Rejoice Intentionally

This Dvar Torah was given by Rachel Eisen on April 6th, 2018

Passover 7th & 8th day/Shabbat – Rachel Eisen

I know that Passover feels like a lot. Last week, my Facebook feed was filled with the usual complaints about cleaning and plenty of jokes about what was found in the oddest of places, from chametz (leavening), to toys, and everything in between. I work at Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh, and every year someone writes a blog post for us about immersing before Pesach – not just to spiritually prepare themselves for the holiday, but also to find relief from all the prep.

Then, of course, there are the think pieces that circulate in response: don’t you understand that we have to tell the story of Passover as if we, ourselves, were freed from Egypt? The hard work that we do to scrub our houses clean can only make us appreciate the freedom we celebrate at the seder even more.

Indeed, there is a lot of work for Passover — here, I’m loosely defining work as “things that have to be done or gotten through.” The Torah we read throughout the holiday reflects that. On the first day, we read about the paschal offering we must make in remembrance of the angel of death passing over the homes of Jewish slaves in Egypt. We continue to learn about the laws of sacrifice on the second day.

On the seventh day, we read about a different kind of work — not the work of remembrance, but the work it took to get to freedom: the parting of the sea, the wandering, the desperate need for water.

And coming up, on this eighth day, we will read about the work our community must continue to do: we must take yearly tithes of harvests, and we are once more reminded that we must make offering and sacrifices in order to observe Passover.

But amidst all this work, we also rejoice. On the seventh day of Passover, we read about how the Israelites broke out in song upon their escape from bondage. In the Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, we are commanded twice to rejoice. And when, like this year, the eighth day falls on Shabbat, our expanded reading contains yet a third mandate.

I think it is significant that these specific, multiple commandments to rejoice come on the last day of Passover. If you pay attention, you’ll actually notice that none of the three seem to have anything to do with this particular holiday: the first (which is part of the Shabbat extension reading) has to do with how we live our everyday, or rather, everyyear lives – it is a directive to rejoice during the annual tithing. The second and third are commandments to rejoice during the two other major week-long festivals, Shavuot and Sukkot.

But these two other festivals of course have everything to do with Passover.

While Passover celebrates our physical freedom from bondage and slavery, Shavuot celebrates our spiritual freedom, gained through Torah and our covenant with God, and Sukkot commemorates the journey we took to become a people, in order to realize that spiritual freedom. Shavuot and Sukkot cannot exist without Passover.

What’s interesting is that the celebration of the Israelites at edge of sea that we read about on the seventh day is not technically referred to as “rejoicing.” It is primal, and reactionary. The Israelites break out into song and dance at the pure relief of finally being physically freed.

The commandments, samachta, “you shall rejoice,” that we find in our reading for the eighth day of Passover are similarly public, outward expressions of celebration. But in contrast to the primal celebration at the edge of the sea that was marred by the concurrent drowning deaths of God’s creatures — foes of the Israelites, to be sure, but as two different sages remind on us on two separate occasions in the Talmud, God’s creatures nonetheless — in this rejoicing we are obligated to include not just ourselves, but also people of all genders and ages, our own slaves, the strangers and the needy among us.

This is a rejoicing that understands not just physical freedom, but spiritual freedom and the journeys one must embark on to understand the difference. It includes all peoples and it is grounded in justice.

As we now draw toward the end of Passover, this holiday which is marked by effort and work, and continue on our journey toward Sinai and covenant with God, I encourage you to consider what it means to rejoice intentionally and what it means to rejoice for justice and spiritual freedom, too.

Shabbat shalom.

Parashat Tazria – focusing only on the necessary

This Dvar Torah was given at KICKS on 4/5 by Morry Safer

Shabbat shalom. Chodesh tov.

This week’s parsha is parashat Tazria. A couple of meta-drash points before I get started. First, from about 2nd grade through 4th grade, Parashat Tazria was my favorite torah portion. You may think it funny that a young student would have a favorite parsha, and even funnier to find out that this is it (if you already know the content). You see, having learned to read Hebrew, but not yet learned to chant torah trope, “reading” my mini paper torah from parashat Tazria looked the most authentic to me, with approximately half the torah rolled around each of the eitzim. I dare say, if Mrs. Maisel were to have a scene reading torah for the television audience, I’d recommend parashat Tazria as having the best visual.

Second, Parashat Tazria is often read combined with next week’s parsha, Metzorah. As I’ve taught before, the parshiot in this part of the torah fall shortly after we’ve made the determination, historically based on the observation of the vernal equinox, whether we are ready for the springtime holiday of Pesach or whether we need to delay by a leap-month. Since this year is a leap year, we spread these parshiot out in order to cover the weeks of Adar Bet.

Inherently, that means that Tazria and the parshiot immediately before and after are always read between Purim and Pesach. It is in that context that I’d like to discuss the content of the parsha.

Flashing back to Purim, many of you know that I have a long tradition of chanting Chapter 1 of the megillah (at KI and elsewhere) and since I spend so much time with its words, I’m always trying to gain new insights. This year, I was struck by a particular phrase in verse 8. To refresh the scene, we are three years into the reign of King Achashverosh, a character who is the epitome of foolishness in Rabbinic literature. To celebrate, he throws a big party for everyone in the kingdom – a party whose opulence is described in great detail: whites and blues and purples in the embroidery, silver rods, marble columns, couches of silver and gold. In verse 7, we learn that endless wine was served in mismatched golden vessels. Then, in verse 8 we learn:

וְהַשְּׁתִיָּ֥ה כַדָּ֖ת אֵ֣ין אֹנֵ֑ס

The drinking was according to the law, with no coercion”

What does this mean – “the drinking was according to the law”? King Achashverosh *is* the law. If he is throwing the party, by definition it is legal. In one interpretation in the Talmud, “the law” is connected to the previous verse about the golden goblets. There is a tradition that the mismatched golden goblets being used at the party were originally from the Temple in Jerusalem. To reinforce this interpretation, we chant these words of the megillah reading using the mournful Eicha trope. As the story goes, the previous Persian king threw a similar party and shortly thereafter died. Achashverosh, thinking he has learned from that King’s mistake, insists that his party goers be more careful with the Temple dishes. In a party full of showiness, drunkenness, and nakedness, the King makes sure that the wine is kosher! As if this wasn’t already a ridiculous visual, it is also a complete misunderstanding of the rules of the Temple. While we may be generally concerned about party kashrut, using the implements of the Temple at such a party crosses the line between the holy and the profane.

It is pretty easy to see how King Achashverosh might get confused. We are in the middle of a string of parshiot that do little to provide clarity. We’ve learned the holiness rules of the Temple korbanot and the profanity of the “strange fire” brought by Aaron’s sons to the Mishkan. Then we are presented with the clean and unclean animals, with different rules corresponding to the transfer of uncleanliness via contact and water. This week, in parashat Tazria, we get the purity laws related to menstruation and childbirth immediately adjacent to those of tzara’at – the infectious disease threat so serious that it can inhabit clothing and walls of houses.

And all of this discussion about tahor and tameh, purity and profanity, leads us up to the celebration of Pesach, whose traditional biblical observance centers around the consumption of the korban Pesach and the very clear division of the community into those who are tahor and can participate and those who are tameh and cannot. These classifications are taken so seriously that a month later, Pesach Sheini is introduced as a second opportunity to sacrifice the korban pesach for those who had transitioned from tameh to tahor in the interim. These types of community divisions are completely foreign to our modern day celebration of Passover – a holiday’s whose seder text proudly proclaims:

כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח

Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy come celebrate Passover”. All – the tameh with the tahor, the clean with the unclean, the kosher with the treif.

In our world today, in the absence of the Temple, our community survives in a perpetual “tameh” state – unable to purify ourselves. And, in a world where “ritual impurity” is hard to clearly separate from “unclean” which sounds an awful lot like “dirty”, it is easy to get confused. Throw in the added Pesach-specific complications of chametz, and like King Achashverosh, we don’t stand a chance. Are we to purify ourselves before the holiday? Complete a thorough spring cleaning to get rid of the dirt? Spend introspective time ridding ourselves of our personal “chametz” or “treif” or “tameh” – preparing for a spiritual Korban Pesach? It’s no wonder that Pesach is a holiday whose impending arrival can make us absolutely crazy!

For the specifics of how to prepare for Pesach, consult your local rabbi. But beyond those requirements, it’s time we take a deep breath as a community — making sure to take chametz seriously, but not conflating it with other issues of uncleanliness, ritual impurity or just every day dirt. These are the cumulative Torah lessons we read every year between Purim and Pesach. This year, on this Shabbat HaChodesh, when lengthy rabbinic sermons have long focused on Passover’s rules and regulations, let us be precise in our required targets for chametz cleaning, focusing only on the necessary, and enter the holiday as a community with a renewed energy for celebrating Z’man Cheruteinu, the season of our freedom.

Shabbat shalom.

Yitro: Connections Between Jethro and Moses

This Dvar Torah was given at KICKS on 1/25/2019 by Abbē Neumann

This parsha, especially in comparison to the previous parsha, is actually fairly short in length while the events depicted are incredibly powerful and important. In this parsha we read about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, learning of the miracles that God performed to help free the Israelites. We read about how Jethro is so in awe by these events that he travels to the Israelite people, meets with Moses and even extends advice to Moses out of genuine love and concern for the Israelite people and their future. We then read about the gathering at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the 10 Commandments, an incredibly dramatic and awesome scene where God speaks not just to Moses but to all of the Israelite people.

While reading this parsha, I found the dynamic between Jethro and Moses to be incredibly interesting. First, we have here the leader of the Midian people that, when he hears about the miracles that God has performed to help the Israelites, is so moved that he takes Zipporah, Moses wife, and their two children and ventures out to meet Moses and speak with him personally. His excitement for the development of the people and their relationship with God is passionate and inspiring. I think it’s important to remember that Jethro was not monotheistic but admits:

“Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].”

We then read that Jethro brings burnt offerings and sacrifices for God. Jethro’s words and actions are significant not just because he recognizes the power of God but that he expresses genuine respect for God and his chosen people. This is antithetical to Pharaoh who embodied smugness, conceit and refused to accept God’s plan for the Israelites. Pharaoh thought that he was more powerful than God whereas Jethro is humble before God and the people.

Later in the parsha, Jethro comes across a scene that puzzles and concerns him. He watches as lines of people gather morning into night, just to bring their problems before Moses and wait for his judgements and wisdom. Jethro reaches out to Moses and asks:

“What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

After Moses explains his role in this process, Jethro responds with:

“The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Again we hear from Jethro a genuine concern for Moses, the people and their future. Perhaps this was something that only a neutral third party could see, perhaps it was something that Moses and the Israelite people have been thinking about this whole time but didn’t want to admit out loud. Whatever the reason was, Jethro had the love and compassion to extend his concern to Moses directly. Moses, a man who has been speaking to and fulfilling the commands directly from God! What’s even more amazing is that Moses immediately gets to work on following through with that advice.

I find the relationship between these two leaders fascinating. They both inspire each other, they greatly respect each other and they trust each other. There aren’t many words in this parsha that really go into detail about their relationship  but the actions that they take speak louder than words. Jethro didn’t come to Moses to impart selfish demands or to show off his power, he came out of the sheer excitement and beauty of the chosen people. Moses didn’t brush off Jethro’s advice or feel threatened by him, he took his advice to heart and followed through. This is a really beautiful moment in Torah, in my opinion. Moses is often depicted as kind of alone, tired, doubtful of himself and exasperated but here we see him with a level of comfort and mutual respect. Moses doesn’t doubt himself, he just does it.

Now maybe this was just the way father/son-in-law relationships were during this time period but I have to wonder because Moses isn’t just “some guy,” this is a man speaks to God and gets his orders from God. Maybe Moses and Jethro felt a connection with one another because they’re both people who are considered “others” or “outsiders.” Moses was raised as an Egyptian, not as a Jew. Jethro was a Midian priest, not even Jewish at all. Both of these men were living in foreign places; they were not living in a world that matched who they really were on the inside. Both men developed into the people and the leaders that they are at this point in the narrative, with the inspiration and strength from God. Maybe they felt as if they each uniquely understood the challenges of being a leader who was an “other” and therefore trusted in one another.

Regardless, I think we take this moment to reflect on our own lives and relationships. Often times when we are trying to do good work that helps others, we sometimes lose ourselves in the process. We find it difficult to see out of the narrow lens we’re looking through and find it more difficult to empathize with others when we feel overwhelmed and bogged down. This can risk us to lose sight of what is really important in the work that we do and can eventually unravel the hard work we’ve already put in. Hopefully we all have a Jethro in our lives that can recognize when we’ve lost our way and feel comfortable and confident enough to reach out and speak up. If we do not have people we feel we can trust in and if we cannot let ourselves relinquish all of the power, we end up doing the opposite of good and begin to do harm to ourselves, our communities and our future. So instead of isolating ourselves, let’s all think about how we can be a little bit more like Jethro and Moses in our own relationships.

Shabbat shalom!

 

 

Bo – “Come here please!”

This Dvar Torah was given by Stephanie Berkowitz on 1/11/2019

There’s a lot in this this week’s parasha, Bo. It contains the final 3 plagues, the first seder and instructions for celebrating Pesach in the future (including many passages debated in the haggadah), and even the commandment to wear t’fillin. But, I’m not going to cover any of that because I got hung up on the very first sentence.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, “בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה .” Every major translation–JPS, King James, New International, even the Greek Septuagint translates this as “Go to Pharaoh.” But “Go” in Hebrew is “Lech” and “Bo” means “come.” Literally,the line means “come to Pharaoh.”  It seems illogical. We know that Moshe is in the wilderness and we assume that, if he is in conversation with God, he is in God’s presence–God is with him. Hence, we translate the sentence, “Go (from here) to Pharoah (over there in Egypt)!”

But, we also believe no word in the Torah is extra, misplaced, or without deep significance. The Torah has already used the command “Lech, Go!” many times, such as when God commanded Abram “Lech Lechah!” So, we can presume, at least for the sake of this d’var Torah, that the word Bo has both specific intent and deeper meaning. Luckily, I’m not the first to get caught up in this question.

A Hasidic teaching of Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk suggests that using the word “Bo, come,” simply means that God is not, or at least not entirely, in the wilderness with Moshe. Sure, God is everywhere, but the shechinah–the essence of God’s presence, is in Egypt. ‘Come to Pharaoh” is an invitation, much like the Boi Kallah verse of l’cha dodi is an invitation to the Shabbath Bride. It is as if God tells Moses, “Know that My Presence extends even into Egypt, this place of pain and suffering, where seemingly My Presence is absent.” In other words, God never leaves the slaves, those who need God most. God is there in our darkest times and in the narrowest places.

Similarly,  we could assume that God is asking Moshe to “come” because God is already with Pharaoh. On the precipice of the last three horrific plagues brought by God upon the Egyptians, God has not abandoned Pharaoh or the Egyptians. It is still possible for Pharaoh to repent and do the right thing until the last moment. God is waiting.  But, even if he doesn’t, God will be there. The idea elicits a midrash about next week’s parasha. When the angels want to join in the song at the sea, God stops them saying, “How dare you sing while my creatures are drowning?” Even while sending plagues, God cares deeply about the Egyptians too.

Joseph ben Isaac, the 12th century scholar Bekhor Shor, sees a different meaning. “The verse,” he writes, “should be read, “‘Come with me to Pharaoh.’” By using the word Bo, God is saying, “the stakes are very high but don’t be afraid, we’ll go together to face Pharaoh. Come, let’s go”. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik reminds us that God remains with Jewish people from here on, appearing as a pillar of cloud and of fire throughout their journey to the promised land. According to Soloveitchik, God is saying,“Begin the process of redemption. “I am right next to you, we will be redeemed together.”

Another way to try and discover the meaning of the word Bo is to see where else in the Torah it appears. God tells Noah: “Bo el haTeva”; ‘Come  into the Ark’. Rabbi Lori Shapiro points out that like the flood, the plagues are a kind of undoing of creation toward a rebirth, a new beginning. The Zohar suggests the parallel speaks to the immersive nature of the command. God is asking Moshe for a real “Come to Pharaoh” moment, if you will. Commanding Moshe to immerse himself into Pharoah’s psyche, the very soul of Egypt. I won’t go into the Zohar’s fantastical vision of that innermost chamber, replete with dragons and sea monsters, but share Jewish mystical scholar Daniel Matt’s interpretation of it, that God is inviting Moshe to come to the “nexus of the demonic and the divine.” A place where all of God’s creation-good and evil-vie for dominance and thus keep one another in balance. Pharaoh too is created in God’s image.

If this is the case, suggests Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, maybe God is seeking assistance. He writes that, “God’s call for Moses to approach Pharaoh reflects a more widely resounding call from the Divine to humanity at large, saying, in effect, ‘Come help me resolve this’ – or even, ‘come help me out of it.’”

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario (based loosely on my lived experience earlier this week).  You are cleaning up from a meal, maybe a breakfast meeting at work. You walk into the kitchen, arms full of leftover food. You don’t have a free hand to open the fridge and the small counter is already full so you also can’t put the food down. Inexplicably, the toaster oven, though empty, is running on the highest setting, glowing red and so hot you can feel it from across the room.  There is also a small puddle on the floor, the water cooler must be leaking. The situation is complex and potentially dangerous, but not exactly an emergency. You need help, but it’s not simple to explain what kind and you don’t want to create a panic. What do you do? You call out to your coworker down the hall, “Come here please!”

Perhaps this is what God is saying to Moshe, or as Rabbi Steinberg suggests, to all of humanity–”Come here please!” I’ve gotten into an impossible situation. I need your partnership. We need to work together. For this, you were created. Remember, a covenant, by definition, requires active participation by two partners.

Pharaoh also needs the help of the Israelites. Without slaves, servants, he cannot build his kingdom. That is why he is loathe to let them go, or as a close reading of the Text will show you, to send them away to serve another. The difference, says Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, “is: who is commanding, and why? Pharaoh is the archetype of self-centered, destructive authority. God’s voice, as embodied in Torah, also speaks to us in the voice of authority; but the intended goal is to awaken in us the forces of good, of conscience.”

We remain invited to enter the covenant and to partner to God. Rather than succumb to tyranny, whether it be in external forces embodied here by Pharaoh, or the tyranny within, the slavery to a selfish, “me first” attitude, we are invited to partner with God and with the Godly forces within ourselves and each other, a moral authority that is there in the darkest times and narrowest places, that sees good in all people, that recognizes that one’s own redemption is bound up in the redemption of others, that asks for help and seeks meaningful relationships–true, covenantal partnership. May we all find ways to accept the invitation.

 

Geneology and story telling

This Dvar Torah was given on January 4th by Rachel Eisen

I saw a funny cartoon recently that showed a character trying to tell a story, but the story would branch off in different directions and tangents, winding up with a very not-linear story. It reminded me of the way I tell stories, as I’m sure quite a few folks in this room can attest to.

It also isn’t so dissimilar from the way the Torah sometimes tells stories, and the beginning of this week’s parasha, Va’era, is a shining example.

The parasha begins, as so many do, with the scene-setting, “God spoke to Moses.” God, remembering God’s covenant with our ancestors, will now free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and fulfill that covenant. Even though neither the Israelites nor Moses himself place much faith in Moses, God instructs him to go to Pharaoh and demand his people’s freedom.

And then, just when you think we’ll get to the confrontational action, we get… a genealogy, telling us how Moses and his brother Aaron fit into the current narrative, what family they come from, and who else they’re related to.

Now, geneaologies in the Torah are nothing new. We get lists of names and descendents all the time. But, usually, their placement makes sense. They introduce characters or move us across time between important stories.

But this one, instead of introducing characters before we meet them, is literally plopped right in the middle of their story.

Why here? Why now? Given that much of our understanding of Torah and its meaning is derived from textual structure like repetition, order, or lyrical devices, there must be a reason.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German rabbi often regarded as the father of Modern Orthodoxy, thought the genealogy was placed here because it precedes the performance of God-like actions by Moses and Aaron, like turning staffs into snakes and rivers into blood. The genealogy makes clear that Moses and Aaron are only human — not gods to be worshipped.

But as Bar Ilan lecturer Dr. Leah Himmelfarb points out, Rabbi Hirsch’s secular context meant he could be thinking about his Christian neighbors, and their god-like worship of a human who was also purported to perform such miracles.

Another explanation could be that Moses was in the 26th generation from Creation. 26 is the same gematria, numerical value, as the unpronounceable name of God spelled yud-hey-vav-heh, which God introduces to Moses just a few verses earlier. Perhaps this genealogy follows the announcement of that name to emphasize the relationship between God and Moses.

But then why couldn’t this genealogy just go at the beginning of the parasha or chapter, since the introduction of God’s name comes right at the beginning, too?

The Rashbam, a 12th-century French commentator, points out that in this genealogy, certain lineages receive more detail than others. He notes more attention is given to the lineages from which are born future important characters: people like Pinchas and Korach.

But, curiously enough, if you flip ahead to Parashat Korach or Parashat Pinchas, you’ll find their genealogies are also outlined before their sagas are told.

So…why here? Why now? Before we get this genealogy, and before we get God’s instruction to Moses to demand Pharaoh free the Israelites, we learn, through the announcement of God’s name, that God’s relationship with our people is ever-evolving. God says to Moses: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יהוה.”

Even though God was known to our ancestors in a different way than Moses, it is with Moses that God continues God’s covenant with our ancestors. And we know that later on, the fulfillment of this covenant, the promise of land, was not seen by Moses himself, but by those who followed — they, too, must have known God in a still different way.

This genealogy does not just contextualize Moses and his brother Aaron, but also future characters like Korach and Pinchas. This genealogy looks to both past and future, and so is sandwiched precisely between a reminder of the past, and the setting in motion of actions that will determine our future, as well.

It’s easy to expect linear stories, progressing from one point to the next. In a simple, linear story, the recollection of a past plot point, like God’s covenant to our ancestors, only serves as a reminder of where the story has been, not necessarily where it’s going. But good stories aren’t actually linear, and our story, the Torah, definitely isn’t either. Throughout, it contains repetitions and multiple, different versions of the same events. Here, this past plot point is also about the present and the future: God’s relationship with our people is ever-changing, and God’s covenant is ongoing.

By inserting this genealogy in an unexpected place, it not only interrupts the flow of the story, but it also interrupts our assumptions about the story: people and events are connected in unexpected ways. Repetitions and re-tellings signal important messages, and the ending may not be the final, or even the most important part.

Shabbat shalom.

Vayechi – Controlling our emotions

Abbe Neumann Gave this Dvar Torah at KICKS on 12/21/2018

In this week’s parsha, we read about the final moments of Jacob’s life; his wishes, the blessings of his children, and the prophecy he foresees for his family. Now there’s a lot that can be said about this parsha but I would like to specifically focus on the blessings for his children, and even more so, the scolding towards Reuben, Simeon and Levi. Jacob says to Reuben:

Reuben, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor, Exceeding in rank And exceeding in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, You brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!

He goes on to say to Simeon and Levi:

Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.

These are quite harsh words to say to your children, especially so since they were his last words to them. But perhaps they show how much he loves his children, leaving them with an honest portrayal of themselves and their actions, so that they may see the error of their ways and start on a better path, knowing what will happen to them if they continue in their current ways.

I’m struck by how Jacob highlights the anger of his sons in his final words to them. I think it’s a good idea to explore just exactly the role that anger plays, not just in this parsha, but in the greater narrative and what the realities are of uncontrolled anger.

If we look back to parsha Vayishlach, at the story of Dinah, we see a story of two men, Simeon and Levi, with so much anger that an entire town is destroyed. In this story, it is not Jacob who answers Shechem’s request, rather it is Jacob’s sons who answer. They specifically say:

“We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred.

We know this isn’t what happens though. We later read that Simeon and Levi wait until the third day, when all of the men are in pain from the circumcision that they requested, take up arms and slay all of the men. Now you can argue that this is a justifiable act of revenge for what happened to their sister Dinah but that would only be true if Shechem was the only target of this rage. Instead, an entire town suffered from the actions of a few, in which they had no say in.

We see this happen again, later, in Exodus with Pharaoh and the hardening of his heart. Again we read about another man with whom rage grows and intensifies, becoming all consuming and resulting in violence and destruction. The Egyptian people suffer because of the actions and decisions of an individual, who’s choices they have no say in. Some may ask how God could allow so many innocent people to suffer instead of just the key players in these stories? I think that we should look at it a different way though.

Often times, the people who suffer the most from rage, they are not the perpetrator nor the “enemy” but the people surrounding that suffer. The people you love the most, the people who you don’t even know, these are the people who we forget in fits of rage. When we let our anger take control, we lose ourselves and we destroy everything around us. This is the reality of uncontrolled emotions. We see it not just in the Bible but we see it now, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our countries and continents. Whether it be victims of domestic violence, refugees from war torn countries, victims of gun violence, or any number of tragedies that are occurring all over the world, at any given time, they are the ones who bear the heaviest consequence of uncontrolled emotions.

You cannot be a great leader if you are so blind with hatred and rage that you cannot see or care about anyone but yourself and your feelings. Anger is addictive and is often times confused with power. Power, I assure you, does not reside in anger but in the ability to see and hear all that is around you and to consider with neutral head what your realistic choices are and what the consequences will be of those decisions. Anger blinds you to reality and clouds your judgements. Impulsivity does not allow you to consider all avenues and what may be waiting at the end of the path. Anger limits you.

God gave us the gift of Shabbat. A period of 25 hours of separation, of rest, of food and friendship, another realm for us to reside in temporarily. So take this Shabbat to sit down, breathe deep, to leave the week behind and leave the week ahead in the future. To let yourself live in the moment and be mindful of the people around you, whether you know them or not. When it comes time for Havdalah and you enter back into the secular world, bring with it the sweetness of the besamim and consider the last 25 hours of freedom that you’ve been enjoying, and consider how to leave these toxic emotions from the previous week, in the past and bring the expansiveness of Shabbat into the rest of your week – how might we let that new awareness influence us, refusing to be limited by the anger and overwhelming emotions stirred within us during the week?  Controlling your emotions is hard, very hard. It is even harder to do this while maintaining our awareness of those who surround us every day. But we can use the gifts that God gave us, to better ourselves, to free ourselves because we have free will and we have the power to use it for good.

Shabbat shalom!

What happens when we let our yetzer ra run wild

This Dvar Torah was given by Matan Koch at KICKS on Friday, 11/30/2018

A few months ago it occurred to me that even though I have given many Divrei Torah here and in other places, I have not, in the last 24 years, spoken of my bar mitzvah portion, parashat Vayashev. As such, I asked Stephanie if I could speak tonight.

Now Vayashev has many interesting parts. Judah and Tamar, Potiphar’s wife, and the dreams of the Baker and the cupbearer that will set the stage for Joseph’s most famous dream interpretation next week. But I read the story that ends with Ruben finding an empty pit, his brother having been sold. I do not have my speech from my bar mitzvah, but I am pretty sure that I focused on the inadequacy of Ruben’s actions, his “do not shed blood” as he convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph, and his failed rescue plan.

24 years later, I see this inadequacy, which still rankles, in a slightly more mature light. This story seems replete with what happens when we let our yetzer ra run wild, and we allow situations to escalate. Joseph is perhaps the most understandable character in the story, right? While 13-year-old me could not appreciate this, Joseph was a boy, a spoiled boy who had visions of greatness, (true ones as it turned out) and bragged about them to his brothers. A failing, certainly, but not so uncommon in a youth, right?

No, the first flaw is with Jacob, clearly not a man of great empathy, or self reflection, as we have already seen through his interactions with his brother, and his first wife. He reads as a fairly self-absorbed person, who likes what he likes and does not particularly care how that affects other people, whether it is stealing a blessing and a birthright, or doting on the son of the wife that he actually cares about.

This portion tells us that he must have actually been a pretty bad father, not only showing favorites, and not only failing to help his son see the humble interpretations of his dreams of greatness, but apparently providing so little moral guidance to his children that they view it as an appropriate response to kill their annoying brother, at least until Judah’s inspired plan to sell him into slavery. What kind of parenting creates a moral compass like that? Perhaps the same kind that renders Judah so lacking again later on in the portion.

And then Ruben, who sells his brothers on a plan to let Joseph die of exposure, hoping that he can secretly rescue him. Slightly better than his brothers, yes, but very weak it seems.

And yet, let us think about this for a moment. Ruben had the same week role models as the rest of them. Vicious intra sibling rivalry was the norm and his family. And the rage, unchecked for years in his brothers, which he probably still felt in some measure, making it truly a dangerous thing to really stand up. Maybe he would have been killed, too. Quite possibly, at least savagely overruled. It is not necessarily a reason not to stand up, but notwithstanding the upcoming holiday, not everyone is Judah Maccabee. The unchecked character flaws Jacob and Joseph and the brothers created a situation toxic enough that it would have taken heroic measures to stand up, if they would have been effective at all.

I will be candid, this seems like a cautionary tale for our world today. Civility is failing no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. Vicious rhetoric, and a failure of dialogue have become our norm. Our president labels everyone he does not like with some terrible nickname, and many of us respond by calling him things like “cheeto”. What seemed like horrible actions that would clearly sink his campaign little more than 2 years ago (remember Goldstar parents, the mocking of the disabled reporter, and the sexually violent comment that we will not repeat in synagogue) are now par for the course, frankly on both sides, from a civility perspective, although we on the liberal side have not yet resorted to violence.

And it makes me think of the mean circulating this week that the Holocaust did not start from nothing, Germany did not go from zero to Auschwitz overnight. Now, what happened was very much like the Joseph story. The slow stoking of intolerance, degradation of standard, and failure to restrain brutal influences, leading to a day when a population of young Germans raised in that culture could callously kill 11 million people, and those voices who might stand up would require extraordinary bravery, against risk of suffering the same fate. All because our worst impulses had been unrestrained.

There is no indication that our president is genocidal. I do not think that Trump will be the type of figure who architects the types of atrocities of Nazi Germany. And yet, the Joseph story tells us that the poor leader at the center who fails to restrain either his influences or those of the people around him need not be the architect of the horrific action. Jacob did not throw Joseph into a pit, or sell him into slavery, and yet there we are.

So what is the solution? We certainly will not succeed in changing this president. His behavior will remain what it is until the day he leaves office. But I saw an article yesterday where no less a figure than Amon Bundy, no great champion of tolerance, was quoted objecting to the demonization of the refugees coming to the border, a libertarian who once stood in armed opposition to the federal government asking the question, “should not America be a sanctuary for those who just need a safe place to live?”

We cannot change the president, but we can change the society around us. We can restrain our own evil impulses and try to restrain those of the people in our immediate circle. We can stand the cultural erosion of civility and humanity, and make sure that we do not get to the place of a generation in our children who can stand around the pit, tossing in their brother, or the gas chamber, tossing in their neighbor. Ruben spoke up a little bit, way too late, but let us speak up now, and loudly, and change the conversation.