When Abraham Lincoln set forth his proclamation in 1863 fixing a national day of Thanksgiving he evoked the images of a nation so blessed with bountiful harvests that we are “prone to forget the source from which they come.” Of course, 1863 was still the heart of a devastating civil war which would eventually bring about the emancipation of those enslaved, as Lincoln had proclaimed earlier in that same year. Lincoln was explicit about the connection between the renewal of the Thanksgiving tradition and the ordeal being faced by the nation:
I … commend to [G*d's] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union
Lincoln knew that not every American shared equally the bounties with which the country was blessed. However, humble gratitude for one’s fortune was a way for those with plenty to recognize their privilege and those who faced hardships to find strength, solace and healing.
The deep well from which Lincoln drew, as did Washington before him, is the Book of Deuteronomy that enjoined the Israelites to make their days of feasting and rejoicing occasions for words of blessing and deeds of thanksgiving. One verse in particular captures the powerful way in which this day marks both the privilege of what we receive and the responsibility for what we are able to give. Deuteronomy 16:16 discussing the three pilgrimage festivals states that none shall appear empty handed but rather “every man according to his hand’s gifts (matnat yado) and according to the blessing of ADONAI (birkat YHVH) which has been given” This verse is like the kind of reversible picture where a duck becomes a rabbit or a cup becomes two faces. One on hand the “hand’s gifts” and “blessing of ADONAI” could refer to that which is given into our hands and the blessing given by G*d. However, they could also mean each Israelite man should appear according with the gift given by his hand as a way of offering blessing to G*d. In fact, it is both at the very same time.
To not “appear empty-handed” is not about the quantity or even the quality of what he have. It is to know that to have what for which to give thanks is a privilege. And to have privilege is a serious responsibility. The privilege of taking this time of reflection, enjoyment, and gratitude for the fruits of our freedom leads to the responsibility to make sure that the harvest of these fruits reaches all. The privilege, especially as Jews, to live in a country that has vouchsafed our freedom of religion, protected our rights as minorities, and allowed us full access to all that America has to offer leads to the responsibility never to forget what happens when individuals are denied these opportunities.
May we be inspired in our work of thanksgiving with the gifts of our hands and according to our blessings.
Thanksgiving beckons loved ones together to count blessings and honor journeys toward freedom and plenty. Whether our ancestors traveled to these shores from afar or already resided here, our forebears began new lives somewhere else. They placed foundation stones in new worlds, and their dreams for the future fueled them up and down new ladders of social and economic mobility.
Perhaps Plymouth Rock doesn’t mark their exact landing spot, but the Pilgrims who reached the Massachusetts coast in 1620 still personify Thanksgiving’s legacy of dream and journey. Much the same legacy of dream and journey also descends to us from the Bible’s Jacob, whose story of foundation stone and ladder anchor this week’s Torah portion (Vayetzei). The synergies between the two – between the Pilgrims and Jacob, between Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s rock – invite us to reflect on how dreams, journeys, foundations and gratitude shape us on this Thanksgiving day.
No doubt the Pilgrims identified with Jacob’s story. Jacob left his home, journeyed to a new place and stopped there for the night. His story continues (Gen. 28:12-19):
Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God was beside him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring.…’ Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than Beth El (House of God), the gateway to heaven.’ Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a pillar and poured oil on it.
Like Jacob, the Pilgrims journeyed to a new world and landed when and where nature brought them. They believed that God brought them to that place and gifted them land where others resided. They imagined this land to be holy, a gateway to a new heaven. In this new land, they would climb a new ladder of freedom and opportunity. For their children, the Pilgrims even created a Jacob’s Ladder toy to honor a Biblical reference that undoubtedly resonated with their own narrative.
The marker stone that moderns call Plymouth Rock, like the marker stone Jacob raised in tribute to his ladder dream, is not only symbolic but also theurgic – evoking God, memory and meaning. The stone pillow under Jacob’s head became a stone pillar of prayer and foundation stone for what Jacob called “Beth El” – House of God. The place we call the Mayflower’s landing site in Plymouth became “Plymouth Rock” and the foundation stone for a whole new civilization – what John Winthrop would call in 1630 a “City Upon a Hill” to shine as a beacon of hope and light for all humanity.
Fast forward to modern-day America. Today’s dreams and markers perhaps are less heady than the days of Pilgrim’s Progress and Jacob’s first Beth El. Even so, it it too much to hope that anywhere we lay our heads or lay a stone marker can be Beth El – a House of God? Is it too much to hope that everywhere can be a landing place for dreams and ascents, no less than for Jacob and the Pilgrims? Is it too much to hope that our own cities can become beacons of hope and light as much as Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill”?
Thanksgiving celebrates and ignites these hopes – and also reminds us that hope isn’t enough. As families gather for Thanksgiving, many millions live amidst poverty, hunger, war and disease. As long as freedom and prosperity are blessings only for some, the shared dream of Jacob and the Pilgrims will remain unfulfilled. As long as want and fear continue by our own hands, both our civic foundation and our spiritual foundation – the proverbial rock of Beth El – will remain shaky beneath our feet.
Only when we roll up our sleeves and make universal the blessings we honor on Thanksgiving will the true meaning of Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s Rock become fully real for us. Only then will Beth El – the House of God – truly be uplifted as a “house … for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
When I was a college student, I remember an image from a class that has stuck with me. It was a photo of a uniformed police officer in the UK chasing after a black man. What information did the image convey? What conclusions did we draw from this picture?
Then we were shown another photograph of the same scene, but the camera lens had pulled back to reveal a broader perspective. Now we saw a third man running in front of the black man. What, it became evident, we were looking at was a black man, who was a plain-clothed detective, and a white man who was a uniformed police officer, both chasing after a criminal.
These images, and our readings of them, revealed many things to us. It brought our awareness to how the camera lens, whether fixed image or moving image, has the power to interpret the unfolding of events to us in ways that may or may not align with a fuller, more complex and nuanced picture of those events. And it also highlighted the ways in which we read situations and images through the lens of our own stereotypes and assumptions that we are always superimposing on what we think we are seeing unfolding.
Today, I know that there are thousands of people who are angry and upset about the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, who are peacefully protesting and marching and conveying their pain not only at a particular verdict but at the larger set of societal patterns that it highlights. I know this because I’ve heard about the extensive community organizing and planning and the opportunities to march peacefully that one of our colleagues, Rabbi Susan Talve, has been directly engaged and involved with.
But if you based your knowledge of how the community in Ferguson is responding to the news solely on where the lenses of media cameras are focused, you would think that violent and angry protest is all that this community is capable of. And that would be untrue. As Rabbi Talve shared earlier today in a webinar organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “That’s not the story here. We can’t let the media take over the narrative.” What is troubling is not only that the camera lens is hiding from those of us who are not physically present on the scene the larger picture of how the community is working toward change and calling for justice. In choosing to focus in on the violence of the minority, the media reinforces the images of black men being angry and violent. They contribute to the very stereotypes that lead to more black men being stopped on the street and the likelihood that they will be shot because a police officer sees them through a lens that leads them to believe that they are interacting with someone prone to violence and anger. The narrative reinforces and reproduces the very situation that the community is seeking to address.
Rabbi Talve explained that the demand for justice goes beyond the specifics of what happened when a police officer shot Michael Brown and whether or not this officer acted appropriately. Rather, this is one in a string of incidents that highlights how systemic racism leads to these kinds of outcomes. When we focus in closely to what Missouri police protocols permit an officer to do and under what circumstances they may draw and fire their gun at someone, it may be concluded that this particular officer acted within these protocols. But if we pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture we may ask different questions.
If we see clear signs, as I believe we do, that racism continues to play a significant role in how black men are seen and treated in public space, then these are some of the questions that we might ask:
- If we value the preservation of human life as the highest goal, and we truly mean that to apply to all lives, are there protocols and methods or tools that police officers could be retrained to use that, while enabling them to enforce law and remain safe, would minimize the need to resort to deadly force?
- Have we, in fact, put in place procedures to ensure that the use of deadly force is truly the last resort?
- Have we spent time and effort to ensure that our police officers, whether in small towns or large cities, have the training and education and the cultural competency that can help counter inbuilt systemic racism?
- Is this something that needs to be tackled at a national scale to ensure that all police forces have access to the same resources, training, and expectations?
I think that a great deal of the anger and frustration that we see goes beyond the rather unusual decision of a grand jury to prevent this case from going to trial. What is missing right now is any willingness, at least publicly, for those in positions of political, legal, and police authority to step forward and say, “let’s sit down together with members of the larger community and try to better understand what these larger concerns are. Let’s look at how we do our work and see if there are new rules, programs, or other steps that we could put in place to minimize the loss of life in these situations in the future.”
I could cite Jewish sources on the value of preserving life. But those sources won’t help us find a path forward in Ferguson until we are able to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others. And before we all jump to conclusions and debate and analyze based on the very incomplete pictures that most of us have, let’s start by pulling back the lens and asking whether we truly know what is happening to the left and right of where the cameras are currently pointing. And if we don’t, let’s begin by listening more closely to the communities who are crying out to be heard.
The human trait of Hakarat HaTov, literally “noticing the good” but often translated as gratitude, is a perfect character trait to find within us and to continue to cultivate more of, especially the week of Thanksgiving.
In the Passover Haggadah we are reminded of the word Dayenu, “it would have been enough.” This song is based on a Psalm that reminds the Jewish People: If God had only taken us out of slavery it would have been enough. If God only gave us the Torah, that would have been enough. But there was more. We were given the Land of Israel, the Shabbat, the Holy Temple, holidays to celebrate, food to eat, drink to quench our thrust. Any one thing would have been enough of a gift, but in fact we have so much!
In developing our gratitude it is helpful to be “grateful for the partial” (click for a video). So often we have a fine day until X, or Y, or Z happens, and then suddenly we forget all the perfectly fine things that happened. Hakarat HaTov, noticing the good, reminds us to accept the good as genuinely good, and not let the negative in our life so easily overshadow the positive. As it turns out, our brains are wired to notice unpleasant threatening stimulus, but we can also notice the good.
I once heard a story of a Spanish sea captain who would put on his reading glasses every time he ate strawberries.
“Why do you do that,” his crew finally asked.
The captain replied, “I love strawberries. The difficult things in life always seem bigger than they really are, so I wanted the good things to appear bigger too.”
Making your Thanksgiving meaningful.
A) One time each day, take some time to consider something nice, good, or kind. It might be a loved one, a great song on the radio. It might be chocolate. Spend a few minutes thinking about it. Being “grateful for the partial” means noticing that this person, thing, or activity is somehow part of your life. Where do you feel this gratitude? Maybe a warmth in your chest? Perhaps a smile comes across your face. As it turns out, gratitude has a feeling.
B) This week, make a “gratitude list.” Actually write down 10 people, activities, or things that make your life better. Each time you sit to write your list, be sure not to repeat previous items. If it is possible, reach out to another person to share your gratitude – especially if they are involved or responsible for what you are grateful for.
Start now!! List 5 things you are grateful. Share your list with others. Invite them to add to the list, and watch it grow.
I was hip for a week. For one week, I had a stripe of purple hair mixed in with my usual brown shiny locks. I loved it! I felt bolder, braver, and more fun. Most of all it just made me smile to see it in the mirror.
Frankly, I needed to smile. A couple of weeks earlier, a good friend died of aggressive breast cancer. Her untimely death woke me up. I understood in a new way how fragile and short life is. It is a cliché that we need to live life as fully as possible while we have it—but it is true. We do. My friend lived life loud, literally. She had a big presence and a booming voice. You always knew when she was in the room. She embraced all things silly and fun, and let you know you were missing out if you did not participate.
In the midst of my sadness, I realized that I needed more fun in my life. I was missing out on some things. Since adolescence, I have wanted to dye my hair some funky color, purple, blue, hot pink. Yet, I never have. I felt the time had arrived.
So, I walked in to a hair salon and asked to dye my hair. The hair stylist suggested I go an easier route and put in a pre-dyed hair extension. She explained that it would last a month or two and was cheaper and less complicated than dye. Five minutes later I had purple hair!
I felt liberated. Finally, my inner punk was on full display.
I texted friends and posted a picture on Facebook. The out pouring of joy and support was immediate. My favorite Facebook comment was “Ok, You’re my rabbi.” I was further astounded by the number of women who told me that they were jealous, that they wanted to be that brave, that they wanted to do it too!
Sadly, a week later, my purple hair extension silently slipped out of my hair. Apparently, my never before dyed or processed hair was too “healthy and silky” to firmly hold it in place. If only I had been more of a rebel when I was younger….
I would have liked it to last longer; however, the week with purple hair was a revelation. I learned several things. Many, many women like me are putting off being their whole selves, or true selves. I was astounded by the number of women who shared with me how they wanted to do something similar, yet something was holding them back.
As a rabbi, I encourage others to be their best selves, to bring their dreams and aspirations in to reality. So if you have something you want to do, be it dying your hair a funky color or changing a major part of your life—just do it! Life is short, if you let your fears and doubts hold you back from being who you want to be and achieving what you want, then you will miss out on something precious.
I also learned that people are far less judgmental than you think when you present yourself strongly and confidently. When people asked why I had purple in my hair, I answered honestly, I needed a little fun in my life. I got smiles and nods in return.
I love doing out of the box things as a rabbi. I have never fit into boxes very well. My sense is that most of us don’t. So watch out! The purple hair is likely to come back. Or I may try something else….I am open to ideas. How else can I express my inner punk?
We have all seen some great Vaudeville or movie clip of someone being caught unaware, getting acquainted with a 2 x 4 delivered straight to the noggin.
And as amusing as those scenes can be (my favorite may be with Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain). I think they hit our funny bones because (I am pretty sure) we have all been bonked in the head or the backside a number of times—and often when we aren’t really paying attention, either. Maybe because we are taking ourselves, and our lives, too seriously.
And this was a 2 x 4 week for me. A dear, old friend died. He had been a close colleague of my father, and Bill and his wife populate the landscape of my earliest memories. She always chipper, and he a marvelous mix of wisdom and belly laughs, a serious countenance and kind, gentle heart. They have always been what I call 2-o’clock-in-the-morning friends. The ones you can call any day or in the middle of the night, walk directly to the front door, and find them on the front step. The ones with whom you just pick up a conversation like it was yesterday—even if it had been months since you spoke.
So what is the 2 x 4? Simply that not only will he not be here, I cannot be there for him. And I wish I had done more. I think this is something many of us experience, whether or not we can even articulate what more we would like to have done. I’m not sure that the details matter, really, since we cannot go back in time. It would be easy for us to chastise ourselves about not making one more phone call, or one more visit. But I fear that response has the potential to keep us focused on ourselves and cast a shadow on our memories and even the relationship.
When I think of all that this fine man has meant to me, I cannot bear to taint my memories with negative thoughts. I would far prefer to stand solid, take the 2 x 4 full on the forehead – and awaken to the wisdom he shared with me.
And the wisdom? It was simple. Live, and strive, and take things seriously, and always look for the blessings and the humor in things. To do, and be, and share, and love with all the generosity we have, which is boundless. To do what our souls most need us to do even in the midst of challenges. And to laugh. And laugh again. In other words: to live well.
Along with my congregational duties, I serve as a hospice chaplain. In both of those roles, as you well know or can imagine, I am at all times close to death and dying. And to be very honest, I have yet to accompany anyone to her last breath who says she wishes she judged herself more harshly, or lived more sparely, or loved less.
So here is another 2 x 4: without exception, those who live well, with awareness of their blessings and the idea that they could be blessings to others, die well, as Bill did. They pass without regrets. I am grateful that their souls warmed and strengthened mine, and I feel that when I share my soul with others, the neshamot (souls) of all whom I have accompanied go with me into the world, transferred to others through my heart and hands. And I am reminded of the teachings of our tradition: we never know the effect we will have on others, now or in generations to come. Which is another wake-up call in itself.
How amazing it is to stand in any one moment knowing we are carrying the wisdom and love of those whom we have loved, and who have loved us. And how strange it is that so easily forget! Perhaps by keeping this in mind we can go back in time, and bring the best of our loved ones forward, forging a new relationship with them and the world, and get down to the very serious wonder of living in love and joy.
Now go ahead and click on the Donald O’Connor link above.
You know you want to : ]
“Wear red lipstick when you meet with him,” warned a grad student. I only vaguely understood what she meant. The man in question was a revered academic scholar. His taking time to meet with a lowly undergraduate was an honor. His advanced years and disheveled fashion clouded my naïve ability to see him as a sexual predator. But after he began calling me sweetheart, asking me to sit up in the front row during class, and putting his hands on my thighs under the table, the meaning of her warning became crystal clear. I always wore lipstick and stopped going to closed door meetings.
The arrest and charging of Rabbi Barry Freundel was a terrible shock to most. But in reading some of the first-person accounts of encounters with Freundel, a pattern has emerged of a man whose abuse of power was not entirely unknown but never publicly challenged. From Toronto, in the county in which I grew up and love, similarly the story of Jian Ghomeshi, a former rock star turned popular radio host, has uncovered tales of years of abuse and exploitation spoken about quietly and never explicitly published or charged.
Reading these now public accounts has opened up floodgates of personal memory and laid open the implicit challenge that comes when men in power abuse or harass women, in particular young or vulnerable ones. And having grown up in and become a professional in the inner circles of the Jewish community, the memories and stories come from inside our “kodosh kodoshim,” our holiest of places and institutions.
When I was 19, I was invited to a high-level meeting of my student group being held in the Old City in Jerusalem. As Shabbat descended, I found myself in a small private bedroom where the only other female leader was sleeping soundly. I was flattered that our executive director had sought me out to discuss some of the upcoming business; I was political, ambitious and believed in the causes we were activists for. But at some point he began undoing the zipper on my dress and pushing me down on the bed. I told him to cut it out but that was only mildly effective. I remember my confusion. Young and sexually inexperienced, I was not attracted to this man. He was someone I respected. I did not want to wake my roommate. He told me not to fuss. The Shabbat siren wailed; my roommate woke and we went to pray. Over the mechitzah, he continued to leer at me and my confusion turned to anger.
At dinner, I made sure not to be seated with him, but at some point when he made a comment about changing that, I stood up and said before all assembled that I had not come to be physically or religiously pressured. All conversation stopped. I looked a fool, I am sure, but the harassment stopped there.
I was proud of myself. I felt empowered. But it was no easy feat. No one, not even the other female on the board, ever asked about my outburst. This was not surprising. At other retreats I had seen board members stick their penises in the faces of sleeping friends, and others prey on underage girls. Sexualization and harassment were part of the culture, and if I wanted to play in the big leagues I had to be strong enough to deal with it. So as hard as it was, I internally spun the story as one of pride for my ability to talk up, playing down the utter humiliation and isolation.
My brashness came in no small part from an understanding of my self worth (thanks to my ima for that) and the Jewish values that were part of the same education package the men I knew had grown up with. But there was also a piece that I would come to understand only with time. The stakes were low and the violation, while upsetting, relatively minor. I had little to lose by speaking up. The harassment, while troubling, had not crossed in my mind that imaginary line that often makes the shame too hard to overcome for the sake of reporting. This man, while in a position of power, was of increasingly little consequence in my life and I did not worry about direct retribution. And finally, I was young and still not fully aware that holding men accountable for abuse of power could and often does have repercussions that can add layers of trauma.
I wish I could say that that is the end of this story. Through the years I’ve supported women who have had to sit and watch their rapists lead tefillot, or suffer as their abusers are celebrated as among the great Jewish leaders. I personally have had to face inappropriate behavior from men in the Jewish community. Sometimes I’ve spoken out, and sometimes not. I’ve avoided some very bad situations because even when women don’t speak up publicly they share information quietly. With the help of this informal network, I’ve avoided getting into elevators alone with particular men. I’ve chosen not to engage in conversations with certain men or pursue specific opportunities.
The good men of the Jewish world far outweigh those who abuse their power. But abuses, small and large, exist and come at a cost. Women rarely have the opportunity to speak up and push back, for when we do, we risk at best being told that we are too sensitive (what I was once told by a colleague when I objected to being told to “stop acting like a wife”) or at worst that we brought it on ourselves (what I was told when I recounted the Old City story to a loved one). We risk being labeled as difficult, getting a reputation as too outspoken or jeopardizing employment if we challenge the wrong people. Sometimes we walk away from the Jewish world, because it is just too hard to live in close quarters with those who betray our trust or because the values that are supposed to come from the holiest place are the same ones that are used to overlook deplorable behavior.
As I watch a new generation of young women begin to take their places in the Jewish world, I wish for them more safety and less exploitation. But barring that, I pray that they have the strength to find the support that they need when they need it, so that they remain safe and holy in body and spirit. In lieu of protection I cannot guarantee, I offer this advice: take the rumors to heart. No level of observance, power, or privilege is immune to men who exploit their manhood. And if bad things happen, do not blame yourselves. It is not your fault. You did not bring it on yourselves. You are holy, created in the image of God. No one has the right to treat you otherwise.
A couple of years ago I received a call from a long-time congregant, Steve (I’ve changed his name and other identifying details). He’s very nice, not very involved in synagogue life at this point, though he might have been when his kids were in religious school, before I was the rabbi here. The particular role he takes on, year after year, is setting up for the break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. He enjoys it, and it’s important to him. A few years ago his wife died, too young. I did her funeral.
His call was to tell me that he was getting married again, to a Jewish woman—would I perform the wedding? Yes, I said, because under many circumstances, I do perform interfaith weddings. You see, my congregant was the one who wasn’t Jewish.
Steve’s first marriage had been an interfaith marriage too—she was Jewish, he wasn’t. He and his wife raised their kids Jewish, and he did not convert. When she died, he continued as a synagogue member. Naturally, when he was remarrying, he called his clergy-member: me, his rabbi. I think he probably would have called me about doing the wedding even if he had fallen in love with someone who wasn’t Jewish.
I am not alarmed by intermarriage (and it wouldn’t do any good if I were). I believe in raising our children to be joyfully Jewish, with Judaism ingrained in their lives so that they will want the families they form to be Jewish too, no matter who they marry. I am encouraged by the rising levels of children of interfaith marriage who identify as Jewish, and by all the interfaith families in my congregation who are raising Jewish kids. I’m also deeply grateful to the non-Jewish parents who have agreed to walk with their spouses and kids on a Jewish journey. They are wonderful.
When we talk about intermarriage, though, the conversation seems always to be about the beginning of it. Who will officiate at the wedding? How will the children be raised? We need to be aware that there are interfaith questions at the other end too. If our policies don’t allow a non-Jew to be a member unless married to a Jew, that can become a problem. We’ve welcomed the non-Jewish spouse as part of the community. If the Jewish spouse dies, we’re not going to tell the surviving spouse that they can’t be a member of the synagogue anymore, that they can’t have that support, are we? That would be heartless and wrong. And yes, if I am that person’s rabbi, I’m willing to do their wedding if they remarry, if they want a Jewish wedding.
We have arrived at a time when rabbis like me must be able to serve our Jewish and non-Jewish congregants alike, throughout their lives. This does not mean we have to compromise ourselves by performing liturgy that isn’t Jewish or invoking forms of the Divine that are not ours—I would never pray in the name of Jesus, for example. (I did once encourage a non-Jewish congregant to start going to church again, because it was clear to me that that was what her soul was hungering for.)
In the congregation I serve, though, everyone does Jewish, whether they are Jewish or not. I am proud to teach Torah to everyone in my Jewish community, whether they are Jewish or not, and to embrace them when the interfaith questions arise—at the beginning of a marriage and at its end.
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.
Rabbi Harold Kushner once wrote, “Ask the average person which is more important to him, making money or being devoted to family? Virtually everyone will answer “family” without hesitation. But, watch how the average person actually lives out his life. See where he really invests his time and energy. He will give away the fact that he does not really live by what he says he believes.”
Our tradition is practical. We are judged by our actions, not our intentions. We all have impure thoughts but as long as we don’t act upon our baser instincts we have no need for guilt or atonement. As long as our actions are good so are we. However, this works both ways. While we are not held responsible for the sins we only wish to commit, we don’t get credit for those things not begun. No matter how good the intention, if we don’t actually take the time to be with our children, we are not parenting.
I am reminded of the story of the little girl who asked her mother, “Mommy, where do we go when we die?
Her mother answered, “Everyone goes to heaven.”
“Daddy can’t go, he won’t leave the office.”
Children model their parents. This means that as parents we must take an active roll in our children’s education. We must also be educators. For this we have to leave the office. We have to be clear as to our values.
The Giraffe Project teaches that the fundamental questions in each child’s education should be, “Who are your heroes?” If you asked your children to list five of their heroes, who would make the list? Would it be sports figures, rock stars or actors? Would it be the people who adorn the teen magazines and Sports Illustrated? For that matter, who are your heroes? If their list would not satisfy you, would your list satisfy you? And, would your children know who your heroes are?
People often confuse the word “hero” with the word “star.” The dictionary tells us that a hero is “a person admired for their achievements and accomplishments, a person who shows great courage.” A star is a person who “is widely known and referred to often.” A star is a person with unique talents, someone who can perform feats that very few can duplicate. They become celebrities because of this talent. But, they are not heroes.
As a congregational rabbi I often find myself sitting with families who have lost a loved one. As I listen to their stories I can see the legacy of love and values that will survive the loss. But far too often my experience is different. Sometimes there are no stories or values to be passed down. I have stopped counting how many times an adult child has regretted their inability to have been able to talk to their parents, how many times the parent/child bond was defined by watching football on Sunday afternoons or talking sports, buying clothing and dressing up. I have heard too many lives encapsulated as being “impeccably dressed” or “classy.” In too many cases this is all the survivors are left with; the deceased has left behind no stories or memories. For what will they be remembered? What footprints have they left behind?