Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reflections on Thanksgivikah

Is it appropriate for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving? And if so, why not other “American” holidays like Halloween or Christmas? And while we're on the subject: is the tie-in between Chanukah and Thanksgiving just a once-in-78,000-year calendrical coincidence or is there something more to it?

Let's answer the question with a question. Did you ever stop to think about why Jews are called “Jews”? Why aren’t we called Israelites like in olden days? 

After the reign of Solomon, the Tribes of Israel began to quarrel among themselves, until in short order two Israelite kingdoms were established. The Northern Kingdom was comprised of ten of the original twelve Tribes. The Southern Kingdom was really the Tribes of Benjamin and Judah (not counting Levites and Kohanim), comprising the region surrounding Jerusalem and Judea. 

The Northern Kingdom, cut off from the Holy Temple, quickly descended into apostasy and idolatry, while the Southern Kingdom hung on to the spiritual ideals of King David, at least for a while longer than the North. 

The Assyrians conquered the corrupted Northern Kingdom, and scattered its inhabitants to the four winds. These are the fabled “Ten Lost Tribes” whom we are told will be reunited with the Jewish world at the time of the ultimate redemption (may it come speedily in our days.)  In fact, this process has already begun: witness the return to Israel of the scattered remnants of Jews from the Maghreb, from Arabia, and from Persia; the Falashmura from Ethiopia (who claim their lineage from the Tribe of Dan) and the Bnei Menashe from the Indian subcontinent.

But I digress. Ahem. When the sins of the Southern Kingdom finally filled the 'poisoned cup', Gcd unleashed the Babylonians to sack Jerusalem and destroy the Holy Temple. After the usual rape, pillage and plunder, they exiled the Judeans (majority) and Benjaminites (minority), and so the Babylonian exiles were lumped together as 'Judeans' or simply 'Jews' in English. 

The term "Jew" ties us, historically and geographically to Judea, i.e. the Land of Israel.

Here's the last piece of the puzzle. Who was the original Yehuda? You will recall that in Parashat Vayetze, Leah names her fourth son Yehuda in gratitude. The very name Yehuda means “thanks to Gcd.”

In other words, we are called ‘Jews’ because giving thanks to the A-lmighty is our function in the world.  The French are famous for their wine; the Italians for making love and singing opera. But Jews? Our primary purpose is to give praise to Hashem. 

We thank Gcd when we wake up; we thank Gcd when we lie down. We thank Gcd before we put a morsel of food in our mouths; we thank Gcd when we get up from the table. We thank Gcd for the wonders of nature. We thank Gcd for the holiest of things, such as studying Torah, and for the most mundane of things, such as using the toilet. As Jews, we are in a constant state of blessing and praise because that is our defining characteristic.

Along comes Thanksgiving, a holiday intended to, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledge the manifest blessings bestowed by the Almighty as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

So I'm thinking that we shouldn't squander an opportunity to give thanks to 'our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens'; indeed, we'd be abandoning our post if we did.

There is a second, more philosophical reason for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving: it's true that many cultures have some kind of harvest celebration, a day to give thanks for food enough to survive winter. But the American Thanksgiving speaks also to higher ideals: our noble experiment in self-governance; to the preservation of personal liberty; and to the inalienable rights of Man that can be usurped by no despot. Those principles which our Founding Fathers bequeathed to the world are rooted in Torah, and therefore in holiness, and are worthy of celebration. So in that sense I am an unapologetic American Exceptionalist.

And as for the connection between Chanukah and Thanksgiving? Well, open a siddur (prayerbook). Where is our primary Chanukah prayer, Al HaNissim? Tucked into the Thanksgiving Blessing we say three times a day, every day of our lives; and in the Blessing of Thanks after a Meal. 

Maybe the confluence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, coming as it does in an age where we are witness to the Ultimate Redemption of Israel, as foretold by the Prophets of Israel, unfolding before our very eyes; maybe the special message for our times is to double up on gratitude. We live in very stressed-out times; perhaps we need to step back, take a deep breath, and focus on what we have, not on what we lack.

Thanksgivikah provides a singular opportunity to reflect on our spiritual path, to give thanks to the A-lmighty, and to resolve to improve - to rededicate - our lives. 

Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah Same'ach. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Jacob's Bridge - Reflections on Parashat VaYetzei 5774

Jacob does something truly remarkable in this week's parashah. 

No, I'm not talking about kissing a girl that's not his wife. Or his being struck by true love's 'thunderbolt' and then crying like a baby. Nor am I referring to his later dabblings in genetic engineering. That's all kid's stuff, tinkertoys compared to the what I have in mind. 

Here's what Jacob does - he actually talks to his spouse(s). (GASP!)

To understand the incredible remarkability of this act, we have to set the stage a little.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has observed a fundamental difference between Abraham and Isaac: Abraham was an actor on the stage of world events, Isaac more of a spectator. Abraham was the subject, and Isaac the object of history. For example: Isaac is bound to the altar at the Akeidah; a wife is found for Isaac; the blessings are wrested from him. He is passive where his father was active. Where Abraham was the initiator, the founder of ethical monotheism, Isaac was the perpetuator of that legacy. Isaac's passivity was intensified by his blindness and his being home bound. 

Jacob grew up in the house of Isaac, the guru; the holy, passive one. He didn't really know his grandfather Abraham. Jacob himself is described as an "ish tam, yoshev ohalim", a wholesome man, a tent dweller, meaning in the tents of learning, a bookworm. The Hebrew word tam is usually rendered as 'wholesome' or 'pure', but also has the clear connotation of naivete. He had no firsthand experience of the world around him; no street smarts.

So here we have the portrait of a poet/philosopher; content to experience life through the prism of his books, coddled by a doting mother and following the moral example of passivity set by his father. A quiet, idyllic life.

And in an instant, his life is turned upside down. Very much against his will, he is thrust into a cruel, heartless and unforgiving world. With no preparation and even less money, he finds himself fleeing for his life to a faraway land. Is this some kind of bad dream, a surrealistic nightmare? How will he even fend for himself?

He is welcomed as a prince in Uncle Laban's house, until Laban (very quickly) cottons on that he's broke. The red carpet is rolled up, the decorations come down and a shepherd's staff is thrust in Jacob's hand. No work, no eat, he's told. Jacob thinks, "This isn't such a bad deal. How hard can it be watching a bunch of sheep? It will allow me to read, and anyway I would gladly work seven years for the hand of my True Love in marriage." How romantic.

And absurdly naive. The work turns out to be a little harder than he imagined. And that's just the first scam. He is defrauded by Laban in his nuptials. And in this, the poet/philosopher, the smeller of flowers, barely registers a protest. 

When Rachel complains to Jacob that she is barren, his only reply is "am I Gcd, preventing you from having children?" He pleads helplessness, passivity. Can he really do nothing? At least Isaac prayed for Rebecca in his generation.

He winds up (by default) with four wives. Count 'em, four. When Leah and Rachel offer him their handmaidens as concubines, the Torah doesn't record any reaction from Jacob. 

Every time he starts to make a few bucks, Laban changes the compensation plan (anybody ever have a boss like that?). Again, Jacob doesn't react. He takes it on the chin and muddles on.

In short, for twenty years, he modeled himself after his father: compliant, passive, helpless - the classic victim. 

And then something must have clicked for him one wintry night, high on a mountaintop; wet and frozen to his bones, impossible to keep a fire going, clothes soaked through, tending to Laban's sheep while Laban sat at home around a cozy fire.

Sitting alone in the dark, he must have finally come to the realization that after twenty years, the magic telegram from Be'er Sheva telling him that it was safe to return home wasn't coming. And it wasn't ever going to come. No Prince Charming was going to rescue this Cinderella. 

No one was going to save him from his troubles - except him.

At that moment, Mortimer Milktoast died. The man who awoke the next morning was determined to act to protect his interests and the interests of his family. 

So he used his hard-earned knowledge of animal husbandry to take the garbage animals of Laban's flock and amass a small fortune for himself.

And he called his wives out to the fields, where he was tending sheep, for a little chin wag. Why did he convene this meeting out in the field? The tractate Brachot [8b] explains that he wanted to discuss matters in complete secrecy, out of earshot of others (i.e., Laban).

And he talks to his wives. Really looks them in the eye and talks to them. He articulates his grievances, makes his case, lays out the plan, and enlists their feedback and support. And you know what? Amazingly, they both opt in.

He didn't have to convince them; he could have acted unilaterally. But in so doing, he unifies the sororal rivals and mends his family. He demonstrates leadership and inspires them with a sense of mission and purpose. He provides context for understanding their suffering and joys, and a cogent plan to fix what's broken in their lives. All this from from the philosophy major. In fact, had Isaac been there, he would not have thought Jacob had it in him (based on the Maharal.)

But he did have it in him. From the thesis (Abraham) and the antithesis (Isaac) emerged the synthesis - the perfect blend of action and contemplation, of warrior and poet. 

Who among us hasn't been victimized, scammed, taken advantage of by people we trusted? Who doesn't feel, at one time or another, that life is cruel and has done us wrong? 

But we are the children of Jacob - better, of Israel; the children (as we shall soon see) of he who wrestled with angels and prevailed. We have the power inherent in each of us to stop being the victims in our own lives, to recognize that life is not a spectator sport. 

The parasha begins with Jacob's vision of a ladder descending from Heaven to Earth. It ends with Jacob building a bridge and getting over his self-pity.

I know that Rudyard Kipling is out of favor these days for his decidedly unfashionable views on colonialism and race. But I see Father Jacob in this poem:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Shabbat Shalom.