Friday, November 22, 2013

The Closed Scroll

Parshat VaYeshev
19 Kislev, 5774
November 22nd, 2013

On the doorposts of Jewish homes, at eye level, is a small rectangular container. The box’s construction is a matter of taste; what’s inside is not. Every mezuzah that has or will be written says the same thing.*

The mezuzah is a paradox. Its irony is that its purpose is to remind us of the words of Torah. But each mezuzah holds those words on its inside, locked away from our view. When we look at the mezuzah, we cannot see the words we are told to remember.

I think that for many people this opacity is frustrating metaphor for their experience with Judaism. Why doesn’t the Torah just make meaning accessible? Why can’t we easily get at real wisdom? Why is the mezuzah closed to us?

In the mezuzah, I see a wry realization. Even if the words were to be made plain to me, I wouldn’t understand them. “Listen, Israel, HaShem is our God, God is One,” “And you will love HaShem your God, will all your heart, with your life, and with all that you own” – these aren’t just verses, they are a travelogue. They gain their meaning through the context of the journey taken to understand them.

Because wisdom is simple does not mean that it is accessible; there are no shortcuts on the road to that which is wise. But in the moments when we get there, we don’t see a sealed box. Instead we smile, because we look inside and know that we’ve fulfilled the Ve’Ahavta’s most important mitzvah, “and these words that I command you this day will be on your heart.”

* the words of the Shma (Listen Israel), the Ve’Ahavta (And You Will Love), and the VeHaya Im Shamoa (If You Listen – the lesser known text that talks about consequences for actions). In these holy words lies the command for the mezuzah itself. “You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and your gates.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Shabbat Dinah - Ending Violence Against Women

Parshat VaYishlah
12 Kislev, 5774
Novemebr 15th, 5774

Ovid, the brilliant, absolutely filthy Roman poet, once wrote, "Let others praise ancient times; I'm glad I was born in these." More often than not, I find myself agreeing with him. 

My colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, and a number of others call this Shabbat, "Shabbos Dinah" because this week we read the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and her rape. 

Jacob and his family settled near the town of Shechem, and the eponymous prince of that town saw Dinah and took a fancy to her. So he decided just to take her. Most of the sources teach that the sex was not consensual.

Afterwards, he negotiated with her father to marry her (it was pretty common back then for the victim to be forced to marry her rapist). Jacob's sons Shimon and Levi deceived Shechem and all the male inhabitants of his city to circumcise themselves in order to be worthy of Dina. While recovering, Shimon and Levi swept in and killed them all in revenge for their sister's dishonor.

Violence, especially sexual violence, against women remains one of our world's great sins.The justification of that violence is also on the list of our travesties. Shmuly writes eloquently on the topic and upon the relevant Torah. 

For my part, I am quite grateful that my cultural niche teaches against violence against women in the strongest terms. It certainly wasn't always that way. No less a tzaddik (righteous man) than Maimonides taught in the early medieval period that smacking one's wife around was an acceptable form of discipline.* Let others praise times past; I prefer my own.

There is, however, no cause for self congratulation. We effete liberals aren't spared from the vicissitudes of psychology and biology. Even when we don't justify human darkness, it still seeks dark corners in which to live. Especially as a biological male, I easily feel the connection between anger and violence. I once explained to an awestruck friend of a different sex (and gender) that occasionally wanting to mess someone up for no good reason is part of what it means to be an adolescent male. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most cis-gendered guys know what I mean. It is incredibly rare that our projections of violence upon another person come from a worthwhile place.

So for us, or for anyone who has ever felt the lure of violence, there is another story from the parsha. And that is the story of Jacob. Jacob who was worried both that his estranged brother Esav kill him, or that he kill Esav.** Jacob, who wrestled all night with the angels until he found himself and met his brother in peace. And from him we learn that honor is not found in violence towards others; honor is found in the fight within oneself. Jacob's message is one worth spreading.

*Rambam, Hilkhot Isshut
** Rashi ad loc.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

True Grit

Parshat VaYishlach

By Greg Marzullo

Jacob's wrestle with the strange man in this week's portion of Genesis reminds me of a story told by my guru Amma Amritanandamayi. As recounted in the book Lead Us to the Light, she says:

"A person was very thirsty, but no water was available. Someone told her, 'Dig here and you will soon find water.' So she dug in that place for a little while, but didn't find any water. She started digging at another spot but didn't find any water there either. She moved to yet another spot and dug again, but there was no water. Thus she kept digging in many different places but to no avail. She finally collapsed from exhaustion.

A passerby saw her lying there and asked what had happened. She replied, 'I am exhausted from digging everywhere for water. Now I am suffering more than before, because, at first, I was only thirsty, but now I have wasted all my strength digging and am also exhausted.'

The passerby said, 'If you had only had a little patience and had continued digging deeper in just one spot, you would have found more than enough water right at the beginning. Instead, you dug a little in many different places and all you got was disappointment!'"

It's through dedication to our spiritual devotion that we actually receive the blessings of God. All too often we give up quickly, because we erroneously believe that the spiritual life should be something simple, like purchasing a cabbage at the grocery store.

In this week's portion, the spiritual seeker Jacob stays in the fray, constantly battling with this strong man, until finally the stranger has to injure the patriarch's hip joint, dislocating the leg from the socket, in order to gain the upper hand. Still Jacob hangs in there, saying he will not let go of the stranger until he blesses him, and from this tenacious demand, Jacob receives his new title, thereby washing away the stain of his given name (the follower/the supplanter) and attaining the new moniker of "Israel."

Our relationship with God is not an easy one. Our will is in constant rebellion against that of Adonai, and yet, if we can train our will to hang on to God instead of fighting Him, transformation will occur.

I had a friend in college with whom I shared Erev Shabbat every weekend. I was 20 at the time, and she was well into her later 40s. I remember one night she said to me, "When we ask Ha-Shem to remake us, He doesn't just sit us down and give us a mani-pedi. He tears out an eye, rends us limb from limb and totally changes us."

The process of transformation isn't won without casualties, but as the great Hindu avatar and god Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, "By sustained effort, one comes to the end of sorrow" (18:36, trans. Eknath Easwaran).

The only real sorrow, of course, is the false notion that we're not united with God at all times. All we have to do is realize that we're constantly in Adonai's grip, especially when He is in ours. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Jacob and the Fast Hand of Karma

by Greg Marzullo

This week's Torah portion contains so many iconic moments of Judaism and the people' story, yet there are endless subtleties that connect beautifully with yogic thought.

Perhaps what intrigues me most is not just what happens during this particular segment, but what came immediately before it - what led Jacob to these moments. The young man has just deceived his blind father Isaac, taking his elder brother Esau's blessings, and running away at his mother Rebekah's insistence.

Shortly thereafter, Jacob has his famous dream of angels descending up and down a grand staircase connecting the transcendent realms with our more earthly one, and Adonai blesses him with His protection, land and countless descendants.

Jacob then ends up going to his cousin Laban's place, falling in love with Rachel and after working for seven years, he gets, as a reward, the elder daughter Leah. Eventually, Jacob is united with his intended, but he works another seven years for her hand.

When Jacob confronts Laban about the "mixup," Laban replies, "It is not done so in our place, to put the younger before the elder."

In yoga, we would call this the fast hand of karma. Jacob basically gets called out for the similar deception he wrought on his older brother and father. Karma is almost mathematical in its efficiency, and everyone, regardless of their station, is affected by it. Even the gods of India are at the mercy of this balancing system, whereby every action, good or bad, puts a stamp on a person's record. That stamp gets cashed in for currency of some kind - in simplistic terms, good begets good and bad begets bad. 

However, that's not just a simple record of rewards and punishments. In fact, we create our own karma with every action, word and even thought (since thought patterns eventually manifest as actions). A person can be blessed beyond measure and still have to pay out a karmic debt to balance his or her rap sheet. (We've all pondered, "Why do bad things happen to good people?") Then there's the opposite when we see cruel people gaining wealth and fame, as if those things were rewards at all.

In this Torah portion, God blesses Jacob, despite the trickery he played on his father, and yet, Jacob doesn't get off Scott-free. He still has to pay up when the time comes, tricked by Laban in a case of mistaken identity, just as he tricked his own father. 

What does this mean? God rewards those who act dishonestly? No. It means that humans are complex, and our relationship with God is equally complex. God doesn't pull us up short and strip us of everything when we commit one transgression. The blessings of Adonai are always upon us, no matter how far we go into misdeeds, but that also doesn't mean that we don't get what we pay for.

If you plunk down money at the racetrack on the horse that's a legendary loser, why should we be surprised when you lose your shirts after the race comes to its predictable end? That doesn't mean God smote us and caused our downfall. We caused our own downfall by betting on the wrong horse.

Karma is not a punishment. It's a payment system. Now the real question becomes, when do you stop going to the racetrack altogether? When do we finally get away from the back-and-forth of "midah k'neged midah" (measure for measure)? 

Only when we realize, as Job does later, that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Then, we can be released from our karmic patterns and lean deep into the embrace of the divine. 

*Rabbi Scott's note: Karma, as a spiritual belief, has a Jewish countpart: we call it midah k'neged midah - measure for measure. One can see midah k'neged midah playing itself out all over the bible, especially in the stories of the forefathers and foremothers, and in the story of the Exodus. Our Rabbis talk about it all the time in Torah commentary.

High on Life

Parshat VaYetze
5 Kislev, 5774
November 8th, 2013

Last year Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, which makes it the second state to acknowledge that yes, college students are high all the time, and no, none of them actually have glaucoma. 

Among the unexpected codicils of legalized marijuana is the question of what to do with drug-sniffing dogs. They've all been trained to detect marijuana, and apparently will bark themselves into doggie hypertension now that they can get a whiff while simply trotting down the street. They all have to be retrained, which recapitulates the age-old question: can you teach an old dog new tricks?

The stoners all thought that last paragraph was hysterical.

Anyways, I worry about "retraining." It isn't the dogs or the weed; it is the question: were I to have to change my life, right here, right now, could I do it? How settled am I? Can I change? Can I be retrained?

We get settled, most of us, sometime in our 20's and 30's. We get used to this - whatever "this" is- being the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. Our possibilities become a lot less plastic than they had been. 

There are incredible spiritual benefits to loving one's lot in life; however, none of us can presume that tomorrow will be the same as today. All of us will experience, probably more than once, that life-changing curveball thrown by the Big Pitcher upstairs. 

When life changes, we should follow the example of our father Jacob, whose life turned on a dime. He grabbed his older brother's birthright, and then fled into the wilderness lest his brother, Esav, kill him. And there, not even possessed of a pillow upon which to lay his head, he had a visionary dream revealing the spiritual truths of the universe, along with promise that God will always be with him. When he woke up, he said, "God was surely in this place, and I did not know it."

We encounter God beyond the assumption that life is static: the blessings we receive daily are not assured - let's not take them for granted; the curses we bear are not necessarily the life-sentences we imagine them to be - they are always subject to change. When we get up in the morning and acknowledge today's good, regardless of what happened yesterday, we will find ourselves changing to meet our changing lives. And we will find God in places where we could not see God before.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Seeing Others


Parshat Toldot
28 Heshvan, 5774
November 1, 2013

Of the Jews who left Germany to find a safe haven in Israel, a noticeable minority never really transitioned from one culture to the other. As much as they had made aliyah to Israel, they were still, it seemed, in exile from Germany. The German Jews, nicknamed “yekkes,” (Yiddish for “jackets”) would sit in the cafes of Sderot Rotschild in Tel Aviv, sweltering under the Mediterranean sun in their formal European dress, refusing to relinquish their hold on what was, to them, the height of sophistication. And finally, having visited Berlin for the first time last week, I can understand why they were so reluctant to leave it behind.

Berlin is a shining city. It is effortlessly cultured, and in the same breadth countercultural. It lives both visibly conscious of its history and in embrace of the contemporary edge. It is wonderful. I would move there in a heartbeat.


Except that the governmental and NGO representatives were quite frank with us. About 1 in 5 Germans hold negative attitudes about Jews. One report put about 30% of Germans agreeing that Jews exploit the memory of the Holocaust.*

It is different being a Jew in Europe. The untrammeled sense of permission, of inhabiting one’s Jewish identity without the expectation that one will be discriminated against, that is a particular gift of North American life, especially big city life. Not all of our brothers and sisters, scattered around the globe, are quite so blessed.

Here’s what it comes down to: growing up, I understood that I was first seen as a person, an individual, and only after was I seen for my differences. It is much less comfortable to first be perceived as the Other, and only after to be known as a human being.

The American story has blessed Jews. Life has worked out quite to our benefit here. But not all Americans share that same story, and as I reflected on the difficulties of being Jewish in parts of Europe, I remembered that there are plenty of people right next to me who are known, mostly by dint of the color of their skin, first for their Otherness and only after for their character.

Hillel once wrote, “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being.” (Pirkei Avot 2:6). To which I would add, strive to see the human in others, before you see them as Other.

* I very much apologize for not being able to present citations for these statistics. They were presented verbally (and in German, through a translator).

By comparison, in the United States, in 2009, the ADL (takkeh) found that 12% of Americans hold anti-Semitic views. According to the 2007 American Grace survey, Americans reported having warmer feelings towards Jews than any other religious group.