / When you surveyed his deeds."
(Poem for Yom Kippur Avodah service, 7th Century)

As the children of Abraham continue to find themselves killing eachother this week, from his birth place in Ur Kasdim, through his chosen home Beer Sheva and all the way to his final rest place in Hevron; as droves of his children are forced leave their homeland, making their way to Europe in tents and encountering his other children in their steady homes; I’m asking myself what it means to be a child of Abraham in our generation.

Meir Pichadze, Georgia-Israel
Many Abrahams
Tell me who your Abraham is and I’ll tell you what kind of Jew you are. Or Christian, or Muslim…

Is your Abraham the knight of faith, who binds rationality and morality on the altar of God’s love? Is your Abraham (and Sarah!) the generous host of a tent open to all four corners of the world, or the aged traveler who has taken upon himself to wash the feet of all weary travelers? Perhaps your Abraham is Maimonides’ Socratic philosopher, seeking the truth until he finds the One God? Or is he the moral prophetic voice who was chosen in order to “teach his children… paths of justice and compassion”? Is your Abraham the blinded visionary, manipulated by competing loves to wives, God and children? Or is Abraham the meticulous Halakhic man, who intuited Jewish law long before the Torah was given at Sinai?
Like Alexander the Great’s empire, Abraham’s legacy is too great to be inherited by any one person or position. It is forever divvied up into competing lands. God’s name for him has proven true: Abraham is not just Av-Ram (Great Father), but Av-RaHam - אב המון גויים – the father of a multitude of nations. Indeed, in his personality and lore he himself is multitudes. The gift of the Hebrew vowel, ה"א, in his name is the gift of multitudity (new word?). Perhaps we all are multitudes, we simply haven’t been given as many tests (opportunities) as Grandpe Abe to allow our multitudes to shine.
In Me’a Shearim one can buy children’s books about Abraham according to your Ultra Orthodox sect. In one Abraham is dressed as a Lithuanian yeshiva student, in another he dons the garb of a devout Hassid. In the PJ Library version he looks somewhat suburban (somewhat less popular in Me’a Shearim). One can scoff at the anachronisms of Abraham’s portrayal, but I believe being Jewish means telling about myself a story that begins with Abraham, and that portrays my life values and dilemmas as illuminated by Abraham and Sarah’s lives (and, like real family, without covering their blemishes either). Retelling our parent’s stories as a way of uncovering our own.
The great thing about Abraham’s story is, it has no clear beginning. No one knows what caused God to appear to him one day and command: Lech Lecha, “go forth”, or “go to yourself” as the Zohar reads literally. Is this proof that God’s grace is random, falling on a person without prior warning, as Paul described it. Or is there a backstory that the Torah leaves out, leaving us to imagine, retell, fabricate – and through the work of midrash to weave ourselves into the fabric of Torah.

Human Darkness
Thank God, the Torah does not begin with Abraham. Our story begins with the birth of the world, and of humanity, and while this week we begin zooming in to the narrow story of Abraham’s family, a Jewish posture in the world must always be rooted in the larger human story. The sad news is the early chapters of Genesis reveal humanity in our bleakest vulnerability and violence.
In this reading, I’ll be following a 7th century Hebrew poem, called “You Established,” אתה כוננת. The poem, which is included at the bottom, is repeated today in the Sephardic Avodah service for Yom Kippur.
You established the world
from the beginningYou founded the earth
and formed creatures. […]But they broke the yoke
and said to God “Go Away!”Then You took away your hand
and they withered instantly like grass.
From Adam to Cain, from Nimrod to Noah’s generation, humanity breaks away from God and his word, breaking the yoke and yelling: “Go away!” I used to read this as a moralistic tale telling me that I as a Son of Adam am weak and insubordinate – and must therefore bend my will to my teacher and whatever book of religious law she was making me feel guilty for not keeping. But hidden among the lines of the narrative is an opposite reading of the story. Yes, human beings ARE prone to violence and insubordination, but God was complicit here. When they yelled “Go away!, he indeed left them. You took away your hand / and they withered instantly like grass.”

Human and Soil: Adam and Adamah
For ten generation, from Adam to Noah, the soil is damned and infertile. Apres deluge God declares: “I will never curse the soil again on humankind’s account; since what the human heart forms is evil from its youth.” The soil is freed from paying the price for Humanity’s mistakes (until the industrial revolution, I guess) and Noah becomes the “first man of the soil”. Grapes grow for the first time since Eden, but God does not return to humanity. Like a parent livid with his children’s behavior, God decides to stop tearing the house down on their account, but never calls them again. No one really expects human beings to behave otherwise, so what good would consequences have. “Go away, you say? Fine!” And so for another ten generation, a god-less world.
It could have remained that way forever, until –

Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim / The Father of multitudes

Shined forth like a star/ to illuminate in the darkness.
יָחִיד אַב הֲמוֹן פִּתְאֹם כְּכוֹכָב  
זָרַח מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לְהָאִיר בַּחשֶׁךְ
כַּעַסְךָ הֵפַרְתָּ  בְּשׁוּרְךָ פָעֳלוֹ
What did Avraham do that was so sudden, so illuminating? How was this star born, and what light did he bring forth? The Torah never tells us. We’re left to our own midrashic devices – smashing idols, philosophizing in the marketplace, generously hosting, fervently believing, building a powerful couplehood with Sarah despite barrenness, or perhaps going on the journey even before being called to do so.
Whatever it is, it got God to pay attention. You deferred Your anger when you surveyed his deeds. We don’t know if Avraham was even trying to get God’s attention. I’d like to believe he was just doing it in order to illuminate the darkness he found himself living in. That’s how starts usually begin to glow. Whatever it was, it soothed God’s anger. It allowed God to believe in human beings once again.
Here then is a vision for Abrahamic religion: shaping people and communities that inspire God to believe in human beings anew. How far we are from this vision. Being a child of Avraham is acting in a way that gets God to believe in us again. Being Avraham’s child is acting in a way that gets human beings to believe in themselves again. Not waiting for God’s cues, or anyone else’s for that matter. Simply taking action and alleviating the darkness, the dryness. From Ur Kasdim to Beer Sheva, from Jerusalem to California.
Shabbat Shalom,

You established the world from the beginning
You founded the earth and formed creatures.

When you surveyed the world of chaos and confusion
You banished gloom and put light in its place.

You formed from the earth a lump of soil in Your image
And commanded him concerning the tree of life

He forsook Your word and he was forsaked from Eden
But You did not destroy him for the sake of the work of Your hands.

You increased his fruit and blessed his seed
And let them flourish in Your goodness and live in quiet.

But they broke the yoke
and said to God “Go Away!”
Then You took away your hand
and they withered instantly like grass.

You remembered your covenant
With the one who was blamesless in his generation (Noah)
And as a reward You made him a remanant forever.

You made a permanent covenant of the rainbow for his sake
And in Your love for his fragrant offering You blessed his children.

Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim
The Father of multitudes
Shined forth like a star
to illuminate in the darkness.

You deferred Your anger
When you surveyed his deeds.
And when he was old
You looked into his heart.

(אתה כוננת, “You Established” Poem for Yom Kippur Avodah service, 7th Century, translation Swartz and Yahalom edition, pg 70)
אַתָּה כּוֹנַנְתָּ עוֹלָם מֵרֹאשׁ
יָסַדְתָּ תֵבֵל וּבְרִיּוֹת יָצַרְתָּ

בְּשׁוּרְךָ עוֹלָם תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ
גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹפֶל וְהִצַּבְתָּ נֹגַהּ

גֹּלֶם תַּבְנִיתְךָ מִן הָאֲדָמָה יָצַרְתָּ
וְעַל עֵץ הַדַּעַת אוֹתוֹ הִפְקַדְתָּ

דְּבָרְךָ זָנַח וְנִזְנַח מֵעֵדֶן
וְלֹא כִלִּיתוֹ לְמַעַן יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ

הִגְדַּלְתָּ פִרְיוֹ וּבֵרַכְתָּ זַרְעוֹ
וְהִפְרִיתָם בְּטוּבְךָ וְהוֹשַׁבְתָּם שָׁקֶט

וַיִּפְרְקוּ עֹל וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָאֵל סוּר מִמֶּנּוּ
וַהֲסִירוֹתָ יָד כְּרֶגַע כֶּחָצִיר אֻמְלָלוּ

זָכַרְתָּ בְרִית לְתָמִים בְּדוֹרוֹ
וּבִזְכוּתוֹ שַׂמְתָּ לְעוֹלָם שְׁאֵרִית

חֹק בְּרִית קֶשֶׁת לְמַעֲנוֹ כָרַתָּ
וּבְאַהֲבַת נִיחֹחוֹ בָּנָיו בֵּרַכְתָּ

טָעוּ בְעָשְׁרָם וּבָנוּ מִגְדָּל
וַיֹּאמְרוּ נַבְקִיעַ הָרָקִיעַ לְהִלָּחֶם בּוֹ

יָחִיד אַב הֲמוֹן פִּתְאֹם כְּכוֹכָב
זָרַח מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לְהָאִיר בַּחשֶׁךְ

כַּעַסְךָ הֵפַרְתָּ בְּשׁוּרְךָ פָעֳלוֹ
וּלְעֵת שֵׂבָתוֹ לְבָבוֹ חָקַרְתָּ