Deception lays at the heart of this week’s Torah reading. Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright, and then deceived his father Isaac to receive the blessing of the first born.
Later, Jacob was deceived by Laban and Leah. Jacob woke up after his wedding night to find Leah instead of his love, her sister Rachel. One of our traditional stories of interpretation, from Genesis Rabbah 70:17, depicts the entire drama:
Jacob said to Leah, ‘Deceiver, daughter of a deceiver! Did I not call you Rachel and you answered me?!’
She replied, ‘Is there a master without students? Did your father not call you Esau and you answered him?!’”
As Jews we grapple with the reality of human behavior, especially in the stories of our patriarchs.
Deception breeds deception.
Only by wrestling with his conscience, by literally grappling with a divine being, did Jacob eventually become Israel, “God-wrestler”, and so become ready to face his brother Esau decades later.
As our society struggles with deception and truth in public and private spheres, I hope that we can all find our better selves, make amends when called for, and move forward each and every day with greater clarity and compassion.
“Indeed, I have known him, in order that he may charge his descendants and his household after him: they shall keep the way of God, to do what is right and just, in order that God may bring upon Abraham what God spoke concerning him.”
This pivotal weekly reading comes during another difficult week in our State of New York and our country.
As our hearts go out to our family, friends, and fellow New Yorkers in the wake of yet another act of violence against humanity, I continue to ask: How can I fulfill the promise of doing “what is right and just”?
Hatred and intolerance seem to swirl around us. Scratch the surface and our personal and communal insecurity can quickly turn to anger. I know that I must take my elevated heart rate, my visceral responses, and turn them into expressions of my experiences that others can hear without recoiling.
We must turn our concerns and our worries into stories that connect us to one another. Yesterday, a teacher of reconciliation, Terry Cross, shared this piece of Native American wisdom with the Racial Equity Roundtable: “The shortest distance between two people is a story”.
Our stories are filled with our strivings to do righteously and live justly. Let us figure out a way to share what we’ve lived so that others can view us as companions.
May your week and Shabbat be filled with stories that bring us together
I call as witness against you today the heavens and the earth: life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; now choose life, in order that you may live better… (Deuteronomy 30:19)
As we finish reading Deuteronomy, we also come to the end of the Jewish year and enter into our Days of Awe, Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.
This is when we attempt to figure out how to better “choose life” for the year to come.
Let us choose life for those in need.
As our worries about the lives of our family, friends, and fellow citizens, in the paths of Harvey and Irma subside, let us contribute to help those whose livelihood and homes have been drastically impacted.
TBZ is collecting gift cards to send to our Jewish communities affected –Home Depot, Target, Walmart, and local grocery stores (H-E-B and Kroger in Texas, Publix and Kroger in Florida) – please send or drop any cards with Becky. We will send them to the local Federations in the impacted areas.
There will be a mission to volunteer our assistance in person in November – we will pass along details as they emerge.
Let us choose life for our community.
Joining together for the High Holy Days helps energize us and our connections with our extended Jewish Family. Please check out this video about the URJ Biennial. December 6-10 in Boston will be the biggest gathering of Jews in North America, and the most exciting way to find Jewish inspiration in the New Year.
I hope that all of you will join us in helping those in need, gathering for our High Holy Days, and making the trip to Boston for the Biennial.
Wishing safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year,
Blessings and curses abound in this week’s Torah reading, all tied to the future behavior of the Israelites entering the Promised Land. This “reward and punishment” system can be seen as the source of a host of truly negative cultural and social thoughts and actions.
We often ask: “why do bad things happen to good people” – Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an entire book exploring this question. A teacher of mine, Rabbi Jacob Staub, once commented, “We might better ask ‘why do good things happen to me that I don’t deserve?’”
The last few weeks have been filled with troubles: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the possible deportation of hundreds of thousands of “dreamers”, the floods this year in South Asia that have displaced millions, to name but a few.
No one deserves a natural disaster. No one deserves arbitrary punishment from a country that holds power over them. No one deserves to get sick.
Jews have reinterpreted these passages for millennia clearly stating that there is no supernatural reward or punishment – our actions carry with them their own benefits and difficulties.
Let us help those we can in whatever ways that we can. Here is a link to resources to help our communities that suffered from Harvey. At TBZ we are collecting gift cards to stores like Target, Home Depot, and Walmart, so that we can send the resources to help people rebuild.
We can be the blessing that helps to alleviate the curses that come our way.
Judges and officials you are to provide for yourselves…they are to judge the people with fair judgements. You are not to cast aside a case-for-judgment, you are not to specially recognize anyone’s face, and you are not to take a bribe – for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and twists the words of the just. Justice, justice you are to pursue…
(Selections from Deuteronomy 16:18-20)
When we appoint and elect leaders, judges, officials of any sort, our traditions teach us that we must hold them to a very high standard. To stand up for people is to accept upon ourselves a responsibility to pursue justice in all its forms, to aim past bias and favors, and to embrace the complicated way in which justice appears different from different people’s perspectives.
Still we must limit our explorations of different viewpoints. Some indeed sentiments are beyond the boundaries of civil society. To advocate for the destruction of the very principles upon which our communities are based is to transgress against any reasonable tolerance of open-minded acceptance of differing views.
As we navigate the hazardous waters of politics, community, and religion together, I hope to participate in helping us discuss, clarify, and continue to evolve, our senses of these boundaries as we uphold them together.
"Teach them to your children, by speaking of them in when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down, when you rise up...in order that your days may be many."
How will teaching and speaking the words of the Torah "make our days many"?
Charles London, in the commentary on the Torah called "Unscrolled" that we have been perusing during Torah study, observes that when we tell our collective and personal stories, especially the difficult ones, we expand the world for ourselves and our descendants.
To truly connect with each other we have to trust one another with the stories, the real Torah, Jewish and uniquely individual, that defines us. When we do that, we create links between ourselves and others within and through generations.mThe stories are the vehicles for bigger and better communal life.
Let us look for the Torah that we learn, from Judaism, from the world, and from within, listen to it in each other, and share it so that we may all "make our days many" together.
Adonai said to me: Do not harass Moab, do not stir yourself up against them in war, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, for to the Descendants of Lot
I have given Ar as a possession.
This week we begin to read Deuteronomy, the summary of Moses’ words to the Israelites before they entered the Land of Israel.
In the verse above, we see that God claimed a bond with the People of Moab, the Descendants of Lot, and in other places the Descendants of Esau (see Deuteronomy 2:4-5).
We often hear Torah speaking only about the special relationship between God and the Jewish People. Yet, our scripture’s theology makes it quite clear that everyone has a place in the world, and that God can and does have special relationships with all peoples.
We are equal in our uniqueness, and as our later prophets emphatically state, our God is everyone’s God too.
Wishing everyone a mid-summer of ease and opportunities to connect with lots of different people,
“I give [Pinchas] my covenant of peace.”
Pinchas received this “covenant of peace” from God for murdering a Moabite woman and an Israelite man who were “misbehaving” at the entry to the Tent of Meeting. This zealous act in the name of God appeased God’s anger, and prevented a greater outbreak of divine death and destruction onto the Israelites.
We struggle with this because on the surface it seems to teach that violence in the name of God is a good thing.
The Torah text, in the actual scroll, records the word “peace”, “shalom” in Hebrew, with a partial letter, half of the letter “vav” is unwritten.
The scribes who created a standardized Hebrew text for our holiest scripture made sure that their feelings, their struggles with the text, were included as well.
Real issues deserve struggle and we wrestle with Torah, accepting that the point of our holiest texts is to raise serious questions
Wishing you a wonderful week