estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)

This presentation was in part inspired by a 'd'var haftarah' I wrote last year on Hosea. I decided to take the main concept from my d'var haftarah and rework it in a more thorough and cohesive manner. Enjoy!



Living by Example, Re-envisioning of Love:

the Marital Covenant in the Book of Hosea

 

For those of you who wrap tefillin, you will know the beautiful passage from Hosea 2:21-22:

 

Verastich li leolam, vere'astich li betzedek, uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim, verastich li b’emunah veyada’at et Adonai’ – ‘(And I will espouse [betroth] you forever, I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness, and then you shall be devoted [you shall know] the Eternal.’

 

Hosea (8th century BCE) lived in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah and of King Jeroboam, son of Joash of Israel. He is in many ways both a remarkable and tragic prophet. His prophetic message is executed by him living it personally as an example. Hosea’s critique of the spiritual infidelity of the Children of Israel is reinforced by the circumstances of his own life. In Hosea’s case, the personal is profoundly political. He is forced to marry the prostitute Gomer of Diblaim and sires three children with her. This causes considerable torment for Hosea, as Magonet writes in ‘A Rabbi’s Bible – Prophets in Conflict’:

 

“Hosea finds in the troubled and tangled emotional interrelationship with his unfaithful wife the feelings and reactions of God when confronted with a wayward Israel, lurching back and forth between love and hatred, overwhelming sympathy and bitter feelings of betrayal.”[1]

 

These personal events happen against a larger political backdrop of the latter days of the Kingdom of Israel (the Nothern Kingdom), before it is overrun by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E. The book of Hosea describes a society in decline with rampant injustice and idolatry through the Cult of Baal.

Hosea sires three children with Gomer and all three are cruelly yet prophetically named: Jezreel (‘God will scatter/sow’), after the valley of the Kings where many sins were committed and Lo-Ruchama (‘unloved’) and Lo-Ammi (‘not my people’).

 

Hosea was the first prophet to phrase the covenantal relationship between God and Israel in marital and monogamous terms. Chastening the Jewish people for their idolatry, he compares this to adultery and creates an oft-repeated refrain of monotheism as spiritual monogamy. However, Hosea is not only interested in chiding the Jews in the name of God but also offers them healing their relationship through the forgiveness of God. The divine voice oscillates between anger and love. It is unsurprising, then, that Hosea and Gomer are reconciled in the end (in chapter three) as he buys Gomer back from her lovers.

 

“…Go, befriend a woman who, while befriended by a companion, consorts with others, just as the Eternal befriends the Israelites, but they turn to other gods… then I hired her for fifteen [shekels] of silver, a homer of barley, and a lethech of barley; and I stipulated with her, ‘in return, you are to go a long time without either fornicating or marrying; even I [shall not cohabit] with you.’” (Hosea 3:1-3)

 

What is surprising, however, is the form in which this reconciliation takes place. Hosea takes back Gomer, even though she has been with (or married to) other men. This is a direct violation of a Torah commandment in Deuteronomy 24:4:

 

“A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house, she leaves his household and becomes the wife of another man; then this latter man rejects her, writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, an sends her away from his house; or the man who married her last dies. Then the first husband wo divorced her shall not take her to wife again, since she has been defiled—for that would be abhorrent to the Eternal.”

 

Interestingly, this motif is repeated in Jeremiah 3:1:

 

“[The word of the Eternal came to me] as follows: If a man divorces his wife, and she leaves him and marries another man, can he ever go back to her? Would not such a land be defiled? Now you have whored with many lovers; can you return to Me?—says the Eternal.”

 

What is even more intriguing about the marital metaphor in Hosea is the way in which it is re-imagined. Feminist scholars have critiqued the use of the marital metaphor in prophetic literature. Often, women are imagined by the prophetic imagination as being unfaithful and unclean. It is true that in many cases, the patriarchal model for marriage is reaffirmed.

 

A feminist Bible scholar writes in ‘Women’s Bible Commentary’:

 

“The book of Hosea is a much-examined work among feminist biblical scholars because the prophet Hosea is the first to employ the metaphor of husband for the Deity, casting Israel in negative female imagery as the adulterous wife. This imagining reflects the historical situation in Ancient Israel where gender relationships were asymmetrical… this socially conditioned relationship deeply affects the theology of Hosea… certainly the male violence embedded in the text of Hosea… should make readers… wary of an uncritical acceptance of the marriage metaphor.”[2]  

 

And yet, from this model speaks a great tenderness and love between God and Israel. As Mufts writes in ‘Who Will Stand in the Breach? A Study of Prophetic Intercession’:

 

“God originally sent prophets to Israel to demonstrate to them His great love. Even at the moment of His anger, He manifests His love by listening to the prayers of the prophets, prayers that control and calm His anger.”[3]

 

So, there is a tension between castigation and love, a historical reality and a prophetic (perhaps even messianic) ideal of marriage and gender relationships. We can see something similar in the disparity between Genesis chapter one and chapter two and three. In Genesis chapter one, the equality of man and woman is asserted:

 

“And God created man in His image: in the image of God He created him. Male and female He created them.” (Gen. 1:27)

 

In Genesis chapters two and three, however, the narrative is significantly different:

 

“This one at last, is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh, this one shall be called Woman, for from Man she was taken.” (Gen. 2:24) and “and to the woman, He said, ‘I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bear children, yet your urge shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

 

A similar pattern can be found in Hosea. The key words that illustrate this tension are ‘Ba’al’ and ‘Ish’. Initially, a woman’s husband is described as a ‘ba’al’, a master and ruler. This is the patriarchal marriage that feminist scholars critique. This is the historical reality in which Israelite women were acquired for a bride-price and subjugated to their husbands. Yet, in Hosea’s bold re-envisioning of marriage between the Eternal and Israel, the ba’al is replaced with ‘ish’; a far more neutral and egalitarian term.  

 

‘And in that day—declares the Lord—you will call Me Ishi, and no more will you call Me Ba’ali. For I will remove the names of the Ba’alim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name.’ (Hosea 2:18)

 

Hosea is proposing something revolutionary, I think. Not only is the Eternal eager to take His beloved bride back (just as Hosea took Gomer back) but moreover, He is yearning to develop their relationship. God appears to says through his prophet that in the Messianic Era, Israel and God will not relate to each other in old terms but in new ones. Not through a model of patriarchy shall God be served, but perhaps through a model of marital egalitarianism. The poignantly neutral word ‘Ish’—man—is substituted.

 

And so, I suggest that the text has two important layers: the reality of a patriarchal marriage and the ideal of a fully egalitarian, spiritual marriage. Of course, it would be anachronistic and inaccurate to project modern notions of egalitarianism and feminism onto the book of Hosea. And yet, one cannot help but notice Hosea’s radical reworking of the marital relationship. What started in abuse and a disparity of power may end in an authentic relationship of love between equal spouses or partners (not unlike the lovers in Shir haShirim!). Interestingly, also the prophet Malachi speaks tenderly of a wife:

 

“… the Eternal is a witness between you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith, though she is your partner and covenanted spouse.’ (Mal. 2:14)

 

The Hebrew used here is ‘chaver’techa v’eshet britecha’. The word ‘chaver’ denotes both deep friendship and equality. This in turn is strengthened by the word ‘brit’, covenant.

 

It seems fitting then, that after the passage (in chapter two of Hosea) on ‘ishi’, the citation at the beginning of this presentation is invoked: ‘ve'erastich li leolam’… Hosea speaks to us on many levels: the real, the mundane, the problematic, patriarchal the personal, but also the hopeful, the prophetic, the messianic and the deeply intimate. If Hosea could imagine a ‘tikkun’ between the Eternal and Israel just as he imagined a tikkun between him and Gomer, then shouldn’t we as modern readers be able to do the same? Let us think about the ramifications of both Hosea’s theological and marital re-imaginings: authentic and healthy relationships between spouses and the Divine that honour and respect the integrity of all parties concerned.



1] Magonet, Jonathan, ‘A Rabbi’s Bible – Prophets in Conflict’, p. 156

[2] ‘Hosea’, Yee, Gale, A, in ‘Women’s Bible Commentary’, Newsom, Carol Ann, Ringe, Sharon, H., Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, ed., p. 211

[3] Mufts, ‘Who Will Stand in the Breach? A Study of Prophetic Intercession’ in ‘Love and Joy’, p. 33

 

estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)

Be Here Now

 

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai eloheichem…’ – ‘Today, you all stand before the Eternal your God’. These are the momentous opening words of our Torah reading. This apparently simple verse encapsulates this entire, spectacular Yom Kippur reading. In fact, the first word—hayom, today—is a fractal, a miniature, of this Parashah and perhaps even of Judaism. Let us look at four possible ways of approaching this seemingly ordinary sentence and examining the function this one remarkable word, ‘today’.

 

Firstly Today can speak to us plainly and simply refer to the time of the narrative. In that case, ‘today’ is a finite point in history, over three thousand years ago, when Moses addressed the people just before they crossed the Jordan and entered the land of Israel. The focus is on ‘nitzavim’—to stand firmly as the Jewish people, rooted in history.

If we read it like this, ‘today’ is an ancient Declaration of Independence which determined the fate of an entire people. ‘Today’ recounts the girdling of loins and the unsheathing of swords. The people are gathered, from the lowest water bearer to the highest chief. They stand united: before God, their leader and the vision that binds them all. Empires may rise and fall. The ancient Egyptians will only leave us their pyramids and the ancient Greeks only their philosophy. But Judaism stands as strong today as it did then. Today is history.

 

Today can also speak to us metaphorically. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic Rebbe, the ‘Today’ in Parashat Nitzavim refers to the judgment on Rosh haShanah. The key word is ‘Adonai eloheichem’—the Eternal your God. Today is Yom Kippur, the day on we enter into profound relationship with God, the day on which the Judgment is sealed. We stand before our Creator to contemplate our shortcomings, analyse our deeds and accept consequence. Today, we are purified through prayer, repentance and fasting. Today we travel through the most sacred time of our Jewish calendar. We wear white and deny ourselves food and drink so that way may inherit the quality of angels. We brush up against death and embrace life. Today is timeless.

 

In our third approach of hayom, Today is tomorrow. Today is Redemption. ‘You all stand before the Eternal your God’ is prophecy. Only when our hearts are truly united in purpose, as illustrated by the important word ‘kulchem’—all of us, then the lion shall down with the lamb and the wood hewer can stand on equal footing with the elder, the parent and child, husband and wife. This is the day where ‘lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchamanation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4). It is the sheathing of swords and the drying of tears. It is the time of the Great Aleinu, when we stretch our imaginations to imagine a redeemed world where the specters of hunger and war plague us no longer. Or as the British band Queen sang, ‘if every leaf on every tree could tell a story that would be a miracle, if every child on every street, had clothes to wear and food to eat, that’s a miracle, if all God’s people could be free to live in perfect harmony, it’s a miracle.’ Today is the future.

 

And yet, out of all these readings, the one I find most compelling is my final and fourth reading. Today—hayom—refers to exactly what it is: the present. If we are gathered here now, before the Eternal our God…

It is not only a description of the past, nor only a vision of the future. It is not only an encounter with eternity, rather it is Now.

The traditional commentators, who analysed each word of the Torah, conclude that ‘there is no beginning or end to the Torah’. What they mean by this is not that the stories are out of sequence but rather, that there is an eternal quality to these stories. The cadence of Biblical Hebrew, with its mixture of present, past and future tenses, forces us to take the Torah on her own terms—she speaks to us still today. We can relate to the characters and their stories, their blessings and travails. In each of our communities, there is a Sarah struggling with infertility, there is an Isaac who suffers in silence, there is a Jacob who experiences personal growth. There is a Moses who rises to leadership, despite apparent handicaps, there is a Miriam who gets unjustly punished for delivering legitimate criticism, there is a Rivka who struggles with the meaning of life.

 

But the Torah is not only relevant because her stories still compel us but also because Judaism offers us a methodology of the present. Judaism forces us into the reality of Now. As our Parashah states, ‘ki hamitzvah hazot asher anochi metzavecha hayom lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo rechokah hi: lo bashamayim hi’—for this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, or to remote. It is not in heaven…’ God doesn’t want to set us up for failure or taunt us with what isn’t. Rather, God wants us to reach and touch and experience and live. In the words of Psalms 34:8, ‘taste and see that God is Good’. Life is to be lived in the full and sanctified in our midst. Our lives are not in Heaven, or beyond the sea so that we may be disempowered and feel small. No, today is tangible and real, close to us, in our mouths and our hearts, so that we may live it and be fully present.

 

Not only does Judaism want us to be fully present, Judaism forces us to be fully present. We make blessings over the rainbow and the sea, over freshly baked bread hot from the oven and a juicy, blushing apple. We make blessings upon seeing long-lost friends and upon hearing good news. So many of our traditions, rituals and laws are geared towards sensitizing us to the sanctity of life. We do not dwell on death or hypothesize about the Hereafter. What matters is the work of our hands and the path before our feet. When we enshroud ourselves in our tallit, we feel soft wool brush against our skin. When we light Shabbat candles with our loved ones, we feel the weight of a week lift from our shoulders as we celebrate rest with loved ones. When we make a conscious decision about what we do and do not eat, we empathise with the farmers who grow our food and the animals which are slaughtered for our nourishment.

To be present is to be engaged. It means that we can open our Bibles and prayer books and let the words invite us into an ancient conversation. It means that we can engage in lively discussion with our friends and fellow congregants. We can be angry and hurt and disappointed by our Judaism, just as we can fall in love with it and cherish it and feel moved to tears by it. Either way, it means that we care. Caring means we have the courage and strength to make our Judaism fully our own. It means that we are committed to studying and learning and doing. Or as the Children of Israel answered upon receiving the Torah: ‘na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do and we will listen’.

To be engaged is to be responsible. It means that we embrace our heritage and that we wrestle with it, warts and all. We are anguished over injustices and cruelties perpetrated by our texts and our communities. We vow to change and renew and open up when Judaism shuts the doors on so many of us, when it locks out women or homosexuals or minorities. To be responsible is to be covenanted. ‘L’av’r’cha bivrit Adonai eloheicha uvalato asher Adonai eloheicha koret imcha HAYOM.’—‘…to enter into the sworn covenant which the Eternal One your God makes with you this day.’

 

Our covenant is based on choice. Free will is a cardinal value and undeniable reality in our religion. ‘Hachayim v’hamavet natati lefaneicha, habracha v’hak’lalah u’bacharta bachayim l’ma’an ticheyeh ata v’zarecha’—‘I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.’

The famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides reminds us of this unshakable truth in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence 5:1-3: “Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands...".

 

It is the right and the responsibility to choose that makes us distinctly human and that makes our Judaism real, modern and genuine. We all have to choose, just as we all stood at the foot of the mountain to hear the lightning and see the thunder. Being in the moment, fully present, awake, covenanted and committed—is what gives our lives value. Cherish every moment, savour every breath. Sit here on this day, this holy and awesome day. Do not only think, but breathe, feel, touch. Make yourself aware of your surroundings and of your community, of the chair that you sit in, the melodies that ring in your eyes and the love that envelops you. Hold the experience of loved ones in your life and the bittersweet memories of those who are no longer with you. Let the sun warm your skin and the breeze stroke your hair.

Let this Yom Kippur wash over you, the songs and words, the tunes and silences, the standing and the sitting, the hunger and thirst, the love and the awe. It is all real and all holy. This day is a mosaic of past, present and future. Judaism speaks to our history and our Redemption, it speaks to our sense of eternity. But most of all, let it speak to us today.

 

Our Parashah ends with an injunction to love God. How can we be forced to love God? In fact, can we know how we love Something that most of us find hard to define, to grasp or to understand? And yet, Torah provides us with the answer. Love is never abstract, it is always real. Be present in this awe-inspiring world and cast off the sin of indifference. Love will come from a tactile appreciation of life as it is. Let us set this day before our eyes. Be. Here. Now.

estherhugenholtz: Me (Default)

The Politics of Being Nice

 

It was a blistering summer day in Jerusalem and the sweat was pouring from our faces. My friend and I had just visited the Kotel Ma’aravi, the Western Wall, to say our prayers. It was Friday afternoon and we wanted to walk home and prepare for Shabbat. We crossed through the Arab section of old Jerusalem and weaved our way through the masses of Muslim Arabs who left their mosques after Friday prayers. Even though the old quarters were crowded, people graciously let us pass. My friend wanted to buy a refreshing limonana drink from a Palestinian vendor. The vendor asked if I wanted one too but I declined because I still had a bottle of water. Even though we were clearly identifiable as Jewish women in our modest skirts, headscarf and Star-of-David necklaces, the kindly Muslim vendor offered me a limonana drink for free. Gratefully, I accepted and knowing that he himself would be fasting due to Ramadan, wished him a blessed Ramadan. It was a small act of random kindness but it meant a lot to me. Between the politics of land, power and money, this stranger practiced the politics of kindness.

 

This is what I want to talk about today: the politics of being nice. ‘Nice’ appears to be the plainest word in the English language. Being kind is an underrated value. It is deemed a small thing. Being ‘kind’ in and of itself will not solve the environmental crisis, world hunger or usher in world peace. It may not even be a guarantee for personal happiness. There are plenty of kind and good people in the world who suffer nonetheless. Our collective voice of cynicism may even ask what good small random acts of kindness do. They seem fleeting, like a drop in the ocean.

And yet, the politics of being nice is one of the pillars on which our tradition stands. The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud really valued kindness, chesed, and the power of acts of kindness, which they called gemilut chasadim. In fact, our Rabbinic Tradition values kindness so much that it, according to Pirkei Avot 1:2, is one of the three pillars on which the world stands, together with Torah and the service of God itself – ‘al shlosha devarim haolam omed – al haTorah, al haAvodah v’al Gemilut Chasadim’.

After the destruction of the Temple, it was prayer and kindness that replaced the sacrifices and that became the heart of our Jewish spirituality.

Of course, the cardinal importance attached to kindness didn’t merely begin with the Rabbis. Our entire tradition—from the earliest Bible stories to the Chassidic tales of the 18th century—brims with a love of kindness. Avraham Avinu himself was praised for his kindness and exceptional generosity towards strangers and wayfarers. His exemplary kindness towards the citizens of Sodom is something I spoke about on Rosh haShanah.

But Abraham Avinu isn’t the only Biblical hero who displayed kindness, of course. Shifra and Puah, the midwives of ambivalent status (some hold that they were Jews, others hold that they were righteous Gentiles) displayed great courage and kindness when they tried to save Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s evil decree. They gently took care of baby Moses. According to Rashi, the kindness is even reflected in the etymologies of their names. Shifra is related to the root shin-peh-reish, ‘to beautify’ and Puah is related to the Hebrew word signifying cooing. In other words, not only did Shifra and Puah save babies, they also displayed extra chesed by beautifying and comforting them.

Of course, there is the story of Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, who rescued Moses from the gaping mouth of the Nile. There are the stories of Job and Noah, two Gentile heroes our Tanakh accords great respect on account of their kindness. Moses was praised for his humility and his kindness to even animals. The Midrash states that the Eternal chose Moses for his mission because God saw the great mercy Moses displayed towards retrieving a straying lamb. David, as a young man, showed compassion for the troubled Saul by playing his harp to sooth Saul’s spirit.

Moreover, the Midrash recounts another act of supreme kindness: in the time of King David, there were two brothers. Both had an equal share of land. One, however, was single but prosperous. The other, destitute but rich in children. The single brother thought, ‘I have more than enough crops to sustain me, let me go give wheat to my brother who has so many mouths to feed’. While the brother with wife and children thought, ‘Through my children, I will have support in my old age and so I do not need all this crop, let me go to my single brother who has no such guarantees and share my wheat with him. ‘ Unbeknownst to each other, they secretly filled each other’s silo with wheat, out of the goodness of their heart. Because of this, God merited that the Holy Temple itself would be built on the very land that prompted them to act with great mercy.

                Furthermore, it is the Prophets themselves who enjoined acts of kindness upon us. As the Prophet Isaiah states in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur: “Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:1-14)

Finally, in the Midrashic imagination of the Rabbis, even God Himself graced us with His kindness. It was God Who adorned Eve as a beautiful bride and escorted her to the chuppah in Gan Eden. And it was God Himself who made sure that Moses was buried when he died at 120 years of age. Unsurprisingly, core rabbinic values of kindness are accompanying the bride and burying the dead.

 

When we are reflecting upon our shortcomings during Yom Kippur, it’s easy to dwell on the spectacular transgressions. After all, our liturgy focuses—thankfully addressing us in the collective—on committing adultery, slandering, hatemongering and theft. In a way this may cause a disconnection. Do all of us really commit adultery and acts of violence? Of course not. But this sense of disconnection from the liturgy makes it easier for us to fall into the trap of putting this criticism aside and believing that we have less inner work to do. What if we choose to focus on our relationship with our ability to be nice? Let us think about what it means to be kind—both from the vantage point of our tradition (as I have already discussed) and from the vantage point of our personal experience. I am not proposing that we should ignore the negative injunctions of the liturgy but instead I propose that we add positives as well. In what ways could we have been kinder? In what ways could little acts of chesed have brightened the days of our fellow human beings?  Perhaps added to our solemn list of ashamnu’s and al chet’s, we could chant to the rhythm of our heart:

We can smile at a stranger on the bus. We can open the door for an elderly person. We can extend a hand to a lonely refugee. We can treat a single mother with dignity. We can give a little more charity. We can write a Get-Well card for a sick co-worker. We can give an extra hug to a grandchild. We can listen to a lonely friend. We can make that extra phone call to an ailing parent. We can spend those few extra minutes recycling our trash. We can volunteer an extra hour at the local shelter. We can help our neighbour carry her groceries. We can, as the Prophet Micah commands us, not only walk humbly but also do justly and love mercy.’

 

Kindness begins as a reflection in the face of our fellow human being, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Traditionally, the introspective period before the Yemei Teshuvah—the Days of Repentance—is divided up between contemplating two categories of relationship: bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. The first refers to the relationship between the individual and the Divine. The second refers to the relationship of the individual and his or her fellow human beings. Modern Jewish thought, however, has proposed a third category: bein adam l’atzmo: between an individual and his or herself. We don’t only reflect upon our so-called horizontal and vertical relationships but also on our internal relationship—with ourselves.

This logic can be extended to practicing the transformative politics of kindness. Not only should we be kind to others, and to the Omnipresent and all that God encompasses (such as our sacred, physical Universe) but also to ourselves. Perhaps this is the hardest kindness of all.

V’ahavta larecha kamocha’, our holy Torah commands us (Leviticus 19:18), ‘Love your neighbour as yourself – I am the Lord’. Rabbi Hillel taught this verse to the convert who asked him to explain the essence of Judaism on one foot: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it’ (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a). Rabbi Akiva expounded this verse as being a ‘great principle of the Torah’ (Midrash Torat Kohanim).

Usually we look at thsis verse one-dimensionally. It seems obvious. Love your neighbour as yourself. We read it with the emphasis on neighbour. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. But what if we shift the emphasis and read it as, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? We can only truly be kind to others if we can first be kind to ourselves. If we judge ourselves too harshly, this will provide fertile ground for harsh judgments of others. But if we are gentle with our own souls, then we create the spaciousness of heart and the fortitude of spirit to be gentle with our fellow human beings. One cannot exist without the other.

 

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”, thus spoke Philo of Alexandria, the ancient Hellenist Jewish philosopher.  This truth echoes across the millennia. Life is hard, and in varying degrees, we have all experienced its hardships. Being kind is gratifying. Although it is not easy, it is simple. It is a task from which we are not free to desist and it is an investment that yields immediate returns. In a cynical world where it is easy to feel disempowered in the face of great evil and suffering, it is random acts of kindness that can empower us: both as givers and as receivers. Be kind to our world, to others and last but not least, to yourself. When saying the ashamnu’s and al chet’s, don’t literally ‘beat yourself up’ but rather gently knock at the gates of your heart. ‘Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah’—‘Open for me the gates of righteousness and I will come there and thank God’ (Psalm  118:19).

 

Open yourself up to the rhythms of compassion and attune to the music of your heart. Then perhaps we may one day discover that there is more love to go round than we had expected. That we can build up our world through this grace, this abundant love, stone by stone, brick by brick, layer by layer. And then we might find that acts of loving kindness are indeed the pillars of Creation after all.

You might be surprised yet.

estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)

Did Abraham Fail the Test?

 

There are countless themes that run through the High Holidays and we are familiar with many of them: repentance, justice, prayer, soul-searching. Of the Yom haDin, the Day of Judgment and of celebrating the Creation of the world: of anticipated endings and new beginnings. They push us to think about our relationship with ourselves, others, the world and God. The Yamim Nora’im—Days of Awe—are not supposed to be easy; they are supposed to be meaningful.

The theme I would like to address concerns itself with the courage to be morally defiant, even if it means defying God for the sake of God’s own justice. Many of us have the classical image in our head of God being crowned King on Rosh haShanah as all of Creation passes before Him in judgment. However, this can also be a difficult and an incomplete image. Perhaps it is us who should judge God in return.

 

This sounds preposterous, of course. But is it? I propose that we look closer at this idea through the lens of one of the most riveting and disturbing Rosh haShanah stories: Akeidat Yitzchak—the Binding of Isaac. And I dare launch a controversial statement.

Abraham failed the test. Not because he didn’t sacrifice Isaac but because he almost did.

 

How did Abraham fail the test of sacrificing his son? In order to answer that question, let us look at the context.

Looking at the context of a Torah passage or verse is an ancient Jewish technique of text study. Rashi calls this smichut parshiyot, the joining of different passages so that we may glean meaning from their interconnection.  In a sense it is like watching a soap opera. What happened in the previous episode and how will this impact the unfolding plot?

Previously in the book of Genesis, we witnessed the unfolding of the Sodom and Amorrah story. The twin cities of sin have found ill-favour in God’s eyes. Not because, as often is thought, due to acts of sexual depravity, but rather, as the Midrash states, because of social exclusion. The Sodomites twisted their laws to legally oppress the stranger and the poor amongst them. Finally God heard a great outcry rising from Sodom (which the Midrash recounts as coming from a young woman tortured to death because she fed a starving man). God decides to intervene and overturn the cities. Of course this begs the question: were all the inhabitants of Sodom and Amorrha cruel and morally corrupt and deserve to be killed by the wrath of God?

Avraham Avinu asks himself the exact same question and he calls God on it, so to speak. “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?” (18:25) he says. And he proceeds to negotiate with God down to ten righteous people.

The Abraham we encounter here is truly a man who walks with God. He has the courage to hold God to God’s own absolute moral standards. Does God not expect Abraham to rise to the occasion?

As the famous Bible scholar Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in her monumental work, ‘Genesis – the Beginning of Desire’:

 

‘In [this] famous passage, Abraham negotiates with God about the destiny of Sodom. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”asks God (18:17). In [Midrash] Bereshit Rabbah, God’s special love for Abraham is expressed thus: Ï shall do nothing without his knowledge”… his consciousness (da’at) is valued by God, his reactions courted even where they run, in an obvious sense, counter to the expressed intent of God. So Abraham pleads for Sodom, “plays” God down from fifty righteous saviors of the city to ten. The core of his plea balances his concern for God with his concern for humanity. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”(18:25).“

 

It is Abraham’s ability to ‘hold both God and man in a single thought’, which, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel is the mark of a truly religious human being. It is what makes Abraham uniquely righteous.

Abraham is the first in the Bible who dares take initiative as exemplified by his aggressive plea to save Sodom. Abraham’s intimate relationship with the Eternal and his heart overflowing with love makes him unafraid to draw on either quality for the sake of even the gravest of sinners. This is the Abraham we love and admire.

 

This, then, is the context preceding Akeidat Yitzchak. Our troubling passage opens with ‘achar hadevarim haeleh’—‘and it was after these things’. The classical commentators ask themselves, ‘what things?’ (Many things happened in this parashah, and Midrash fills in the blanks). My bold proposition then, is to read ‘achar hadevarim haeleh’ as referring to the Sodom episode. Like a good soap opera, we know what our protagonist has been up to before. We saw last week’s cliffhanger. We think that we can anticipate our hero’s next move. Abraham has, after all, shown momentous courage.

But then Abraham our Father surprises us with his most troubling act of moral ambiguity yet. When the Torah tells us, ‘achar hadevarim haeleh, haElohim nisa et Avraham’—‘and it was after these things that God tested Abraham’ we know all too well what follows: the reprehensible commandment to sacrifice his son. Is this the same God Whose justice could be tempered by a man’s plea for mercy? Is this the same God Who promised to never destroy the earth again after the deluge? Who sets a rainbow over all the earth as a sign of His covenant of love with all of Creation?

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that Abraham stayed silent upon hearing the gruesome order. She says:

 

‘Silence is the ultimate modality of Abraham… Abraham was silent when suffering, as it is said, ‘Take your son.’ He could have said, ‘Yesterday, You told me, ‘in Isaac your seed will be named.’ He could have [should have?] responded… but he says nothing.’

 

And so we are left to wonder, is this the same Abraham full of bravado only a few chapters ago?  This man timidly and willingly resigns himself to the fate of sacrificing his beloved son.

This story seems a direct inversion of the Sodom story. In the Sodom story, God could be swayed and He promises to show mercy if ten righteous people are found (of course, the story doesn’t end well for the Sodomites). It is Abraham who sets the conditions. What we see is a picture of a stern but merciful God and of God’s brave and morally righteous servant.

However, in the Akeidah, it is God who is unrelenting and Abraham who complies with an absurd demand. How can this be? The korban (sacrifice) seems to be inverted: the guilty becomes the innocent, the bystander becomes the father and the God willing to forego some of His power now becomes a God Who wishes to vindicate Himself ad absurdum.

Or so it seems.

 

I believe we can read the text in a radically different way. When the Torah states that ‘God tried Abraham’, I believe the true test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice Isaac but rather whether Abraham would have the holy chutzpah to do again what he did before. Resist. Defy. Argue. Isn’t this the pattern of behavior that the Eternal expects (and demands) from his faithful servant? After all, Abraham is commanded to ‘la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat’—to do righteousness and justice. The text may provide us hints to support such a reading.

The Torah recounts: ‘Abraham, take your son.’ The famous medieval commentator Rashi fills in the gaps of a truncated conversation: ‘God says, ‘take your son.’ Abraham said to God, ‘I have two sons.’ God said to him, ‘your only one’. Abraham replied, ‘which son? God said, ‘the one you love’ upon which Abraham replied, ‘I love them both’. Finally God specifies:’ Isaac’.

It is almost as if the Torah and Rashi are both waiting with baited breath. Each word carefully articulated, each pause apparent. Are you sure you want to do this, Abraham? Stop. Think this over. Stop. Take a deep breath. Stop. Remember who Isaac is, Abraham. He is your longed-for, chosen son, heir apparent of your legacy of justice and loving kindness, the only child of your beloved wife Sarah. Stop.

Can you almost hear the dark irony of the Torah’s text as God issues His command? It is as if you can almost imagine God repeating the thought to Himself: ‘shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing?’ Is God issuing Abraham a hidden invitation, no better yet: a hidden command to rebel?  Is, a God who demands such an exacting price a God worth serving? Rashi hints at God’s real intent through the word ‘v’ha’elehu’—bring him up. God doesn’t use the word ‘slaughter’ at all…

 

And yet, Abraham zealously complies.

He takes his son up to Mount Moriah. Silence marks their ascent to the sacrificial altar, a descent into slavish obedience. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav considers this an encounter with the challal panui, the silent space of God’s absence. Perhaps God makes Himself absent from abhorrent human actions done in His Holy Name. Perhaps the silence awaits Abraham’s response – not in an eagerness to serve but in an eagerness to oppose in the Name of God Himself. And yet Abraham and Isaac walk on together, the son completely trusting his father, the father completely loving the son. It only makes the scenario more poignant and cruel.

At the end, God stays Abraham’s hand, the knife hovering dangerously over the bound Isaac. But is it really God staying Abraham’s hand? Genesis speaks of a ‘malach’, an angel of God. Why is it not God Himself intervening? Is it possible to read God’s lack of direct presence as thinly-veiled disappointment? He sent His angel to stop the drama from unfolding. Perhaps God is angry with Abraham. Like an angry and disappointed parent, God does not want to face Abraham. True, the p’shat (plain meaning) of the text suggests pride of not having been withheld Isaac but I can almost imagine this being a taciturn compliment of a sour and obligatory nature.

Abraham failed the test. Perhaps this passage should be called Akeidat Avraham for truly it is Abraham who is bound: hands and feet and heart and lips, failing to reject callousness in the Name of the Most High.

 

We can all imagine moments in our lives as Jews, as people of faith, as human beings where we should have stood up to authority unafraid, even when that authority seems absolutely correct. It is easy and comfortable to conform, to wash our hands clean from responsibility, to shirk accountability. But both the Sodom story and the Akeidah remind us that it is often through rule of law that the cruelest of crimes are perpetrated.

Of course, we are fallible. We, too, fail to stand up to ‘do righteousness and justice’. But then again, we can take comfort by looking at the other side of the coin. We too can defy authority for a righteous cause and confront the Divine with Divine principles. There is a definite place in our tradition for what I would call ‘covenantal anger’ sparked by the human condition and all the cruel and senseless tragedies that can befall us throughout our lifetimes.  Rule of divine law means that even God Himself is bound by justice and that when God fails to live up to His own standards, then we are called to judge Him. Only then can God’s integrity be preserved and is He worthy of our worship. This is the mark of a person’s genuine relationship with God and only under this condition can God be the One Who ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, who numbers the stars and gives each one a name’ (Psalm 147:3-4).

 

Fortunately, both modalities of Abraham live within us. Hopefully, reminding ourselves of the Akeidah and standing before the Divine Presence during these Days of Awe will give us the strength to emulate the Abraham we love and admire. Be the justice in the world that you want to see done. Be and be not afraid. Then perhaps we can really bring Heaven down to Earth.

 

Shanah tovah!


estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

Haftarah for Bamidbar: Hosea 2:1-22

I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You

How can I forget the day that I was to be married to my beloved husband? Of course, every wedding has its memorable moments. There’s the whispered holiness of the mikveh the day before, the silken-soft rustle of dress and veil, the lilting scents of perfume and bouquet. More importantly, the hugs and kisses of loved ones in celebration punctuate my memories. Of course, there is dancing and song and laughter. The giddying experiences of being hoisted upon chairs during the Hora and the sweetness of sanctified wine upon eager lips.

To me, however, the moment suspended in eternity was when my beloved chattan pronounced the words that sanctified me unto him according to the Law of Moses and Israel and when he - amongst all the pomp and circumstance of the day – slid a simple, unassuming gold band on my finger. From that moment on, my heart sang, we were covenanted to each other.

Of course, a wedding is the culmination of an intense process of emotional and spiritual growth between two people. Most great love stories have spectacular endings yet humble beginnings. So too for my husband and myself. What is there to tell? We met in synagogue!

One of the world’s greatest love stories is the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This saga also had humble origins—with a shepherd from Ur Kasdim. And, like most love stories, there was an intense process of emotional and spiritual growth between God and Israel. In our case, this took place in the desert, after a spectacular elopement from Mitzrayim.

Parashat Bamidbar recounts this formative period in the covenantal relationship. The parashah sets the stage: “on the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt…” (Num. 1:1) only to continue with a seemingly strange demand: “take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses…” (Num. 1:2)

Hence, Moshe and Aharon are instructed to count the people and administrate them, the overarching theme of the parasha.

According to Rashi the census may not be strange at all. This famous early Medieval commentator explains that God counted the people out of His great love for them. What better way to cement a relationship than to pay close attention to detail; to the needs of your love and to take constant note of their presence? Or as the 19th century poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in Sonnet 43: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’

The Haftarah on Hosea ties in beautifully with this theme and expands it.

The eighth century (BCE) prophet Hosea was the first prophet to phrase the covenantal relationship between God and Israel in marital and monogamous terms. Chastening the Jewish people for their idolatry, he compares this to adultery and hereby creates an oft-repeated refrain of monotheism as spiritual monogamy. However, Hosea is not only interested in chiding the Jews in the name of God but also offers them healing their relationship through the forgiveness of God. The divine voice oscillates between anger and love, like a lover spurned or husband betrayed.

Hosea persuades his audience by appealing to metaphors of both a romantic past and a promising future.

Love in the wilderness is one of the nostalgic metaphors that the prophet Hosea draws on. Through him, the Holy One Blessed be He reminisces that He ‘will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly… there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt’ (Hosea 2:16-17).

Not only is Hosea a prophetic mouthpiece for God’s desire to enter and maintain a covenantal ‘marriage’ with Israel, but he also becomes an actual conduit for that desire. The prophet is forced to take the prostitute Gomer daughter of Diblaim as his wife and accept the fruits of her womb as his own children, regardless of which unknown man sired them. His children he shall name ‘Lo-Ruchamma’ (Unforgiven) and ‘Lo-Ammi’ (Not My People) as an embodiment of God’s feelings of betrayal by Israel on account of their idolatry. In essence, Hosea lives—body and soul—in the experience of a broken relationship that must—and will be—fully restored.

When Israel will return to God in unwavering loyalty and worship of Him alone, this relationship will be restored. With inspired Messianic fervor, the prophet voices God’s desire:

‘And in that day—declares the Lord—you will call Me Ishi, and no more will you call Me Baali. For I will remove the names of the Baalim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name. In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety.’ (Hosea 2:18-19)

 The pun on ‘ba’al’ is obvious to the attentive reader. Ba’al is the Canaanite fertility god at whose sacred groves the Israelites knelt in idolatry. But ba’al—meaning ‘master’— is also the Hebrew word for husband. A husband in antiquity was indeed the ‘master’ of his wife: he acquired her for a bride-price and had legal jurisdiction over her.

Yet here, Hosea is proposing something awe-inspiring. Not only is God eager to take His beloved bride back into His arms but moreover, He is yearning to develop their relationship. God appears to says through his faithful prophet that in the Messianic Era, Israel and God will not relate to each other in old terms but in new ones. Not through a model of patriarchy shall God be served, but perhaps through a model of marital egalitarianism. The poignantly neutral word ‘Ish’—man—is substituted. Can we imagine that in a time of universal peace, brotherhood and spiritual closeness it is possible that we will have an entirely new and fulfilling relationship with the Holy One? Where we are betrothed again in ‘righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy’ so that we may ‘know the Lord?’(Hosea 2:21-22)

It is a daring metaphor that Hosea employs and compelling in its spiritual audacity. Maybe the metaphor allows us to superimpose divine love onto human love. If we are created ‘b’tselem Elohim’—in the image of God—and are betrothed to Him in sacred covenant, then maybe we can extend that same covenant of love to other people. Maybe it will enable us to look at our partners, our husbands and wives with new eyes. Maybe it allows us to blend and redefine our notions of the masculine and feminine, of God the King of Kings and as His Shechinah on a model of God betrothing us all. Is it a coincidence that Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) that holiest of love songs speaks of such a love between lovers and allegorically between God and humanity? Of a love where the partners are equals yet at the same time entirely devoted to each other.

It is unsurprising then that this same rousing passage is recited during the ritual of laying tefillin (phylacteries). As we say these verses and wrap the strap linking the Torah to our hands around our fingers, we emulate the chuppah. We are invited to marry God each day anew, in a relationship that allows our full potential to come to fruition.

As a kallah (bride), my moment suspended in eternity did not end after my chattan slipped the ring on my finger. I proceeded to gently take his hand into mine and to slip a gold band around his finger. I too covenanted him to me—in righteousness and justice, goodness and mercy.

Together we live our lives in a tender and sacred covenant where my husband is not my ‘ba’al’ but my ‘ish’.

I can only wish the very same for all of us—both in the realm of earthly love and in the realm of God’s presence.

estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

A Dutch proverb says: "dreams are deceptive". However, when speaking from within the Jewish tradition, I couldn’t disagree more. In this D’var Haftarah from 1 Kings on parashat Miketz, we will explore the significance and prophetic value of dreams.

Someone else who who believed in the power of dreams was the late Reverend Martin Luther King. In his momentous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he bravely stated:

 "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." 

Further on in his speech, the late Reverend King cites from Amos and Isaiah, referencing the idea that in his dream of a better world, a more racially equitable world, righteousness will roar like streams and and every valley shall be exalted. The power of his words and of his dream echo across the generations.

In parashat Miketz, it is Pharoah’s dream--whose leadership represents the antithesis of freedom and social equality--that echoes across the generations. He dreams of seven fat cows being devoured by seven lean cows followed by a dream about seven solid ears of grain being swallowed up by seven thin ears of grain (Gen. 41:2-7). Many of us know what happens next: Joseph, the lowly Hebrew prisoner in his dungeon, is able to successfully interpret his dreams and is ‘exalted’ (to extend the metaphor from Isaiah) to a position of being the capable viceroy of Egypt.

The Haftarah links beautifully to this parasha where the evocative power of dreams is combined with wise judgement in leadership. The haftarah tells the story of how Shlomo haMelech acquired an ‘understanding heart’. Before his building of the Beit haMikdash, he--like his fellow Israelites at the time--brought offerings to God on the bamot, the high places. After offering a generous sacrifice in Gibeah, God appears to him in a dream. When God asks Shlomo what he wants, Shlomo answers wisely: he does not yearn after riches, power or success but rather after wisdom to judge right from wrong:


וְנָתַתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-עַמְּךָ, לְהָבִין, בֵּין-טוֹב לְרָע:

"Will you give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to know the difference between good and evil". (I Kings 3:9)

God honors Shlomo’s request and he is given a heart that has the ability to listen (lishmoa), understand and judge fairly. In fact, immediately after Shlomo’s awakening (and him offering more to God in gratitude), Melachim Aleph narrates the story of two prostitutes living under one roof. Two prostitutes appear before Shlomo’s court and argue about the claim to a remaining living child. One of the mothers accidently killed her newborn by laying on top of him but it is not clear which of the two women is responsible for her child’s death. Both claim to be sincere about wanting to maintain custody over her rightful child.

It is through Shlomo’s wisdom and careful listening that he is able to discern the truth: because the true mother refers to the living child first (demonstrating her maternal love) while the false claimant emphasises the dead child (thus emphasizing her claim to possession). Shlomo, after trying the women with a trial that near-wagers the child’s life, goes on to judge correctly:

"The king said, "One says, ‘This is my son, the live one, and the dead one is yours’; and the other says, ‘No, the dead boy is yours mine is the live one.’So the king gave the order, "Fetch me a sword."A sword was brought before the king, and the king said, "Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other." (1 Kings 3:23-24)

Of course, his threat to kill and divide the child is only a ploy to pry the truth out of the women. Though shocking and traumatic to modern sensibilities, he appeals to the maternal instinct to place the interests of the child above all. He prooves apt at both seeing the big picture while at the same time recognizing that ‘God is in the details’. His close listening prooves effective.

In response, the people stand in awe of their wise king. This really is a turning point in Shlomo’s royal career. Previously, he had taken his royal lineage for granted after having secured the kingship with the help of the plotting of his mother Batshebah. Before, he was a king in title only. But at this moment, he is crowned with wisdom.

The haftarah is clear about the role of dreaming in this character development. It is through dreaming that Shlomo realizes where his priorities should be and it is through dreaming that he attains the ‘ruach hakodesh’--the holy spirit--with which to judge wisely. It is then no surprise, after the people’s enthusiastic and awestruct acceptance of his kingship, that Melachim Aleph recounts how his people know peace, security and prosperity, ‘with every man under his figtree and vine’. Under wise and equitable leadership, the people are content and the intention of God’s Torah is fulfilled.

The Talmud Bavli comments on the power and significance of dreams. In Masechet B’rachot 57b, it is stated that ‘a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy’, just like Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World to Come and sleep is one-sixtieth of death. Why one-sixtieth? Because this fraction represents a liminal moment. Just as one-sixtieth of chametz on Pesach or treif food in a kosher pot can determine or influence the status of the said food, one-sixtieth of prophecy in dreams hints at the budding potential of true wisdom in our dreams. Not a fully actualized potential, but one waiting to be unfolded.

Furthermore, the Talmud puns on the connection between Shlomo and dreams as it states earlier on the page that ‘if one sees Shlomo in a dream, one may hope for wisdom’. The connection between dreams, prophecy and wisdom in Jewish tradition is profound and ancient.

Yet, this is not where the story ends. Dreams may not be real but they call upon us to be realized. Ruach hakodesh is in vain when a dream that calls upon justice is not materialized. Martin Luther King didn’t merely state that he had a dream as a far-off messianic vision or as a figment of a fanciful imagination. No, his very and every intention is that his dream would come true. Dreams can be translated into hope and hope can be galvanized into action.

Both the parashah and haftarah teach us about the actualization of dreams: the despot Pharaoh, through the implementation of Joseph’s wisdom, was able to stave off famine for his people (though I am sure his motives weren’t entirely altruistic). Likewise, Shlomo took his dream to heart and fulfilled it immediately (the ‘smichut parshiyot’, the joining of the verses narrating his dream and his judgement of the prostitutes is significant in this regard). He judged wisely, knowing ‘good from evil’ but furthermore, he judged compassionately. Two lowly women--like the lowly Joseph--appeared before him. He could have sentenced them to death for prostitution or taken away the child from either of them altogether. However, his ‘understanding heart’ allowed him to judge with both din (judgement) and chesed (loving-kindness), a perfect balance of God’s justice in our world.

Dreams are not deceptive. They are only deceptive if they lure us away from loftier goals and ideals, if they imbue upon us a sense of fear, despair or worthlessness. But some dreams are worth dreaming--and pursuing. Dream a good dream of justice--be it in the small things of personal life or in the large scheme of the world--and pursue it arduously. And know that these inner prophecies may indeed come from God.

estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

Parashat Vayetzeh is brimming with potential and is pregnant with becoming. Even though the parashah starts off with ‘vayeitzeh’(he went out), this really is the parashah of women, and of girls-becoming-women.

                As with any good story, the parashah opens with a mystery: Jacob, when travelling from Beer Sheva to Haran sets up camp to spend the night. It is there that he has his fateful dream of angels ascending and descending the ladder. But as it often goes with strange and inexplicable dreams, they teach us something. As God appears in Jacob’s dream, He says: “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go.” (Gen. 28:14) Of course, Jacob awakes startled and proclaims: “Mah nora hamakom hazeh! – How awesome is this place!” The perennial way to start a journey of becoming.

                Then, the parashah shifts. Jacob meets the lovely Rachel at the well and falls in love with her, because she is “shapely and beautiful” (29:15). Does the Torah really want us to assume that good looks are really that important? All too often women compare (and compete with) our looks from which can stem a profound sense of inadequacy. It is tempting to see this parashah as a grand competition between two sisters, both entwined in each others’ pain. It is easy to become fixed on the externals—on the good looks of things—that we forget their potential and what they could become. Rachel and Leah were so trapped in sisterly rivalry for the love of one man that they negated their own potential. Their obsession with what was blinded them to what could be.

                And so, the Torah’s remark about Rachel’s physical beauty needs not to be read one-dimensionally. The Hebrew says: “Rachel haita yafat-to’ar v’yafat mar’eh”: And Rachel was beautiful of shape and of appearance.

Rashi comments on the word ‘mar’eh’. He says that this referred to the ‘shining of her face’. Our faces can become windows through which our essence shines. It does not have anything to do with skin-deep beauty but everything with potential and confidence and kindness. Maybe Rachels’ beauty was not external but internal. It seems fitting that immediately after the Torah describes Rachel’s beauty, the narrative states that Jacob loved her. A kinder (and more emancipated) reading would be that Jacob loved her for her neshama—her soul—and all the potential her soul engendered.

Does this excuse the troubling events in the parashah? Yes and no. Rachel and Leah get switched at the wedding. Leah feels deeply and desperately unloved. And both their father Laban and their husband Jacob do not display the most moral of conduct.

All these things implicate our patriarchs (and matriarchs) and the unsettling nature of the parashah resonates on both a moral and an existential level. But sometimes that’s just how life is. And moreover, this is also just how we experience life—our Biblical forebears being no different. We can all feel loneliness or self-deprecation. We punish ourselves with our insecurity and sense of inadequacy. This human condition applies to both genders but it is no surprise that the sisters Rachel and Leah seem to act as an example therein. All too often it is women who experience these emotions.

And so it is important to be aware that this is all part of being human and of self-actualization. Yet the beginning the parashah, featuring Jacob’s dream, could provide us both insight and comfort in this process. In the dream, the Holy One blessed be He said that He would always be with Jacob.

If emunah (faith) is to teach us anything, it is that in the hard moments of our lives, when we are fighting hard to become someone new and for our place in the world, we can trust in ourselves. Emunah lies not only in seeing the awesomeness of the place in which we stand or to feel loved by something greater than ourselves, but also in the ability to see ourselves as whole: as beautiful in both form and appearance.

So, whether we travel from Beer Sheva to Haran or any other of the myriad destinations of our lives, we can and should extend the kindness of angels to ourselves. In our coming and going as the parasha suggests, we can feel protected. But we can also protect ourselves by faith and trust and profound self-love and self-respect. Only then is the journey not merely on of travels and travails but also of becoming fully who were are, a mirage of the divine.

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Esther Hugenholtz

January 2011

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