Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Color of Evil - Reflections on Parashat VaYetzei 5776

(Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

If you had to pick a color to represent evil, what would you pick?

Let's see, something really menacing; maybe black, like the SS uniform, or black and red, like the Nazi Swastika, or just blood red, like the flag of the USSR.

In this week's Torah portion, we discover that the color of evil - is white. 

That's curious, because white is generally associated with purity, goodness and holiness:
Come, let us struggle together; though your sins are red as scarlet, I will purify you to become as white as snow. (Isaiah 1:18)
In our parashah, though, the archenemy of Jacob the Patriarch is his Uncle Laban, and in Hebrew, Laban means white. What gives?

First of all, let's be clear that Laban was one bad dude. He was an idol worshipper; he was a cheat, a thief, and a sexual predator; he was a tyrannical and domineering force in his household and was a master manipulator, akin to Mrs. Boynton in Christie's Appointment with Death. For example, Laban coerced Rachel to allow Leah to sneak into her marital bed on her wedding night, thus forfeiting her own happiness to acquiesce to her father's twisted subterfuges.

He is known as Laban the Aramean; but the Midrash points out that the Hebrew letters of "Aramean" also spell out "treachery" or "deceiver"; the kind of guy who changes the rules mid-game in his favor when he is starting to lose. In other words, he was a deceiver, head of a clan of liars, comfortable in a society of treachery. 

So distrustful of each other were they, that the shepherds had to lock the wells to prevent people stealing water. They only drew water once a day when everyone was present to unlock the well together. Distrust and verify.

According to the Midrash, Laban was the grandfather of Bilaam the Wicked Sorcerer, who was cut from the same malevolent cloth.

So why is his name "White as the Driven Snow?"

The Torah is coming to teach us a very important lesson.

Except in comic books, evil rarely self-identifies. It doesn't run it's banner up a flagpole like Darth Vader or Lex Luthor or Loki or even Doofenschmirtz Evil, Incorporated.

Image result for doofenshmirtz evil incorporated

Unlike the bad guys in the movies, real evil prefers to lurk in the shadows; concealed and free to destroy without attracting attention or drawing much scrutiny. Real-life villains smile to your face while furtively sabotaging your work. In the real world, evil almost always cloaks itself in white; like Laban, it wraps itself in the white tallit, looking to all appearances like goodness itself. 

The thief is only taking what he is entitled to because he is under-appreciated and underpaid.

Violent men beat women because "they had it coming."

Drug dealers need money for baby's new shoes.

Sexual predators think only of their own need, and are utterly unconcerned with their victims.

Laban is the face of modern evil; he is the archetypal narcissist; of people who navigate their way through life according to the dictum of "what is good for me is ethical." 

Towards the end of the parashah, Jacob makes a deal with Laban, in which Jacob gets the garbage animals of the flock as his wages, while continuing to manage Laban's flocks. Laban agrees because it's a deal strongly stacked in his favor. But Jacob deftly turns the seconds, the irregulars, the throw-away animals of the flock into a small fortune. Laban becomes angry and jealous; not because he lost money on the deal, but because Jacob also prospered in a deal where only Laban was supposed to come out on top. 

Jacob skedaddles, and Laban pursues and overtakes Jacob and his slow-moving caravan, laden down as it was with a dozen children and thousands of animals. There is a confrontation, and in a white-hot rage, Laban sputters: "The women belong to me, your children belong to me, your flocks belong to me; everything you have built for yourself is mine!" (Genesis 31:23)

For a moment, Laban lets the white veil slip, revealing the real Laban underneath, the ugliness and perversity of his thoughts and actions. As the verse states: "He who says: what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine, that person is an evildoer." (Avot 5:13) 

Had the A-lmighty not stayed his hand, Laban would have massacred Jacob and his clan right then and there. In his all-consuming jealousy and hate, he would have gleefully murdered his own daughters and grandchildren; a regrettable expedient, but necessary to grab the wealth that Laban rationalized belonged to him. 

Does this sound at all familiar? Hitler justified his monstrous behavior convinced that 'Providence' favored him. Stalin had excellent justifications in his own mind to murder 40 million people during the Red Purges of the 1930's. 

Modern Jew-hatred, manifest in the BDS movement and Code Pink, cloaks itself in the sanctimonious and hypocritical shroud of "Justice for Palestine."

Islamic crazy people who behead infidels, blow up discotheques and soccer stadiums and turn children into sex slaves are convinced that they are justified in doing the will of their diety.

Evil always tries to claim the moral high ground.

That is why Judaism rarely addresses evil as a thing, as some external, independent force in the world which we must enjoin in combat. Because guess what? When we objectify evil, we give ourselves a pass for the evil we do in our own lives. Freddy Kruger? Jeffrey Dahmer? That's bad. But my water cooler gossip? Nah...

Instead, Judaism almost always speaks of chet, of sin; of the individual decision to choose good or evil, right or wrong, mitzvah or chet. We speak not of evil, but of the evildoer.

The decision-making algorithm we employ on a day-to-day basis cannot be based on human intellect and twisted rationalizations, but on an absolute moral code that remains unchanged over time. 

We live in a world that has discarded the notions of absolute truth, of good and of evil. We are now taught everyone that has their own truth; that we all have a 'narrative', each one equally valid as the next. The task of the modern ethicist is narrative management, i.e., in the absence of absolute right or wrong, of developing rules to keep the contradictory and competitive narratives out of conflict. 

Take a look at progressive Western societies today and the world at large and let me know how that's working out.

To the contrary, the true nature of evil is manifest (or absent) in the hundreds of micro-choices we make each and every day. Evil is not some far-off disembodied force; it is all too close at hand, if we choose to give it power.

Because that's the dirty little secret about Uncle Laban: evil is not incorporated - it's a member of the family.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

- Please join us for Torah Study Tuesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Starbucks on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem, PA. Every week, we discuss the parasha, current events and the relevance of the weekly Torah reading to real life. Just bring your sense of humor and love of coffee (or tea?) [smile]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Transcendent Hum - Reflections on Parashat Toldot 5776

(Genesis 25:19-28:9)

This week's parasha opens with a famous riddle.

"And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac."

Skreech, skid to stop. Back up a little. What?

When the verse opens with, "And these are the generation of Isaac" we expect to hear all about the descendants of Isaac, not his forbears. It's like saying, "let me show you some pictures of my kids" and then pulling out faded pictures of your grandpappy. What gives?

Rashi comes to our rescue, as usual. He fills in the blanks and explains the correct way to read the verse:

"And these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham [whom we'll get to in a minute in great detail, but for all you naysayers out there who doubt that Abraham and Sarah had a miracle baby in their dotage, I'm here to tell ya that] Abraham fathered Isaac."

But let's torque down on the unique structure of this verse, because it's not at all random:

"And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac."

Isaac son of Abraham Abraham fathered Isaac.

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac 

The architecture of the verse creates a sine wave:

And a sine wave that repeats continuously creates the infinity symbol:

This makes perfect sense: as my distinguished mentor, daily study partner and dear friend Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz points out, the birth of Isaac reinvigorated Abraham, giving him a new sense of purpose, clarity, and direction in his life. Finally, at the ripe old age of 100, he could begin to see the glimmer of hope in the fulfillment of Gcd's promises to him. Taken in this way, it is fair to say that Isaac fathered Abraham just as much as Abraham fathered Isaac. 

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac.

A sine wave is a signal; a hum, a sound that reverberates through the cosmos. The Torah is transmitting a message through the Abraham/Isaac sine wave, one that transcends time, one that goes on forever. What is the nature of this message?

To decode it, we must understand Abraham and Isaac: who they were, what they stood for, what values they embodied.

Abraham was the paragon of Gemilut Hasadim, of kindness to others. We are taught that his tent had openings north, south, east and west, ever open to welcome friends, guests, strangers, sojourners. He delighted in making people feel welcome, wanted, and important. He embodied the character trait of the highest service to his fellowman. Through his living example of a kindly, dignified, devoted life, his guests came to discard their narcissistic paganisms and adopt Abraham's compassionate, ethical monotheism.

Isaac embodied the character trait of Avodah, of service to the A-lmighty. Having willingly exposed his own neck to be offered on the altar (Genesis 22), he was forever sanctified, a living symbol of the need to subordinate our capricious human will to the benevolent, enduring will of Gcd.

All the mitzvot of the Torah can be categorized as being either mitzvot between people, and those between Man and his Maker.

Examples of the former: caring for the poor; refraining from gossip; always giving the next guy the benefit of the doubt; never embarrassing anyone; hospitality; greeting everyone with a smile; visiting the sick. These are mitzvot of Gemilut Hasadim, the mitzvot symbolized by Abraham.

Examples of the latter: keeping kosher; keeping the Shabbat and festivals; wearing tefillin and tzitzit; prayer. These are mitzvot of Avodah, the mitzvot symbolized by Isaac.

The message of the sine wave is: Gemilut Hasadim combined with Avodah is the infinity secret of Jewish survival.

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac - Avodah Gemilut Hasadim Gemilut Hasadim Avodah.

The verse states:
On three things does the world stand: on Torah study, on Avodah, and on Gemilut Hasadim. [Avot 1:2]
These are the "ABC"s of Judaism: Torah study, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim. They cannot be teased apart; they are an integrated whole. 

As long as the Jewish People are committed to the "ABC"s: studying the Torah; acting compassionately towards our fellow humans; and deepening our dveykut Hashem, our "Gcd consciousness"; then passionate, transformative Judaism will survive forever. The transcendental sine wave will successfully transmit from Abraham to Isaac to the next Abraham to the next Isaac.

Sad to say, 9 out of 10 of American Jews no longer have much use for the fundamentals of the Jewish faith. We have discarded the "ABC"s in favor of the "EFG"s: Environmentalism, Feminism and Gay Rights.

Behold the pillars of the New Judaism, the gods we have fashioned in our own image.

Parents and grandparents burst with pride as their little Einsteins boldly tell us in their Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches how they doubt the existence of Gcd, and how the Torah is pretty much irrelevant to their lives. What a tour de force of intellectual integrity and post-rational skepticism!

We can give ourselves a grand pat on the back: these [very expensive] Bar Mitzvah mills have produced, not another committed Jew, but a dedicated trash recycler and future Prius owner. 

Gcd is out, Gaia is in. Toyota will be so pleased.

Dissociated as we are from the ABCs, is it any wonder that Judaism in America is rapidly disappearing? How did we so lose our way? 

And while we're pushing our brains together to make one good one, wonder you this: what might suggest itself to you as a solution to our collective hari kiri? 


Shabbat Shalom.

FYI: To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Eliezer's Excellent Adventure - Reflections on Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776

(Genesis 23:1 - 25:18)

A big chunk of this week's Torah portion describes Eliezer's quest to find the perfect bride for Isaac, his master Abraham's son. 

Eliezer reluctantly accepts Abraham's commission to travel to far-away Chaldea, the region of Abraham's kinsmen, to select the lucky girl. It's a high stakes adventure; a tricky business, with grave consequences for the Abrahamitic mission if he should fail.

But Abraham trusted him, having already appointed him major domo of his household and manager of all his worldy affairs. In turn, Eliezer repaid that trust with a fierce loyalty to Abraham, a sort of ancient Gurka. He is so loyal that when he prays, he prays not to his own god, but to the Gcd of his master Abraham.

There are two things that stand out about Eliezer's quest.

First, the Torah spends an extravagant number of verses on Eliezer's excellent adventure. The first block of verses (24:1-24:33) describe the events as they unfold. The second block of verses (24:34-24:60) describe Eliezer's (almost verbatim) retelling of these events to Rebeccah's family. Sixty verses in all. 

And yet, upon returning home, it takes but one verse to bring Isaac up to speed. "And the servant recounted to Isaac everything that had transpired." (24:66) So why is Eliezer so loquacious before Rebeccah's family, yet is the essence of brevity with Isaac? (If anything, we might expect the opposite to be true, i.e., that he would reserve the detailed report for his boss.)

Second, although Eliezer is identified earlier (15:2), he is described throughout this narrative not by his proper name, but as "the servant" or "the man." Why not just call the guy by his real name?

Eliezer is initially very reluctant to undertake this mission. There are so many variables: Chaldea is a big place; where to start looking? How do you even begin to find a wife for some other person? What if he can't find a suitable girl for Isaac? What if he finds someone, but she refuses to return to Canaan with him? And define suitable please? And how is he to gauge the girl's character, her inner beauty? And what if, after bringing the girl back to Canaan, she and Isaac are incompatible? 

I hear stories from people who are seriously looking these days, and trust me, it's hard enough to find your own soul mate, let alone someone else's.

From Eliezer's perspective, the entire undertaking is a lose-lose proposition: if he succeeds, his private aspirations to wed his own daughter to Isaac are dashed; and if he strikes out, he fails his master and jeopardizes Abraham's entire life's work.

In overcoming these objections, Abraham basically says, "I trust you to do the right thing." Moreover, he tells Eliezer that he will not be going it alone; indeed, he will have extraordinary help for this extraordinary mission: 
The Lcrd, Gcd of the Heavens; He who took me out of my father's house and my ancestral homeland; He who has spoken to me; He who swore to give this land to my offspring; He will send his angel before you and you will indeed find a wife for my son there. (24:7)
So despite his severe reservations, the reluctant servant heads out reluctantly.

And then the events unfold. Luckily, he finds himself approaching the city of Nahor, Abraham's brother. Luckily, Nachor's grand-daughter is the first one out of the gate to draw water. Luckily, she is beautiful, gracious and kind-hearted. Luckily she passes the little test he devises to test her character.

The verse states that Eliezer is dumbstruck when he begins to realize that the very first young maiden he encounters could be the potential wife for Isaac. 

It would be a little like you or me picking up a bat and going up against a Major League pitcher like Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax, and with the very first swing, hitting the ball out of the park. The odds are laughably, ridiculously small.

By verbalizing the story in front of Rebeccah's family, Eliezer has the opportunity to sort it all out, put the events in their proper context, and make sense of it in his own mind. 

He comes to realize that what happened back there was no coincidence or kismet or blind luck. Events unfolded exactly as they were supposed to...just as Master Abraham had promised him they would. Abraham's words echoed in Eliezer's head: "...The Lcrd will send his angel before you and you will indeed find there a wife for my son."

In other words, as much as Eliezer was retelling the story to convince Rebeccah's family to allow her to accompany him home, he was talking just as much to himself; developing the emerging awareness that there was a Divine plan at work here, and that he had a key role to play in it.

What role? Roles, actually: both as "the servant" and as "the man."

A servant is one who faithfully does his master's bidding with unswerving loyalty. In the execution of the master's wishes, the servant subordinates his own will to that of his master. The servant is utterly dependent upon the master, and could not survive without his beneficence. 

By contrast, Man is a moral agent, independent, and able to apply judgement and common sense in the application of his free will.

In relation to Abraham, Eliezer is referred to as the servant. In the house of Bethuel, far away from his master's direct guidance, he must exercise his best judgement. That is why Abraham trusted him to do the right thing in the first place; that is why in Chaldea he is referred to as the Man.

We are all Eliezer. We are all both servants of Gcd and moral agents, struggling to find the perfect balance between subservience to Gcd and initiative in the crafting of our own lives. Like Eliezer, we are all on a quest, a long, hazardous journey, the consequences of which are enormous and the outcome of which is unknown. 

But if we serve our Master well, fulfilling our obligations to Him and our to our fellow man; if we faithfully apply our talents and our intellect to the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot, Gcd will no doubt send an angel before us as well, that we may find success on the unique trail that each one of us must blaze on our own. 

Shabbat Shalom.