Why Me? Why Not Me? What Now?

This week’s parasha is Toldot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9).

After years of infertility, Isaac beseeches God on behalf of Rebecca and she conceives. A happy thing, no? Not entirely. Perhaps initially she and Isaac share the joy of a first pregnancy (I remember ours so well), but as things progress, the pregnancy causes her tremendous discomfort. It appears that she is having twins; but the twins are fighting inside her, causing Rebecca pain, both physical and emotional. In her pain she utters the words “Lama zeh anochi”, which literally mean “Why this I?”

“Why, this, I?” The ambiguity of these words leaves room for interpretation. One of the earliest readings of this phrase is found in Midrash Beresheet Rabba, the Great Interpretation of Genesis (63:6). There, Rabbi Yitzchak, as cited by Rabbi Haggia, teaches that Rebecca went from house to house and asked the women “Did you suffer so much when you were pregnant or it is just me? If the pain of having children is so great, I wish I had never become pregnant!” Going even further, Rav Huna says that Rebecca wishes that she had never been born.

Personally, I think that her “Lama zeh anochi – Why this I?” is simply a spontaneous outcry, grammar and coherence garbled by pain, expressing the primal scream “WHY ME?”

“Why me?” will be Rebecca’s initial response, but it will not be her last.

There are three types of responses to pain, trouble, disappointment, and all the unwanted and undeserved things that happen to us and to our dear ones.

The first response is “Why me?” “This isn’t fair! I’m a good person – I don’t deserve what is happening to me. My [fill in the blank] did not deserve what happened to her/him! If God could do this, I can’t believe in God anymore!” (Of course, if one believes that God has done this, one first has to believe that there is indeed a God, albeit a not very nice God.)

“Why me?” is the response of anger.

The second response is “Why NOT me?” “This isn’t fair, but who said the world is fair? That’s just the way things are. It is what it is. Sometimes good comes our way that we didn’t earn or deserve, and sometimes we are hit with undeserved bad. ‘Stuff’ happens.'” Rabbi Akiva taught that one should say a blessing over both the good and the bad. Both are part of life.

“Why NOT me?” is the response of acceptance.

The third response is “What now?” “How do I respond to what has happened in life-affirming ways? What do I have to do to carry on? Is there a way to fix this; and if not, how can I bring purpose and meaning to that which seems meaningless? Will enduring my suffering bring me later to joy? How do I create a “new normal” while finding a place in my heart to put the pain, so that it does not remain a forever burden?”

In our saga, God responds to Rebecca’s cry by telling her that in her womb are two nations, both destined for greatness. The older will serve the younger, but with time, he will shake off his brother’s yoke. All of a sudden, Rebecca’s “Why me?” turns into a “What now?” Her suffering will not go away, but it will have been for a purpose. From that moment on, her life will be dedicated to nurturing, protecting, and advancing the younger one, knowing that he was the one designated by God. Great is her pain now, but later, it will have been worth it.

“What now?” is the response of hope.

Hope is not the naïve belief that bad things will go away and that everything will work out in the end, la di da. Hope, according to Dr. Sherwin Nuland, is the understanding that there is something out there in the future that will make it worth enduring the suffering in the present. Hope, according to Dr. Victor Frankl, is the conviction that your life has a purpose yet to be fulfilled. And I learned from Rev. Robert Voyle that hope is the knowledge that, whatever may come, you will have the resources to respond in life-affirming ways.

However we understand it, the Jew lives with hope!

SHABBAT SHUVAH – THE STEPS TO REPENTANCE

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Repentance within the Ten Days of Repentance linking Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. It derives its name from the first word of the Haphtarah for this week:

 שׁוּבָה, יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:
“Shuvah Yisrael – Return (Repent), O Israel, for you have stumbled in your iniquity!”
Hosea 14:2

Teshuvah (Returning/Repenting) is not easy. But not only is it possible, it is imperative, lest we forfeit what makes us human – our ability to change. Teshuvah is a process that has prescribed steps. Here is a list of steps, based largely on the writings of Maimonides:

  1. Awareness – I bring to mind something which I did or said that I realize should not have been done or said.
  2. Regret – I feel remorse for having done what I did.
  3. Confession – I put into words what I have done, thus giving the thought reality. There are prayers of confession every day – I don’t have to wait until Yom Kippur.
  4. Admission – I come to you, admit and accept responsibility for what I have done.
  5. Restitution – When possible, I make up for the damage that I have done.
  6. Ask forgiveness – I ask you to forgive me. If you refuse to forgive me, I need to come back to you two more times and ask. If after the third request you still refuse to forgive me, then I have done all I can and now you are guilty of the sin of cruelty. And remember, you can forgive without forgetting, and forgiving does not necessarily mean restoring trust.
  7. Change my behavior – I do not repeat what I did before. Maimonides gives a graphic example of which I will give a PG version: I am in the same room with the same person, have the same ability, feel the same desire, yet do not act as I had before (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuvah,” 2:1).
  8. Pray for God’s forgiveness -The last step in the process of my repentance is to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and ask for God’s forgiveness for what I have done. I know that I cannot ask God’s forgiveness on the Day of Atonement until I have done right by those against whom I have sinned (Mishnah Yoma 8:9), yet having done all of the above, I still need to ask God for forgiveness. That is because a sin against any other of God’s “human images” is seen as a sin against God, a “spark” of Whom is in every person.
  9. Forgive myself – Maimonides does not mention this additional step, but it is as important as it is difficult. Having gone through the process of sincere repentance and reparation, I reflect back with gentle understanding at the person I was when I committed the act and I forgive that person, knowing that I am not a person who would do that anymore. I am defined, not by what I have done wrong, but by my efforts to improve and act in ways better than the person I used to be.

In one of the earliest Midrashic collections, Genesis Rabba, the Rabbis enumerated six creations that God created or envisioned before creating the world (Beresheet 1:4). This was based on a play on the first word which the Rabbis read as bara shayt which, in Aramaic, means “created six.”  After listing six things, including the Torah which God would use like an architect’s drawing to create the world, Rabbi Ahava ben Zeira added a seventh: Teshuvah. In listing Repentance as being conceived even prior to creation, Rabbi Ahava (which means “love”) was saying that God knew that we humans were sometimes going to fall into sinning and would need a way to get back up.  It is like God creating the safety net prior to creating trapezes, knowing that the humans who swung on those trapezes would sometimes fall. God built repentance into the fabric of creation so that human beings – who, not being born as sinners, still had the potential to sin -would always have a way to recover from their mistakes and become better.

On Yom Kippur we will gather before the Loving One in search Divine forgiveness. Having done our part in the process of teshuvah, we will know that all we will have to do is ask, as it is written, “I have forgiven as you have requested” (Numbers 14:20).

G’mar chatimah tovah – May you and your loved ones be inscribed for a New Year of health, happiness, growth, peace and love.

Rabbi Don Rossoff

Why do bad things happen to Holy Temples?

This week’s Haftarah reading: Jeremiah 2: 4-28, 3:4,  4:1-2.

In addition to the portion from the Torah which is read on this Shabbat in synagogues around the world, there is also a Haftarah (additional reading) chosen from the Nevi-im (books of prophets), the second section of the TANACH (Hebrew Bible). Usually there is a connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah portion, but the Haftarah can also be determined by other events in the Jewish calendar. Such is the case with this week’s Haftarah portion. This portion is the second of three “Haftarot of rebuke” read on the three Shabbatot just prior to Tisha b’Av. Tisha b’Av is the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which tradition tells us that both of the Holy Temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.

Unlike many of us, the Biblical prophets and early Rabbinic Sages believed that God controlled history and that history was all about us. According to the Prophets of the age, the first Temple was destroyed, not because of the geo-political forces of the day or because the God of Israel lost a heavenly battle with the gods of Babylon. No, the destruction of the Temple was ordained by God as a punishment for having forsaken God and worshiped idols, ascribing infinite power and value to finite objects As Jeremiah rebukes and laments in this Haftarah,

They say to the wood, “You are my father,” and to the stone, “You bore us,” for they turned to Me their back and not their face, and at the time of their misfortune they say, “Arise and save us… ” Now where are your gods that you have made for yourself? Let them get up if they will save you at the time of your misfortune, for as many as your cities were your gods, O Judea.
(Jeremiah 2: 27-28)

In choosing readings such as these to precede our Jewish day of national and spiritual disaster, the Rabbis expressed their fundamental understanding that “mipnay chatataynu galeenu may-artzaynu – because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” The first Temple was destroyed, they believed, as a punishment for the sin of idolatry.

But why was the second Temple destroyed? The Jewish people had long ago forsaken idols and lived more of a life devoted to God and Torah. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), the Rabbis believed that the sin which brought down the Temple again was sinat chinam – baseless hatred, Jew against fellow Jew. They told the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza which illustrated how enmity between individuals, miscommunication, unforgiving stances, the public embarrassment of others, grudge-holding and revenge-taking combined to bring down the Temple.

The Rabbis of the time also played a part by not speaking up when they should have and by being unwilling to compromise principle for the sake of the community.  All in all, the Temple fell because our hearts became hardened and our anger for past wrongs was expressed in hurtful ways.

What are we to learn from all this? We learn that what keeps our “Temples” (synagogues, churches, communities, homes) standing strong is our ability to share our differing thoughts and feelings, even on matters about which we feel strongly, with open minds and receptive hearts, to disagree without being disagreeable, to understand the principled positions behind the personal passions of others, and, perhaps most importantly, to allow our higher selves to forgive.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don

The Consequences of Living in the Past

In this week’s sidra, Pinchas, God reminds Moses that he may see the Promised Land from afar but could not enter it – this, as a result of the incident reported earlier in Numbers 20. In that scene, the people gather against Moses, demanding water. God bids Moses to draw water for the threatening throng by speaking to a rock. Accosted by the angry assembly, Moses says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water out of this rock for you?’ And Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice.” (Numbers 20: 10-11). And because he hit the rock rather than speaking to it, God says, “Moses… you shall not bring this community to the land that I have given them!” (Numbers 20:12).

Why such a harsh punishment for a relatively minor infraction? Why would a moment of weakness bar Moses from fulfilling his mission and reaching the goal he had worked so long and so hard to achieve? Oh God, you are SO STRICT!

Through the years, many Jewish commentators have tried to identify the sin and thus justify the punishment. One tradition holds that Moses was guilty of using physical violence instead of verbal communication. (When our children act out physically, we say, “Talk, don’t hit. Use your words.”) Maimonides and many others take Moses to task for calling the people “rebels” when all they were asking for was one of life’s basic necessities. Levi Yitzchak of Berdechev wrote that Moses should have helped the people, not rebuke them. And there are those who criticize Moses for acting on his anger. What the 14th-15th century priest, Thomas à Kempis, said is so very true: “When anger enters, wisdom departs.”

And of course, we understand how persons in positions of communal responsibility need to be “symbolic exemplars” (Jack Bloom) and are thus held to a higher standard.

Not wanting to heap yet another sin to the list, 19th century Italian scholar Shmuel David Luzzato hesitated to come up with any new interpretations of how what it was that the greatest of prophets deserved such a punishment (Itturei Torah). I, however, am not as hesitant. So with apologies to Luzzato and Moshe Rabenu, I will venture two more interpretations.

In order to understand the full context, we have to refer back to the first time that Moses drew water from a rock (Exodus 17). There, God commanded Moses to draw water from the rock by taking his staff and striking the rock. The idea that the first time Moses was told to hit the rock while the second time, years later, he was told to speak to the rock suggests two other possible explanations for Moses’ action, each of which would suggest that it was time for him to turn in his staff.

Perhaps Moses struck the rock because he wasn’t fully listening to God. He heard what he expected to hear based in his previous experience, but not what was really being said. Visionary leadership requires presence and attentive listening.

And there is the one more thing that would have disqualified Moses from entering the Promised Land, not as a punishment, but as a consequence of what his actions revealed about him. Despite what he had been told in this new situation, he relied on what had worked in the past, thinking, “It worked before, it should work now.” Moses either did not understand or did not accept that times and circumstances had changed, that what worked before might not work now; and if it did still work (the water still came out), yesterday’s ways may not be most appropriate for today’s needs.

When we remain in the past, we cannot truly live in the present nor can we have vision for the future.

The Resilient House: Sermon Delivered at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, April 24, 2015

Thank you for inviting me here to JRC. I very much appreciate this opportunity to be together, learn about each other, and learn from each other.

Tonight and tomorrow, in synagogues around the world, Rabbis will be ascending their pulpits and speaking out on the great issues of the day. Either that, or they will be reviewing the latest book or movie of Jewish interest. Or perhaps they will speak about their recent trip to Israel or Cuba or Boca. In short, they will be speaking about anything and everything, just as long as they don’t have to talk about this week’s Torah portion!

This week’s parsha is the never popular double portion Tazria-Metzora. Tazria and Metzora deal with various problematic conditions the ancient Levites thought made people and things tamei (impure). These included certain bodily discharges, and tza-ra-at, an outbreak of discoloration or spots, mold or fungus on people and things. Tza-ra-at of the skin is usually translated as “the plague of leprosy,” but it was probably closer to the heartbreak of psoriasis. If I had to sum up the overall subject of these portions, I would say that they are about things that make you say “yuck” and then want to change the subject.

But these categories, impure and pure, tamei and tahor, unclean and clean are about more, much more, than just the yuck factor. Rabbis and anthropologists suggest that what was designated as pure was what affirmed you in the realm of life, and gave you access to the God of life, while what was impure dragged you into the liminal realm of death and alienation.

That’s why these portions intrigue me. It’s not that I am a dermatologist, a fan of fungi, or preserver of precious bodily fluids. It’s that I want to learn, not from the Torah’s content per se but from its processes and underlying values, the ways our Biblical ancestors faced the messy, the scary, the painful and the disappointing.  When they were dragged into the realm of death, how did they return to the realm of life?  How did they confront, cope, and continue in life affirming ways?

You see, in a sense, the meta-message of Tazria-Metzora can be seen as resilience – the ability to respond in life-affirming, positive ways when the beset by the messiness which sometimes plague our bodies, our homes, our communities, and the deepest recesses of our souls.

So for instance, let’s take a quick look at what was going on in Leviticus 14, verses 33-38. These verses directed the Israelites what to do when first they found something like tzaraat growing on the walls of their home.

With your permission, I want to turn the clock back just a couple of thousand years and play out how that worked. Picture this if you will: we are all living together as a family in this lovely stone and plaster communal home right on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Every night, we look up towards the Holy Temple. Awed by the distant glow of the sacrificial fire, we understand the beauty of holiness!

One day, as we are sitting down to break pita, one of you looks around and says, “Did anyone else notice that weird stuff growing on the wall over there? Anyone know what that is?” Naturally, we are all sure of what it is. We know precisely what it is.  It’s just that each of us thinks it is something different.  And because we are Israelites, we argue about it. Finally, some genius at the end of the table is able to break through the commotion and says, “Hey, let’s see what the Torah has to say about this!”  So we take out our pocket Torah scrolls and sure enough, we find exactly what Adonai told Moshe and Aharon to do in situations like this. It begins with verse 34 of chapter 14. As we read, as we listen, each of us waits to hear from all the rest, “OK, you were right.”

We read verses 34-35: כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן Thus says God: When you have come into the land of Canaan…, and I put an outbreak of tzara’at in a house, [At this point, everyone is thinking “gee, thanks God” but nobody says it.] the owner of the house should come to the Kohen and say, כְּנֶגַע, נִרְאָה לִי בַּבָּיִת “It seems to me that there is something like a plague in the house.”

That calms us down a bit and we exhale. We don’t have to agree as to what it is exactly; we just say that it seems to us there is something there. A thousand years later, Rashi and others will look at this verse and say it is about humility. It’s about admitting we don’t know, or if we really do know, humbly holding back in the presence of the priest.  You might be right or you might be right, but each of us has to realize that there may be various ways of seeing the same thing, different perspectives to consider. We admit that what may seem to be one thing could in fact be something very different. Perception may not be reality, really.

It’s funny, as soon as we each back away from the illusion of certainty, we see each other in a little different light. We all want the same thing. We want our house to stand. We want the life within it to continue. We want our family to endure. So together, arm in arm, kumbaya, we walk down the road to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kohen and knock on the door.

When Kohen comes to the door, we explain that we have a growing problem but are not sure what it is or how to deal with it. Immediately he goes into action. He tells us, “I am going to come by to take a look, but before I do, וּפִנּוּ אֶת-הַבַּיִת   take everything out of the house!”

Say what? Is that really necessary?

But he explains and it makes sense. “Take everything that has not been affected and make sure you preserve that.  ולֹא יִטְמָא V’LO YITMAH – so that what is pure is protected from the impure. You’ll tackle what, if anything, curses the house, but not before lifting up what blesses it. Go home and find, affirm, and appreciate the good that you have.”

So we do. Before Mr. Kohen comes to assess what we are dealing with on the wall, we go through out home and identify what is important to preserve and protect.  We don’t want the good we have – or the good we are – to be compromised as we identify and work on that which needs to be made better. It’s that whole baby and bath water thing, making sure that as we examine that which is not life-affirming, we appreciate, truly appreciate, what we have and what we are together that is.

Only when the pure is secure, Mr. Kohen comes into the house and examines the strange growth.  Is it striped or smooth?  He looks to discern if it just on the surface, or does it reflect something deeper. What color is it – adamdamot, reddish?  Maybe y’rakrakot – greenish? (Back then, a green building meant something different.) He is honest and tells it like it is, even as he admits the limits of his understanding.

Kohen then reads verse 38 and it’s not what we want to hear: “Then the Kohen shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and quarantine the house seven days.” “Step away,” he tells us. “Everybody out!”

“Excuse us?” we say. “Isn’t that a big drastic?”

Again we are not thrilled, but the priest urges us to be patient.  “Trust me,” he says. “You need some time, some distance, some perspective, to best understand what the next steps might be. You need time to examine it. Maybe with time you will discover it’s not as bad as you think. Maybe it will simply pass. That’s part of discernment as well. If we come back after a week and see that it is still there and growing, we’ll deal with it. Sure,” he says,” if it remains a persistent plague, we may have to tear down the house, but it’s not going to come to that, because you are going to give it the care that it needs. Your foundation is strong, your family is committed to a common vision, and your home is a place of life. You have already identified what is good and what is precious to you. Work together,” he tells us, “and you will get through this!”

And in saying that, Kohen gives us a wondrous priestly blessing: hope. It’s not the hope that tells us just to close our eyes and everything will be just fine. It’s the hope that comes from knowing that whatever may come our way, we will have the ability to deal with it in life affirming ways. And that is what we call resilience!

That’s why, friends, I think that Tazria/Metzora is not just about fluids, and fungi and fun stuff like that.  It also suggests tools of resilience: humility, appreciation, honesty, patience, trust, community. For me, our greatest tool is hope, hope substantiated by the hard work we are willing to do in pursuit of our common vision.  With hope, our house is strong! With hope, our foundation is firm! With hope, our future is as bright as we can dream it to be! Hope takes work, but with the commitment to work together, our house will be strong and remain strong for generations to come!

Kayn y’hi ratzon! May this be God’s will, and ours as well!